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Bartleby, An Enchanting Ghost of Literature

Literature is a hospitable place and thus it is filled by specters, Bartleby is one of the most pervasive of them all.

A ghost story is one where a host and visitor come together in an unusual meeting. The arrival of a visitor breaks with the symbolic order of things and makes everything strange with its presence. A ghost –like those described by Dickens, for instance— is never completely at home, is never but a guest: an uneasy intruder within the hospitable realm of narrative. And literature shines with hospitality… it is full of specters.

Truth be told: readers can get deeply disturbed by the spectral apparition of life itself within literature. With the simple emergence of something whose vital intensity is so strong it becomes unbearable. That is the case of Bartleby, the Scrivener, whose most terrifying aspect resides in his originality. We could say that he is the imminent ghost of bureaucracy ––The material tautology of making copies of the copies seems to suit him well, although he would prefer not to. Bartleby, the “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurable forlorn,” is a strange visitor who irrupts in the story’s discourse, and his humanity is such that ends up becoming un-human.

“’I would prefer not to,’ said he. I looked at him steadfastly. […] Had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises”, narrates the lawyer. But he is unable to find anything “ordinarily human”; instead he finds something that is too human —the eternal procrastination, the infinite coherence— and he can do nothing but become paralyzed. Inoffensive in his passivity, Bartleby rips the membrane of the narrative universe.

In accordance with this proposal, Roald Dahl used to say that “The best ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them”. Bartleby is not a Victorian ghost, nor a confessed ghost, but we only need to see how the lawyer, for lack of better terms, describes him:

No answer.
“Bartleby,” in a louder tone.
No answer.
“Bartleby,” I roared.

Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage.

The lawyer cannot but refer to him in the first person (crucial when discussing otherness) and in magical and supernatural terms, because the extraordinary always floods the ordinary, and never the other way around: “What shall I do? What ought I to do? What does conscience say I should do with this man, or, rather, ghost”, he asks himself. In the end, the narrator decides it is best to move from the office, which has been taken over by Bartleby’s specter. The guest ends up scaring his host away (and not the other way around).

Bartleby honors the phantasmagorical epithet the narrator bestows upon him in a thousand different ways, until he dissolves. If the Victorian manner of defining a ghost is through repetition, Bartleby can be counted as one. His “apparitions” (a term that is repeatedly used throughout the text) are tautological. If characters are already a type of specter —because of their status as fictional characters; specters that stay forever, inhabits us, never leave; Bartleby is, also, a ghost that leaves us intentionally uneasy while he plays at the margins of narrative.

His realm, however, is from this world. Bartleby is the apparition of a public servant that limits himself to repeating a single sentence and who procrastinates “life itself” to infinity. The inconsistency of his existence is that unbearable vitality we mentioned before, which leaves us overwhelmed. “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

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