Friday, September 2, 2011

A women's "Bartleby"

Writing the other day about We Who Are About To..., and quoting Russ on "Bartleby, the Scrivener" as I did, made me connect those two stories in a way I hadn't before.

In What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici says, of "Bartleby" and of other works he finds cover similar ground:
In all these cases doing something other people seem to have no difficulty in doing becomes an intolerable imposition, not because it is fiendishly difficult but because it is so boring. And what makes a thing boring? That it is meaningless, and that therefore spending time on it feels as though it were robbing one of a portion of one's life.
(Thank you Richard for supplying the quote, since I had to return the book to the library; while I'm at it, thanks also to Richard for introducing me to exactly 1/2 of the writers I mention in this post [the two -icis].)

Obviously there is more to Bartleby's refusal than just this, more than just "boredom" (though boredom is by no means insignificant!) as Josipovici is surely well aware (he limits himself here to what is directly relevant for his study), but what he describes is still a deeply, explicitly political act, even if the mysterious motive behind it may not always be itself political. The phrase "robbing one of a portion of one's life," too, strikes me as being exactly the kind of stakes we're talking about here (I might even go so far as to remove "a portion of").

Not only that, but that phrasing, "something other people seem to have no difficulty in doing," puts me in mind of the experience many women report of the struggles involved in being a woman in our society--hence phrases such as "the problem that has no name." In large part this idea that other women "seem to have no difficulty" being the objects patriarchal/capitalist society demands them to be is an illusion created by the systematic destruction of women's social life, but internalized acculturation runs deep, and it is not entirely an illusion.

There's a passage in Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch in which she states one of her central theses, which is
that the body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance, as the female body has been appropriated by the state and men and forced to function as a means for the reproduction and accumulation of labor.
Now that I've given all this background and quoted these quotes, I'm starting to feel that my point is pretty much self-evident, and I have very little left to say on the subject. My observation is only this: We Who Are About To..., being a story of a woman who refuses at all costs to have babies for reasons that are not her own, is very similar thematically to "Bartleby," the story of a man who refuses at all costs to do work for reasons that are not his own. In both cases the refuser instantly becomes utterly incomprehensible to the other characters in her or his story--not to mention the majority of critics who will write about the stories!

Without realizing it, I wrote about all this when I first approached Russ's novel here:
I have seen several writers say that We Who Are About To... is about how to die, and how to live, and this is true--very true. But it is just as much about the right to say no--not just in terms of sex, or reproduction, but to anything and everything that you want to say no to, to everything that needs saying no to--or even to things that you just don't feel like saying "yes" to right now, for no good reason. It's about the right to not agree, to walk away from your society, and your culture, and your existence--and about the impossibility of exercising that right even at the most extreme remove imaginable from all these things.
All that remains for me to say is that where Bartleby chooses what to do with his life, Russ's narrator chooses what to do with her life in her body; so it is that Melville's story is largely nonviolent and ends with the one character's death alone, where Russ's is constantly, increasingly violent, and if it cannot end with the uncomprehending other characters, for whom nothing seems to be an "intolerable imposition," allowing the narrator to live in that body as she must, it can only end with the deaths of every single one of them.


Nathan said...

I thought it was an examination of language and meaning.

Ethan said...