Finding Bliss in Every Atom
Guest post by Jeffrey Wald.
Perhaps a 550-page unfinished novel about the mundane lives of IRS agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, does not exactly excite your curiosity, or induce you to begin reading said unfinished novel. But what if I told you that this work held the key to unlocking a famous 15-page short story by one of America’s greatest fiction writers? All in?! Maybe not. Nevertheless, I believe that David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published The Pale King, or at least what he was trying to do with the book, provides an extraordinary lens into the life and death of one Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville’s famous short story.
After Wallace’s death, a typed note was found in his papers that laid out The Pale King’s idea:
Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.
What an extraordinary impetus for a novel! Now, Wallace is not writing from a place of systematic religious thought. His philosophy of boredom is not exactly St. Teresa of Avila’s seven mansions. However, he has hit on a Christian principle made famous by such modern saints as Therese of Lisieux and Josemaria Escriva: the sanctity of the ordinary; finding joy in everydayness. Perhaps Wallace’s insight is a secular “Little Way”; seeking and finding transcendence in the day-to-day realities of contemporary life that can seem static, ugly, and mundane. If tax returns are a gateway to the transcendent, life’s looking up! At the heart of Wallace’s secular “Little Way” is gratitude “at the gift of being alive.” An existential joy and wonder at being that at times seems so absent from our contemporary situation.
Which leads us to one Bartleby the scrivener (whatever you think of Melville the fiction writer, you must admit he had a knack for names: Ishmael, Ahab, Queequeb, Claggart, and Bartleby just to name a few). Bartleby’s tale is well-known: he takes a job for an attorney as a scrivener and at first completes his work marvelously (albeit “silently, palely, and mechanically”) working day and night copying legal texts; but bit by bit he refuses to work, always declining with the drab “I would prefer not to.” Eventually, he declines all work, declines to vacate his employer’s premises, and spends his days looking at a wall. His employer pities him, seeing that he appeared “absolutely alone in the universe,” and lets him remain in the office, unemployed, for a time, but then even his pity is spent and Bartleby is taken to the “Tombs” (aka the city jail). Bartleby dies in the Tombs, presumably from physical weakness (“I prefer not to dine today” he tells his jailers), “strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones.” This is a bleak ending, even for Melville.
What happened to Bartleby? What went wrong? Why did he literally curl up and die? There are a number of contending reasons: perhaps the sheer boredom and monotony of his job did him in (I often feared this might happen to me while working as an associate at a large law firm doing doc review); or his lack of human connection and friendship; or maybe he is the first postmodern American literary character, crippled by the sheer number of life’s choices, and thus he turns to a sort of robotic non-choice (“I would prefer not to”).
While all of these realities may have contributed to Bartleby’s demise, Melville keys us into Bartleby’s existential despair at the very end of the story when we first learn something of Bartleby’s life prior to coming to the law office. We learn that formerly Bartleby worked in a Dead Letter Office, sorting and burning letters meant for folks who have died. For hours a day Bartleby was confronted with his own mortality. One day, he too would be in the grave, just like the intended recipients of those hundreds upon thousands of dead letters he handled every day. “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity” Melville concludes, evincing Bartleby’s own hopelessness when faced with the certainty of his death.
Bartleby’s existential despair, thus, was not simply the result of a boring job, or lack of human connection, or even some mental health condition, but rather the inability to peer into existence and come out alive on the other end. For Bartleby, life meant death, and death meant nothingness. The end. But Wallace’s IRS examiners? For them, bliss is possible, joy is attainable, and life does have meaning at the moment of “gratitude at the gift of being alive.” And what does this gratitude necessitate? Transcendence. For only by looking outside oneself (for who is responsible for one’s own existence? Who self-creates? If life is a “gift,” must there not be a giver?), can one find transcendence and in transcendence meaning and in meaning motivation to not only survive but to blissfully live.
Jeffrey Wald is a prosecutor who lives and works in the Twin Cities. His postmodern epic “The Boy Who Turned Into A Troll” received favorable reviews from his children, but a tepid review from his wife.