1. Bartleby, the Scrivener

    September 20, 2017 by Chris Motley

    The idea for “Refusal” as a series, as our first series, originates with “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” In the last five years Bartleby has become a hero for those who resist. During Occupy Wall Street he was emblematic of the desire to disconnect from an oppressive economic culture. The phrase “I would prefer not to” appeared on t-shirts and coffee mugs throughout the hipper quarters of cities around the world. And now “resistance” has become the stance of the moment, and it appears that Bartleby is relevant once again.

    In our culture we protest in cordoned spaces and times, in the anonymous safety of a crowd, or a social media site. We can “speak against” and risk nothing. To proceed in these safe zones, partitioned out beforehand, is to hand over the victory one seeks. When the contestation is absorbed into acceptable modes of expression, the game is lost before it begins. In fact, it becomes a game in a literal sense, in that the moves are prescribed and contained, and only a predetermined array of outcomes is available. Bartleby offers resistance where it counts – in the local circumstances of one’s own life. He says “enough,” and the stakes are instantly revealed. Bartleby’s example is powerful because he reveals that in the American economy (which is indistinguishable now from any other concept of “America”) you – who you are in the realest sense – you are not enough. You do not matter. From top to bottom, from innovation to immigration, only economic value matters. In this light, the sooner we can replace the human being, the better. Bartleby tested this hypothesis, and risked everything in doing so. He discovered that he, like the Hunger Artist, would rather die than participate in his own dehumanization. We, now, receive the invitation to sell out well before we reach this point in our lives. Our comfort grants our survival, but it prohibits transcendence. We are subsumed into the culture and handed only an illusion of freedom. And with the Internet, we are faced constantly with our complicity in real evil. Comfort and complicity, in fact, are of apiece. 

    We are told that survival is enough, and that we should be grateful. This message is reserved especially for the poor, whose humanity is thought of only in material terms. They should feel lucky to be here at all, scum as they are. So the rhetoric goes. As the future seems apocalyptic for more (and more, and more) of us, it appears that we may in fact cling. Our dependence upon our institutions to sustain us will deepen, even as we are sold a narrative of the human experience that is at odds with our nature. The feeling I often have is that there is no way out. 

    We who? I can not think of questions of refusal without thinking of those who wish to no longer be refused, who long to be brought in from the world. The ability for the insider to refuse is a luxury. I have a job that allows me to live in one of the great cities of the world. I receive upwards of four months of paid leave per year. I spend my summers in Europe. And so when I think of my own refusal (when I want to refuse even all this), I imagine myself accused by those who cry out. Bartleby preferred to be cast back out in the name of his own integrity. I can’t do that. You can’t do that. But what can we do? 

  2. The Brothers Karamazov

    September 18, 2017 by Chris Motley

    One can say that the entirety of The Brothers Karamazov can be thought of as a response to Ivan Karamazov’s “rebellion,” which he articulates close to the midway point of the novel. Through Ivan Dostoevsky mounts the most austere accusation against God that he can imagine. Ivan refuses to take part in a cosmic program which allows evil to exist. He imagines a cruel God. He returns his ticket to the heavenly banquet. 

    Ivan’s rebellion is satanic, insofar as we remember the epithet that the Bible ascribes to Satan: he is The Accuser. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer is described in a similar fashion. He accuses God of tyranny, claiming then that it is better to “reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Like Milton’s Lucifer, Ivan rejects God’s plan for creation as intolerable. He conveys his argument to his brother Alyosha, a novice monk, in a series of anecdotes about brutality against children. How could God allow this? Ivan’s prosecution of God pushes Alyosha to an emotional brink. 

    Our culture is filled with this tenor of accusation. The existence, the persistence, of evil is proof that God is an illusion – albeit a historically necessary one – and that the systems of democracy and science will deliver us from barbarity (barbarity which we can perceive in the very religions meant to reveal God to humanity). But Ivan is no atheist. He does not deny the existence of God. Worse, he denounces a real God whom he will expose for his cruelty. 

    Ivan’s is the rhetoric of usurpation. If God can not even protect children, then we will. But the force of his declaration is thrown into startling relief in his legend of the Grand Inquisitor, a story he delivers to Alyosha during this same meeting at the coffee house in which he announces his rebellion. In this story the Inquisitor, the representative of Catholicism, is the usurper. The Church, the Inquisitor proclaims, has replaced God’s gift of freedom with mystery, miracle, and authority, in turn granting humanity the comfort and certainty which it desires more than unbearable freedom. Just as Ivan delivers his rebellion, his accusation, to Alyosha, the Inquisitor delivers his accusation to none other than Jesus Christ, who has returned at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Returned, to do what? To be silent, to be imprisoned, to be condemned, all over again. Jesus receives the Inquisitor’s accusation, and responds with a kiss, which, in some translations, “burns” in the Inquisitor’s heart, and in others, “glows.” 

