Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 2 of 2)

In my previous post I began to discuss the wonderful short story by Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (You can find it for free online, on Project Gutenberg.) Following a great many caveats, I suggested that to assume that Bartleby was autistic (had he been a real person living today, that is) is not an outrageous notion. His many eccentricities, as these are noted and interpreted by the (neurotypical) narrator, seem to indicate a neurological-developmental difference in Bartleby; one that today would very likely be deemed an autism spectrum condition.

Also in that post (oh just go ahead and read it, it’s not very long), I mentioned the claim that Melville himself may very well have had the traits that would qualify him for an autism diagnosis today. If that is indeed the case, then Bartleby is essentially a story of an autistic person, told by a neurotypical narrator, who is in turn written by an autistic author. It is autism seen from the eyes of neurotypicality as seen through the eyes of an autistic person. This makes for a fascinating focus for a blog on autism from a social anthropology perspective; a perspective that emphasizes social relationships and social dynamics, as well as the different points of view that people from various social, cultural and – yes – neurological groups have on themselves and of others.

So let’s begin. Finally.

Possibly the most prominent theme in Bartleby is the lawyer’s/narrator’s constant and ongoing struggle to understand Bartleby. Initially merely feeling perplexed and baffled by Bartleby’s determined yet polite refusal to adhere to his boss’s requests (“I would prefer not to”), the lawyer realizes that this is not done as a provocation; it is not an act of impertinence or disrespect. This realization makes it easier for him to excuse Bartleby’s disobedience. But he still doesn’t understand why Bartleby refuses. Choosing to make no further assumptions without compelling evidence (very anthropological of him), he decides the best course of action would be to simply ask Bartleby. Surely, if the scrivener has good reasons to refuse to do his job, he shall share them with his employer. But no such luck. “I would prefer not to”, Bartleby once again replies. And again. And again.

This word, “prefer”, which appears in various forms 47 times throughout the story, seems to fascinate Melville as the characters in his tale all take the habit of using it themselves quite frequently.  Not unaware of the massive effect that this single word had on him and his other employees, the lawyer tries to make sense of its gripping influence – but unfortunately, to not real avail. So just to have a bit of fun, I’ll give it a go myself, if you don’t mind: “Prefer” seems to denote a somewhat flexible approach to a matter. A personal inclination that’s not bound by any rule or law. As such, it is seen as more or less contingent; preferences change. But Bartleby’s preference doesn’t change. Ever. Not even when his life is put on the line, and he is imprisoned and at the point of near starvation. Unlike other people’s, Bartleby’s preference is a solid as a rock. Moreover, when someone has a preference, it is expected that there be a reason behind it. “Why do you refuse?” inquires the lawyer. “I would prefer not to”, Bartleby frustratingly repeats himself. Without an apparent reason behind it, and without a prospect of it ever changing, Bartleby’s preference gains almost mystical powers, against which there is nothing the lawyer feels he can do. Had Bartleby simply “refused”, he would have been instantly let go and be over with, as the lawyer himself admits. Had he stated a reason for him preferring “not to”, he may have won his employer’s sympathies, and been allowed to loiter idly in his office to his heart’s content. But he had done neither; thus, unable to fully resent Bartleby or fully accept him, his employer is left in a perpetual state of liminality – suspended between empathy and anger, kindness and cruelty, care and pity, determination and inaction.

There is something very telling about the fact that it is the lawyer, and not Bartleby, who seems to struggle most in this story. It is him who constantly questions and negotiates his own morality, on the basis of his relationship with Bartleby. Bartleby, on his part, is quite serene. He knows who he is and what he wants; and it is the very fact that he is so resolute about this that arouses such extreme and contradictory emotions in the lawyer. With which of his two main characters does Melville sympathize more, I wonder? Hard to say, really. While diametrically opposed in almost every way, both the lawyer and the scrivener are portrayed as generally positive characters. Well if that’s the case, what is the problem? What is the source for all the tension, drama, and ultimate tragedy that occur in the story?  Is it Bartleby’s fault, with his eccentric habits and preferences (which include not doing the job he has come to do)? Not really, no. Melville never seems to suggest it is. So is it the lawyer’s inability to elicit a response from Bartleby? To force an answer? To make him do his job? No, he’d done all that was in his powers, surely, and Melville never implies otherwise. So what is it then? Who’s to blame? Where’s the fault?

