Bartleby, the Mayor

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. Continue reading