Sunday, 14 January 2018

bartelby the scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville's 1853 story of the recalcitrant scrivener contains a few lines which well describe the mechanism I should like to focus on here. We are in the territory of projective identification, of what
following the 1938 play / 1944 film became known as 'gaslighting'.

It isn't clear - it isn't determinate - whether Bartleby's obdurance is a function of a depression, of a schizophrenic catatonia, or a personality disorder. Perhaps the first two are more likely, yet the mechanism I have in mind is most often found in the final set of disturbances. Perhaps any lack of realism belongs to our nosology rather than to Melville.

Bartleby's catchphrase is 'I should prefer not to', deployed when asked to do almost anything for which he has been employed, despite this not being a reasonable response. It's unreasonableness is so 'out there' that it radically takes aback the protagonist.
It is not seldom the case that when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason are on the other side.  
Bartleby is a bully; he is emotionally abusive. He is not playing by the rules. But it is hard to credit this. One feels sorry for him. How does he get away with it? It's because the bullying is tacit: Bartleby is passive-aggressive:
Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavour charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgement. ... Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence...
Much of the story concerns the un-named protagonist's failures to stand up to this passive resistance.

Later on Bartleby decides to stop working but does not move from the narrator's chambers. That he should even think of doing so is not really commented on - it too remains mute:
The next day I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his deadfall revery. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing.
"Why, how now? what next?" exclaimed I, "do no more writing?"
"No more."
"And what is the reason?"
"Do you not see the reason for yourself?" he indifferently replied.
A classic borderline strategy! The protagonist helpfully (too helpfully) decides it is due to poor eyesight, and suggests to Bartleby that when he has rested his eyes for a couple of weeks he could get back to work. Naturally, though, Bartleby would prefer not to. 'I'd have thought it was obvious!' is the borderline's way of evading having to express his or her feelings, take any responsibility, feel any guilt. Now their interlocutor is asked to carry the guilt of not noticing what is - allegedly - right before his or her eyes. It buys the borderline time; later they may come up with a rationalisation which gives the alleged content of 'what was obvious'.

This goes to the heart of this kind of emotional abuse. What makes it so abusive is its latent, tacit, background nature - this is how it destroys the heart, the mind, the self-esteem of the abused person. It is the difference between being poisoned in your sleep versus being punched when awake: it takes an extraordinary amount of self-possession to stand up to it. If someone goes to punch you, you know full well that aggression is going on and who is the aggressor. What makes emotional abuse abusive is that it aims to twist the moral fabric of the relationship so that the abused person takes on the sense of blame, shame, inadequacy which the abuser wants to project into them. Nobody wants to believe that this is happening to them, and so they again and again draw on their imagination to invent reasons for their interlocutor's actions. Anything other than judge.

Herman Melville
Further classic borderline strategies are to post-hoc rationalise bad behaviour, to make out that it came from a reasonable intention. Now it is the interlocutor who will be filled with guilt - guilt that they could, as they now see it, have been so judgemental, so presumptuous. Now he or she feels like the aggressor - for isn't it they who have been uncharitable, abusive perhaps, in their estimation of the low moral character of the behaviour? Bartleby is too mute to deploy such a devious strategy, but in real life we find it frequently enough in the actions of the passive-aggressive person.

What Melville's protagonist does, however, is to try everything to make what Bartleby does seem like the actions of a reasonable or decent person. He sees him as suffering; he sees him as traumatised; he sees Bartleby as a valuable test of his own love, as a fortunate opportunity for storing up moral credit, etc. He loses (or perhaps he never had it) his self-possession - and ends up taking chambers elsewhere simply to avoid the problem of removing the squatting Bartleby from his premises. (Such people do tend to squat in our minds.) This gives us a hint as to the only real way to handle passive-aggressive behaviour: a super-human level of self-possession. The question that he should have asked himself is: 'So what if Bartleby would prefer not to do this or that? Do your job or you're fired.' But that's hard to achieve by oneself. Melville gives us another clue, though, as to how to achieve self-belief - you make use of the opinions of 'disinterested persons', and turn 'to them for some reinforcement for [one's] own faltering mind.'