“Wandering away from everything, giving up everything, not me anymore, not any of it.”
— Agnes Martin
In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s notoriously perplexing short story, his principal character speaks just thirty-seven lines, over a third of them variations on a simple declaration: “I would prefer not to.” Having taken a job copying documents in a law firm, he offers that same maddening reply to every request. He prefers not to perform assigned tasks, or to explain why. When finally discharged by his boss, he prefers not to leave the premises. When, in the end, he lands in jail, he prefers “not to dine,” and dies of starvation.
The story is narrated by his employer, who finds himself “strangely goaded on” to discover the motivation for Bartleby’s eccentric behavior.
“Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.” [i]
For his employer, Bartleby remains an unknowable blank, an impenetrable opacity. His past is unknown; he is barely present in the here and now. As Elizabeth Hardwick describes him, “Bartleby is not a character in the manner of the usual, imaginative, fictional construction. And he is not a character as we know them in life, with their bundling bustle of details … He is indeed only words, wonderful words, and very few of them.” [ii]
Every attempt by the bewildered narrator to categorize or interpret his eccentric employee vanishes into the black hole of Bartleby’s essential unknowability. Neither reader nor narrator can solve the puzzle of his abiding negation. And what is true of Bartleby the character is also true of “Bartleby” the story.
Literary critics and perplexed readers have been trying to explain Melville’s tale for 168 years. Bartleby is clinically depressed. He’s the existential resistance to a deadening, soulless economy. He’s the embodiment of modernity’s “sickness unto death,” the enervation of purpose and will. Or the story itself is Melville’s practical joke on the reading public, luring us down the hermeneutic rabbit hole of a world without reasons. We want to know why, but in Bartleby’s world there is no why.
Bartleby came to mind this week when “the greatest gymnast in history,” Simone Biles, withdrew from the Olympic team competition after a flawed performance in her first event. The world immediately demanded explanations. Why did she prefer not to perform? Some were puzzled, even outraged, and, like Bartleby’s frustrated colleagues, they rushed to supply their own speculative interpretations.[iii] Unlike Bartleby, however, Biles made known her motivation. She told the press she was taking care of her mental health. Her body and mind had slipped “out of sync” in Tokyo, causing her to feel lost in midair during her twisting somersaults off the vault table. It’s not like dropping a pass or missing a putt. A mistake in gymnastics can mean a broken neck.
“You have to be there 100%,” she explained in a press conference. “If not, you get hurt. Today has been really stressful. I was shaking. I couldn’t nap. I have never felt like this going into a competition, and I tried to go out and have fun. But once I came out, I was like, No. My mental is not there.”
Her decision was not only good for her. It probably helped the team, which might not have medaled had she continued to underperform. And she has been credited by many for making a memorable case for self-care—mental as well as physical—in the pressure cooker of elite public performance.
In Ethan Hawke’s 2014 documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, we meet Seymour Bernstein, a celebrated concert pianist who disappointed his public by quitting the stage at age 50 after becoming “a total wreck” from the pressures of performance. When Hawke first encountered Bernstein at a dinner party and learned his story, the actor/director found himself sharing his own anxieties with the older man.
“I decided to confide with him that I’d been performing with a crippling stage fright,” said Hawke in an interview. “The bottom line of the conversation: most artists are not nervous enough .… Pianists have it worse than anybody in the world … If you have to play Carnegie Hall, and you know that one performance will define your whole life, and if you have a memory slip, or if your finger goes rogue, you’re going to be living with the ramifications of it for the rest of your life. They have anxiety like nobody else, and so he was the perfect person to talk to about how to pass through it.” [iv]
Few of us can even imagine the pressures of being the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) who is not allowed to fail, the face of the Olympics, America’s standard bearer, and the always dependable foundation of the team’s success. But her renunciation of these burdens, however temporary, may be her greatest achievement insofar as it helps athletes—and society as a whole—engage with issues of mental health and personal well-being as never before, without stigma or shame.
