I prefer not to

I was talking with A. last night about what I call clerk literature – or wastepaper basket literature. I hope she likes this post.

There is a lineage that goes from Lichtenberg’s Scribble book through Lamb, Baudelaire’s Fusées, Rozanov, Pessoa, and – supremely – Kafka, whose request to Brod to burn his papers was, as it were, a request from this history itself, over and above Kafka’s personality. The principle holding this literature together was enunciated by Bartleby – I prefer not to. This is, in the universe of the clerk, equivalent to Lucifer’s non serviam – it ties together the two elements of the scribble and the institution. If we can speak of an institutional consciousness, it is always a consciousness of the system. Jack Goody, in The Domestication of the Savage Mind, notices the importance of the list in all early writing that has been found in the Mesopotamia. Goody divides lists into three types: the list that is a catalogue of names, events and offices, which he calls a ‘retrospective’ list, and which can be thought of as a representation of work-flow; the ‘shopping’ list, or the list that includes expectations and items for future projects; and the lexical list – the proto-dictionary, the list that lists the elements of listing – sounds, letters, numbers. A very important list, according to Goody, in Mesopotamia. All three of these lists are dealt with and syncretized in the clerk’s office – viewing the clerk very broadly as one of the central types of ‘circulation’ worker, as Marx named them. The accountant’s task, for instance, is – for all of its spreadsheet cleverness – directly related to the functions invented in the Mesopotamian bureaucracies.

The clerk’s literature is a form of Western Dao – Bartleby’s phrase operates in this invisible tradition much as certain phrases from the Chuang Tzu operate to bind together the concept of the Dao. “Therefore a man who has wisdom enough to fill one office effectively, good conduct enough to impress one community, virtue enough to please one ruler, or talent enough to be called into service in one state, has the same kind of self-pride as these little creatures [the cicada and the quail who mock the giant flights of monster birds, etc.] Sung Jung-tzu would certainly burst out laughing at such a man. The whole world could praise Sung Jung-tzu and it wouldn’t make him exert himself; the whole would could condemn him and it wouldn’t make him mope.”

Sung Jung-tzu’s laughter, to be sure, is different from Bartleby’s inexpressiveness. But in the line of texts that extend from Lichtenberg to Kafka (and into the pit of which, I think, literature in the age of its de-institutionalization is being inexorably lead), there is a laughter that comes out when, for instance, Kafka read his stories out to his friends. Or in a letter to Felice, when Kafka told his fiancé that he was famous in his office for his laughter [Ich bin sogar als grosser Lacher bekannt] and gave the example of his inability to stop laughing when, one day, the president of the Insurance company made a speech bemoaning the accidents of workers and the trouble this causes for insurance companies. In fact, Kafka coulndn’t help laughing, nor could he even look away and disguise his face when the President made his speech.

Therefore (the phang ascended to) the height of 90,000 lî, and there was such a mass of wind beneath it; thenceforth the accumulation of wind was sufficient. As it seemed to bear the blue sky on its back, and there was nothing to obstruct or arrest its course, it could pursue its way to the South.
A cicada and a little dove laughed at it, saying, 'We make an effort and fly towards an elm or sapanwood tree; and sometimes before we reach it, we can do no more but drop to the ground. Of what use is it for this (creature) to rise 90,000 lî, and make for the South?'


Anonymous said…
Roger, thanks for this. I have not much of a comment in response, except that it made me smile and even laugh, something I seem to have lost for the last few months - and precisely while also provoked to think. I have to read the Chuang Tzu which I do not know.
If the cicada and little dove can laugh at the phang ascending to such heights, isn't it because they too have tried to fly, have a sense of the wind and of trying to reach a destination? Through a wind that is not beneath them or at their back, but in their face and inconstant. To try and fly in the absence of wind is really laughable, no one would try that or would they!
I hope your friend A. liked your post! I'm writing this comment while thinking of a friend of ours, who I know your post would have made smile, and as if under her dictation, not her words but her laughter.