Herman Melville, “The Piazza Tales” (1856): “I would prefer not to”

Herman Melville’s The Piazza Tales, collecting five short stories and an introductory tale, include two stunning stories of resistance and their limits: “Bartleby, The Scrinvner” and “Benito Cereno.” The are often put in the same category as Melville’s greatest prose works, so it is notable that they both have at the core an act of seemingly successful rebellion. The Piazza Tales came out in 1856, collecting five of the pieces he wrote in the previous two years for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. 

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“Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” is endlessly fascinating and can be re-read for new meaning almost every time. The narrator is an employer at a law office, who hires a small group of copyists (scriveners), whose job it is to copy and double-check the accuracy of various of the copies. We have a mini-example of the Pequod here, with a diverse (but much smaller group) of workers, that accomplish their task with little oversight. The profession has rules that its members know. The boss, lacking any bold scheme like an Ahad, is simply content to manage the smooth-working office. Bartleby enters as the workload of the office increases. He is a diligent worker, who comes in every day and does his job, apparently without major defect. He does not seem to eat much except nuts and eventually takes to sleeping in the office. However, he also develops a strange habit of refusing requests from his employer. To all requests he responds: “I would prefer not to,” or some variation of. It is not that he does not do his work. His refusal is only when asked by the boss. This torments the narrator who has authority but is not used to using it. He seems to prefer an office well running without the need to apply authority.

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This probably describes most middle managers in office settings, always careful to assert their authority, but afraid to undermine the harmony of the office with a too authoritarian intervention. Having recently worked in an office, I can attest that most of the time discipline was enforced morally. “Don’t you want to help your co-workers?” “Do work that you can be proud of.” Explicit threats of being fired were not there. In this context, Bartleby’s resistance to the authority — and the banality — of office life is quite effective. Bartleby is brilliantly calling the employers’ bluff but forcing him to use more explicit uses of power.  In response to a refusal to cooperative, the narrator responds: “I am seriously displeased. I am pained, Bartleby I had thought better of you.” (660) That power beings as moral pleading, expressions of concern, threats of firing, and eventually the introduction of state authorities. Only the state is able to finally remove him from the office (an act the narrator cannot bear to witness although he precipitated it). Eventually Bartleby dies of starvation, literally bored to death from his job. His strategy may be the ultimate form of resistance and the exact way to challenge the power of the petty tyrants in offices around the world. Instead of refusing to work, one works but refuses to listen to the silly preachings and time-wasting dictates of those with a slightest bit of authority.

“Benito Cereno” is about a ship master who comes across another ship that had just experienced a mutiny by slaves. The transatlantic slave trade had already ended, banned by Congress in 1808, but the threat of slave revolt was still very alive in the minds of many Americans, Nat Turner’s revolt taking place in 1830. The story (really a short novel) is told through two sides. First from the perspective of a fictionalized Amasa Delano and then through an official report. The mutiny actually took place prior to Delano’s arrival, but the enslaved men and women kept the captain, Benito Cereno, alive in order to sail back to Africa. Delano is actually walking into a “world turned upside down” but does not know it. Cereno is commanded by the leader of the mutiny, a former slave called Bado. The reality of the situation is revealed at the end the mutiny is suppressed and Bado executed. This leads to the death of Cereno who is grief stricken by Bado’s death, turning on its head the cliché of the loyal slave.

In some ways, this suggests the fragility of power on the ship, in which captains really do keep their authority with the consent of the crew and the (at times) backing of external state powers. More broadly, the story speaks to the reality of empire in the 19th century. They were apparently ruled by whites, but really functioned through the labor and efforts of the enslaved.

“The Encantadas” reminded me of Mardi in how they toured a series of mystical islands. Lacking a narrative, the story is really more of a tourist guide to these various locations, some with hierarchical states, some left to nature, and yet others as libertarian realms for runaway sailors and slaves. While life if brutal there: full of institutions of power such as jails and gravestones testifying to unspoken horrors. In this sense it parallels the reality of the Atlantic world. Sketch seven of the story even has an example of a war between a colonial state (which proclaimed itself a republic) and a population of creole rebels. “Nay, it was no democracy at all, but a permanent Riotocracy, which gloried in having no law but lawlessness.” (791) As other sketches show, slavery is worked into the dynamics of life on the Encantadas.

However, like the Atlantic world system itself–and the emerging global capitalism that Melville knew about first hand–there are built in wild spaces where freedom can be secured and tyranny contested.  The section on runaways shows this. But by and large we see, in the Encantadas, the brutal extremes that authority will go to assert itself. “Nor have there been wanting instances where in inhumanity of some captains has led them to wreak a secure revenge upon seamen who have given their caprice or pride some singular offense. Thrust ashore upon the scorching marl, such mariners are abandoned to perish outright, unless by solitary labors they succeed in discovering some precious dribblets of moisture oozing from a rock or stagnant in a mountain pool.” (816) It seems to me that “The Encantadas” should be read as a likely description of a world of unrestrained capitalism.

The reality of the Enchantadas

The reality of the Enchantadas

slavery2floggingThis is the world that capitalism created. Melville was genius at describing it in almost all of his works. Much of his significance for us is in how he exposed the violence of empire and commerce. With this in mind, I think we should learn from Bartleby and “prefer not to” cooperate a bit more often.

