Of Teaching Melville on 9/12

The fall semester was only two weeks old, and we’d already worked through Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe. But my students and I didn’t know each other well yet, and I was aware when I assigned Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” that the add/drop date hadn’t passed.


September 12, 2008

The fall semester was only two weeks old, and we’d already worked through Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe. But my students and I didn’t know each other well yet, and I was aware when I assigned Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” that the add/drop date hadn’t passed.

Undergrads often hate “Bartleby,” a weird story about an aging lawyer who has an infestation in his office: a copyist who won’t work yet won’t leave because, he says, “I prefer not to.” In fact he says little else, no matter how the lawyer reasons, pleads, threatens, or cajoles. Students get frustrated with the archaic language, fail to see the humor, and demand to know why the lawyer doesn’t just call the police and be done with it. (It’s a good question, and the story carries its own answer.) Bartleby himself is described like the walking dead or a ghost, but he’s not Poe-uncanny, just discomfiting. He’s a blank and refuses to provide any answers, for the lawyer or for readers.

That Tuesday morning my wife and I watched with you as the Towers collapsed in real time on our TVs. We can’t help but think of our own particulars even as others die at a distance: I’d proposed to my wife a year earlier on the Staten Island Ferry with the Twin Towers filling the sky behind her with light, and now she was six weeks pregnant, with no way to know how the world meant now. There was an awful disconnect in these thoughts.

That night I dreaded teaching the next day. I had nothing to say, especially about short stories written 150 years earlier. I remember seeing an ad, blown off the side of a bus, lying in the debris. Ben Stiller mugged goofily for his new movie, his face surrounded by ashen rubble and twisted vehicles, and I felt sure that stories had become useless—at best, false comfort; at worst, desecration.

An e-mail that night from the administration asked us to talk with classes about what had happened and to remind students of resources if they felt overwhelmed. But in my morning class on 9/12, students told me they were sick of having to discuss the event, though they were still visibly shaken, stunned, sullen, and tearful. Not much was known then, as I recall. Weren’t there rumors of some surviving the towers’ collapse? Had the name bin Laden been uttered? What did this mean? In the struggle for metaphor there had been comparisons to Pearl Harbor, and one student shook and cried “Cowards!”

I wasn’t thinking, just responding, and said whoever they were, they were mass murderers, but was it an act of cowardice to strap yourself into a jumbo jet laden with 24,000 gallons of aviation fuel and fly it into a skyscraper? It's a measure of my own alienation that I worried for my little adjunct job with that comment until Susan Sontag wrote in the September 24th issue of The New Yorker, “In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.”

Most of us wanted to believe in the hope for normalcy, I think, and when I asked if they wanted to talk about Melville, my students surprised me and said yes. We discussed the story’s setting in Manhattan, and someone said it was weird that our lawyer-narrator had walked around Trinity Church in his angst, when it had been reported that one of the Tower’s radio masts had fallen into Trinity Churchyard and stuck there like a spear. We looked at period photos I’d brought of The Tombs, where Bartleby is held, and some by Jacob Riis a few years later, and noted their hard sadness. Students’ usual anger over the story’s difficulties was muted to puzzlement that it couldn’t be reasoned through, explained away, or solved.

I explained a few of the story’s similarities with Moby Dick, published a couple of years earlier, which I referred to as the weirdness of the whale. The novel is also about fear of an unknowable Other, whether it’s a monstrous white whale, a monomaniacal ship’s captain, or a headhunting bedmate, and Hegel’s line, "Each consciousness pursues the death of the other," came to mind. Both story and novel look deeply into what may be our first terror: the “awful lonesomeness” of discovering that the world and its people are not ourselves and that we cannot control or often even understand them. In that distance and mutual unintelligibility—or much worse, in the blankness of the face of the salty or social deep—we’re left thinking individually, “The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?” Melville’s own biography adds to the melancholy, since this great genius was snubbed by critics and public, and his own family thought him mad.

But true art, I believe, often provides the hope of rescue, even if it merely takes the form of more awareness or reduced simplicity. One may never know why things happen, what it means to be led to death by someone holding a grudge, for which he believes a fair settlement is the lives of all aboard. But the writer’s art—naming the things of the world, detailing its processes, providing the experience of having lived in perplexing or terrifying times—buoys us up. In Moby Dick, Ishmael performs an incredibly detailed anatomy both of the cetacean mammal called a whale and of life and death on the Pequod. He gives us all the stuff of the world, such as “outfits for the larders and cellars of 180 sail of Dutch whalemen:

400,000 lbs. of beef.
60,000 lbs. Friesland pork.
150,000 lbs. of stock fish.
550,000 lbs. of biscuit.
72,000 lbs. of soft bread.
2,800 firkins of butter.
20,000 lbs. Texel & Leyden cheese.
144,000 lbs. cheese (probably an inferior article).
550 ankers of Geneva.
10,800 barrels of beer.

“Most statistical tables are parchingly dry in the reading,” he admits; “not so in the present case, however, where the reader is flooded with whole pipes, barrels, quarts, and gills of good gin and good cheer.” In “Bartleby” too the reader is flooded with concrete sensory details, from the description of Turkey, “a short, pursy Englishman…somewhere not far from sixty,” whose face “blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals,” to the Spitzenberg apples and “small, flat, round, and very spicy” ginger-cakes sold in stalls near the Custom House and Post Office.

“No ideas but in things,” W.C. Williams says in "A Sort of a Song":

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,

—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

Abstractions, such as “madness,” “cowardliness,” and “weird” keep us from the one understanding we can attain, limited as it is. Ishmael says, “For now, since by many prolonged experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect of the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country….”

Details are a triumph, and their telling our greatest art. Abstractions mean everything and therefore nothing; specifics lead to storytelling, some small escape from our fatal encounter with the world’s otherness. When Ishmael recounts finding himself the lone survivor of the Pequod’s sinking, saved by the weird detail of an empty coffin, of all things, that pops to the surface, he quotes Job, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” The lawyer survives lonesome Bartleby, whom he has come to resemble, and is moved to try to construct a story about Bartleby’s past that will explain what has happened. Even he admits it’s inadequate, but like other rites for the dead it helps the living become more human by sharing what we all must face. “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” he cries in empathy for us all.

Does it help to know, now, the names of Mohamed Atta and his gang, the type and configuration of the airplanes? The precise cause of the buildings’ collapse? We’d mourn our dead anyway and rage at those others who would presume to control our lives. But the stories that emerge from the specifics help, and like the narrator-protagonists in Melville’s fiction we’ll tell them again and again, compulsively, revising them for complexity, trying to enhance meaning.

My class was a mess that day, but I thought I might be able to find something to say in meetings to come about literature's attempt to reconcile people and stones. As Melville writes in Moby Dick, “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.”


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