Saturday, August 13, 2011

"I would prefer not to."

Bartleby, the Scrivener, a story of Wall-street by Herman Melville
In Herman Melville's story, the narrator, a Wall Street lawyer, tells of the first time his copyist refused to do his job.
'In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.” '

This is the start of Bartleby refusing to work and the beginning of the phrase which lives on, "I prefer not to." Many of us prefer not to, but we do, because we have to. What if we all just stopped being dutiful, reliable, dependable and compliant? Neither readers nor the narrator ever know why Bartleby stops working, but guessing has become a literary game that has lasted for over a century. After starting out as an avid worker, Bartleby becomes a completely passive presence in his job and life. The lawyer thinks of him as the subject for a great anecdote, the quirkiest of all the quirky scriveners on Wall Street. What made me think of Bartleby today was that the American public is widely polled these days as being frustrated by politicians and financiers and other people in power who seem to prefer not to really work hard enough together to solve the problems the U.S. now faces. They prefer to play games and assign blame. Bartleby dies in the end in the new York city prison still known as the Tombs. Is that the price of apathy?
Related websites:
Gallup polls
Bartleby the Scrivener downloadable e-book from Project Gutenberg (thousand of free books online)
The Tombs

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