Kyrie the Bartleby
On not following the plan and making people crazy
Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street is one of those stories you’re assigned in high school for reasons that remain unclear. At least I was confused as to why I was reading about one obstinate man. Yet, I remembered it better than other assignments. It’s got some ineffable sticky quality. Perhaps it’s one of those tales that applies to any era.
If I might posit one particular reason for why the short story endures, it’s this: There’s something fascinating about a calm, stubborn refusal of the expected production from a highly competent individual. People rely on other others following The Plan, not just for their production but for their own sanity.
Bartleby, the once-essential scrivener whose go-to phrase becomes, of course, “I’d prefer not to,” evokes so many emotions in his elderly lawyer boss, who, “from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” Why is Bartleby making life difficult? To what end? Just who the hell does he think he is? As Melville writes, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.”
The lawyer depends on Bartleby, so the refusal makes him angry, sad, and sympathetic to a youth whose actions appear to be an act of self-harm. Yet the scrivener is simply implacable, with a code that cannot be cracked. Turns out, nothing can be done to stop a man from stopping himself. You can’t cajole and you certainly can’t coerce. To quote one angsty voice from the millennium’s turn, “You better get rid of that nine. It ain't gonna help. What good is it gonna do against a man that strangles himself?”
This season, when I’m watching ESPN and TNT pundits vent about Kyrie’s vaccine refusal and his related absence from Nets home games, I think back to Bartleby. The pundits are obsessed, they’re angry, they’re exasperated. Stephen A. even added “nausea” to the list, saying that Irving made him want to “throw up.” By not following The Plan, the Nets point guard is undermining a lot more than their faith in Brooklyn’s title chances.