In his meditation on Emerson's self-reliance, George Kateb argues that Emerson's entrance into antislavery politics, particularly his calls for collective mobilization, constitutes a “deviation from his theory of self-reliance, not its transformation.” Though Emerson often imagines a self-reliance that can lead to action, his descriptions of the fundamental attitude of the self towards the world suggest passivity, attention, and waiting. Because he rules out logical or teleological sources for inspiration, his conception of self-reliance is fundamentally at odds with progressivist narratives of history. His sense of “entranced waiting” flirts with an anarchic potentiality that he must reject in order to call for social solidarity and progressive action against slavery.

In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Melville takes the radical outsidedness of self-reliance to its conclusion, transforming Emersonian waiting into Bartleby's catatonic stillness. Emerson's waiting for inspiration becomes the copyist's quiet demand that his employer wait with him rather than use charitable actions to free himself from the burden Bartleby imposes. Bartleby obstructs the lawyer's ideas of improvement as well as his conception of himself as a moral agent in a world of moral possibility.

Simone Weil provides a similar version of a quietist waiting with. To an ungenerous “active searching” she opposes a fundamental generosity, a “waiting or attentive and faithful immobility” through which one is able to recognize “that the sufferer exists.” For Weil, as for Melville, there is no passage from such a recognition to a conception of history as progress. The sufferer is not a problem to be solved within a narrative of social improvement but the source of an unlimited and impossible obligation.

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.