William James defined renunciation as “a denial made on behalf of a deeper yes.” In refusing to be shaped by the images and expectations of the world, and by renouncing the projects, desires and identities which do not originate in our deepest place, we begin to affirm and become the truth of ourselves. Taken to its furthest point, this process is a matter of dying to self and living unto God.
The medieval mystic Henry Suso taught “the science of Perfect Self-Abandonment,” the letting go of “self” in order to merge with the more of God. Until you consent to abandon your inauthentically constructed self, he counsels, “you are like a hare hiding in a bush, who is frightened by the whispering of the leaves. You are frightened every day by the griefs that come to you; you turn pale at the sight of those who speak against you; … when they praise you, you are happy; when they blame you, you are sad.” [v]
In his book, Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists, Ross Posnock examines creatives who made “an exit from the public glare.” For figures of renown, self-erasure is a means of escaping the pressures of public attention, but it may also involve a more radical interior process: grappling with the ego in search of the authentic self. But dropping out of the fame game is suspicious behavior in America. If a gifted person doesn’t crave celebrity, we wonder what’s wrong with them.
One of Posnock’s subjects is the painter Agnes Martin, who fled the New York art scene in her fifties for the solitude of a remote desert mesa in New Mexico. During her forty years in the wilderness (she died at 92), she continued to make art that was highly praised for its abstract mysticism and formal beauty, but she did her best to keep herself out of sight. When a prestigious museum proposed a major retrospective of her work, she refused, fearing it would be more about her than her art, for which she claimed to be simply a transparent medium. As she told the museum, “the idea of achievement must be given up” if we are “to live truly and effectively.” [vi]
An Agnes Martin could go off the grid without creating a stir, since she was not a cultural superstar. But when the writer J. D. Salinger began to recede from public view in the 1950s after the immense success of Catcher in the Rye, curiosity about his private life grew ever more insistent and, in his mind, more oppressive.
Behind the walls of his New Hampshire hideout, he crafted his response to what Posnock calls “the culture’s defensive compulsion to label and control,” in the form of enigmatic narratives about the fictional Glass family’s spiritual quests and confusions. Like Bartleby, Salinger preferred his own life to remain a blank, letting the stories speak for themselves. “This blank is his way,” says Posnock, “of outwitting or baffling the arrogant paradigm of meaning production with its ‘menacing pressure’ to generate a legible identity for consumption …” [vii]
“A legible identity for consumption” could describe what the world has tried to make of Simone Biles, before she issued her brave and risky no “on behalf of a deeper yes.” What that deeper yes will be for her, God only knows. May she walk in Beauty.
But renunciation as a spiritual practice is something we all need to think about. Less ego. More grace. And if I were asked to find the right words for this cultural moment, I’d go with the passionate cri de couer of Salinger’s Franny Glass:
“I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theatre Department. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.” [viii]
[i] Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The employer’s failure to reach any solid conclusions about Bartleby makes him an unreliable narrator for a story he does not himself understand.
[ii] Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 9.
[iii] For the critics obsessed with national glory, Biles’ personal well being was of little use. One writer vilified her as proof that “we are raising a generation of weak people.” The deputy attorney general in her home state of Texas called her “our selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” But every gymnast, and I hope most of the public, knew better.
[iv] Hawke took his title from J. D. Salinger’s story about the unexplained self-annihilation of the fictional Seymour Glass. The Today Show (March 2015) interview is online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqsdmR8fGoo
[v] Henry Suso (German, c. 1295-1366), cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness(Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993/2008, originally published 1911), 405. I have modernized the pronouns.
[vi] Ross Posnock, Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 376. Olivia Laing’s excellent piece on Martin in The Guardian is well worth reading: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/22/agnes-martin-the-artist-mystic-who-disappeared-into-the-desert
[vii] Posnock, 147.
[viii] J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1961/2014), 26.