I placed his desk close up to a small side window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light… Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined. – Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener
Critics plumb the depths of Melville’s Bartleby the Scriver looking for the cause of Bartleby’s psychosis. Was Bartleby protesting capitalism, vowing to shrivel and die rather than participate in the market economy? Does he represent the working class? Is he setting up a new social order not to be corrupted? Is he a quitter? Is he crazy? Is he just a literary invention with no reason other than to spurn critics in a guessing game of interpretation that has Melville laughing in his grave? I’ll let the interpretation fall to more rigorous scholars for now. What has haunted me, since I read this for a second time, after graduating and getting a “real job,” is the physical nature of Bartleby’s surroundings. What has haunted me, and what I want to explore, is what Melville seems to instinctively know and plant with malicious intent, yet has no name for yet: the cubicle.
Two years into an office job, sitting in a circle and talking with other graduate students about Bartleby, it hit me that Bartleby’s surroundings were a proto-cubicle. The narrator placed him in this clever contraption that permitted both “privacy and society,” in other words, observation. Bartleby felt both secluded and exposed. He was naked before everyone, yet no one could see him. My mind immediately flashed to the panopticon, that dreary prison concept that sets up a prison in a cylinder with one guard in the middle who can survey all. My mind then flashed to me.
For two years I had been a cubicle dweller. It was a love-hate relationship. Sometimes I could relax, listen to music, and hum away on my computer, working diligently. But however long that lasted, interruption commenced, and suddenly people peered over the walls, walked right into the cubicle, looked over my shoulder. With walls but no doors, the cubicle isolates from sight but not from voice and not from quick observation or interruption. Its qualities of privacy are a facade.
So too are its qualities of society. When I sit down inside those five and-a-half foot walls, the whole world disappears. Community becomes something that needs to be committed to, both with coworkers and the world outside. There will be times when I get up to get coffee, and I realize that it’s been snowing or raining for three hours. Sometimes you don’t talk to anyone meaningfully all day, just sitting in the cube working away. Sometimes you talk to people through the cubicle walls, like Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen in Papillon. It’s actual work to have conversations with people, to participate in face to face society in such a physically open, yet restrictive place. I know people who will call or email from two cubes down, not wanting to make the effort to get up and venture out of their cubicle.
When you grow up you’ll be put in a container called a cubicle. The bleak oppressiveness will warp your spine and destroy your capacity to feel joy. -From Dilbert, March 24, 2004
The cubicle is both cell and kingdom– a place of entrapment and a place to claim as yours alone. Bartleby fits this perfectly, if you’ll allow one bit of interpretation from me: he is trapped in his cube, and refuses to work in reaction to his entrapment, but his stubborn, unyielding mantra “I prefer not to” is a declaration of control from a person who lives in a kingdom of one. Both of these responses, to give up or become a dictator on your six by six plot of dim lit industrial carpet, are not healthy or adequate responses.
We are pushed into thinking of the cubicle as a prison, a place of middle class oppression that slowly destroys our souls. This line of thinking, while it seems correct, is symptomatic of a modern view of work as drudgery or slavery. In essence, it is a poor view of vocation.
Vocation is the establishment of the work of our hands. It is very serious business, and a very serious way of looking at the work we do, whether we paint portraits, take pictures of ninth graders for yearbooks, fill garbage trucks, teach dance, drive a truck or sit in a cubicle. If we feel oppressed, it is often not because of our work but because of how we interpret our work as being inadequate or useless. Martin Luther expressed the doctrine of vocation as our work being “masks of God.” That is very serious business indeed! Work is not trivial when it has a higher calling, to not be drudgery but to be a way of passing love and compassion to others. Our work, probably more than anything else in the day, is our greatest and most powerful way to be neighborly. And who wants to love their neighbor like Bartleby did? Instead, if we choose to put on the doctrine of vocation and push back our dark thoughts concerning our work, we will find a purposefulness, hopefulness and desire to use our work as a way of blessing people and loving them as we love ourselves.
But what about that cubicle? How do we handle it? I don’t know when it hit me, but as I was dwelling one day on the thought that my cubicle might very well be a prison, the thought came to me: why do monks call their rooms cells? Are they in prison as well?
In Cloister Talks, John Sweeney writes:
One of John Cassian’s great affections was for his cella or cell―his little room in the community. As an abbot, he taught his monks to love this tiny enclosed space, like a bird loves its nest or a worm its hole. He learned from his time in the Egyptian desert the saying, “The cell will teach you all you need to know.”
I think the key to unlocking the potential of the cubicle, the non-monastic cell, if you will, is the word community. How often at work do we forget we are in community? Even when we are slammed against the wall of a deadline, deep in thought on a matter of policy or lost in a swarm of emails, we must remember that over that wall is a neighbor, our neighbor. Being neighborly can be tough, as Frost alludes to in the line “good fences make good neighbors.” But part of being a good neighbor, as the monastics teach us, is going on the other side of the fence and sharing in community, loving them as you love yourself. Monks had to deal with this as well, as Sweeney recounts that living in a cloister “there is no escaping the bad qualities of the brother whose cell is next to yours.” The monks may have gripes, but they call each other brother for a reason. Their connection is deep, they are masks of God to one another and treat each other as family. The resolution to the problem of Bartleby then just may well be looking at our work as a vocation much like the monastics do– that in the toil of a studio, office or cubicle is an opportunity to cultivate meaningful community through an understanding of our work as vocation and our presence as a mask of God.