Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

I mentioned a little while back I've been reading and very much enjoying Herman Melville's White-Jacket: or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850). Though I'm still a little ways from finishing it, I may eventually have to concur with early Melville critic/biographer Lewis Mumford's assessment of it as Melville's solidest and most fully-realized novel (aside from Moby-Dick, of course; but need that even be said?).

But White-Jacket isn't the Herman Melville Joint we'll be looking at today. I'd like to draw your attention instead to The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), Melville's ninth and final novel, and one of the strangest and most baffling damn books I've ever read.


This little review is long overdue. It was a full year ago now, during a short visit to the mainland (I was living in St Thomas then) that I found and snatched up a paperback copy of The Confidence-Man from the shelf of a little Maryland bookstore. I got around to reading it in May, in the wake of The Breakup, during the weeks I slept on a friend's couch at night and toured dismal island apartments by day. There could be no better time, I reckoned, to hitch my intellect to an unfamiliar Herman Melville novel, to get myself back on a somewhat even keel amid the chain-smoking uncertainty and jarring emotional aftershocks of the situation.

It was not the best idea I've ever had. Picking up The Confidence-Man in hopes of gaining some clarity was liking groping around a dim room for a light switch and activating a smoke machine instead.

The Dalkey Archive Press edition I picked up has a foreword authored by none other than Lemony flippin' Snicket, who claims to be on his third copy of The Confidence-Man. His first somehow went missing, as did his second, and he promises the reader that this will be a book that gets away from them, too. And you know, he was right: I've looked everywhere, but can't find my copy. I would very much like to reread and quote the forward, but I cannot.

I can only paraphrase Mr. Snicket's anecdote about his original copy, which he acquired secondhand and found filled with its previous owner's annotations and marginalia. Well—the first few chapters were pretty well marked up, anyway. But as the book commences, the notes tapered off. They asked questions rather than stated observations. At some point well before the halfway mark, a note read: THINGS HAVE BECOME VERY UNCLEAR. After that, the annotations altogether ceased. The only further penstrokes Snicket found were at the very end of the book, underscoring the novel's ominous but utterly opaque final sentence.

When employed properly, ambiguity surpasses all other narrative devices. Consider Shakespeare: which play do we renown as the greatest work by the greatest writer to wield the English language but Hamlet—the one that begins with "who's there?". Hamlet furnishes no proof one way or the other whether the ghost is an honest ghost, whether its hero is merely putting on an antic disposition as he says or actually become a bit unhinged for a while, or whether its heroine's death is an accident or a suicide, and it denies the audience the last words the dying protagonist wishes to say. ("Had I but time—as this fell sergeant, death, / Is strict in his arrest—O, I could tell you— / But let it be.") THE REST IS SILENCE. Or perhaps for a somewhat more modern example we could turn to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, a film that's simultaneously so limpid in its composition and cryptic in its logic as to actually inflict apophenia upon susceptible viewers. Does Jack shine? Are the ghosts real? If not, who unlocks the pantry door and frees Jack? What the heck is going on with that time loop? Really, what is up with all that peripheral Native American imagery? THERE ARE NO ANSWERS.

Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852) names the thing that will characterize the best works of Melville's late oeuvre, though it uses it rather bluntly. The ambiguity concerning Isabel's identity cannot be negated, and was surely intended to put a hammer drill torque to the novel's tragic knockout punch. It might have worked to devastating effect had its impact not been so attenuated by the novel's frustrated and sloppy execution, and by the startling fit of authorial transubstantiation by which Melville surrogates the crucifixion of his horological Christ-figure Pierre for his own. (Which, to be fair, is what makes Pierre so damned interesting, but does rather detract from the story Melville set out to tell before he imploded on himself.)

(To anyone who joined me in reading Pierre way back when, I reiterate my apology: I had no way of knowing it would be such a hot mess. It is something like the Super Mario Bros. movie of antebellum American literature.)

But of the flurry of short fictions that follow Pierre, the greatest two pieces are distinguished as much by their virtuosity as by the extent to which they are haunted by uncertainty. The less said here about "Benito Cereno" (1855) the better; I highly recommend reading it if you have not before, and it is best that the first-time reader approaches it as blindly as possible. And if you're unacquainted with "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853), please, take it for a spin. "Bartleby" is a supremely elusive story, and therein lies its greatness. It's difficult to identify how it gets its hooks in you, at what point it snares you, or even where it pierces you. But it's a story you're not likely to forget. The central mystery—WHO IS BARTLEBY?—is never resolved. Though the revelation at the tale's denouement does (or, rather, might) explain a few things about its titular character's origins and eccentricities, the knowledge hardly gets us to the root of the mystery that is Bartleby, or even takes us to the base of the stem.

This is probably why Jon B. wanted to talk about "Bartleby, The Scrivener" with me when he first read it a few years ago. I'm a little embarrassed when pull up and reread my contributions to our email chain: thanks to the lit theory chip in my brain, most of what I had to say was about capitalism and how it distorts man's relationships to his neighbor and to his work. (I couldn't help it. The lit theory chip is a permanent installation.) Jon, meantime, zeroed in on what the story says about the unknowable frontier beyond the boundaries of the self, its evocation of the insoluble mystery that every other human being must be to each of us, and that's surely closer to what imparts to this tale of a melancholy nineteenth-century office drone its transcendent spark.

It was with this in mind that I pleaded with Mr. B. to help me figure out The Confidence-Man. He gladly assented—though I'm not sure he'll trust me to choose the next title for our two-man book club for a good while yet.

But I fear I've told you an awful lot about this book without really saying anything about it.

First Google Images result for "confidence man."
(sexually-confident-man.jpg)

April Fool's Day, 185X. Morning. The Mississippi steamship Fidèle is boarding passengers at its St. Louis port, from which it will shortly embark for New Orleans. On the lower deck, a cluster of travelers examine a placard: a wanted poster offering a reward for the capture of an ingenious con artist. (Until reading this book, I did not know that "con man" is an apocope of "confidence man.") Meanwhile, a deaf and mute man in a white garment gets on board. All he carries is a slate and some chalk. He stands in front of the wanted poster and holds up the slate, on which he has written lines from First Corinthians: "Charity thinketh no evil." "Charity suffereth long, and is kind." "Charity endureth all things." "Charity believeth all things." "Charity never faileth."

After quietly suffering the jeers and harassment of the crowd, the man in white slinks off and disappears.

A little while later, a "grotesque negro cripple" calling himself Black Guinea hobbles about the deck, soliciting spare change from passengers. A small group gathers around to toss pennies in exchange for the laughs they take at Guinea's expense, and it's all good clean racist/classist/ableist fun until a bitter old man with a wooden leg happens upon the spectacle.

He's faking it, the man with the wooden leg tells the crowd. That's a white man in blackface, pretending to be a cripple. You've all been suckered.

The one-legged man is so obnoxious to the other passengers that he nearly gets himself beaten up, but after he withdraws, the crowd finds itself wondering if he might be right. They question Guinea, asking him if he can produce papers to prove he is who he says he is. Guinea seems more disappointed by the crowd's suspicions (as opposed to outraged or afraid); he says he doesn't have any documentation on him, but lists eight passengers aboard the Fidèle who can vouch for him. In order, he names:

1.) The Man with the Weed (mourning garment)
2.) The Man in the Gray Coat
3.) The Man with the Big Book
4.) The Herb Doctor
5.) The Man in the Yellow Vest
6.) The Man with a Brass Plate
7.) The Man in the Violet Robe
8.) The Soldier

"Oh, find 'em, find 'em," Guinea implores his audience, "and let 'em come quick, and show you all, ge'mmen, dat dis poor ole darkie is werry well wordy of all you kind ge'mmen's kind confidence." (Yes, yes—remember that this is 1857 and such transcriptions of the "negro dialect" are commonplace.)

