I would prefer not to

ba2The paths of rebellion are just few. You may choose to fight the system, aiming at destroying it or you may create antithetical models, thus proving the mediocrity of the normal standards of behaviour, just like European aesthetes did in the nineteenth century with the purpose of undermining the pillars of bourgeois values such as materialism, respectability and the pursuit of wealth. Some of them, labeled as dandies, considered themselves the depositary of taste and embodied unattainable models of elegance and savoir-vivre, some others, who were called Bohemians, chose to live marginalized. They were, as William Makepeace Thackeray said, “ artists or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art” rejecting permanent residence and surviving on little material wealth.

ba3They were seen like gypsies, in fact, they were called Bohemians as it was common belief that gypsies came from Bohemia. In Paris  many of them lived at Montmartre, not far from the “Moulin Rouge”, while in London they could be seen at Chelsea or Soho. They lived solely for art and literature’s sake and their dissolute lives were often characterized by alcohol and drug abuse, as well as open sexual freedom.  The Bohemians, in fact, felt the need to express and assert themselves, being at such a social and economic disadvantage.They aimed at defying the system, flaunting their marginality. The point is that whatever rebellious way you choose, the system cannot be ignored, as, whether we like it or not, we are active part of it.

ba4Hence, could inactivity be a way to beat a system? If we are small but functional mechanisms of a whole, whether marginalized or not, wouldn’t be just our inertia a way to make the system crack at least? This option is explored in Melville‘s short story: “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street“. Melville chooses Wall Street as setting, the bustling center of business and finance, to place his inactive anti-hero to mark more his anomaly. One day a strange, mysterious, pale figure of a man appears at
a lawyer’s door. He is there for the job ad. Very little is known about his past: he
has worked for a dead letter office for years and has a letter of recommendations with very
positive remarks in his pocket. He is hired. The job is a kind of boring and his
profile seems to be fit for that dull activity: just copying documents. His name is
Bartelby. He begins well: he copies lengthy documents, works overtime with great
efficiency. He is the perfect wheel in the lawyer’s system. He had chosen well.

ba8But one day something unpredictable happens. At a banal lawyer’s request Bartelby’s reply is shocking: “I would prefer not to”. Booooom! “I would prefer……” What does it
mean? Prefer? Once you are an integrated part of a system, can you still keep your freedom of choice? Does this option really exist, without making collapse the very same system ? It existed in Bartelby’s mind. From that day on, Bartelby starts to slip away the assignments he is given, till one day he decides it is time to stop: he will do nothing more, but he will not quit he place. He will stay there.

ba7However, each part of a system has to be functional, otherwise it doesn’t work, thus the boss tries at first to reintegrate him. It is a failure. Then he does whatever is in his power to get rid of him. Nothing. In the end he will be so exasperated to move his business to another office. Bartelby will remain there, till the new owner brutally manages to remove him. He will end up in jail where he dies. It may seem a nonsensical story of a failure, but it is not. It is a story of a powerful rebellion of a modern hero that, thanks to his great denial, breaks the system forcing it somehow to change, humanizing it. The lawyer, in fact, will be so overwhelmed by guilt that in the end he will go and look for him to give him his support; but Bartelby will prefer not be helped, thus despising his philanthropic hypocrisy. Only in the end, defeated, he will understand the greatness of Bartelby’s behaviour saying :”Ah Bartelby! Ah humanity


33 thoughts on “I would prefer not to

  1. Stepy, your description of the “Bohemians” and the Bohemian life style, excellent and most interesting! Sad, society frowns upon Bartleby’s passive resistance, when perhaps passive resistance is the true instigator of change. This is a wonderful post, I thoroughly enjoyed it!


    • Bohemian life is pretty intriguing. Think about all these artists at Montmartre and le Moulin Rouge, fascinating, isn’t it? They were the hippies of the nineteenth century. I am glad you enjoyed the post. Cheers.
      Stefy xoxo

  2. It seem to me that, in our Western states, merely by existing we are upholding economic and political systems. Short of opting out of society or taking an active role within it we can’t claim to change it by ‘doing nothing’, as that doing nothing relies on society’s existence in the first place. But ‘doing nothing’ is certainly a statement which may or may not elicit a response!

    • This story is a hyperbole of course, but think about it, but if one of your students , for example,” does nothing”, you cannot ignore him and forces you react in some way. Inaction provokes action, this has to be pondered.

  3. Personally, I think Bartelby was a colourless and silly twit who actually proved nothing. If one is going to change a system, do it by improving it rather than by registering disapproval.

  4. This is certainly a very thought provoking post dear Stefy!…
    I much enjoyed the reading and your perspectives on Bartleby as a sort of potencial revolutionary… I am also thinking in Kafka’s book “The Process” which has similar points than the ones you mentioned above as regard to Judiciary system!. A man can certainly make a difference, I guess
    Thank you! Happy week ahead ⭐ Aquileana 😀

  5. The illusion of choice is there for managers to mask their authority, a social lie that all employees are asked to perpetuate, but absolutely must understand is a lie. Choice is not a real option. Most people never acknowledge this and accept it as a natural part of life — someone else is in charge. It’s the poets and writers who have rejected that life that can highlight and ridicule it.

  6. Excellent post! I love the French Bohemians and the artwork expressing them. Big fan of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Also, Melville’s “Bartelby”. The narrator’s spiritual awakening, his realization that while human nature stays the same, our reaction to it can change is lovely. Loneliness. Isolation. So easy to become reclusive. So hard to reach out and touch someone.

  7. One thing that usually strikes me is when someone says they have no choice. No matter where we are in life, there is always a cholce. Always. The options might not be pleasant, nor easy, but there are always alternative choices.

    Great post

  8. excellent post, impecably written. I am moved now to read Bartelby! The power in passivity which is actually great assertiveness, is such a lovely paradox. thanks for this post.

  9. I believe that each person can change something only if she or he wants to.
    We always say “life is short” and that’s true so I think you should do what you like and try to change what you don’t, but what happen if each person does what he wants?
    I agree with Martin Luther King when he says “my freedom ends when yours begins”, therefore what can we do to overcome this problem?
    I understand Bohemians , I mean their choice to marginalized themselves form that horrible society which they didn’t like.
    I think aesthetes in general were more sensitive than common people, because they saw something more behind the superficiality of Victorians. Even though they were not satisfied from what surrounded them they were also aware that there was no way to escape from that system. Seeing with different eyes the reality makes you pessimistic, because you don’t see any solutions.
    Aesthetes didn’t have the purpose of teaching with their poems, actually I think they teach us more than what they wanted to.
    I’ve learnt that I must fight more than them to be able to fight the system actively and I would like to do what makes me happy and satisfied respecting other people and being honest. So can I make the world a little bit better?

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