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Janine Dove-Rumé
Michel Naumann
Tri Tran

I. Langue et critique

The Bartleby Experience: Literary Alterity or the Expression of the Inexpressible

Wendy Harding et Jacky Martin


Most available conceptualizations of otherness bring us back to the already known, even if, by definition, alterity cannot be expressed in language. In this essay we explore the problem of identifying and addressing literary alterity, using as examples Melville’s enigmatic short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and its sequel, Jack Gilbert’s poem, “Bartleby at the Wall.” Our critical approach is inspired by (rather than modeled on) the work of Emmanuel Lévinas, who defines alterity in terms not of a concept but of a relation between the self and the other discernible only through its effects. Since alterity cannot be represented per se, it can only be pointed to in and through a specific complex that we call the othering situation. This involves a triangular relation of three correlated terms: the sense of something unknown, the exposure of the subject, and the trace. This critical paradigm allows critics both to elucidate the named of their culture and to explore the unnamable.

Texte intégral

1In our research on American literature we have been increasingly attracted to literary texts that intrigue us with their complexity, their strangeness, and their resistance to available strategies of interpretation. The texts that most effectively hold our attention contain elements that are not readily assimilated in terms of that which we already know and understand. They are characterized by disruptions, non-sequiturs, dead-ends, contradictions, gaps, or puzzling excrescences; in other words, they seem continually to challenge interpretation by referring to alternative, unidentifiable codes. Hence, in order to explicate what we might term expressions of alterity, we have had to seek new critical concepts, not in order to make sense of them, but to make room for their existence. This paper will describe our quest to address literary alterity, explaining both its dead ends and its potentialities.

  • 1 Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin, A World of Difference: An Inter-cultural Study of Toni Morrison’s N (...)
  • 2 Among those who have explored this concept in interesting ways are the French West-Indian writers G (...)
  • 3 Jack Gilbert, “Bartleby at the Wall,” Monolithes: poems 1962 and 1982, New York: Knopf, 1982, p. 29 (...)

2Our interest in literary alterity began with our study of Toni Morrison, published in 1994.1 At that time, we speculated that the zones of obscurity or undecidability in Morrison’s work were produced by the interference between dominant and subaltern modes of expression. What we then named the “cultural interface” has since been approached through the concept of hybridity or métissage,2 in which complex literary productions are engendered by the overlapping of various literary and cultural factors in intermediary zones produced by cultures in contact. Nonetheless, this explanation does not account for the existence of similar phenomena in the works of American writers who do not claim any particular ethnic or racial identity. Consider, for example, Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The enigma of the title character has produced countless attempts at interpretation, which taken together complicate rather than solve the mystery of Bartleby. We shall return to Melville’s text later on in our discussion, but we shall mainly explore literary alterity through a reading of a poem inspired by Melville, Jack Gilbert’s “Bartleby at the Wall.”3

The wall
is the side of a building.
Maybe seventy-five feet high.
The rope is tied
below the top 5
and hangs down thirty feet.
Just hangs down.
Above the slum lot.
It’s been there a long time.
One part 10
below the middle
is frayed.
I’ve been at this all month.
Trying to see the rope.
The wall. 15
Carefully looking
at the bricks.
Seeing they are
umber and soot
and the color of tongue. 20
Even counting them.
But it’s like Poussin.
Too clear.
The way things aren’t.
So I try not staring. 25
Not grabbing.
Allowing it to come.
But just at the point
where I’d see,
the mind gives a little 30
and I’m already past.
To all this sorrow again.
Considering the skip between wildness
and affection, 35
where everything is.

