Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Emptiness and Plenitude in "Bartleby the Scrivener" and 'The Crying of Lot 49.'

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Emptiness and Plenitude in "Bartleby the Scrivener" and 'The Crying of Lot 49.'

Article excerpt

Most literary periods are defined by a number of formal, technical, and thematic devices that suggest the distinctiveness of one era in contrast to another. In this way the modern period has been construed through various disruptions in standard techniques, certain formal strategies through which the contradictory nature of the West has come to the fore, and numerous concerns for the changed status of the individual human. We have come to think of the modern era as the one in which some of the fundamental tenets of our civilization have been found at odds with other aspects of our cultures that we have tried to repress more deeply than we knew.

At the same time, there has been a tendency in recent criticism to argue that all period definitions are invariably arbitrary and bankrupt, that they have been imposed by critics themselves for specific reasons that usually concern their own self-serving purposes. Reflecting modernism's own awareness of the arbitrariness of the sign, such arguments usually proceed to demonstrate how the presumed concerns of any period are more often than not the preoccupations of the critic and not the eminent domain of any particular period. This argument can in turn be reinforced by demonstrating that the putative distinctive feature of this or that period is indeed present in earlier epochs, and thus it can hardly be said to distinguish one period over another.

Nevertheless, there do seem to be certain characteristics that are stressed more than others in particular periods, even if there are always precursor texts that manifest the tendencies and texts that follow after the period that also use the strategies of an earlier epoch. There are, we know, certain texts before the modern era that deliberately called attention to their fictive status - Tristram Shandy is the usual example - just as the concerns with the arbitrariness of the sign and the limitations of language have continued to preoccupy us in the contemporary period. But there is no doubt that modern novels and poems of many varieties distinguish themselves by the relentless manner in which they inquire into the nature of form and language and into that which constitutes us as human beings. Other writers have considered these subjects, and other periods have been concerned with similar formal and thematic constraints, but no period has so thoroughly explored them as the modern.

In the thematic context, perhaps no modern topic has been given more consideration than the way in which we are thought to create our own selves, or to put it another way, the way in which we are ourselves finally arbitrary signs to be filled up by whatever haunts us at the moment. If the moderns called language and form into question, if they seriously considered the degree to which all utterance is devoid of ground, they also pursued the ways in which the same thing could be said of our conceptions of individual humans. Indeed, one of the great early modern texts, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," has as its main character one of the first creations to represent a sort of nothing, a void of a human who is not just a surd in the end but highly meaningful precisely because the echoes of his alienation and meaninglessness in the modern era are to be found in the employer, the reader, and anyone else who takes up space in the world we presently live in. The companion text to "Bartleby," I would argue, the one that marks the end of this modern thematic, is Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, a work in which it is not the void at the center of humans that is at issue but rather the great plenitude. Both works focus on the same questions - the problem of identity in the modern world, the question of the reality of our identity, the related concerns of alienation and despair - but "Bartleby" marks these problems in terms of lack whereas Lot 49 construes them in terms of the horrifying plenitude of meaning. just as Derrida was to demonstrate that the supplementary character of language meant both that language never says enough and that it always says too much - that the problem was as much a plenitude of meanings as a lack of them - so too Pynchon shows that the problem is not that we are confronted by our own meaninglessness but rather that we are forced to deal with the fact that we have too many meanings, that we are far too rich in our plenitude to be contemplated in any bearable manner. …

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