The genius of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is the psychological reversal that occurs when the sensitive reader realizes that she’s behaving like the lowest class of characters in the story: Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger, the absurd and bitter officemates of the enigmatic protagonist, Bartleby.
Melville evokes an identical frustration in the reader as the one he describes in the story, amongst the furious colleagues of the scrivener who prefers not to. Only Bartleby and the Narrator, who often seems to be none other than Melville himself, escape.
Movies like Officespace and sitcoms like The Office contain a similar genius. We watch the absurdity of our own institutionalized lives before our own eyes, entertaining us, but also, in a not too subtle way, mocking us. We laugh at ourselves.
Most popular stories are built with techniques and literary devices that tie together the fates of the protagonist and the aspirations of the audience. There are better and worse versions of this, from Greece to Hollywood, but there seems to be a generic impulse in the human condition to, at least most of the time, want to associate one’s self with the hero.
Everyone wants to be the good guy, right?
I distrust this platitude, for the most part, because I often have misanthropic sentiments about stories. I feel something for Judas and admire doubting Thomas. I sometimes wonder why, exactly, we cannot pray for the conversion of Satan. (I know about CCC 373, but I still wonder, sometimes.)
On a slightly less controversial note, but for consistent reasons, I find myself rooting for the bad guy or at least empathizing with the villain in films and fiction — sometimes non-fiction, too. It’s not that I like to root against the home team. It is more like the home team, for all obvious and easy attractions, just isn’t very interesting.
In acting roles, we often see a better portrait of the inner life of a great villain. Is it because they suffer in a different and more human way?
I don’t know.
When it comes to the spiritual life, and especially the lives of the saints, things start to get more complicated.
I grew up reading the lives of the saints and believing them deeply in a very naive, but powerful and formative way.
One reason I’ve never been able to feel the slightest attraction to atheism is largely because their stories always strike me as being absolutely foreign. I can’t relate to their characters.
The closest I came was when I read Sartre’s intellectual autobiography, The Words, where he describes his powerful conversion to atheism, in the face of his grandparent’s apathetic (non)belief. The problem there was this: I read Sartre’s loss of faith as a religious experience in itself, so I couldn’t properly understand it as being atheistic in the strict sense.
More recently, Simon Reading’s sympathetic atheistic essay at the Salt Collective, “God in the Mind of a Sad Atheist,” left me feeling the same way I feel when I read Bertrand Russell. I understand the metaphysical distinction (from Pierce or Meinong) between existent and non-existent reals — a distinction that most New Atheists rapaciously ignore nowadays — but Reading’s essay felt uninspired to me. It left me unable to relate to it, besides the obvious philosophical mistake that I understood that he wasn’t making.
My love for William James is built upon his foundational conviction that religious experience and the inner life of the person is the chief and most grave of human concerns and interests. Needless to say — famous last words — I always side with the believers, in some way or another. My doubts remain and wander, and interesting villains are always attractive, but I seem to return to that simple default folklore of the saints and their stories that inform so much of my inner life.
I was floored. Such pure and familiar — but distant and foggy — faith.
Flannery O’Connor, a true believer. A woman who prayed things like this, from a short meditation, by Katherine Faw Morris, at the Paris Review:
“Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.”
For the first time that I can remember, I related, against my own desire not to, with the self-proclaimed (but not snarky) atheist narrator who tries to mend between a therapeutic need for God and her own stubborn, but sensitive, unbelief. Between O’Connor’s recently released Prayer Journal and Morris’s forthcoming Young God, both books I have not read, I wanted to relate to the former, but felt more immediate kinship to the latter.
O’Connor was not uninteresting. Even in the short snippet, she was virtuosic and outrageous.
January 2, 1947: “No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.”
There were no excuses. I was caught. I watched myself become Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger. No longer above it all. No longer a child-like believer. Just an atheist simpatico, in spite of my fierce instincts and assumptions to the contrary. Despite my desire to be like Flannery O’Connor, I was not.
One of the first songs I learned to play on guitar, when I was six or seven years old, was a simple three-chord melody titled, “Worthy is the Lord.” I picked up my guitar and plugged it into a 1940’s tube amp and feathered over a D major and a D suspended. The next day I prayed in a very simple way, a way I had almost forgotten, a way that isn’t as grand as a High Mass or as wise as the canon of Christendom, but a way that is just as important.
I think this was O’Connor’s way; for now, I will aspire to be an O’Connor Catholic.