It occurred to me this morning while watching the daily, and increasingly listless and uncertain coverage of Rob Ford unfold on my twitter feed that Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” provides an unlikely, yet illuminating lens through which to view the unending saga of Toronto’s mayor. It’s a classic, and an easy read at less than 15,000 words. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait. (What? All right, fine. Here’s a summary, and here’s the Wikipedia page.)
At first glance, the comparison seems strained at best. Bartleby is a relative nobody, a scribe in a lawyer’s office. He is courteous, quiet and passive, ultimately fatally so. Ford is an important public figure, a loud, bombastic, and impetuous one at that. If he has a fatal flaw, it would seem to be impulse control. Nonetheless, Bartleby and Ford share a common quality, one as rare in the 19th century as it is in the 21st, namely the ability, perhaps even the compulsion, to break with the social norms that bind members of the respective societies in which they live.
At base, both stories concern individuals who decline to do what is expected, and the turmoil this creates for those around them. Bartley preferred not to do the tasks assigned by his employer, and eventually preferred to do nothing at all. Ford defies expectations surrounding his behaviour at every turn, most vividly but by no means exclusively in defying near universal calls to resign.
As both stories continue, they each become increasingly become about those doing the telling, rather than the erstwhile protagonist. Melville’s narrator, drawn and repulsed by Bartleby, tolerant of and even fascinated by what would seem to be intolerable and in an employee. Bartleby’s constant defiance of expectation wears on the narrator, driving him to increasingly strange ends simply to deal with the situation. Fed up, he moves away from his own office rather than face the prospect of confrontation with Bartleby. He remains engaged in the latter’s life until the very end, allowing it to dominate aspects of his life in the process.
Likewise, Toronto’s media found itself increasingly unsure how to respond to Ford’s unprecedented intransigence. Leading newspapers wrote editorial after editorial calling for his resignation. The story was covered exhaustively, excessively, with every actor coming in for significant scrutiny. Even now, with less and less new to say about Ford himself, the Ford-focused media is turning increasingly inward. The Walrus ran a 6000+ word essay on the making of the Rob Ford story by Ivor Tossell, an experienced Ford watcher. Arguments erupt on twitter about how the story is covered over perceived failures in coverage of a story documented more exhaustively than any other in Toronto’s history.
The story’s consumers likewise debate not only the protagonists’ motives and actions, but the narrators’ choices as well. Theories remain to this day about what, exactly, Melville’s story was all about. Likewise, the Rob Ford story has been discussed, dissected, vilified, exploited, mocked, parodied, like nothing quite like it before. The Wilson Center, a respected think-tank in Washington DC, actually convened a symposium on the subject today. At base, we all grapple with the question of what to do with someone who just do what they’re supposed to, and arguably, what they ought to.
Bartleby’s story ends poorly for the protagonist. Evicted and eventually arrested, the increasingly inert Bartleby (spoiler alert!) eventually succumbs to starvation. The end of Ford’s story remains to be written, though things look bleak for a man so seemingly unable to end his consumptive and evasive ways. Even after the conclusion of his rehab, odds are it will be an uphill battle for both the politician and the man.
Long after both leave the stage however, the marks on those around them remain.
Post script: Upon consideration, I wish to apologise for the Ford Focus joke. I am super, super, super, super sorry for writing it.