 

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Herman Melville, “Omoo” Part One: Authority and Resistance

Omoo is a continuation of the story laid out in Typee.  Like the earlier work, it is semi-autobiographical and is based on Melville’s time in Tahiti and the Society Islands.  Like Typee, it is critical of the missionaries and challenges the division between “civilization” and “savagery” promoted by the Western imperialists in the Pacific.  It is also a tale of power, authority, resistance, and transgression.  It speaks of islands in rapid transformation due to the arrival of white “rovers,” who like “Typee” (the narrator takes on a new name here, sailor fashion) seeking a place for themselves in the islands.  For the modern reader, Omoo also works as a study in roving.  Typee never finds a place for himself in the South Seas but tries half a dozen places.

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The plot of the first half of the novel is as follows.  Typee signs onto an English whaler to escape the events of Typee.  The authority structure of the ship is dysfunctional and the sailors nearly mutiny.  Typee talks the crew into submitting a petition to the English consul.  This fails and on Papeetee, the crew is imprisoned in the “Calabooza Beretanee.”  They live a reasonable life in this “prison.”  The English whaler, Julie, finally leaves with a new crew.  During these events, Typee strikes up a lasting friendship with the doctor “Long Ghost,” who has earlier left the leadership structure of the ship and stayed with the sailors in the forecastle.  This act of class-betrayal in the book is important because it highlights the breakdown of authority on the Julia and solidarity overcoming difference (He is Australian and part of the old authority structure of the ship).

Much of the first part of the book is a dissertation on the failures and absurdities of the disciplinary regimen of the sailing ship.  The Julia‘s captain, Guy, is incompetent and often ill.  The first mate, John Jermin, who takes over the ship, is a drunkard but fairly effective, but is still unable to forestall a near-mutiny.  The second mate, Bembo, seems near mad in his blood-thirsty desire to hunt whales and fights with a common sailor, “Sydney Dan.”

The sailors explore three ways of resisting the their bosses.  One method is desertion.  Desertion plagues Jermin from the earliest pages.  Before the novel began, the Julia suffered from mass desertion leading to a low company.  In chapter five, five crew members desert only to be recovered.  Throughout the South Seas we see evidence of massive sailor desertions.  Many of the whites working in service to local chiefs deserted from ships.  Others, picked up to work on the passing whaling ships deserted form earlier ships.  A mobile and flexible labor force existed as a result of these desertions.  Deserters who frustrated one captain became the ready labor supply for another captain.  Like the post-modern worker, drifting from employer to employer these sailors left due to personal conflicts with employers or a fleeting desire for new adventures.  Those who fled the Julia did so out of frustration over low provisions, illness (in an interesting passage, a crewman with believed supernatural powers predicts the deaths of most of the crew), an incompetent captain, or a grim realization that they would remain at sea as long as it took to fill the ship with whale oil.  Deserters prove to be some of the most colorful characters in the novel, all having interesting histories and experiences, often lost to standard maritime history.

The sailors attempted a mutiny, the pinnacle of all maritime resistance.  Typee talks them down to a petition, which is rejected by the British consul, Wilson.

Another, weaker, form of resistance is that reflected in the massive consumption of Pisco – a locally-produced alcoholic drink.  It provides an escape from the fears of sickness. In the end, drink is used to help prevent the mutiny.  When ordered to return to the ship by Wilson, one justification is the full provision of Pisco on board.  This fails to convince the rebellious sailors.  A much more rebellious form of escape is Long Ghost’s escape from the cabin to the forecastle.  “Aside from the pleasure of his society, my intimacy with Long Ghost was of great service to me in other respects.  His disgrace in the cabin only confirmed the good-will of the democracy of the forecastle; and they not only treated him in the most friendly manner, but looked up to him with the utmost deference, besides laughing heartily at all his jokes.” (363)

The only resistance that has any real effect on the men is “opting out.”  Which is why it was so commonly used in the South Seas.  It was not a final solution.  For most, the best they could hope was a better captain in the future, but it was effective for creating  a zone of freedom in an otherwise hierarchical and oppressive environment.  The effectiveness of the “temporary autonomous zone” of sailor desertion is fully developed in the second half of the novel as Typee and Long Ghost seek out a permanent freedom.

The mutinous sailors are eventually sent to a jail with the help of the local French authorities and the English consul.  Believe it or not, the jail is an improvement from the Julia in many ways.  They are more well freed and enjoy considerable freedom during the day.  They can make full use of the citrus orchards.  When the Julia leaves the mutineers behind, they decide to stay for the time being in the jail, which offers more freedoms and security than the ship.

At the half-way point in the narrative, the sailors have achieved some successes.  Through desertion and resistance, they escaped the regimen of Jermin and the incompetence of Captain Guy.  At no point were their actions driven by ideological concerns.  They simply found themselves in a precarious, unsettling, or demeaning position and asserted their natural desire for liberty.  Perhaps the choice of many of us to desert, which might be mistaken by employers, the government, parents, or friends are rootlessness, recklessness, or vagrancy, is our way of unknowingly creating temporary spaces of individual freedom in an economic system that demands service.