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June 13, 2021

They prefer not to: Before Naomi Osaka there was Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener


A few years ago, Michel Tourneau shared with me a story he translated from анонимный, a Russian journal dedicated to anonymous writings published shortly before the death of Joseph Stalin. The story, also anonymous insofar as it is untitled, concerns twenty-four hours in the life of a pre-revolutionary model-actor who spends her days posing for a painter and her evenings as an opera supernumerary.

The story begins in the evening, with the model-actor reflecting on her work in the painter’s studio as she and her fellow supernumeraries await their cue to flood the stage in their role as an ocean gyre. After the performance, the model-actor is cornered by the opera director, who asks in an angry voice why she broke from the gyre to stand like a statue at the footlights. “To be seen,” she replies, incredulously. The director, equally incredulous, fires her.

From there the story jumps to a description of St. Petersburg’s dark and slushy streets. What at first reads like an architectural tour (the long walk home after her firing?) is another of the model-actor’s reflections: this time from the painter’s studio, where the painter scolds her for failing to hold her pose. Suddenly the painter is interrupted by a caller—his friend the opera director—who, upon seeing the model-actor clutching a blanket to her breast, asks her if she is free that night to work as a supernumerary.

Apart from the story’s looping structure, what stands out to this reader is the relationship between the model-actor’s two jobs: one in the production of an artwork (a painting) that we commonly associate with a single producer (the painter), and the other in the production of an artwork (an opera) that requires the participation of a large cast of players, yet whose authorship, like the painter’s painting, is considered singular (the composer-author). In both cases, the model-actor is hired because the painter or the opera director sees something in her. That she cannot or does not want to perform what is asked of her (a model who can’t stop moving; an actor who can’t stop stopping) casts her in a new role. But as what? Or who?

I asked Tourneau if there was anything in the Russian version that highlights the model-actor’s desires and motivations, or her frailties and failures, to which he replied, “No, nothing, she is perfectly absurd.” “Like Melville’s Bartleby?” I asked. Tourneau shook his head. “Bartleby is not possible in Russia.”

Naomi Osaka: “I prefer not to.”

Last summer I came across two biographies at a Salvation Army thrift store and read them back-to-back: My Life (1927) by the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) and Peter Manso’s portrait of the actor Marlon Brando (1924–2004), Brando: The Biography (1993). Taken together, the lives of these American performers cover the whole of the twentieth century and, as a continuous tale, have something to say about that nation’s artistic development and contribution to a global tendency now in the throes of a massive cultural delamination and/or aesthetic reorientation. This delamination/reorientation is, to paraphrase Annie Ernaux in The Years (2008), based not on what one does (as an artist), but on who one is (as a human being).

Although considered a leading figure in the development of modern dance, the San Francisco–born Duncan was, like many turn-of-the-twentieth-century figures, inspired by antiquity’s classical themes and Arcadian settings (this in contrast to a growing urban population attracted to Karl Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat as muse). A self-assured child, Duncan saw balletic movement as unhealthy, if not authoritarian, and took her cues from the rhythms and vibrations of the natural world, dancing not in tutus and slippers but in see-through gowns and bare feet.

While still in her teens, Duncan led her fatherless family across the United States and eventually to the UK, Europe, and the Soviet Union, where she achieved fame and fortune as what we might today call a performance artist. Yet despite her sold-out shows and popularity as a teacher, the flamboyant Duncan was chronically in debt and relied on the kindness of some of Europe’s wealthiest patrons. Her death in Nice came at the hands of a scarf she wrapped around her neck before setting off in a friend’s convertible. The scarf became entangled in the car’s rear axle, leading Gertrude Stein to comment, “Affectations can be dangerous.”

