WEEK 13 ALIENATION

Week 13: AlienationWeek 13 (Nov. 11-17): AlienationTwo of the worlds greatest short stories illustrate the profoundly disorienting effects ofalienation. This week we cover Melvilles “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and next week we readKafkas “The Metamorphosis.”Weekly ReadingsMelville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”My lecture on putting the alien in alienationWeekly ActivitiesComplete the assigned readings and post responses to the discussion forum.Begin working on paper #3, due Nov. 30th.Weekly ObjectivesTo realize that isolation may be deeply psychological and may arise not only from factors ofclass, race, and gender but from other causes as wellTo appreciate the poignancy and profundity of Melvilles storyWeek 13 Lecture: AlienationWeek 13 Lecture: AlienationBelow is this weeks lecture, followed by discussion questions.“A Story of Wall Street”And yes, were really putting the alien in alienation!When I originally constructed the ENGL 225 course in the summer of 2008, I didnt know that therewould be an ongoing global financial crisis when we hit the section called “Alienation” that fall. (Iknew a financial crisis was coming sooner or later, probably sooner; I just didnt know when. We arestill feeling the effects of it today.) My ENGL 525 class reads Melvilles “Bartleby, the Scrivener” ina unit entitled “The Absurd,” and obviously absurdity applies just as much as does alienation to ourstories this week and next. Absurd alienation is what the protagonists experience in the Melville andKafka stories, and its what we often experience in our own lives, including when the nations veryfinancial structure has been risked because of plundering plutocrats, fiscal farce, and gauche greed.So there is a darkly humorous coincidence here, especially given that “Bartleby, the Scrivener” issubtitled “A Story of Wall Street.”Dark humor brightens your day in inverted ways.Financial crisis or no, life is full of absurdity and alienation. Hot dogs and buns dont come inpackages with the same number of items. Everything we like is illegal, immoral, or fattening. Youalways hurt the one you love. You often dont fit into whatever situation, job, or role youve beenforced into.Then we have politics, religion, and war. The educational system, ahem. The healthcare system.Aging. Sickening. Dying. I worked in a nursing home some years ago, and suggestions of absurdityand alienation were everywhere. When Ive had coronary attacks, Ive thought, when I could thinkat all, “well, this is ridiculous.” You know the Bob Dylan song “Knocking on Heavens Door,” withits line “that long black cloud is coming down.” Its exactly right. Only my cloud drizzled.If you want scientific Alice in Wonderland, check out quantum physics. For that matter, black holesdont make a lot of sense. The universe is a rather absurd and alienating place, as Douglas Adamsexplored in his “trilogy” (actually five books) making up the series The Hitchhikers Guide to theGalaxy. It sometimes seems as though our national, global, and universal currency is nonsense,which sure can be alienating at times.One reason (or lack of reason) is the sheer messiness of the universe—its refusal to be reduced toneat, irrevocable, dictatorial categories of thought or to succumb to our wishes. Although its often apainful, very painful, messiness, fraught with bafflement and whimpering at 3 a.m., its probablypreferable to the alternative. If theres anything worse than being chased by a hairy Spanish irregularverb (to adopt the ending from Woody Allens “The Kugelmass Episode”), its being pinned to thewall (or Wall Street) by 2 + 2 = 4. At least absurdity, in all its anarchic irregularity, does let usbreathe, or at least occasionally gasp. Even alienation can be refreshing. Sometimes one doesntreally want to be included in the madness going on.Ultimately, perhaps, these are moot points, befitting academia. We play the hand were dealt, even ifits full of jokers that are wild but perhaps of little value. After all, as Hemingway observed, its notwhether you win or lose but how you play the gameand how much the Wall Street bailout is goingto cost you.Herman Melville is regarded as perhaps the greatest American writer of the nineteenth century. Hewas descended from aristocrats on both his mothers and his fathers side, yet his fathers death whenHerman was twelve ended Hermans education (compare Mark Twain) and forced him to work atvarious menial jobs, which must have been frustrating, alienating, and yes, absurd to somebody withHermans background and potential. His father had been an import/export merchant and had oftencrossed the Atlantic on business to England. Herman loved hearing his fathers sea stories, and atnineteen Herman shipped “before the mast” as an apprentice seaman on a merchant ship toLiverpool. Later he embarked on a long whaling voyage to the South Pacific, jumped ship at theMarquesas islands and lived among cannibals for a while, made his way to the Sandwich Islands(Hawaii), shipped aboard a U.S. naval frigate, and eventually returned home, with enough adventuresby age 25 to last a lifetime. He made use of these experiences in a series of popular novels: Typee,Omoo, Redburn, and White-Jacket. His one early foray into a philosophical novel, Mardi, anallegory set in the South Seas, didnt fare so well with the public. In his sixth novel, he wrote hismost profoundly philosophical, symbolic, and eloquent novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851),which deals with questions of existence, ethics, and meaning against the backdrop of a doomedwhaling voyage. (A reasonably good film version of the novel was made in the 1950s, starringGregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Richard Basehart as Ishmael.) The public didnt understand andhence didnt like this novel, nor did the public like his subsequent, darkly psychological novel ofinnocence and guilt: Pierre; or The Ambiguities. These failures discouraged Melville and he turnedto writing shorter works for a while, including the masterful stories “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and“Benito Cereno” (which I teach in my ENGL 296 class). After a cynical, psychological explorationof con artistry and human gullibility in his novel The Confidence-Man, Melville spent the remainingdecades of his life in relative obscurity, writing mostly poetry. Before his death in 1891 hecompleted the novella Billy Budd, a complex tale of irony, ambiguity, satire, and affirmation thatwasnt discovered and published until three decades later, sparking a “Melville revival” that haslasted until this day. Melville is among the most studied of American authors because of hiscomplex symbolism, brooding depths of philosophical and psychological thought, and intensenarrative ability.“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is perhaps Melvilles finest short story. “Bartleby” has social, financial,and political resonance, of course, but it also anticipates, with darkly Dickensian ironic humor, theabsurdity, alienation, and poignancy revealed by existentialism a century later. “There it is,” the storysuggests about futility, despair, death. Yes, there it is. I think about the “No Trespassing” signhanging on the fence surrounding the Kane mansion in Orson Welless cinematic masterpiece CitizenKane. The great and the small, and the nothing at all. I agree with literary critic Martin Scofield that“Bartleby” is one of the worlds greatest short stories, if only for that reason. Besides, its impressiveto agree with somebody like Martin Scofield.to agree with somebody like Martin Scofield.You might think about why Melville chose to narrate his story through this particular first-personnarrator, with his sundry humors, sympathies, and limitations, and what is suggested about thenarrator, his world, and ourselves. And please dont tell me that you would prefer not to!Discussion Questions:1. Why is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” narrated this way? What is the first-person narrator like? Howdoes he influence the way we view Bartleby?2. Why do you think Melville chose to subtitle this story “A Story of Wall Street”? How do wallsfigure actually and symbolically in this narrative? What do they suggest about Bartleby and his life?3. How do you regard the rather Dickensian minor characters in this storyTurkey, Nippers, andGinger Nut? How do they influence the way we look at this story and Bartleby?4. The ending is profound and moving. What might this story be suggesting through this ending?