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Arsi, Branka. Passive Constitutions or 7 1/2 Times Bartleby.

Arsi, Branka. Passive Constitutions or 7 1/2 Times Bartleby. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2007. xi + 210 pp. Cloth: $60.00.

In 1948, a radio program called Favorite Story presented what is likely the first dramatization of Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener." The adaptors introduced their source material as "a rather obscure story" and distinguished Melville as the "author of MobyDick." In the freedom of this obscurity, they changed the title to "The Strange Mr. Bartleby" and then proceeded to solve a key mystery that the original story left murky. Whereas Melville's narrator accounts for Bartleby's ailment by clinging to a rumor about his having earlier worked in a dead letter office, the on-the-air lawyer travels to Washington D.C., confirms that Bartleby had worked for that branch of the Post Office, and learns that one of Bartleby's own letters had been returned to him there. The letter had been sent to a "Miss Helen Underwood," and Bartleby kept the envelope for eighteen years. Specifics are not provided, but one can easily assume from the addressee's gender and unmarried status that poor Bartleby is the victim of a broken heart. On the radio, then, an unfulfilled relationship--probably a romance--accounts for his drifting detachment from work and, paradoxically, from life outside the workplace.

The urge to diagnose Bartleby is not limited to Melville's narrator and the creators of this radio dramatization. Branka Arsi is similarly motivated to account for the character's ailment, and she devotes each chapter of Passive Constitutions or 7 1/2 Times Bartleby to a distinct explanation of his condition. For instance, the first chapter posits Bartleby to be a wholly different kind of thinker than the lawyer and, specifically, the product of a fracture between thinking and conscious will. Arsi reviews Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will, which the lawyer reads and which approaches the will as "the power of preference" (15). Edwards rejects the Lockean stance that some preferences (e.g., to fly rather than walk) are not willed. Indeed, according to Locke, preference, will, desire, and thought might all be at odds. In contrast, for Edwards and Melville's lawyer, these "are absolutely identical in each act," Arsi explains (18). As such, Bartleby's escalating inaction, marked by his "preferring not to," becomes an aberration that must be fathomed or, at least, rationalized by the lawyer.

Subsequent chapters fathom Bartleby's condition in different ways. Does he "suffer from melancholy, as it was understood in the mid-nineteenth century? Do all of those ginger nuts he eats intimate a drug addiction? Arsi even explores the notion that Bartleby is Melville's mental version of how Decartes described certain enigmatic clouds. As suggested here, Arsi historicizes her chapters by adeptly summarizing authors available to Melville, such as Edwards, Descartes, Emerson, and Thoreau. She also frequently references Melville's other writing as well as more recent criticism, notably, by Deleuze and Foucault. The combinations make for some complicated--but certainly not impenetrable--reading, and this book might be best savored as a slow read. The fairly discreet chapters help here. Naturally, different readers will find some chapters more persuasive than others; however, each chapter introduces an approach to the character that, if not helpful in terms of better grasping the story, will certainly enlighten readers about related ideas circulating in Melville's world.

Indeed, settling on the "best" diagnosis of Bartleby--and, thereby, facilitating the "right" interpretation of the story--is something Arsi avoids on purpose. Instead, her focus stays on the competing, sometimes incompatible diagnoses and implicitly on the urge to diagnose Bartleby. Nevertheless, she states in her first chapter (designated "Chapter 0") that the subsequent "7 1/2" chapters/diagnoses are each unified by offering "a reading of a different type of passivity and/or depersonalization, which in each case is interpreted as a different 'type' of thinking. But if Bartleby is none of the things I posit him to be, if he does not think any of those thoughts, I suggest it is because he is an instinct, a formless figure, or an atmosphere. The atmosphere of different thinking" (10). The book, then, becomes a meta-meditation on what caused Bartleby's ailment rather than a final decision regarding it. While this sort of amorphous criticism is unusual, it fittingly accommodates the ambiguities that Melville clearly hoped to create--and that radio dramatists worked against a century later.

Tim Prchal

Oklahoma State University
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Author:Prchal, Tim
Publication:Studies in American Fiction
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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