Both were inspired by the holiday of the week, of course.
Last year, I taught a college class on Valentine’s Day, and one of my students brought me a Hello Kitty Valentine. This year, I was at home all day; I wrote an exam, and read up on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street.”
I don’t like that story. I can appreciate it, in a way, but I don’t like it. I remember reading it in highschool; revisiting it as a teacher, it has the same effect on me: it leaves me just feeling all hollow. If you haven’t read it, the gist is that Bartleby is a copy clerk in a law office who sits behind a screen beside a window with a view of only a dead wall, and incrementally refuses to work so that eventually he is isn’t doing anything, but he also refuses to leave. His calm refrain is “I would prefer not to.” Eventually, he ends up in prison, and, by preferring not to eat, dies.
It seems many have managed to make Bartleby into a hero of passive resistance against the establishment. (He was likened to the Occupy movement, probably because he and they both occupied Wall Street.) Others — more satisfactorily, in my view — read the Scrivener as a figure of Melville himself, steadfastly and pitifully preferring metaphysical inscrutibilities — and their dead walls — to writing stuff the population at large wanted to read. Melville left the unrecognized Moby Dick behind to make him a name after he was dead. But what legacy does Bartleby leave?
For me, his thinly respectable person stands beside his dead window as a grim warning: I don’t want to live my life preferring not to, and the truth is, I do that a lot. It’s okay to prefer not to do some things; one doesn’t always have to be doing. But to make this negative preference into a lifestyle is hardly healthy.
Fortunately, Melville’s is not the only story. There are others. One in particular.
It is the story by the Author who has loved me with an everlasting love from before the foundation of the world, before the beginning of the story. It is the story of a Father who gave His Son away — though wouldn’t fathers prefer not to? — of a Man who gave His life away — though he might have preferred to keep it.
It’s a story of real, authentic love, which compels me to be loved, even when I would prefer not to, when I’m selfish, when I’m sinful, when I’m stumbling, when I’m sad. It’s the story in which this reader slowly falls in love with that Writer . . . because He first loved me.
So, belatedly, Happy Valentine’s Day, to you.
©2013 by Stacy Nott