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Monday, December 12, 2011

The enigma of the Occupation Forces

For a century and a half, people have thought about occupying Wall Street.  The first that I know is the protagonist, sort of, of a short story by Herman Melville that I taught often and that many students found irritatingly undefinable:  "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street."

In short, Bartleby is hired by a law firm on Wall Street that is successful enough to have three scriveners,  that is people who write out and copy legal documents by pen.  A scrivener is a writer in the sense that he is secretary and xerox machine all rolled into one.  At first, he does very able work, but soon takes to declining the tasks assigned to him with the phrase "I prefer not to."  After a time, he refuses to do anything, including leave the premises.  The lawyer, who is the narrator of the story, feels both pity and revulsion at Bartleby, and ends up moving from the office himself.   Bartleby still refuses to move from the premises.  The new occupants enlist the lawyer's help, but to no avail.  Bartleby is finally forcibly removed and confined to jail.  The lawyer gives money to the guards to insure that Bartleby at least gets good food, but Bartleby prefers not to eat, also, and ends up starving himself to death. 

Students were frustrated by the story and irritatedly asked, "What's the point?"  Still, they found the story unsettling, some demanding that I provide them with an interpretation that made a point for them.  I suggested that they consider that a point of the story is that life as it is conventionally lived has no point to some people, and they prefer not to participate.  And also to consider how helpless the narrator felt in trying to help Bartleby who rejected all his efforts.  One very astute student likened the feeling she got from the story to how she felt when her brother committed suicide, and there is no way to make intelligible those forces that are unintelligible to others.  

The Occupy Wall Street movement has incited the most disparaging and generally false characterizations of the people who participate in it.  The responses in the media have been very much like the irritated incomprehension that students expressed about "Bartleby the Scrivener."  And there are obvious parallels to the movement and the narrative of the story.  They occupied and would not leave, until they were forcibly removed.  Most of the country has breathed a sigh of relief along with speculations that the Occupy movement has been broken and has gone away.  But like the story, the Occupy movement is still disturbing and rankles people because they cannot assign any easy condemnation to it, and have raised up old hatreds of dirty hippies whining for entitlements.

Part of the reaction is that the Occupy movement has confronted capitalism which has reached a state of perversion.  It has based itself upon the fact that a very tiny segment of the population owns the country's power and wealth and that democracy is not possible under that  circumstance.  

The origins of the movement and how it came to be organized is given a clear and coherent treatment in a current article in The New Yorker.  

In essence, the movement has spoken for the 99 percent of Americans who find themselves struggling to live while 1 percent lives in conspicuous, mindless opulence.  No kind of life, let along democracy, can survive that condition, and when it comes to submitting to it, the Occupy movement has said "I prefer not to."

The movement has been removed from the places it chose to occupy for the most part, but it still occupies the mind in unsettling ways, much like Melvilles' 1853 story, which has the capacity to rankle and irritate.

The Occupy movement has not been vanquished.  It is finding new ways and places to occupy.  

There is hope in that.  When it comes to living under the neo-feudal state that America has become,  I prefer not to.  


Bob Newland said...

"Bartleby" has long been one of my favorite stories, precisely because it is so frustrating. The story has often come to mind as I have observed others (and sometimes myself) exhibiting behavior that seems to have no plausible interpretation.

john said...


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States