Bartleby’s unexpected unwillingness is acknowledged by his boss not just as puzzling but, mainly, as a subversion of the ruling class. A subversion, which ‘contaminates’, literally speaking, the rest of the clerks in the office. But there is more. Later, Bartleby’s boss will discover that Bartleby has occupied his office: he lives, eats and sleeps there. Everything happens there. Moving the office will achieve nothing as Bartleby has no intention of leaving the office’s premises.
Bartleby dies a few months later in a mental asylum, having refused to eat, or speak to anybody.
Blanchot, Littell, Borges, Deleuze are a few of the important writers to have dealt with Bartleby. The motto «I would prefer not to», which Bartleby repeats, did not go unobserved. Why?
We will try to demonstrate the nature of this saying, according to Lacan’s theory of the letter.
Right from his early teaching, Lacan pointed out the double status of the signifier: a) in its symbolic dimension the signifier always refers to another signifier and is determined by the signified as far as its meaning is concerned, b) in its real dimension the signifier refers to the letter and is not a bearer of a message.
We regard the saying “I would prefer not to“, as having such a status. At first glance this phrase could indeed be the bearer of a message of refusal. But insofar as this phrase abolishes the existence of a subject, leading him to death, then the status of this phrase is not so much of the order of meaning and becomes a bearer of the real of jouissance. The subject is registered under this absolute, intransigent signifier which is connected to nothing.
Bartleby’s motto, as Malegreau notes2, clarifies the meaning of the symptom in our era, which is not defined as the bearer of a message, but rather as a necessity which does not ‘cease to be written’, responding to something of the order of the impossible. In Bartleby’s case, the motto «I would prefer not to», are dead letters, letters that never reach their destination.
In what other occasions can we speak about the grammatical dimension of the letter?
A) Fantasy, as Freud puts it in his article A child is being beaten, entails an imaginary status on the one hand and a symbolic one on the other. However, the symbolic status is of a peculiar nature, as the phrase is beyond dialectics. Lacan, in his time, demonstrated that the fantasy is situated on the verge of Das Ding3 and constitutes a way in which the subject enjoys.
B) The sinthome, in Lacan’s final teaching4, does not constitute a message meant for decoding, but rather a somatic event, encapsulating jouissance, the signifier, as well as fantasy in an axiomatic phrase.
C) The objet petit a has not only an imaginary but a symbolic dimension. It has a dimension which touches upon the real, constitutes a hole, and escapes meaning. d divergent interests (breaking Uber or breaking the taxis). This is the most complicated moment. It allows everyone to make his or her own theory of the situation.
D) Psychoanalytic interpretation does not aim at producing meaning, but strives to go beyond meaning. In that sense, there is a poetic dimension to interpretation.
E) This poetic dimension does not classify the psychoanalyst as a poet, but allows him to handle the signifier through its grammatical dimension, the way a poet would: ‘I would prefer not to’, ‘I would prefer not’, ‘I would prefer’, ‘I would…’, ‘I wwwww……..’.
1 In 1832 Melville’s father died leaving his family penniless. Melville had to drop out of school and work for some time as a scrivener in a bank.
2 P. Malengreau, « Bartleby, une monomanie du langage », in Quarto, n° 80-81, Revue de psychanalyse, ACF, Bruxelles.
3 J. Lacan, L’Ethique de la psychanalyse, Paris, Seuil, 1986, σελ. 65-69.
4 J. Lacan, Le Sinthome, Paris, Seuil, 2005.