By Enrique Vila-Matas
In Bartleby & Co., an tremendously stress-free novel, Enrique Vila-Matas tackles the topic of silence in literature: the writers and non-writers who, just like the scrivener Bartleby of the Herman Melville tale, in solution to any query or call for, replies: "I would like no longer to." Addressing such "artists of refusal" as Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Duchamp, Herman Melville, and J. D. Salinger, Bartleby & Co. might be defined as a meditation: a strolling travel during the annals of literature. Written as a sequence of footnotes (a non-work itself), Bartleby embarks on such questions as why will we write, why will we exist? the reply lies within the novel itself: informed from the viewpoint of a airtight hunchback who has no good fortune with ladies, and is himself not able to jot down, Bartleby is totally attractive, a piece of profound and philosophical attractiveness.
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It is only the reader’s limiting expectation that this book is for a child audience alone, and hence should be void of sexual content, that privileges the more respectable interpretation. 40 Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake On the next page, according to the verbal text, the Captain decides to return to the pink island: “The Yellow Creature must have understood for he got very excited” (CS, 36). Again the picture subverts the words, this time towards masturbation as well as exhibitionism, and the reader is implicated as voyeur.
Along with oral and anal implications, the whale picture hints at sexual pleasures and anxieties to do with the penis. The whale’s tail, missing its tip, is not represented as bloodily mutilated but as phallic, with a slightly wrinkled gigantic foreskin revealing the smooth glans (much like the Captain’s “leg” in the illustration discussed previously). From the smile on the whale’s face and its bright eye, it can be read as a cheerful masochist, unperturbed by all the foreshadowings of its destiny as dinner.
48 In this book I always formulate “symbolic” as “symbolic order” when a Lacanian or Kristevan meaning applies. Otherwise, “symbolic”, “symbol” and “symbolise” are used in a more Jungian sense, one that does not neutralise the signifier and sets no limits on its significations: The more archaic and “deeper”, that is the more physiological, the symbol is, the more collective or universal, the more “material” it is. The more abstract, differentiated, and specific it is, and the more its nature approximates to conscious uniqueness and individuality, the more it sloughs off its universal character.