The 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.
They 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.
Hence, 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.
But 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.
However, 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“