Enrique Vila-Matas: “I would prefer not to!”


Twenty-five years ago, when I was very young, I published a short novel on the impossibility of love. Since then, on account of a trauma that I shall go into later, I had not written again, I stopped altogether, I became a Bartleby, and that is why I have been interested in them for some time.

We all know the Bartlebys, they are beings inhabited by a profound denial of the world. They are named after the scrivener Bartleby, a clerk in a story by Herman Melville, who has never been seen reading, not even a newspaper; who for long periods stands looking out at a pale window behind a folding screen, upon a brick wall in Wall Street; who never drinks beer, or tea and coffee, like other men; who has never been anywhere, living as he does in the office, spending even his Sundays there; who has never said who he is, or where he comes from, or whether he has any relatives in this world; who, when he is asked where he was born or given a job to do or asked to reveal something about himself, responds always by saying,

“I would prefer not to.”

For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease, endemic to contemporary letters, the negative impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write: either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.

The idea of investigating the literature of the No, that of Bartleby & Co., came about last Tuesday in the office when I thought I heard my boss’s secretary say to somebody on the phone,

“Mr Bartleby is in a meeting.”  …

Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear. But what will this literature be like? Not long ago a work colleague, somewhat maliciously, put this question to me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “If I knew, I’d write it myself.”

I wonder if I can do this. I am convinced that only by tracking down the labyrinth of the No can the paths still open to the writing of the future appear. I wonder if I can evoke them. I shall write footnotes commenting on a text that is invisible, which does not mean it does not exist, since this phantom text could very well end up held in suspension in the literature of the next millennium.1

1. Vila-Matas, Enrique (2007-05-23). Bartleby & Co. (p. 2). New Directions. Kindle Edition.

15 thoughts on “Enrique Vila-Matas: “I would prefer not to!”

  1. S.C;

    Interesting. You pose the ‘No” to the future; Nietzsche via amor fati poses the “Yes” to life. Is your “No” a form of nihilism… a meaninglessness to life that many confront? Did Zizek’s hopelessness trigger your reflections on Bartleby? What’s it all about, Alfie? :>)


    • No. I would prefer not to.
      Is actually the no that says, “I will no longer submit to your reality principle.” The enforced logic of the question is itself a trap I refuse to submit to. I will no longer accept the version of life you hold dear. Capitalism is not life, but death: I will no longer contribute to its enslavement of my mind and writing, my life. Bartleby is this Great Refusal to submit to your order of things as usual. Not out of despair or irony, but just a simple “No. I would prefer not to.”.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the clarification. I understand the Great Refusal because of your website. There are small things I do in my own life to refuse what’s being served. I don’t do FaceBook or Twitter. I don’t normally watch the Info newscasts at night. But, when I do, I find myself yelling back at the crap we’re being fed with. I don’t get the annual flu shot. My favorite card is not a Master or Discover card. It’s my library card! Are there actions that you’d suggest one adopt as part of the refusal?


    • I think you misapply what refusal is: it’s not some ethical refusal to do this or that, it’s a simple refusal to any longer accept such an ethical dilemma to begin with. We cannot like the ten commandments of the Bible draw up a list of negatives to be enforced by some erroneous law of refusal, we must refuse such ethics of the negation in this sense. This is not an ethical valuation that one can live by, a normative rule to guide one’s life like Kant’s imperative, it’s altogether to refuse such norms and regulations of one’s behavior. Maybe Jarry is closer: Pataphysics… a way out of the logic of rules and normative behavior.


  3. As that nut job Rumsfeld said, “You go to war with the army you’ve got.” We’re ‘thrown’ into this world ala Heidegger and have to try and make the best of the situation we’ve been dealt. I’m attempting to create my own values within the current milieu. I’m finding that the best weapons for me are literature and personal creativity. I’m sure you feel a transcendence from the mundane when you create your poetry.


    • Even to use the term “weapons” is to already say yes to the enemy’s form of logic. Do you see what I mean? You’ve already admitted that an “enemy” exists. The Great Refusal admits nothing. It will not be trapped in the counter-movement of war for or against society, there is no enemy. There is only the logic of the Trap. Once you accept the rules of such games as friend/enemy you are already playing a script laid down by your enemy. And, of course, your enemy knows all the rules to this game: it will know also how to trap you in your very need to escape the trap or maze.


