The Friday Fillip: Passive Aggression (And Other Kinds)

I confess: I have never read the big whale big book. Sorry, Herman. I’ve just picked up the usual tid-bits, like everyone else, the “Call me Ishmael” snippets, as it were (and, whether I might have wished it or not, “Starbuck”). I have, though, read Melville’s massively shorter Bartleby the Scrivener, and I invite you with this Fillip to do the same.

Never fear. It’s not a gateway drug leading inexorably to your being caught up in the Moby tale. It’s just a short story of stubbornly puzzling import. Oh, and it’s told by a lawyer about a man whose job it was to copy out legal prose, a scribe — the “scrivener” in question — which might appeal to you, even though it’s somewhat related to your day job.

I’m offering you a recently annotated version via Slate. The annotator introduces the story and then provides a number of marginal notes from various perspectives throughout the piece, notes you can ignore or cause to appear, as you wish. As you’ll see, there are a good many theories and analyses of what Bartleby “means.” I’m no great fan of literature’s having “meaning” beyond itself; that is, I don’t see literature as instrumental. But I do scratch my head after reading this and ponder how my own life might at times be like Bartleby’s.

The main thing that strikes me — and most everyone — is the man’s eventual, global, and persistent refusal: “I would prefer not to.” This passive aggression is powerful, as is all withholding, and the thought of such power can lead to the difficult question of what it is that we might in fact “prefer not to” do, if given (or taking) our druthers.

But on to the story (which, by the way, you can listen to if your own copyist activities have made any and all reading too much like work — that is, if you would prefer not to read. . .).

I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written: —I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of. While of other law-copyists I might write the complete life

And because it’s Halloween e’en, a time of carving, cutting up, and things that go thud in the night, here as a “treat” are three quick leads to material on the aesthetic side of aggression that you might like to follow up.

  1. Pumpkins are scarce in Europe this year, leading to the call to return to the carving of jack-o-lanterns out of turnips and swedes. Yes, that’s right: neeps. The Guardian has the story here. And, thanks to Wikipedia, we can see a truly scary illustration here.
  2. We (all too briefly) had our Avro Arrow — and Britain had her Avro Vulcan. The sole remaining (rescued and restored) Vulcan flew for the last time not too long ago. BBC has the story and some videos. Here is a longer video of this beautiful craft in flight.
  3. Finally, violence at an even further remove: ancient Greece. Here is a marvellous series of videos of 66 British actors reading the entire Illiad in 68 sections (Robert Fagles modern translation).

Comments are closed.