As the Occupy Wall Street protest blossoms across America, they are no doubt being watched over by the country’s patron saint of civil disobedience. Bartleby, the hero of Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, Herman Melville’s deeply ambiguous ode to passive resistance, published in 1853, didn’t bang on a bongo drum, sport dreadlocks, or march on Manhattan with an “Eat the Rich” placard. But he did occupy Wall Street. He did so quietly, with a stubborn calm, and without a single television camera in sight.
But while Bartelby is a refugee from the American Dream, the average OWS demonstrator desperately wants the Dream back. Today’s demonstrators could learn something from Bartelby’s story, even if, in the end, his model of resistance is insufficient.
Readers are introduced to Bartleby when a wealthy Wall Street lawyer hires a "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn" man as a human Xerox machine. Initially, the scrivener proves to be an outstanding copyist, so diligent that he is in danger of wearing out his wrists and retinas. Inexplicably, however, when the lawyer asks him to do anything apart from copying briefs (like, say, running an errand), Bartleby politely refuses with, “I would prefer not to.”
To an ever greater degree, the very essence of his work ethic is expressed in this negative refrain. Eventually, he prefers not to do any work at all. He offers no reason for his resistance, makes not one single demand, and spends all day in a reverie staring at the brick wall outside his window. He turns into a squatter, sleeping in the office and never leaving the premises. The other employees urge the boss to kick him out, but the lawyer, who fancies himself a humanist (if corporations are people, why not lawyers?), finds that he cannot bring himself to act. Instead, he develops a creeping respect for this stoic mule, and even begs him to come home with him, which of course, Bartleby prefers not to do.
Finally, spooked by the whole business, the lawyer ups and leaves for a new office The New York Police Department, sans pepper spray, marches Bartleby off to jail for vagrancy. In jail, he refuses all food, wastes away, and dies under a tree. The only clue to Bartleby's behavior comes at the tail end of the story when readers are told that the reclusive clerk had previously worked at the Postal Service’s Dead Letter Office, a job even more annihilating than copying title documents of rich men with only a brick wall for a view.
It is hard to pinpoint what Melville had in mind when he created America's first slacktivist, but implicit in his character’s passive aggression is a devastating critique of Wall Street. We have in Bartleby a man suffering from grade IV spiritual cancer. He doesn't want to be useful—that would only feed the disease. His withdrawal into an inward spiral of self-destruction represents a gradual foreclosure of the moral imagination in a world where the material is sacred. He is the perfect cog until the pointlessness of coggery consumes him. He is the perfect human copy machine who will in time be replaced by a real machine fitted with a glossy retina made in China by workers in airless factories surrounded by brick walls. So he becomes a slacker, capitalism's most loathed object. By mortifying himself out of the system, he pre-empts his own irrelevance. Outsourcing, where is thy sting?
The scrivener is a complex literary predecessor of today's anti-Wall Street Woodstock. His solitary resistance holds up the mirror to an inner rot afflicting capitalism that has metastasized into the financial thuggery that caused the 2008 crash. If Bartleby’s austere abstinence sits at one extreme end of a spectrum, at the opposite end of which are the greed-is-good evangelists, OWS, which wants to socialize greed, sits somewhere in the middle. Today’s demonstrators prefer that the pursuit of happiness should not be patented, but the pursuit still interests them.
OWS, now into its fourth week, has not yet been able to make good on its threat of putting forward One Demand. Extracting a neat manifesto from the coal face of injustice isn't easy. Their situation chimes with Bartleby’s own striking lack of a charter. He didn’t have any demands either because he knew that the sickness eating at his soul was beyond the ransom of a rich lawyer. He got around the problem by making clear not what he wanted, but he what he did not want and would not be party to. By refusing the system the one thing he had absolute power over—his consent—he retained his humanity and moral integrity.
Consent is the currency of capitalism. The power of No is what OWS should harness. A boycott of certain banks or firms is certainly one way through which this mass movement, with tremendous buying power, voting clout, and nuisance value, can make a bonfire of Wall Street’s vanities. Or it could urge a ban on donations to political candidates who take Wall Street money. Because so many of the demonstrators seem to want to be part of an equitable social contract and yearn for a more widely available American Dream, their protests must be about more than dignity and integrity.
The “Ninety Nine Per centers” could start by changing their meaningless Facebook profile picture of a ballet-dancer pirouetting on the back of a bull and putting a scrivener there instead. In one stroke they could project the image of a dignified predecessor and compatriot—an educated but homeless vegan (Bartleby only ate ginger nuts) who looked languidly down at Mammon, which tried but failed to buck him. On second thought, perhaps Bartleby would prefer them not to.
Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist.