Writing and the Law: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1993)


The law demands that something be unspeakable, beyond the grasp of language. But law itself cannot be grasped. The discourse of the law (say, the law of kinship, the Mosaic Law, or the law of language) is interrupted insofar as the law is not understood. While no one is taken to be ignorant of the law, no one can grasp it in its entirety; no one, even one who is very learned, has a complete vision of what it is in the totality of the law that has a hold over her/him. Lacan seeks to illustrate this feature of law with a parable drawn from a “small pornographic work” by Raymond Queneau.[1] A young female office worker, a typist who “gets caught up in the Irish revolution and some very scabrous misadventures,” and winds up locked inside the public toilets where the disturbance of order in Dublin leads her to conclude that “if the King of England is an idiot, then everything is permitted.” However, it is very important that “one shouldn’t say that the King of England is an idiot, under pain of having one’s head cut off, one will not say it, and in consequence of this sole fact, one will be led into not saying a great many other things – that is to say, everything which reveals the glaring reality that the Kind of England is an idiot.” The explicit prohibition of the law implicitly prohibits a massive range of discourse, anything which may put into question the phallic majesty of the monarch, or we might say, the phallus itself.

It follows then that everything in the discourse which is of a piece with this reality, that the King of England is an idiot, is put in suspense. The subject is caught up in the necessity of having to eliminate, to extract from the discourse everything pertaining to what the law forbids one to say. Now, this interdiction as such is not at all understood. At the level of reality, no one can understand why one would have one’s head cut off for saying this truth, no one grasps where the very fact of the interdiction is located. From then on, one can no longer suppose that someone who says what musn’t be said and has the idea that everything is permitted will be able purely and simply to annul the law as such.

It is imagined by the typist in the toilets that if the King of England is an idiot (that is to say, if this proposition is utterable, is admitted into discourse), then everything is permitted. But Lacan argues that the prohibition is in fact what permits everything, and were it to be annulled, then nothing would be permitted, and nothing could be said, inasmuch as law is what founds the symbolic order, its annulment would annul the very possibility of speaking; with one’s head cut off, one would have nothing to say. The problem is that while this senseless and violent law founds a discourse which “constitutes,” all by itself, a full universe,” there is at the same time “something irreducibly discordant about it, in every one of its parts.” Thiseverything that the law permits, this “full universe” of discourse, conceals within itself a disturbing disastrous nothing which exposes the blank idiocy of the law and all of its magisterial avatars.” It takes very little, very little at all, being locked up in the toilets,… for the law all of a sudden to appear to you in a lacerating form.” And to leave you with nothing to say.

Having given up copying, the pale motionless unaccountable Bartleby wants nothing to say

In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot discusses Bartleby’s “preference not to” which “has none of the simplicity of a refusal”:

I would prefer not to. This sentence speaks in the intimacy of our nights: negative preference, the negation that effaces preference and is effaced therein: the neutrality of that which is not among the things there are to do – the restraint, the gentleness that cannot be called obstinate, and that outdoes obstinacy with those few words… Language, perpetuating itself, keeps still (145)

It is impossible to communicate with Bartleby. Like Ann Hutchinson (according to Winthrop) he “doth continually say and unsay things.” His responses to the questions of the narrator are irresponsible. Motionless and inert, the cadaverous Bartleby has nothing human in him; cloistered within the law, the law cannot reach him. His language of negative preference is inexhaustibly self-immolating, and it annihilates (without consuming) the law in the calm white burn of its disastrous light. Obstinacy and refusal could be answered by dismissal, but the pale impossibility of negative preference diffuses the power of law, leaves it impotent.

Like the Jew in his devotions, Bartleby’s relation to the law is enacted in proximity to walls. He is subject to “deal-wall reveries,” his employer is of a mind to “mason up his remains in the wall,” at the Tombs he is found with “his face towards a high wall” and later takes up “a position fronting the dead-wall.” It is in Wall Street, in a law office confined between “a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade,” and a “white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft,” that motionless, pallid Bartleby seeks employment. For the narrator, Bartleby in his intractable cadaverous passivity is himself a wall, miming the “emptiness” and “sheer vacancy” of Wall Street on Sunday, “deserted as Petra.” His relation to Bartleby is another (milder, more democratic?) version of Ahab’s to Moby Dick: “To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” (Moby-Dick, XXXVI)


Bartleby is a white man: pallid, pale, ghostlike, an apparition. He is still, nearly immobile, and when giving voice to his negative preference, he does so with “the faintest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth.” Though he is “a fixture” in the office, the narrator cannot fix Bartleby within the clear and distinct categories of the law; the scrivener is precisely indistinct, a clinging amoebic figure without definite borders, like the Lacanian stain (Seminar XI) or Derrida’s ash (see “Envois,” Of Spirit, or Fue la cendre). This indefiniteness is associated with the colour white by Ishmael.

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?… (T)he great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all object, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge – pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us like a leper; and like willful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. (Moby-Dick, XLII)

The blank tinge of Bartleby risks his own annihilation, and threatens to contaminate those around him, to engulf even the law itself. Ishmael’s assertion that it “was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me” is an apt pun: whomever comes near to the appalling whiteness of the passive scrivener is precisely made pale, loses his distinction and definition, and eventually loses the legal premises upon which his identity is built.