I suggested previously that we might assume that Bartleby is autistic. It is an inaccurate assumption, to say the least, but it will do the trick, as it were, to help us understand a very simple – though not nearly adequately known or accepted – truth about autism. Let us imagine that Bartleby represents autistic people as a whole. And that the lawyer represents neurotypical society.

Autistic people are not sufficiently understood by neurotypicals (much like Bartleby is not understood by his boss). That much is more or less a fact. Curiously (or not), there is seldom any doubt among neurotypicals as to the source of this shortage of communication. The question “where’s the fault” is answered so hurriedly in autism research as to hide the fact that the question was ever worth asking. “It is in autistic people!” neurotypical society seems to enthusiastically proclaim: “I don’t understand those people”, they say. “And worse, they don’t seem to understand me! So there must be something wrong with them”. Researchers then go about looking for the specific location and source of this so-called “impairment” – is it in their genes? Is it in their brains? Were they exposed to pollutants? Infections? Abuse?

Damian Milton, an English sociologist, is perhaps the most eloquent author to frame the problem in a very different – and quite more productive – way; a way that is not dissimilar from what appears to have been Melville’s approach to the matter 150 years ago. Yes, neurotypicals don’t always understand the motives, intentions, and behaviours of autistic people, Milton asserts in his excellent article titled “On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’ (2012); But at the same time, autistic people don’t usually understand the motives, intentions, and behaviours of neurotypical people, either. So, here are two groups who regularly fail to communicate successfully between them. What, other than prevailing discourses about normality as well as unequal power dynamics between those deemed “normal” and those deemed “deviant”, would compel anyone to immediately assume that the problem is fixed inside autistic people? This is an entirely false view, Milton argues. The problem is not fixed anywhere; it is simply not specific – It is not bounded within autistic people nor in neurotypical people.  Instead, the problem is relational. The aforementioned communication problem merely lies in the relation between autist and neurotypical; between autism and neurotypicality. Only once we acknowledge this, can we start seeking for solutions.

Milton calls this the Double-Empathy Problem, and he defines it thus:

“The ‘double empathy problem’: a disjuncture in reciprocity between two differently disposed social actors which becomes more marked the wider the disjuncture in dispositional perceptions of the lifeworld – perceived as a breach in the ‘natural attitude’ of what constitutes ‘social reality’ for ‘non-autistic spectrum’ people and yet an everyday and often traumatic experience for ‘autistic people’. (Author’s concept and definition)” (Milton 2012:884)

Quite a handy concept, don’t you think?

I want to make a couple of notes on this. First, mind the part that says “…perceived as a breach in the ‘natural attitude’ of what constitutes ‘social reality’”. That the definition states that the breach is perceived, rather than simply ‘is’, is important.  It conveys an important message – the reality of autism (or “The Ontological Status of Autism”, as the article heading reads) is co-constructed in the social sphere by social actors; it is not static or inevitable, but contingent and fluid. Also note how ‘natural attitude’ is put into scare quotes; it is used almost ironically, I think, to indicate that there is nothing “natural” or permanent about “social reality”; but that it is instead constantly negotiated and changing. At any rate, it is certainly naturalized; namely, it is made to appear natural, but really, it is a social construct if there ever was one! Alas, the tall pile of construction rubble that was left behind is regularly swept clumsily under the rug.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Milton draws our attention to the fact that the double-empathy problem affects autistic people much more frequently, and much more severely, than it does neurotypicals. For NTs, the breaking down of communication with an autistic person is an anomaly, and may be frustrating. For the autistic person, it is everyday life, and it may very well be traumatizing.


Shall we have a quick go at seeing how this approach helps us understand the story a bit better? Yeah, why not.


The story of Bartleby and the lawyer does not occur in a vacuum – though we are given this impression up until the very last couple of pages. Only then, are we made aware of the fact that Bartleby has a history. Before coming to work on Wall-Street as a scrivener, Bartleby had worked at the dead-letter office; an office dedicated to processing broken communications: messages, gifts, and expressions of emotion and intent that never made it to their destination. A beautiful metaphor, this is the sad life story of Bartleby. The lawyer constantly asks the reader for their sympathies; oh, how he struggles to make sense of Bartleby’s seemingly illegible behaviour!  How hard he tries to accept Bartleby, to help him, to save him. Yes, he does. And it is admirable. But let us think of Bartleby. What to his employer was a single frustrating experience, would most likely have been an excruciating recurring theme in Bartley’s entire life. Broken communications, undeliverable messages, intercepted gestures. Time and time again. If he had finally grown weary of futilely trying to be understood, right up to the point of giving up altogether; can we blame him?




Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 1 of 2)

In a previous post, I discussed the claim that autism is a social construction; that in many ways, it is a product of modern society; and that autism hadn’t existed – in fact that it couldn’t have existed – before the diagnostic label known as autism had emerged. This is a somewhat controversial claim of course, and so it should be properly understood before we go any further. First, I should make it clear that the social constructivist perspective to autism does assert that in all likelihood, the various core biological and neurological aspects that are currently associated with as autism have been around since man existed. Yes indeed – there would always have been those people who experienced extreme sensitivity to sensory stimuli; who thought in patterns or pictures rather than in symbolic language; who found social interactions difficult, confusing, uncomfortable, or scary. None of this is new.

So to say that autism hadn’t existed before it was identified is merely meant to acknowledge and emphasize that the institutions associated with this specific label hadn’t yet existed; that the social and cultural ideas, stereotypes, beliefs, expectations and misconceptions regarding autistic people hadn’t yet existed; that relevant therapies and special education programs hadn’t yet existed; and that autism as a source of identity and understanding of one’s self hadn’t yet existed. So in the mid-1800s, for example, you simply couldn’t have been autistic. You might have had all the traits that would qualify you for an autism diagnosis today, for sure, but at the time, these traits would have been ascribed with very different meanings, interpreted differently, and framed differently by both you and others.

But the question arises: how would such a person been labelled back then?

An interesting way to try and approach this question is by asking how present-day autistic people – diagnosed late in life – were seen, labelled, and treated before they received their autism diagnoses. This is a question I often ask my interviewees, and the answers I receive are as interesting as they are varied. For an idea of the sort of answers I’m getting, it’s enough to take a look at this great post by Misplaced Mermaid (awesome blog title, btw – I like the mermaid metaphor better than the alien metaphor, though they’re admittedly quite similar) to appreciate just how many words, labels, categories, titles and adjectives are used to describe someone who for various reasons, just doesn’t quite “fit in” (of course, “doesn’t fit-in” is just another vague sort of label, isn’t it?). This is helpful in trying to imagine how autistic people (or, more accurately, people who today would have been labelled autistic) would have been seen and labelled before the category of autism ever existed.

An important thing to remember is that autism – fluid and dynamic as this category may be – is in fact quite fixed and steady compared to the labels one would have been ascribed with prior to the emergence of this label. Before, a person would have been said to be stupid by one group of people, and brilliant by another; labelled introverted by one, and outspoken by another; deemed crazy in one context, and holy in another. This is why so many people find relief and comfort in being diagnosed with autism later in life – finally they can stop negotiating a thousand different labels – some of which are actually in contradiction to one another – and settle on one single label that is supposed to replace all the others (of course, it doesn’t always fulfill that purpose).

But anyway, I digress. My point is this: claims that various historical figures were autistic need to be taken with a pinch of salt, as they say. They’re never entirely accurate. Sure, it’s an interesting intellectual exercise. And yes, it has very important political implications (namely, that autism can be a valued form of difference rather than a deficit or impairment) as well as research implications (e.g., that vaccines or modern-day pollutants do not cause autism). But given the very different social and cultural contexts in which people of the past lived, autism – as we currently understand and frame it – is just not a relevant category. It is an anachronism. Sort of like saying Jean of Arc was a feminist, or that Julius Caesar was Italian.

Right. Glad that’s over with. This very long introduction was merely a caveat for what this post is actually meant to be about – Herman Melville’s marvelous short story published in 1853: Bartleby the Scrivener.


It was recently mentioned to me that Herman Melville, the American novelist, has been said to be autistic (or that he had Asperger’s syndrome – though given the intrinsically inaccurate nature of both these claims, for the reasons outlined above, this is nitpicking). You can read about this claim here if you’re interested (“Writers on the Spectrum” by Julie Brown). It makes for an interesting read, surely, especially if you have read and loved Moby Dick; there are definitely parts in this novel when even the most enthused reader must stop for a moment and note that the author was really, really, really interested in whales. Like – really.