3We have repeatedly found unsatisfactory the various available categories or concepts that address literary alterity. Formalist aesthetics either dismiss such expressions as irregular and imperfect or explain them away by cleverly identifying the conformity behind apparent deviance. Alternatively, both social criticism and psychoanalysis consider blocks, lapses or irregularities in the continuity of discourse as “symptoms” of underlying strategies of dissimulation, masking, on the social plane, the exercise of power, and on the psychological plane, the aftershock of childhood trauma, and sometimes combinations of both. Yet, it is important to make a clear distinction between “symptoms” that signal the return of the socially or psychologically repressed and the forms of literary expression that interest us. Even though expressions of alterity are bound to be culturally and psychologically inflected, their function should not be restricted to that of disorders motivated by exterior or anterior causes. Rather than “symptoms” they are “indices” pointing to something else or indicating the way to something else. Far from being retrogressive, they are exploratory, expressing (not betraying) a desire to suggest new forms of meaning in flagrant denial of all systems. Though they may be experienced as obstacles to the normal production of sense, they are also openings toward meanings that are inaccessible in language. Finally, we should state at this point that our interest in alterity is not a quest for the mystical or transcendent. We refrain from conceptualizing alterity as something outside human experience; rather we see it as addressing or restoring an experience that cannot be readily placed within the existing system of representation.

4Indeed the various concepts or approaches used to explain literary alterity turn out to be unsatisfactory because they reformulate alterity in terms of the system. Reading literary texts according to these available conceptualizations of otherness brings us back to the already known. Paradoxically in this paradigm of critical activity, critics work to evacuate the very alterity that fascinated them in the first place. Moreover, their explanations tend to direct the critical gaze outside the text toward external conceptual systems (psychological or sociological) that fail to address the specific expressions of alterity in individual texts. Newer aesthetic criteria developed in response to an expanded literary canon, addressing literary creation in terms of social factors such as race, gender or class, initially seemed more promising. Ethnic and gender studies place expressions of alterity within a newly enlarged definition of culture in which African American, or Chicano, or gay, or women writers occupy a place alongside or in opposition to mainstream literary production. Nonetheless, with all of these approaches, writing that may have seemed exotic or foreign when judged by mainstream criteria becomes identifiable when looked at from the correct viewpoint. These new forms of criticism certainly add to our literary understanding by giving new authority to discredited knowledge. They identify such elements as the myths, legends, topoi, and discursive strategies of dominated groups, yet, in so doing, they leave unexplained some of the peculiarities of certain texts.

  • 4 Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans Alphonso Alphonso Lingis. P (...)
  • 5 This heuristic choice does not mean that we do not acknowledge the reader’s responsibility but that (...)

5In our search for a way out of this critical impasse, for a way of addressing this “remainder” that existing critical categories left unexplained, we have looked closely at Emmanuel Lévinas’s discussions of alterity. His philosophical writings attracted us precisely because they define alterity not in terms of a concept but in terms of a relation between the self and the other that becomes discernible only through its effects. For Lévinas, alterity cannot be defined in terms of the self, for it is precisely what calls the subject into question, literally out of himself, and calls him to responsibility. Lévinas insists that the unknown and unknowable necessarily happens outside the sphere in which the Ego is defined and confined, in a space of “exteriority” (the subtitle of Totality and Infinity4), which coexists with the ego’s conception of totality. We have borrowed certain notions from Lévinas, leaving aside the philosophy in which they are inserted.5 In so doing we have surely betrayed the philosopher’s ideas, but our objectives are not the same. Our concerns are hermeneutic, whereas his are ethical and ontological.

6Besides, Lévinas was, at least in his philosophical pronouncements rather than in his practice of criticism, rather antipathetic to art and literature, which he considered as illusory diversions in the search for the Other. Nonetheless, Lévinas’s concepts offer us instruments of observation that enable us to change the perspective from which Alterity has been conceived so far.

7Of the three concepts that we borrow from Lévinas, the most important is “exposition,” or in English “exposure,” which, more explicitly than the French word, means both revelation and vulnerability. At one point or another we become “exposed” to something outside our sphere of knowledge, something that we cannot place but that claims our attention, something that, in spite its flagrant visibility, we cannot quite “see,” like the wall and rope in Gilbert’s poem. A gap opens up between vision and understanding, a gap that is artificially bridged by the dual meaning of “see” as both perceive and comprehend.

  • 6 “I now recalled all the quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man. I remembered that he never sp (...)