    It is in this Jesus that many locate the beginning of Dostoevsky’s response to Ivan. It is beautifully ironic – the response begins in Ivan’s own mind. The rest of Ivan’s life will consist of the unraveling of his position; he is turned inside out by the presence of Satan within him, who appears later in the novel as his tormenting double. But I can go no further than to call The Brothers Karamazov a “response,” rather than a solution or answer. In the face of evil, all we can do (and all we must do) is respond. This mode is counter-cultural, insofar as our culture turns on a problem-solution ethic. For Ivan’s Jesus – indeed, for the Jesus of the Gospels – evil will not be solved with a program that plays the binary game that Satan tempts us toward. Rather, we are called to respond to evil with love, by standing with the accused and the victimized, offering a kiss in the face of death. 

  3. Pride and Prejudice

    September 8, 2017 by Chris Motley

    Whom does Jane Austen think she is fooling when she suggests at the end of Pride and Prejudice that happiness will abound in the marriage of Lizzie and Darcy? This novel is beloved for this ending, for the giant “Yes” that assuages the anxiety that had built in the latter half of the novel. There is a cultural craving, then and now, for that Yes-ness, the embrace of something outside and beyond the self that will calm the storm of the future. For someone like Elizabeth Bennet, the future was known. In a metaphysical sense of course we will never know the day nor the hour, but for those lucky enough to have secured survival by way of family wealth, the future contained nothing more or less than the perpetuation of that wealth, via marriage. For a woman in the early nineteenth century, marriage equaled survival. There was no other room for them on the marketplace of human affairs. To be a maiden beyond the age of say thirty was to be cast to the margins of society and, as a consequence, condemned to a life of relative poverty and isolation. The stakes were high. 

    Today of course, women can refuse marriage altogether, and survive. I have two daughters, and my vision of their futures is, I imagine, much different from my father’s vision for my sister, in that marriage and family are not integral to my vision as it was for his. What is integral is freedom and happiness. I do not have to secure relationships with peers (or competitors) that might facilitate a marriage for my children. I do not imagine their educational experience as being in part (in large part) a marketplace for a mate. Their dreams do not have to include weddings, dresses, children, or, worse, “romance.” They shape their own reality. 

    For Lizzie Bennet, to refuse Darcy was also to refuse the program. We see this in her earlier refusal of the ridiculous Mr. Collins. She rejects the formula, the program by which “matches” are made. When she rejects Darcy, she rejects his pride – the presumptuousness that accompanies the matchmaking program. She is able to see outside the illusion, much to the concern of especially her father, who understands all too well the consequences of refusal. He too sees outside the illusion, but what is outside is dark and cold for a woman of his time. Lizzie perceives freedom outside that program, which is worth the risk of refusal. She accepts Darcy, then, on her own terms. We misread her choice, I think, when we focus on romance. The silly girl awakens to love. No, amid the innumerable sequels to this book written by fans around the world, we must imagine a clear-eyed depiction of married life, which for someone like Darcy, includes the distance, coldness, pride, and quiet brutality that accompanies extreme wealth. How is it possible that Lizzie will not fall in as another of Darcy’s acquisitions, as property? When we triangulate this marriage with that of, say, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester (who plunders the Caribbean), we can perceive the ghosts of imperialism and colonialism stalking the hallways of Pemberley. Does Lizzie perceive this aspect of Darcy’s wealth? When the men are off on business, what are they doing? What are the women doing? What must be accepted in the name of “survival”? 

  4. On Refusal

    September 3, 2017 by Chris Motley

    Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago….Evil has always been here. – Teju Cole, “A Time for Refusal”

    The topic of refusal was inspired in part by Teju Cole’s essay titled “A Time for Refusal.” “Refusal” probes deeper than the ubiquitous “Resistance” in that it invites an assessment not only of men and their regimes, all temporary. It also invites an assessment of everything that allows political, social, and moral disaster to transpire. Resistance is easy, an outlet for sanctimonious outrage. Refusal brings enduring requirements, not the least of which is to become, at last, the change we wish to see in the world. The imperative of refusal will remain long after the push for resistance subsides. 

    In Berlin, an artist has stenciled the phrase “Is this the life we really want?” on sidewalks around the city. Implicit in this question, I think, is the deeper one: “Is this the life I really want?” I know few people who would respond to that question with an unqualified “Yes.” But then again, almost everyone I know, even parents, has the luxury to refuse. Refusal is a feature of our comfortable life, which is predicated on flexibility and freedom, or illusions thereof. When we think about what to refuse, however nobly, would that we do so mindful of those who lack luxury of any sort. When addressing this artist’s question, we can therefore ask another question, also raised by Cole: We who? Posing this question can re-orient the parameters of refusal. 

    The characters in these stories do not have the luxury to refuse. Their refusal may cost them their lives, or, more, their souls. We can address these stories asking more questions about refusal. What does Elizabeth Bennet really refuse in her rejection of Mr. Darcy? What “food” would satisfy the Hunger Artist? Do we accept the conditions of creation that Ivan Karamazov so vehemently denounces, conditions predicated (it seems) on violence against innocents? What would Bartleby prefer to do? These questions invite more questions, about ourselves. In refusing, what do we embrace? In denouncing, what do we affirm? In rejecting, what do we accept? In opening a new page, what stories do we tell? The characters in this series have brought the question of refusal to the altar of their true selves. What about you?