No, no – this doesn’t prove a thing. In mentioning Melville’s apparent obsession with whales I wasn’t intending anything but to make a humorous anecdote. Nor does Julia Brown’s engagement with Melville’s rigid breakfast habits, late onset of speech, preference to withdraw from the company of others, awkward social demeanor and difficulties with making eye-contact indicate anything but a curiousity… Ok, enough with this cuteness. Let’s face it: If the statements about Melville are correct (and I’ll leave this to be determined by others much more skilled and enthusiastic about this sort of thing than I am), then it’s a safe bet that had he been alive today, he could have safely been said to be autistic. And why not? Melville is certainly a respectable addition to the seemingly ever growing “historical figures with Asperger’s” club. Granted, I personally have no urge or desire to act as a gatekeeper for this club. I’m quite happy to sit in the stands, and quietly sulk over the inaccuracy of it all.


If Melville had indeed had all the traits that today would have indicated an autism spectrum condition, then it is probably not a coincidence that Bartleby the Scrivener, the protagonist of Melville’s story that bears his name, is himself so stereotypically autistic. Except he can’t be stereotypically autistic, because autism hadn’t existed. Which means that the autism stereotype (or rather, in this case, the Asperger’s stereotype) hadn’t existed. So Bartleby is not a stereotype. And yet so many of the traits with which Melville describes him are commonly associated with Asperger’s. Here are a few quotes that I highlighted from the book (page numbers refer to the Kindle edition):

“Meanwhile Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to every thing but his own peculiar business there”. – 178-178

(Bartleby tends to get extremely focused on his work to the point of being oblivious to his surroundings)

“His late remarkable conduct led me to regard his ways narrowly. I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed that he never went any where.” – 179-180

(Bartleby withdraws from society, and avoids social gatherings and interactions)

“He lives, then, on ginger-nuts, thought I; never eats a dinner, properly speaking;” – 183-184

(Bartleby is a picky eater; in fact, he only ever eats this one type of food)

“I had a singular confidence in his honesty. I felt my most precious papers perfectly safe in his hands.” – 224-228

(Bartleby is not inclined to deception or theft)

“He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero, which as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head.” – 299-301

(Bartleby avoids eye-contact)

“”I would prefer to be left alone here,” said Bartleby, as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.” – 321-322

(Bartleby is uncomfortable with his privacy being invaded)

“If he would but have named a single relative or friend, I would instantly have written, and urged their taking the poor fellow away to some convenient retreat. But he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe. A bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic.” – 342-344

(Bartleby is socially isolated)

“Going up stairs to my old haunt, there was Bartleby silently sitting upon the banister at the landing. “What are you doing here, Bartleby?” said I. “Sitting upon the banister,” he mildly replied.” – 481-483

(Bartleby interprets questions literally)

“”No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all.”” 499-500

(Bartleby is resistant to change of any kind)

That’ll do for now, I suppose. In my post about Lars and the Real Girl, I mentioned how pointless it is to try and diagnose a fictional character. That it’s just speculation, anyhow. I still think it is pointless, but I have to admit that when this character was written at a time when autism hadn’t yet existed, and by an author who presumably would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s had he been alive today – then there’s actually something quite interesting (and confusing) about this sort of speculation. Is Bartleby autistic? How would this question even be properly phrased? It would need to be something along the lines of “assuming that Bartleby was an actual person; and assuming he had been alive today; (and assuming he had access to diagnostic services); would he have been diagnosed as autistic?” That’s a lot of ifs. Trying to resolve this intricate matter in any intellectually honest way would take way longer than I intend this post to be (this post in already way longer than I intended it to be). So I shall resolve this question the same way I resolved my query about Lars and the Real Girl – by tossing aside my objections, and simply proposing this: Let’s assume Bartleby was autistic. It will have to do. Sorry if you feel you’ve been cheated out of a long dialectic over the ontological status of cognitively deviant past fictional characters – but let’s just leave that one for another time.

Oh dear. I’m already at over 1600 words and I haven’t even started making my point about Bartleby yet.

Well then… To be continued.

Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 2 of 2)