Unconquered to the Last?
September 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.
Had it only been a gale instead of a calm, gladly would we have charged upon it with our gallant bowsprit, as with a stout lance in rest; but, as with mankind, this serene, passive foe — unresisting and irresistible — lived it out, unconquered to the last. -Melville, White-Jacket
Millhauser’s story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” reminded me of that passage, which had itself reminded me when I first read it of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: the calm “I would prefer not to.” Of course, the ambiguity of Bartleby’s stand is legendary: it’s a very open question whether he died “unconquered to the last,” firm in his refusal, or died a broken automaton, something less than a human being, or somewhere in between. But Melville’s statement about the gale here did first bring to mind Bartleby — whatever he might have meant to Melville, he certainly has taken on heroic stature, or at least a kind of grandeur through boredom.
And Bartleby has stayed on my mind after reading Millhauser’s story. It’s a powerful story, itself like a calm at sea in its implacability and plainness. The only truly unusual rhetorical flash comes from the use of first-person plural in the opening, which dissolves into a somewhat generic singular. And it leaves you with the dual mysteries of what exactly happened to Elaine Coleman — who disappears from her apartment with no trace of abduction or escape — and how we should feel about this disappearance.
The story itself conveys an almost overwhelming sadness, and it is tempting to sympathize with the narrator when he finds himself, and the rest of his community, culpable for her vanishing, and for her apparently lonely existence as a wallflower, by their incuriosity about her. But of course, as with Bartleby, there is another way to see it: perhaps it was a heroic act, this vanishing. Perhaps it was the ultimate expression of Elaine Coleman’s contempt for her degraded world. Perhaps it was not a fate imposed on her by the absence of community interest, but a fate chosen, cultivated, and finally acted upon by someone who would prefer not to be seen. (You could argue that the first-person plural supports this argument, acting as a kind of homogeneous, mundane chorus — “For days we spoke of nothing else” — against which Elaine’s act seems even more radical.)
Ultimately, I think this — and, to a lesser extent, the depiction of Bartleby as tragic hero — is a rather strained interpretation. Both Melville and Millhauser see the need to be serenely, passively “unconquered to the last” as unspeakably sad. Bartleby is something singular: a cipher, but a necessary one, whose stand has a kind of meaning and merit that is made apparent even in the story’s bleakness and the pointlessness of his death. It is possible to legitimately make the argument for Bartleby as a symbol of passive resistance.
Elaine Coleman, on the other hand, is rather like Eleanor Rigby; the story gets much of its strength from her status as a kind of ghost flickering at the edges of the narrator’s vision, as he tries to remember her, incidents he might have shared with her, times he might have engaged her but did not. It is a kind of horror story, but a different kind than “Bartleby”: to me, at least, it feels more personal. There’s something horrifying about the idea of being this kind of marginal figure in even your own story — the kind of person that could vanish for lack of popular interest. I think Millhauser tried very hard to avoid being condescending to his absent creation, Elaine. Later stories in the collection show the author has deep interest in and sympathy for the Elaines of the world. It’s hard to avoid being maudlin about lonely people; hard for many people to understand that loneliness is not necessarily thrust upon everyone who lives alone, or that some people prefer not to be sociable (there’s that phrase again).
(Sidebar: is “Eleanor Rigby” maudlin? I think many people find it so, maybe mostly because there’s the intimation that Eleanor’s a spinster; I don’t know, I still find it more heartbreaking than maudlin. Hard to argue against it being at least a little condescending, though.)