Born three years before Duncan’s death, Marlon Brando grew up in a male-dominated household in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was physically and emotionally abused, developed a contrarian personality, and was sent to a military academy for his schooling. Unlike the Apollonian Duncan, Brando showed little passion for anything other than pranks. Eventually an interest in theater led him to New York, where he trained in the Method style, dabbled in theater, and in the 1950s became a movie star. A series of subpar films in the 1960s (including one he wrote, directed, and starred in) did little to diminish his star power. Only in the 1970s, after he was at risk of becoming an unbankable film killer, did he participate in three of the most influential films of the twentieth century: The Godfather (1972), Last Tango in Paris (1972), and Apocalypse Now (1979). It was also in the 1970s that Brando, by then a cultural icon, became active in Indigenous American politics as both a donor and, in the case of fugitives like Leonard Peltier, an accessory after the fact.

Marlon Brando on Rejecting His Oscar for The Godfather | The Dick Cavett Show (1973)

Apart from their mutual dissatisfaction with a puritan America, their shared contempt for the forms in which their art was conventionally organized (the ballet for Duncan, the feature film for Brando), and a bisexuality that neither publicly admitted to, the contrasts between Duncan and Brando are striking. Duncan arrived fully knowing who she was and set out to bring her new art to audiences and students alike, money be damned. Brando emerged psychologically damaged, a condition that was molded and shaped by his Method teachers, whom, like most everyone else in his life, he came to distrust, if not resent. While Duncan remained positive in her effort to promote her aesthetic ideas, traveling extensively to do so, Brando retreated to a compound he built on a South Seas atoll, where he considered acting jobs only from those willing to pay his exorbitant fee.

Shortly after finishing the Duncan and Brando books, I was invited by two teaching artists to visit an upper-level undergraduate class that would be meeting Zoomlessly at a park near my house. As per custom, the teaching artists shared with me the course syllabus (a special topics seminar entitled Speculative Artist Practices) and asked me to contribute a complementary text. I supplied the class with excerpts from the Duncan and Brando books that exemplified their contrasting approaches to life and art, as well as Tourneau’s translation of the Russian story. It was my hope that the students would make connections between Duncan, Brando, and Tourneau’s pre-revolutionary model-actor. Perhaps one of them might even mention Bartleby.

As I approached the park on that warm September afternoon, I saw in the distance a ring of six students, within which the two artist-teachers sat opposite each other. A class of fourteen, I’d been told, but fewer than half showed up? Soon enough the ring’s contents came into focus: seven students, in fact, all of them young women, who appeared to form a doubled-over rainbow of racialized diversity. Lucky for me, I thought, because it is in settings like this one that a middle-aged white man has much to learn.

My plan was to begin carefully, allow the teaching artists to set things up, and speak only when spoken to. But upon sitting down, I could not help but ask why so few students were in attendance. One, who’d stared balefully at me as I approached the circle, was first off the mark. “That’s personal information!” she snapped, looking around as if to caution the others. I looked at the teaching artists; both had their heads bowed.

After I was introduced—“a writer of fiction, criticism, and song who sometimes curates”—it was left to me to preface my submitted texts and lead off with the first of my discussion topics. “Does anyone know Bartleby the Scrivener?” I asked. Silence. I was three words into an explanation when the student who spoke first said, “Bartleby is a literary character who worked for a lawyer until he was overcome with past trauma and refused what was asked of him. His boss gives up on him and he dies in prison.” A second student spoke up: “The model-actor and Marlon are more like Bartleby than Isadora.” Then a third student: “I think Marlon’s refusals were strategies to get more money for acting, because after a while that’s all he cared about. Isadora was more European; she refused the American way of life.” Great stuff! I thought. Now we’re cooking! I said as much to the third student and felt the glare of the first one.

What began so promisingly quickly devolved. My attempt to introduce the historical context in which Bartleby lived and worked—an increasingly industrializing mid-nineteenth-century America and a stock market growing up alongside it—was met with blank stares by those who, I am told again and again by artists who teach, refuse history because they were not alive when it was “made.” My second attempt at an introduction— “Try to imagine...”—was shot down just as quickly by the first student, who claimed that because history was written by white men, it does not apply to those who do not identify as such. My attempt to describe Bartleby as someone whose resistance was focused on one of those white men, namely the lawyer he worked for, was countered once more by the first student: “If Bartleby wasn’t so traumatized, he could have turned out just like his boss.”