  4. It makes sense what you’re saying. Maybe my choice of word should’ve been ‘escapes’ instead of ‘weapons’. But, then again, I’d be admitting there was an enemy or something I was attempting to transcend.


    • Transcend:

      1. to rise above or go beyond; overpass; exceed: to transcend the limits of thought; kindness transcends courtesy.
      2. to outdo or exceed in excellence, elevation, extent, degree, etc.; surpass; excel.

      As one can see to transcend can either be a limit value or a competitive value. To break away, to break through is of course the sense of “line of flight” (Deleuze/Guattari), while to exceed expectations is a capitalist limit that supports a form of enslavement to specific categories of a normative flavor or incentive (i.e., you’ve exceeded our forecasts, etc.; the companies profits show a net gain that have exceeded analysts projections, etc.). While for Deleuze/ Guattari the sense of transcendental empiricism is this line of flight that breaks out and away from such subservient subjectivation and enslavement to those who quantify our lives statistically or ethically.


  5. My light bulb is starting to flicker. Much obliged! One of my favorite cinematic images of transcendence is Andy Defraine crawling through the length of three football fields of sludge to escape Shawshank prison. And, sticking it to the warden along the way!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Richard M. Stallman or some Gnostics are good examples of Great Refusal, the former as success (infection of Capitalism and Sacred Property Rights of Exclusion with communitarian GPL virus*), the latter as failure (but only from vantage point of shadows and their leaders living in a lie).

    But Bartleby … at best a cautionary tale what happens if you refuse without really refusing. When reading the end of the Parallax View, I thought Zizek was ridiculing the impotence of the Left Refusal. I still think so, but now I also think he has knowingly included himself in the joke.

    * Moldbug’s Urbit relies on work of GNU project so that Urbit can even compile and crawl 😉

    PS. Derrick Jensen also did that ‘Courage of hopelessness’ gig years ago, just better. It’s a product which sells well in desperate times


    • To say one is hopeless is to admit that at one time one did “hope”… this refusal of hope to me is significant in itself. At least Dante had Virgil as a guide through hell, and the hope that he’d finally attain his vision of Beatrice, the Beloved Lost Object. Zizek has even given up his dream of Lacanian lost objects altogether. Now he sits in the cold reaches of a self-made hell where the void is his own mind emptied of every last thought. In this sense Zizek is himself the lost object of his own recursive dreams.


  7. Bartlby’s refusal isn’t really a refusal at all in the sense of a negation or even a withdrawal, in the sense of an active pulling away from position x to position y. We see this in his refusal to leave the office after he has been fired. Bartlby even refuses to refuse. Some people seem to want to truss it up by coupling the little Scrivener to the tactics of passive resistance, but what does he resist? This is a practice of psychic disinvestment that leaves everything untouched. I would think it presents is actually a genuine indifference that doesn’t ever really coincide with resignation, although it probably look a lot like resignation.

    As Marx wrote that every bourgeois is a latent proletarian, so Baudrillard would say that “we’re all potential Bartleby’s”. This indifferentism is what attracts me to the Gnostics, to the Stoics and to the Epicureans.

    For the Baudrillard who theorised the silent masses the silence stands as a refusal of the simulated game of representation that forces the question of the legitimacy of that game within the game itself: it issues a challenge. This is a position that is getting increasingly interesting to me as I come to realize that the revolutionary left is struck in the paralysis and disorientation that accompanies the grand mal seizure of its disavowed moralism. Look what happened when Mark Fisher pointed out that moralism: a seizure across the twittersphere. Even my own attempt to unpack what was going on in Fisher’s essay, The Vampire’s Castle, was thrown into the mix as an anti-Fisher reaction.

    I think its funny, Craig, that this should be something I reply to you because it was something you once replied to me, after noting an (undeniable) desperation in my own little attempts at writing. Baudrillard:

    “after several revolutions and a century or two of political apprenticeship, in spite of the newspapers, the trade unions, the parties, the intellectuals and all the energy put into educating and mobilising the people, there are still (and it will be exactly the same in ten or twenty years) a thousand persons who stand up and twenty million who remain ‘passive’ – and not only passive, but who, in all good faith and with glee and without even asking themselves why, frankly prefer a football match to a human and political drama?”

