Back in high school, my English class read a Herman Melville short story called “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The narrator, an elderly lawyer, hired Bartleby to help with office tasks in his practice. At first, Bartleby was a willing, eager worker, but then he refused all requests with a simple refrain: “I would prefer not to.” He hung around the office but refused to do any work. The extraordinarily kind lawyer who had hired him tried all kinds of approaches to keep him happy and motivated in some way, but Bartleby eventually spiraled into hopelessness. He died of voluntary starvation in prison, where he landed after becoming homeless and loitering around his old office building, which the lawyer had left because Bartleby insisted on schlumping around there, doing nothing productive.
Bartleby may not sound like much of an inspiration, but his story continues to rivet me. “I would prefer not to,” Bartleby would reply when asked to, say, proofread a document. Well, I don’t blame him one bit! If I wound up working in that office, I would also prefer not to proofread some legal document. I’d rather wander around the city streets surrounding the office, or read something just for fun, or hang out with a friend. But, if that lawyer were paying me, I wouldn’t have the nerve to do what Bartleby did. If I wanted my money, I’d proofread that document. If I couldn’t bring myself to do it, I’d leave the office and try to figure out some other way of making a living, one that didn’t impinge as much on my happiness and freedom.
But Bartleby didn’t want to leave the office. He was comfortable there even though he wouldn’t complete any tasks for his boss. So he tried to stay on his own terms. It didn’t work out for him in the end, but his initial impulse, in its own quirky way, was glorious. Wouldn’t we all prefer not to do all kinds of things that other people expect of us? I sure would.
“I would prefer not to.” Cool, quiet genius. A grand motivator of self-determination and freedom, if only I can dredge up the nerve. This poem is a start:
I would prefer not to engage with money.
Instead, I would prefer to take what I want
Just pluck from the shelf all the things that sing to me:
Cookies, T-shirts, a new Apple laptop with one of those cool touch bars.
A condo, right on New York’s MacDougal Street
Across from my favorite café.
I would prefer to point to the condo and say
“That’s my place. I love it. I’ll move in next week.”
The happiness I would gain from living there
Would be measurable in the clouds
And in the air that begins to dance
And form mystical Frisbees
And signs welcoming me home.
I would prefer to avoid banks, lawyers, and real estate agents.
Who even came up with banks, lawyers, and real estate agents?
What kind of clown ruined everything with ideas like that?
I’m not lazy, and I don’t think Bartleby was either.
It’s just that I would prefer not to work for pay.
Bartleby, old pal and glorious soul, would surely agree.
I would prefer to be productive
With my writing
With my imagination
With helping other people to talk, think, explore
I’d just prefer not to do it
In the ways this world rewards with enough pay
For things like condos on MacDougal Street.
And it’s not just work and money.
Wouldn’t you agree?
I would prefer not to sit at the risky table at the Bar Mitzvah
Even if that’s where people think I belong.
Every second is a shining capsule filled with wonder
If we honor it.
Why risk tarnishing even one moment
With digs, or criticism
Or someone sticking her licked fork onto my plate
Because she doesn’t accept the private plate concept.
I would prefer not to let you in if I don’t know you
And you’re trying to enter my building.
Yes, I see you standing there as I sift through my mail.
I see you knocking
And motioning towards the door.
I see that your shirt is clean and ironed
And way more expensive than mine.
But I would prefer to ignore you
Because, really, God only knows for sure
And I’m not even sure that God exists.
I would prefer not to talk to you
While I’m eating my lemon cake with raspberries
Concentrating on getting the perfect ratio of whipped cream, raspberries, and cake
With each bite.
I hear you asking me question after question
But I would prefer not to answer
Until I’ve savored the final forkful
And let the taste sink into my memory.
I would prefer not to be friendly
When I’m in the midst of a fabulous daydream
Even if I’m outside, in public, and people are waving.
If I’m transcending time, receiving a Nobel Prize, or achieving spiritual bliss
I would prefer not to talk to you about your carpentry project
Or the amazing coat you picked up for 20 dollars at the mall.
I would prefer not to hear you say that everyone is happiest
When their sex life is active
Or when they follow a gluten-free diet
Or when they run at least a mile three times a week
Or when they monitor the number of steps they take each day.
I would prefer not to go to the party
If people are there to find partners
And aren’t seeking friends.
I would prefer not to die
Or get sick
Or even reach a new life stage, if that means more responsibility.
It all comes down to this:
I would prefer not to acknowledge the world that seems to exist
The one that expects decorum
Moving through a life cycle
And work that others find useful.
Could the key word be “seems”
As in, maybe it’s all an intricate illusion
That we can transcend
If we follow our preferences and push through to our deepest sense
Of what is
And what could be?
I would prefer not to discount that possibility
Despite all the pressure to face “reality.”
I would prefer to embrace everything I want
And toss everything else aside
Without wasting time
Or feeling guilt
Or dredging up unpleasant emotion.
I would love to call Bartleby up from his fictional world
And turn him into a fabulous little man
Who will join me for dessert
But not make me talk while I’m enjoying my lemon cake
Because he gets it.
He, too, would prefer not to.
And I just know that we’re far from alone.