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Right of Refusal
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
When I'm at a loss for something good to read, I've discovered that if I simply go back and look at some of my old college syllabi, I'm certain to find some terrific piece of literature that I've never looked at. It's astonishing, in retrospect, to see how many books and stories that I was supposed to have read then for my college major that I never did; I was a lazy, half-assed student who always found himself scrambling at the last minute to bluff his way through some test or paper that was based on some classic I never got around to reading.
One of my best college exams was an analysis of Christopher Marlowe's "Tamburlaine" and "Edward II," two plays I perused at the last minute and had almost no working knowledge about. The resulting paper was almost a miracle of sleight-of-hand, as I carefully camouflaged my complete lack of understanding of the subject with some playful, lively writing. I remember at the time reading a Pauline Kael review of a detective movie that had tons of holes in the plot, and she said that in a thriller, the audience doesn't much care about gaps in logic in the story if they enjoy watching the actors on the screen. I sort of applied the same notion to my paper, hoping the professor wouldn't catch on to the tiny fact that I hadn't read the material and was simply bluffing my way through with some aggressive stylings. And indeed, when I got the paper back, the prof (almost sheepishly) wrote that while he didn't really trust my analysis in any fashion, he enjoyed reading the paper anyway. Probably against his better instincts, I bet, but he gave me an "A" regardless.
Since then I've gone back and read "Tamburlaine" and "Edward II," along with "Don Quixote," "The Rape of the Lock," "Don Juan." When I look at what's remaining from all my college reading lists, I still see six or seven books that my diploma says I should have finished twenty-five years ago. I'm committed to finishing them all off, perhaps as a way to retroactively assuage my undergrad's guilt of screwing off so much and wasting so much time.
There is one required story that I did read in college, however, one that I like to revisit every couple of years, and every time I read it I feel that same thrill of discovery that all great literature inspires. The story is "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," Herman Melville's great psychological thriller, a story that still manages to resonate as strongly today as when I first read it. In fact, I'll even say that "Bartleby" seems to get better and more relevant to me the older I get. That's the great thing about re-reading stories, it's like holding up a mirror to see how much you've changed in your life. I know the words in "Bartleby" haven't changed since it was published in 1853, yet my perceptions and experiences continue to evolve from the time I was first introduced to it.
The story is about a successful lawyer in Manhattan who hires a forlorn-looking man named Bartleby to copy legal documents by hand. The work is pure drudgery but the oddball scrivener has an aptitude for it; initially, Bartleby is a real boon to the practice. One day, however, the lawyer asks Bartleby to proofread a document, and he's surprised when the employee refuses: "I would prefer not to," Bartleby replies, uttering the phrase that becomes his stock response. Gradually, Bartleby "prefers not to" perform almost all tasks, and the exasperated lawyer is finally forced to take drastic action. Since the weak-willed (but compassionate) employer can't bring himself to physically throw Bartleby out, he actually moves his business to another location. But Bartleby stays. When the new tenants discover that this strange, phantom-like person won't leave the office building — Bartleby has moved into the building and sleeps in the doorway — they have him sent to prison. Where he dies, having apparently "preferred" not to eat.
It's a disturbing, haunting story all right, and critics have written reams of paper analyzing the deep psychological, philosophical, and moral ramifications of the tale. Like most of Melville's great work, "Bartleby" wasn't highly esteemed at publication, and only attained popularity long after the author had died. It's now generally considered one of the most important of American short stories, and continues to beguile new readers every year.
What really gets me about "Bartleby" — what continues to make the story personal to me — is that I've been acquainted with a lot of people who have simply "preferred not to." For whatever reason, I've always allied myself with stubborn, self-willed people who've refused to follow the easy, well-travelled roads so available to the majority of folks. It's not a stretch for me to imagine them running into a fate similar to Bartleby's. And I swear I'm not romanticizing--even in that easy camaraderie that exists among friends, I recognize that a lot of "my people" are, at their core, outsiders. And outsiders are notoriously susceptible to loneliness, ostracization, oblivion. I sometimes wonder what would happen if the tenuous bond that keeps them tethered to this world would suddenly break. Would they fly off, like a balloon in the sky? Or would they end up in some doorway somewhere, muttering to themselves, trying to sleep?
I have a friend who runs a ministry for the homeless in Chicago, and she told me of a curious phenomenon. While many of the causes of homelessness are well-documented--mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, sudden economic catastrophe, post-traumatic stress from veterans — she also told me that there is a striking percentage of homeless people who simply refuse. Refuse to play the game. Refuse to get along. Refuse to pursue the "American dream." Refuse to get on the conveyor belt of job, career, home, marriage. It's like they've looked at the millions of ways that day-to-day living can demean and humiliate and oppress and disorient and they decided, You know what? I ain't playing. I would prefer not to.