Letter to Mr. Bartleby


Part of the project 'No, and other possibilities' and published in the Catalogue from the exhibition Exit 2011.
100 pages
ISBN 87 - 88860 - 88 - 4

Letter to Mr. Bartleby

Letter to Mr. Bartleby: Main character in Herman Melville’s short story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener. A story of Wall Street’, 1853.

Copenhagen, April 2011

Dear Mr. Bartleby,

It has now been more than one and a half centuries since you were fictionally breathing the air of an office on New York’s Wall Street in the company of lawyers and fellow scriveners. Despite the distance in time, I feel the urge to address this letter to you. Not to your author and inventor Herman Melville, but to you because of your courageous act of standing still on the very spot of an insecure ground of negation. Your manner of tackling the demands of your surroundings awakens great curiosity in me. In your active negation of the world, you seem to balance perfectly between two poles, without taking side or falling into an obvious situation. As you continue to resist, as you stand between being and non-being. Even though this ends up leading to your own dissolution, my questions to you are many and I sincerely hope that this letter will arouse your interest.

You say "you would prefer not to" perform the tasks your employer asks you to carry out. Why? That I am not certain of, but one thing seems clear – precisely that you will not. This will, this act of refusal and the questions it brings with it, is what makes me write to you, Sir. Out of your negation emerges a question of potentiality to me, which is something I will attempt to unfold in this letter.

I stumbled upon you in my research on the conditions of art production in the present and the artist’s possibility to work or not to work. This has led me to the question of potentiality versus actuality, seen from a philosophical point of view. In my search for a poetic angle, I found you. Your action, or denial of it, allows me to dwell upon such an abstract question as whether an object, situation or action only exists in its outlived action or physical realization. Or if something can remain as mere potential, without ever being realized or actualized. Can something remain purely potential even after being actualized? And is what we actually perceive in things, such as in a work of art, its potential to be something else? Perhaps the work of art, like your utterance, is only a brief, momentary proof or sign of the potentiality it draws on – for one short instance we, the viewers or readers, are presented with a glimpse of the vast mass of possibilities, which always already exist. As if the object or utterance simultaneously appear as signs of what (it) is not.

. . .

Yours sincerely,