    He reckons that this preference not to is such a psychic disinvestment, a strategy of no strategy really. Ha! Wu Wei? Well, let’s call it after what mysticism and the rationalizers of mysticism call it: the process of dis-identification. I think I should write this up properly (you’re posts always prod my own thoughts, teasing them out like a good conversation does, issuing a challenge) because this seems to be what is behind my own withdrawal from the minor league activism I have been involved in with the anarchist federation. Setting up a social centre and so on seem like worthy activities but in the face of things they’re not even going to amount to the necessary survivalist strategies the Black Panther Party could conjure up. All our money, for instance, is going on a family fun day. I’m for leaving that behind. Instead I’ll strip myself, “go naked for a sign”.

    Maybe this is a position beyond the delusional logic of hope or maybe not. It seems to be what is at stake in Franco Berardi’s invocation of senility as an anchoring metaphor. Of course, dementia isn’t exactly all peace and calm. It’s hallucination and anxiety, incontinence and total disorientation. I think that could be part of where we’re at though. A lot of folk will tell you that it makes a difference how you go with dementia. To resist it and to identify with the structures being slowly eaten away is to ensure a bad trip to oblivion. To go with it, get that cunning of the body on its own terms, can be quite a good way to live.

    This is also why I’m researching suicide. Suicide is the limit-case of all escapological protocols. “The Trap” you’re talking about, the lunatic asylum of the social, is totally without an enemy. The circulatory capacity of power is just that, as Baudrillard said, it’s untimely disappearance. The desire for an enemy is the desire to have something against which to be defined. And their are whole sections of the left that go in for this at the moment: this is the generalised victimhood Ive mentioned before. If I am a victim or a survivor then there is an abuser: power at last manifest in flesh and blood that I can touch and accuse and hold to account. Redemption.

    Forget it.

    I guess this comment isn’t very helpful. We’re supposed to be solution-focussed therapists these days. Well, I’ve seen solution-focussed therapy in action and let me tell you, an addiction will never be overcome by it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s like we’re stuck in a record repeating ourselves over and over and over again…. when I look at current philosophical, political, social, etc. writings we see the same notions repeated endlessly: neoliberalism is rationalism to the nth degree, capitalism is a cancer eating society alive, etc. It’s like an endless parade of mindless chatter repeating each others and those that came before in some stand-up comic routine that is no longer funny, even to the one’s repeating the story.

      I think the only thinker of import I’ve seen of late that is doing something is Maurizio Lazzarato: who combines and extends Deleuze and Guattari with Marx in ways that are no longer subservient to their thought but are actually speaking from within a new transformation of thought itself into a political and social diagnosis and solution. I’m reading his Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity. As well as rereading many of the South American, Spanish, and Portuguese literature and poetry of late. I seem to feel an affinity to these neo-baroque authors and poets with their playful irony and liberating ways. Unlike the Zizek’s and Badiou’s of the world, and most moralistic Marxists, these poets and literary men do not take themselves seriously, only their thought experiments are serious. A way of revitalizing and revising thought in ways that liberate it into something new instead of this victimology of the Left we are apparently seeing emerge since 1989.

      His works:

        The Making of the Indebted Man
        Governing by Debt
        Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivty


  8. “It’s like we’re stuck in a record repeating ourselves over and over and over again…. when I look at current philosophical, political, social, etc. writings we see the same notions repeated endlessly: neoliberalism is rationalism to the nth degree, capitalism is a cancer eating society alive, etc. It’s like an endless parade of mindless chatter repeating each others and those that came before in some stand-up comic routine that is no longer funny, even to the one’s repeating the story”.

    The Left is itself a frustrating therapeutic New Age enterprise. This endless repetition is exactly the point of it but no one is wiling to say so. It’s a ritualized form of a holding pattern complete with its inane mantras.

    Here is a very short article I wrote for a UK based left media platform. It ends on a note of some kind of optimism which I now regret. It was based on a concern for the feelings of people. I don’t want to say “look, it’s useless what you’re doing”. First because I don’t really have the parapsychological powers to really say that, and second because one should never deprive someone of their coping mechanisms without a substitute.


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