Marlon Brando being prepared for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1972)

“We know how Marlon was traumatized,” began one of the teaching artists, “so maybe we could talk about how Bartleby was traumatized.” Taking this as my cue, I relayed to those unfamiliar with Melville’s story how, in the end, we learn that Bartleby’s previous job was at the US Postal Service’s Dead Letter Office, and suggested that the accumulation of mail sent to those who would never read it could have been too much for Bartleby, or indeed for any of us. At which point the first student asked, “What about the model-actor? What about her trauma? Then the third student said, “Who says she was traumatized? There is no evidence in the story to say that she was.” Good point! The conversation was picking up again! But the first student was having none of it, insisting that the model-actor, as a pre-revolutionary woman, must have experienced some form of trauma. “It goes without saying” she kept saying, her force of will reminding me of the gyre the model-actor had stepped from. Unfortunately for the conversation, my request that the first student provide a context for pre-revolutionary Russia was dismissed by her as “yet another shitty history written by, and for, white men.”

A couple of months after all this, I received an email from Tourneau asking if he could stay at my place for a week while he Airbnb’ed his apartment to cover his rent. Of course, I replied, and soon enough we were picnicking at the same spot where I’d met with the class. Tourneau was eager to hear how it went, so I proceeded carefully, trying to turn what amounted to a series of dead-end digressions into something that resembled a lesson—to the point where I could conclude with a question based on Tourneau’s earlier assertion: “Why is Bartleby not possible in Russia?”

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street Herman Melville. First published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in 1853.

Tourneau appeared confused by the question. I reminded him that it was he who’d said it after I asked him if the model-actor’s absurdism was similar to Bartleby’s. Tourneau wanted to know if he meant before or after the 1917 Revolution, and of course I told him I could not speak for what he did or did not mean, only that he left me with the comment, as if to think about it. And since I had thought about it, and gone nowhere with it, then sure, what if it was before the Revolution? Or after? I told him I was open to both.

Just then a seagull swooped down and landed a few meters away. Without looking at it, Tourneau tore a piece of bread from his sandwich and threw it at the seagull’s feet. The bird hopped back a step, ignoring the bread. Tourneau tried again. Same result. “Do you know Chekov’s play?” he asked, and I told him I did. “Do you recall what the bird symbolized?” I told him what I remembered: that the seagull represents freedom and security, but then as the play moves along, destruction and death. Trigorin destroys Nina, like he said he would, and Treplev kills himself in Nina’s honor, like he promised her in act one, after he killed the seagull.

“But freedom,” said Tourneau. “Bartleby’s preference—‘I’d prefer not to’—is an instance of freedom, the freedom to refuse, like that student who refused everything attributable to white men, which of course only further empowers those men. Bartleby, who despite his trauma is among those men, tends to be spoken of by US scholars as an absurd character, for no other reason than to detract from the sham we call “freedom.” The Russian people, apart from their motley avant-gardes, have never enjoyed the luxury of absurdism because it was never tolerated, always nipped in the bud. They were never free under the tsar, nor were they free under Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat. They would have thought they were free, as the free world insisted after the Wall came down, if they weren’t so poor—poor in the context of global capitalism—but then came the oligarchs and their Putin and they have never been less free than they are today.”

“So Bartleby is not possible in the United States, either,” I concluded, “because freedom, as it is framed through state communism or capitalism, can only lead to extinction.” Tourneau bit into his sandwich, chewing for time. He was thinking. He was thinking of the things he could say, not what he felt the need to say, imagining what I might say in response, and what he could come back with, full force, like Brando would. Unlike the upbeat Duncan, who championed a new art, Brando, who worked diffidently if not critically within an established system, believed only in pain. Like Bartleby, Brando preferred not to. Brando would have loved the first student who spoke up in that class, how she cowed her teachers, gave me a rough time. Same with Tourneau. He loved the model-actor to the point where he could have made her up, too.

Michael Turner is a poet, a writer of fiction, often criticism, and sometimes song who every now and then curates.

Cover Image: Isadora Duncan with her dancers, The Isadorables (1914)


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