8One of the “quiet mysteries” that the narrator of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” witnesses but never resolves is his strange employee’s habit of gazing for hours at “the dead brick wail” outside his window.6 Bartleby’s avatar in Gilbert’s poem is more explicit about the perplexity that makes him stand “all month” in front of the wall. He indicates the ambivalence of the exposure situation: being exposed is being confronted with something apparent yet indecipherable, or, to put it differently, to discover that absolute clarity, Poussin-like clarification, fails to provoke recognition. Correlatively, this indecipherability of the real results in a defection of the mind that keeps “skipping” or ricocheting off instead of “seeing,” that is apprehending the “thingness” of the rope and wall, their “illéité” (or Itness) in Levinas’s language. However, where Melville’s Bartleby stands silent before the wall, Gilbert’s tries to describe its contradictions. Whereas Melville’s Bartleby’s eyes are described as “dull and glazed,” Gilbert’s strains “to see/the rope./The wall.” In taking up this dimension of Melville’s story, Gilbert represents the call to responsibility inherent in exposure. Exposure demands a response. This is what Gilbert’s Bartleby attempts to give and what Melville’s character declines to accomplish.

  • 7 Melville, p. 29.

9A second Lévinassian concept, the duality between “Saying” and “Said,” or between the experience of alterity and the account of that experience, can help us further explore the difference between the two texts. Indeed, Gilbert’s poem appears to be an expansion of the Bartleby experience. Melville’s narrator states that Bartleby “never spoke but to answer.” His repeated answer is of course, “I would prefer not to,” most obviously interpreted as an unwillingness to participate in the business world around him but that can also be read as a refusal to say what absorbs him in his “dead-wall reveries.”7 Melville’s narrator is left to try to unravel the resulting enigma. Gilbert’s Bartleby is more explicit. While Melville’s Bartleby remains silent or bears witness only through his hieratic immobility, through the transformation of his body into a puzzling signifier, the speaker in the poem testifies about his experience. Gilbert’s poem can be seen, then, as a makeshift attempt to give an account of Bartleby’s exposure.

  • 8 Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby, ou la formule,” Critique et Clinique. Paris: Minuit 105: 89-114.

10In Melville’s transformation of Bartleby into a sign there seems to be a telescoping of an experience and its transcription. Perhaps the transformation is even more complete, as Deleuze appears to be suggesting in his reading of Bartleby: “Et les hypocondres sont le Exclus de la raison, sans qu’on puisse savoir ce qu’elle peut leur donner, l’indiscernable, l’innommable avec lequel ils pourront se confondre.”8 (105). Is it possible to envisage that Melville’s Bartleby eventually is changed (“confondu”)-for everyone to see-into the alterity that he has been confronting? He would be in turn exposed, then inscribed as a sign and eventually changed into alterity It-self. That same alterity would be also embedded in his verbal expression as the anaphoric gap that follows the “to” in “I would prefer not to” representing at the same time a void and a multiplicity of possibilities in keeping with his interlocutor’s expectations.

11Though Gilbert’s poem tries to articulate the experience, there is a glaring misfit between the speaker’s experience and his account of it. In “Bartleby at the Wall,” the Saying the Said do not correspond at two levels:

  • First, the description of Bartleby’s thinking process alternates various modes of mental appropriation (“staring” or “grabbing,”) with inattention (“skipping”). The exposure to alterity seems inaccessible or vaguely perceptible as something that clarity conceals or that can be situated somewhere “between” the mind’s vagaries, as what the mind inevitably passes over. The Saying is always “already past,” skipped over in the Said.

  • Nonetheless, on a different level, the poem suggests what the speaker is trying to articulate through its texture and form. Although the Saying or the experience of alterity cannot be stabilized in an enunciation, the poem still gives us a clue as to its possible accessibility. The Saying is simulated or inscribed in the text’s disjunctive montage of sequential discourse and fragmented sentences and open-ended lines.

