“I Would Prefer Not To”: Adventures with Bartleby in Office Space

(Contains Spoilers for 1999’s Office Space)

Traditional office jobs have never really been my pace. My first place of employment straight out of Trinity University was a local law firm, a partnership between two attorneys that has since dissolved.

Long after my time as a legal clerk had passed, one of said partners defended the disgraced San Antonio Police Officer who fed a literal shit sandwich to a homeless woman—just to give you an example of the characters that sauntered through our doors each day.

I turned in my notice of resignation about six months into that particular gig, swearing I would never again work for an attorney.

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“I would prefer not to.”

But, I took another legal job out of sheer desperation, of course. This time, I quickly discovered that my new boss enjoyed leaving graphic pornography on my desktop computer in the morning.

On a different occasion, I accidentally hit the speed dial for a sex hotline while attempting to phone the county courthouse; I was absolutely horrified, but I needed that attorney’s money.

Leaving again was not an option.

Day after day, I drank profusely to cope with the perpetual battle for my soul. I started dating the bartenders, literally the only men that ever saw me in a good mood. With smeared makeup, a throbbing forehead, and slow hands that reeked of noxious cigarettes—I dreaded every single sunrise like it was a red-eye flight.

I will admit, those days were not exactly a good look for me. So I understand Bartleby—fuck it, I was Bartleby.

I felt the same disgust for office jobs while reading Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street” as when I first watched 1999’s Office Space, a dark comedy about a corporate drone who figuratively hops off the deep end when his therapist dies. I imagined the Bartleby character as Ron Livingston throughout the short story’s entirety; he was burnt out and friggin’ fed up. I suppose Bartleby and Ron occupy the same spiritual place in my mind—the place where I remember the agonies that I endured during my two shitty office jobs.

Like Ron’s character in the film, I imagine Bartleby passively sinking into a mental breakdown as a result of the total thanklessness and monotony of his job, as described in “The Sanity of Madness” lecture below. When the lawyer sighs, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” at the story’s end, I recall the universal experience of alienation and dehumanization that I once felt as a legal clerk, slaving away behind a cluttered desk and generating profits for someone else.

While I think Bartleby failed to undergo a mental breakdown successfully—Bartleby refuses to eat and perishes as a result of malnutrition—I view the upshot of Ron’s internal meltdown more optimistically; he emerged from the tatters of his psyche reinvigorated, having discerned a new sense of purpose after releasing his pent-up frustration. Indeed, I strongly believe that we all need to momentarily lose our shit during regular bouts of catharsis to stay healthy. Perhaps things could have gone differently for Bartleby if he had embraced the fury within his soul and smashed to pieces whatever his equivalent of a copy machine was.

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