“I would prefer not to.”
The famous words of the resistant Bartleby Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” are a quiet rebellion against society. It is not an outright refusal, it’s a preference. His words mark Bartleby as an individual who has his own ideas, exactly the sort of person the capitalist lawyer cannot understand nor control.
Bartleby is a scrivener—a low-tech copy machine. He does nothing all day except copy papers, until he chooses to do nothing at all. He even refuses to quit, or leave the building.
I take this as an Office Space lesson in what the workforce does to people. When there’s no outlet for individuality or creativity, it bursts out of the seams in a destructive mess. If people can’t use their minds, their minds will use them.
If there’s no way to do anything fun, or engaging, or individual, one will eventually “prefer” not to do anything at all.
Bartleby’s job could be done by a 6 year old with good penmanship. A lot of jobs could be done with 6 year olds with good penmanship, or 6 year olds who can use a phone, or 6 year olds who can figure out a cash register. No wonder a lot of us feel useless.
Perhaps if Bartleby went for a nature walk after work, or took up playing guitar, or tried art lessons, or cooking, he would not have felt the need to rebel. Maybe if he unleashed his creative individuality in a healthy way it would not be fighting him from the inside for release. If Bartleby felt respected and important and alive, perhaps he actually would have preferred to work during work time as long as he could be himself during his off time.
Perhaps not. Perhaps I am looking at an old story with new values, with the knowledge of the severity of mental illness and a 21st century appreciation for creativity. But I do know that if Bartleby were alive today, the lawyer would have more tools at his disposal for dealing with who is likely a man dealing with depression. Then again, Bartleby would have more tools to express himself with. So if today’s world is easier for both parties…why do I and many like me relate to Bartleby?
Is it because we all feel useless and unappreciated? Is it because we are all individuals, ready to burst out of our skins? Is it because no one is ever satisfied, and everyone would prefer to just sit on a couch doing nothing? Is it because we’re all depressed? All caught under the thumb of a unforgiving world?
I suppose I understand Bartleby’s preference not to. I understand, but do not agree.
I prefer not to be like Bartleby. I prefer not to prefer not to.
I prefer to live.