12The poem becomes a “trace”— the third concept that we borrow from Lévinas—relaying Bartleby’s experience. In this it can be compared to the rope and wall that are the point of departure of Bartleby’s exposure. The trace offers the only means of reconstructing the experience of alterity, which, by definition, escapes language. Bartleby’s muteness in Melville’s story means that he becomes the trace of an encounter with alterity. The peculiar scrivener becomes a conundrum that the narrator struggles and fails to explain. On the other hand, Gilbert’s poem creates a pathway that readers can attempt to follow. Our attention is drawn to several features of the scene it describes:

  • The rope and wall are connected; they appear complementary and indissociable.

  • Though their juxtaposition may seem obvious, they are endowed with certain anomalous features. The rope is too short to span the wall, and is inexplicably frayed “below the middle.” The wall is made of bricks that are “umber and soot/and the color of tongue.”

  • The wall and rope are prominent and individualized, yet they are also placed within (perhaps occulting) an identifiable world whose features are vaguely sketched through the mention of “a building” and “the slum lot.”

  • 9 Emmanuel Lévinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-dela de l’essence. [Paris: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978] Rpr. P (...)

13The contradictory features of the scene described in the poem are characteristic of the trace; they are so glaring that they can only be suggestive of another reality that is effaced in the act of naming, or to borrow a phrase from Levinas, “Le dit montre, mais trahit (mais en trahissant montre!)...”9 The trace is both familiar and illegible; it is both explicit and dissimulative. It is the vestigial marker that allows us to try to recapture the speaker’s meditation and to reconstruct his experience.

14Gilbert’s wall and rope iconize the limits and the insufficiency of the cultural system in which we are immersed and which contains us. The wall, among other things, figures the enclosure of the system, while the rope simulates the weakness and the fallacy of the means that are available to escape from it. Although this poem illustrates the ambiguity of the trace, showing this far from exhausts the text s content. At the center of its exploration of the unspoken experience of Melville’s Bartleby is the desire to make room for another form of signifying experience beyond the limits of the Cartesian universe. It is not an incursion into esotericism or Zen meditation but a foray into what Lévinas calls “Knowing” in opposition to “Knowledge.” Above all the poem explores the complementary nature of these two modes of understanding. Cartesian rationality is not to be seen as diametrically opposed to the othering experience; instead, they are both correlated. The simultaneous evocation of the known and unknown that the trace permits creates a passageway between the two realms. For example, in this particular poem, as in Melville’s short story, it would be unwise to underestimate the social content referring to the disconnection between the world of the privileged and that of the dispossessed, yet it would also be wrong to overemphasize it. Mirroring Melville’s narrator’s uncertain pursuit of understanding, Gilbert’s speaker describes an inconclusive ontological quest to find that place “where everything is,” that would correlate the various binaries of our conceptualizations. This quest to find a form of continuity beyond walls and ropes, to discover what lies “between” known categories, is perhaps the expression of nostalgia for what is lost to the subject living in language.

  • 10 This punning phrase suggests both “The word which expresses the most is inexpressible,” and “The mo (...)

15By definition, alterity cannot be expressed in language. Here we can remember Edgar Morin’s linguistic paradox: “Le mot qui exprime le plus est le mot inexprimable”10. But although alterity cannot be expressed conceptually, the situation in which it is experienced can be described. To do so, we postulate what we have called the “othering experience,” which is a triangular relationship involving three terms co-defining one another. At one point of the triangle is alterity, at another is the exposure to alterity, and at the third, the trace of alterity. None of these entities can be conceived in isolation or independently from the other two. There is no such thing as an absolute concept of alterity. Neither is there a perception of alterity without the experience of a subject exposed to it or the existence of a trace bearing witness to its presence. Alterity is not a concept it is a relationship, time-and context-bound, never fixed, but constantly reenacted in the creative act.

16From this central insight we have drawn a set of heuristic hypotheses. The first is that alterity is not unknowable because it refers to a knowledge that is withdrawn, as in a riddle, or transcendent, as in Lévinas, or deferred, as in Derrida. It is unknowable because of the knowledge that we have accumulated. That is the paradox of alterity. The known is only known because it evacuates the irreducible strangeness of reality. Signifying does not eliminate the inexpressible; it generates it. Thus, the unknowable is built into the cultural system, just as a building creates the space around it. Alterity in literature is not the inevitable dross engendered by the refining process of signification, it is the sense that something has been excluded in the very process of giving coherence and consistency to our knowledge. That sense sometimes resurfaces and impinges upon the known, as in Gilbert’s poem.

