Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Bartleby the Socratic

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Bartleby the Socratic

Article excerpt

Herman Melville's story "Bartleby" exhibits no overt debt to Socratic method or practice, and to assert a meaningful affinity between the withdrawn scrivener and the gregarious philosopher seems only more preposterous than previous efforts to trace Bartleby's ancestry to Melville's literary contemporaries, to his friends, to Jesus Christ, to Buddha, to various psychiatric patients. Surely the laconic scrivener, who scarcely qualifies as a human being, has undergone sufficient comparisons with celebrated authors, the founders of world religions, and psychotics. Now Socrates. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, scholarship!(1)

The practice of ransacking biographies, Bibles, medical textbooks and the works of modern thinkers for Melville's inspiration tends to encourage assessment of Bartleby's conduct within conventions of literary realism that do not satisfactorily apply. Seldom is the attorney's observation in the story's first paragraph heeded: "I believe that no materials exist, for a full and satisfactory biography of this man.... Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small" (546). Rarely does a critic regard him as an abstraction, a purely literary creation possessing traits more readily associated with fantasy. Reduced to a diagnosable pathology or to a helpless victim of a misunderstanding social order, Bartleby is merely pathetic and rather a cliche. Such readings disregard Bartleby's peculiar strength, his baffling ability to trouble and foil a conventionally successful Wall Street attorney. As a character Bartleby is quite thin, and to make of him an imaginative recreation of known characters distorts his role in Melville's story. The only real character here is the attorney himself. Bartleby is an affect rather than a personality--he is a force, almost talismanic, exerting an influence on a character. The question is, what kind of force, and how is it exerted? I wish to argue that he is a Socratic force.

Melville's debt to Plato is a critical commonplace.(2) By 1850 Melville had begun to acquire the six-volume Bohn edition of Plato's works, and the use he made of it is everywhere apparent in Melville's works: to no other philosopher does he allude more frequently. For Milton M. Sealts, Jr., "Plato is clearly the preeminent influence on [Melville's] thinking and writing" (279). Structurally, Mardi, The Confidence-Man and Clarel owe their concern to display and balance diversity of perceptions to the Platonic dialogues, while the transcendentalism present in much of Melville's work may be attributed primarily not to Emerson's but to Plato's doctrines. Most conspicuous is Melville's consistently high regard for Socrates himself. Redburn, Clarel, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick and "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo" each make approving references to him. In a letter to Hawthorne, Melville compares his friend to Alcibiades and himself to Socrates in an allusion to the Symposium: "Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon--the familiar,--and recognized the sound" (Letters 142). Sealt's survey, however, makes no reference to "Bartleby," and indeed the story itself contains no allusion to Plato or Socrates.

Frances K. Howard argues that the attorney's office represents Plato's cave, while Bartleby archetypally symbolizes the writer, an "irritant" who exposes the deceived nature of the attorney's rationalism. I would describe Bartleby as a demon, such as the purely negative one Socrates at his trial claimed manifested itself to prevent him from performing certain acts, or as a gad-fly, such as Socrates at his trial presented himself. Howard examines the role of the irritant in Plato's myth, but does not consider Socrates's approach, one that is quite relevant to the study of Bartleby's effect. Although he never engages in cross-examination, never directly accuses and never gives overt signals that he is putting the attorney to the test, Bartleby proves to achieve Socrates's effect employing largely Socratic means. …

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