What a pleasure it is to return to a work of genius and find it inexhaustible! What a host of insights, what a web of subtleties, are contained within this short account of the breakdown of one man in a five man office!
I think of Melville the sailor, accustomed to wide sea vistas and many sea duties, recoiling at the confined, reduced lives of New York City office workers. I think of Melville the innovative writer, his popularity—and income—waning as his daring increased, contemplating the act of writing considered in itself as a bleak task performed for money. I think of Melville the prophet, warning of the starkness of the coming metropolis and the small brutalities of cubicle capitalism.
I also marvel at the literary landscape which flows past the windows of this tale, for Bartleby, though it speeds non-stop from the village of Dickens to Kafka Terminal, yet gives us a glimpse of the cities of Dostoevsky and Zola, their chimneys darkening sunset in the hills beyond.
But the truth which haunts me is how precisely Melville delineates how we all survive–or do not survive–our workaday worlds. Either we reduce our personalities to caricature and numb ourselves through substance abuse or we deceive ourselves through a pattern of benign neglect disrupted by fits of compassion. Otherwise we are doomed to be Bartleby, dismantling ourselves little by little, uttering—in small “I prefer not to” portions—The Everlasting No.