17Our second hypothesis follows from the first. Since alterity does not exist per se, it can only be experienced in and through a specific situation that we call the othering situation. The othering situation involves simultaneously the three correlated terms of the triangle observable in the Bartleby complex: the sense of something unknown, the exposure of the subject, and the trace (it could be textual, but also visual, or cinematographic) that remains of his experience.

  • 11 Deleuze, p. 105.

18A third working hypothesis is that the text as trace consists of both the signified (referring to already existing notions) and a kind of relic or index that can only be seen in terms of alterity. Literary texts can be characterized in terms of how they balance these two components. Most texts systematically attempt to exclude alterity, but that exclusion leaves traces in their texture. This is the strategy Melville employs so brilliantly in transforming his main character into a figure of what Deleuze calls the unspeakable or “innommable”11 and having his rational narrator tell Bartleby’s irrational story. Other texts, like Gilbert’s poem, make themselves more permeable to the inexpressible.

19Our fourth hypothesis places critics in a similar othering situation where the text itself becomes an encounter with alterity, like the rope and wall in the poem. On the one hand, it contains familiar, less familiar, and concealed meanings that we can elucidate with our critical tools. On the other hand, we should also be prepared to confront the text as a trace of an encounter with the inexpressible. What is required of us is both elucidation of the knowable and exploration of the enigmatic.

20Finally, we see Gilbert both as a reader of Melville and as a guide to our critical activity. “Bartleby at the Wall” imagines and explicates something that could be inherent in Bartleby’s exposure and also gives an image of what the critical situation might be. Gilbert makes the alterity in Melville’s text more evident, attempting to focus the gaze on the very strangeness Melville’s narrator tries to explain away. So the critic’s role is not just to say what is there, but also to suggest what has been excluded. Critical activity would be located on the boundaries between the expressed and the inexpressible, since all texts are defined on both sides of the barrier, even the most willfully explicit. In imitation of the othering situation, the art of criticism would be a mixture of elucidation and discovery in which critics explore the named of their culture and, at the same time, expose the unnamable that clamors for attention.


1 Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin, A World of Difference: An Inter-cultural Study of Toni Morrison’s Novels. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1994.

2 Among those who have explored this concept in interesting ways are the French West-Indian writers Glissant and Chamoiseau, the Chicana author Gloria Anzaldua, as well as post-colonical critics, like Homi Bhaba, and the anthropologist Laplantine in association with the philosopher Nouss. See Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestizo. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987; Homi K. Bhabha, “DissemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation,” Nation and Narration, London, New York: Routledge, 1990; Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989; Francois Laplantine and Alexis Nouss, Métissages de Arcimboldo à Zombi. Paris: Pauvert, 2001.

3 Jack Gilbert, “Bartleby at the Wall,” Monolithes: poems 1962 and 1982, New York: Knopf, 1982, p. 29-30. Since this edition is now out of print, we include the text of the poem here.

4 Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans Alphonso Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

5 This heuristic choice does not mean that we do not acknowledge the reader’s responsibility but that we see the hermeneutic enquiry as the essential preliminary for this inevitable extension of the reading experience.

6 “I now recalled all the quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man. I remembered that he never spoke but to answer; that though at intervals he had considerable time to himself, yet I had never seen him reading-no, not even a newspaper; that for long periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall....”, Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” The Piazza Tales. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1987, p. 28.

7 Melville, p. 29.

8 Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby, ou la formule,” Critique et Clinique. Paris: Minuit 105: 89-114.

9 Emmanuel Lévinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-dela de l’essence. [Paris: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978] Rpr. Paris: Livre de Poche, 113.

10 This punning phrase suggests both “The word which expresses the most is inexpressible,” and “The most expressive word is the word inexpressible.” Or again “The most expressive word is an inexpressible word.” Edgar Morin, Le vif du sujet Paris: Seuil, 1969, p. 313.

11 Deleuze, p. 105.


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