In 1853, Herman Meville published "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street." As iconic a modern man as any, Bartleby is described as "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!" Employed in a law office with windows staring at walls, with views that are "deficient in what landscape painters call "life'," Bartleby started out as an exceptional worker:
At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.
The salaryman then hit a wall, and his refusal to perform a simple task, as requested by his genial boss, is one of the greatest moments in fiction:
Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, "I would prefer not to."
"I prefer not to dine today," said Bartleby, turning away. "It would disagree with me; I am unused to dinners."
By saying no to everything, Bartleby was the first hikimori, herbivore and karojisatsu salaryman. Without being aware of Melville, Kafka would publish "The Hunger Artist" in 1922. He, too, couldn't stomach anything, "I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else."
A wholesale rejection of everything doesn't have to be self-destructive, however, and can even lead to a recovery of sanity, beauty and long-suppressed virtues. The end of the American epoch, now unfurling, is an opportunity for all societies to rediscover themselves, and Japan, with its exceptional human capital still intact, is in better shape than most for this transition.
A hugely popular pachinko machine, I'm Juggler, features Uncle Sam as a hysterical, red-nosed clown, and since pachinko parlors are everywhere in Japan, this laughing maniac infests the entire country. You can hardly walk a block without seeing him.
From its founding, the US has destroyed societies to save them, with Iraq, Libya and Syria only the latest examples. Without any violence whatsoever, perhaps Japan can return the favor.
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