How Negativity Prevents Our Surrender to Love

A chapter from The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz.  An extremely absorbing and insightful read. Cheers, Gloucester Library! 

Sarah L. is supposed to go away with her boyfriend for the weekend but, at the last minute, she decides, to stay in with her girlfriends and watch television.  Surprised, they encourage her to think again.  'You had  a fantastic time going away with Alex before,' they tell her.  But Sarah can't be swayed.  'I just don't feel like it,' she says.

Attractive, quick-witted and successful, Sarah began psychoanalysis because she felt stuck - at thirty-five, she was ready for marriage and hoping to start a family.  Over the past few years, she has met a few men whom she considered 'promising,' but none of her relationships has lasted.  She can't say precisely what it is, but she sense that she might be doing something to spoil her chances.

'Why didn't you go?' I ask her.  'He's too keen,' she tells me, without conviction.  'I can only tell you what I told him - "I'd prefer not to."'

Sarah's phrase startles me - it's familiar, but I can't think where it comes from.  Then I remember.  It's the catchphrase of a character from literature: Bartleby the scrivener, the titular character of Herman Melville's short story, first published in 1853.  Melville's protagonist is so odd that it's hard to know exactly what Melville wanted readers to make of him.

The story is narrated by a lawyer, who takes into his Wall Street practice a scrivener, or legal copyist, named Bartleby.  Bartleby works at a small desk hidden behind a screen, his only window looking out on to a brick wall.  Increasingly, Bartleby responds to the lawyer's quite reasonable requests with the words 'I would prefer not to,' eventually refusing to do anything at all.  While the other employees work, eat and drink, Bartleby mutely stares out of his window.  He never leaves the office sand his presence becomes so impossible that the lawyer is forced to move his practice elsewhere.  When the new tenants of his old offices coannot get rid of the haunting Bartleby, the lawyer returns and tries again to help him:
"Bartleby," said I, in the kindest tone I could assume under such exciting circumstances, "will you go home with me now - not to my office, but my dwelling - and remain there till we can conclude upon some convenient arrangement for you at our leisure?  Come, let us start now, right away."
"No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all."

Agitated, the lawyer flees.  The police remove Bartleby to the Halls of Justice, better known as the Tombs.  When the lawyer visits, Bartleby refuses to speak to him or to respond to the lawyer's pleas that he eat something.  Returning several days later, the lawyer finds Bartleby, curled up, facing the base of the prison wall, dead.

Negativity - this 'I would prefer not to state to' state of mind - is our desire to turn away from the world, repudiating normal hungers.  Repeatedly, Bartleby turns away to face the 'brick wall', 'dead wall', 'blank wall', prison wall' - the subtitle of 'Bartleby, the Scrivener' is 'A Story of Wall Street'.  He is surrounded by food - Melville has even named his three co-workers Turkey, Ginger Nut and Nippers (lobster claws), but he refuses to eat, ultimately dying of self-starvation.

The lawyer makes several attempts to coax Bartleby out of his withdrawal, but helping, it turns out, is not so easy.  In fast, the story hints at a dark truth: it is the lawyer's help that causes Bartleby's situation to worsen.

I read 'Bartleby, the Scrivener' as a portrayal of the continuous struggle at the core of our inner world.  In each of us there is a lawyer and a Bartleby.  We all have a cheering voice that says 'let us start now, right away' and an opposing, negative voice that responds, 'I would prefer not to.'  We we are in the grip of negativity, we lose our appetite for human connection.  We become Bartleby and turn those close to us into lawyers.  Unconsciously, we drag others into pleading our case to us.

As an example of this, consider the teenage anorexic and her mother.  In the girls' refusal of food you will hear Bartleby; in her mother's nervous pleading you will hear the lawyer.  Like Bartleby, the anorexic seems to feel no anxiety about her worsening situation.  Her anxiety - which is her motivation for change - has found its way into her mother.  We may be hearing two people speak, but it is not a dialogue they're having - the daughter's internal conflict is being voice by two different people.  In my experience, if this situation persists, if the two continue to act out Bartleby and the lawyer, they will arrive at a similar outcome.

When Sarah told me she had decided not to go away with Alex, I too was tempted to try to persuade her.  Like everyone else, psychoanalysts do get caught in the lawyer's role; our job is to try instead to find a useful question.  Our weapon against negativity is not persuasion, it's understanding.  Why this refusal? Why now?  Alex had done nothing particularly wrong; in fact, over time Sarah had spent getting to know him, Alex had proved thoughtful and trustworthy.  The change was in her.

Consciously, Sarah wanted to meet someone and fall in love, but unconsciously, there was another story.  At this deeper level, love meant losing herself, her work, her friends; it meant being emptied out, neglected and possessed.  Gradually, by recollecting some of her painful early losses, as well as the deep despair she suffered at the end of her first loving relationship, we began to make sense of Sarah's demurrals.  Sarah was involuntarily negative because emotional surrender and attachment represented a loss, not a gain.  Sarah's negativity was a reaction to her position, affectionate feelings for Alex - it was a reaction to the prospect of love.

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