Bartleby, the Scrivener‘s narrator occupies a desk beneath the pale, imposing bust of Cicero, ancient Roman philosopher and lawyer. This is where he attempts to govern his place of employment with all the prudence of his ancient teacher.1
Curiously, however, although Cicero’s head plays a vital role in the narrator’s exercise of power, it is Bartleby who explicitly takes a vested interest in the bust. The “pale young scrivener, by the name of Bartleby…”2 “…[keeps] his glance upon [the] bust of Cicero…”3, standing face to face with the true head of the lawyers among whom he works.
What is Melville’s intention in setting Bartleby the Scrivener’s face in opposition to Cicero the Skeptic’s? According to one author, the bust “…is best understood as the ancient representation of the father ‘in law.’”4 Bartleby’s face-off with Cicero, consequently, is a symbol of Melville’s rebellion against institutionalized patriarchy, especially as embodied in American jurisprudence and capitalism. Philosopher Giles Deleuze, on the other hand, problematizes symbolic interpretations of Bartleby and Cicero by stating that “’Bartleby’ is neither a metaphor for the writer nor the symbol of anything whatsoever.”5 On the contrary, he is an “…experiment with syntax and structure [performed] in order to create a separate language within the broader, accepted language.”6
Bartleby is the man without references, without possessions, without properties, without qualities, without particularities: he is too smooth for anyone to be able to hang any particularity on him.7
These readings of Cicero and Bartleby’s interaction are plausible, but not convincing. Was Melville’s intention to deconstruct phallocentrism
? To create a language within a language? Or are these are anachronistic interpretations?
The truth is, Cicero and Bartleby are men of preference. Cicero’s “…allegiance to [skepticism]…enables [him] to put a number of arguments in the mouths of others without having to endorse any particular position himself.”8 He functions on the basis of preference – like Bartleby. Thus, Bartleby and Cicero expose the absurdity of the narrator’s attempt at Ciceronian governance. If all is preference, then not even the law is absolute. Upon what basis does the narrator claim moral offense?
Why is he concerned with truth?
[In these notes, the page numbers referencing Melville’s story come from the Norton Anthology of American Literature, 8th Ed.]
1. Stephen T. Ryan, “Cicero’s Head in Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Dec. 2005, p.116-133; cf. p.1484, where the narrator states:
…I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of the sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace.
4. “Cicero’s Head”
5. Giles Deleuze, “Bartleby; Or the Formula,” in Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 68-90
6. Brian Evanson, “Critique Et Clinique,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 68:3, Summer 1994, p. 526
7. Deleuze, p.74
8. “Cicero: Cicero and the Academic Skeptics,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <www.iep.utm.edu/cicero/#SH7o>