Bartleby’s indefinite whiteness is appalling to the law itself, colourlessly colours it, passively giving his own design to his adversary. He is the equally sublime other side of Ahab.

What gives such grandeur to the hunt for Moby Dick is not the madness of Ahab, his lacerating instinct for vengeance, the fascination that he exerts on his crew; it is the enigmatic character that he lends Moby Dick and that transforms his design into an impossible and fatal dream. Moby Dick became for him this half-consumed hero the fundamental obstacle of life, the giant adversary, against which he knew he would shatter but which stood in the way of his existence, the reflection of a dreadful will that haunted him, burned him and which he would only touch in the abyss of his own annihiliation. (Blanchot, Faux Pas, 275-6)

As he inhabits the law, so the law inhabits Bartleby. Having given up copying, having given up any writing that could receive the sanction of the law, he does not eliminate the possibility that he could write somehow beyond that sanction. This blank pitiless beyond, however, is precisely abyssal: its silent and disastrous affirmation, beyond the categories of law, beyond being itself, is death.

Bartleby is a disaster, “a bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic.” Like Pierre, “his soul’s ship foresaw the inevitable rocks, but resolved to sail on, and make a courageous wreck. (Pierre, XXV) Blanchot:

But when we are face to face with things themselves – if we fix upon a face, the corner of a wall – does it not also sometimes happen that we abandon ourselves to what we see? Bereft of power before this presence suddenly strangely mute and passive, are we not at its mercy? Indeed, this can happen, but it happens because the thing we stare at has foundered, sunk into its image, and the image has returned into that deep fund of impotence to which everything reverts. (The Space of Literature, 255)

In abandoning ourselves to what we see, like the image we too are foundered, capsized, sunk: shipwrecked. Shipwreck is the disaster par excellence, lacking what Blanchot calls (in The Writing of the Disaster) “the ruinous purity of destruction” which would eliminate any remainder. Blanchot enhances the nautical aspect of disaster by suggesting that it might mean “being separated from the star… the decline which characterizes disorientation when the link with fortune from on high is cut.” In other words, disaster is the result of being unable to navigate during a risky crossing, being alienated from or incomprehending of the bleak, intractable otherness of Nature, that “excessiveness of uncodifiable law… to which we are destined without being party to it.” Part of repellent necessity of law is that fragmented residue around which we must, but cannot, navigate. Bartleby is himself that residue, those remains; that swarming unaware blasphemous stuff that lacks the grace, decency and fidelity to follow value off the stage, to leave a respectable zero: “like the last column of some ruined temple, he remained standing mute and solitary in the middle of the otherwise deserted room.”

Bartleby is a blank page on which nothing is (could be) written. “I like to be stationary,” he says, and the pun is dramatic. He wants nothing to say, wants the residual nothing secreted within but occluded by the law to have its say: that is, to be written, but in some way other than through legal copying. To write beyond the law, beyond, as Lacan would have it, the phallus, is to die before the law, to remain passively cryptic, to enter its crypt: like an Egyptian king, the “silent man” enters the pyramidical Tombs. “I know where I am,” he says.


“I believe that no materials exist, for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature.” Bartleby’s unaccountability, his unaccountable “preference not to,” is indeed an irreparable loss to literature insofar as literature is subject to law. His desire for nothing to say is a scandal to this subjection, and turns the law into mere inert substance, a pillar of salt.

Unaccountability notwithstanding, the narrator, leaving “the meager recital of poor Bartleby’s interment” to the reader’s imagination, supplies “one little item of rumour,” a “vague report” that is “not without a certain suggestive interest to me.” Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead letter Office:

Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annual burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring – the finger it was meant for, perhaps molders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping, good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

“At Washington,” the law seeks to annihilate the errancy of writing, the deathly residua in language, with the scrivener as its legal agent. “Predestinated,” these letters never reach their destination; always belated, they are “posted” by the Post. But Bartleby consigns writing to the cool white flame of his utter burn” (Blanchot’s translation of holocaust) where it is preserved in its annihilation in an abyss beyond the law.

♦       …we approach the night without darkness. This is the irreducible – the incompatible that which is not compatible with humanity… Human weakness, which even frailty does not disclose, betrays us since we belong, at each instant, to the immemorial past of our death – by virtue of being indestructible because always and infinitely destroyed. The infinity of our destruction, this is the measure of passivity. (Blanchot, “Discours sur la patience” 42)

Bartleby’s passivity.



Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice “Discours su la patience (en marges des livres d’Emmanuel Levinas)” Le Nouveau Commerce 30-31 (1975)

Blanchot, Maurice Faux Pas Paris: Gallimard, 1971

Blanchot, Maurice The Space of Literature (tr. Ann Smock) Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982

Blanchot, Maurice The Writing of the Disaster (tr. Ann Smock) Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

Lacan, Jacques The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II: The ego in Freud’s theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis, 1954-55 (tr. Sylvana Tomaselli) New York: Norton, 1988



[1] This discussion is to be found in Lacan’s Seminar, Book II: The go in Freud’s theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis. See pages 127-130.