A young Episcopal priest runs off to look for Guinea's friends, but he's not going to have an easy time of it. The Fidèle is a big ship, and it's awfully crowded. Prior to this incident, Melville has described the teeming masses of humanity through which the clergyman must conduct his search:  
As among Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, or those oriental ones crossing the Red Sea towards Mecca in the festival month, there was no lack of variety. Natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters. Fine ladies in slippers, and moccasined squaws; Northern speculators and Eastern philosophers; English, Irish, German, Scotch, Danes; Santa Fé traders in striped blankets, and Broadway bucks in cravats of cloth of gold; fine-looking Kentucky boatmen, and Japanese-looking Mississippi cotton-planters; Quakers in full drab, and United States soldiers in full regimentals; slaves, black, mulatto, quadroon; modish young Spanish Creoles, and old-fashioned French Jews; Mormons and Papists Dives and Lazarus; jesters and mourners, teetotalers and convivialists, deacons and blacklegs; hard-shell Baptists and clay-eaters; grinning negroes, and Sioux chiefs solemn as high-priests. In short, a piebald parliament, an Anacharsis Cloots congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man.
Another Herman Melville novel, another boat as a microcosm for humanity. But The Confidence-Man is the first time Melville unites his microcosm with the proverbial Ship of Fools.

Throughout the day, the people whom Guinea names appear, one by one. Those who are asked can certainly vouch for Guinea, although Guinea himself is never seen again. In fact, none of these people are ever found again after they've slipped out of sight, and no two are ever seen in the same place at the same time. Conveniently, when a passenger comes asking about the last man on Guinea's rolodex to have gone missing, it always seems that he just got off at the last stop—and always according to the most recent of Guinea's friends to have surfaced. Moreover, Guinea's friends all sound an awful lot alike, as though each were an alternately garbed Socrates speaking words put into his mouth by some ventriloquizing Plato.

Examples. (Melville is not an author, nor is The Confidence-Man a novel, amenable to pithy excerption. You might as well go ahead and scroll to the end of the Courier New block quotes once you feel you've gotten the gist of what follows.)

The Man in Gray, after vouchsafing a donation for his Seminole Widows and Orphans Asylum from a gentleman with gold sleeve-buttons, expounds his grand ambition to establish a World Charity administrated with the "Wall Street spirit:"
"You see, this doing good to the world by driblets amounts to just nothing. I am for doing good to the world with a will. I am for doing good to the world once for all and having done with it. Do but think, my dear sir, of the eddies and maëlstroms of pagans in China. People here have no conception of it. Of a frosty morning in Hong Kong, pauper pagans are found dead in the streets like so many nipped peas in a bin of peas. To be an immortal being in China is no more distinction than to be a snow-flake in a snow-squall. What are a score or two of missionaries to such a people? A pinch of snuff to the kraken. I am for sending ten thousand missionaries in a body and converting the Chinese en masse within six months of the debarkation. The thing is then done, and turn to something else."

"I fear you are too enthusiastic."

"A philanthropist is necessarily an enthusiast; for without enthusiasm what was ever achieved but commonplace? But again: consider the poor in London. To that mob of misery, what is a joint here and a loaf there? I am for voting to them twenty thousand bullocks and one hundred thousand barrels of flour to begin with. They are then comforted, and no more hunger for one while among the poor of London. And so all round."

"Sharing the character of your general project, these things, I take it, are rather examples of wonders that were to be wished, than wonders that will happen."

"And is the age of wonders passed? Is the world too old? Is it barren? Think of Sarah."

"Then I am Abraham reviling the angel (with a smile). But still, as to your design at large, there seems a certain audacity."

"But if to the audacity of the design there be brought a commensurate circumspectness of execution, how then?"

"Why, do you really believe that your world's charity will ever go into operation?"

"I have confidence that it will."

"But may you not be over-confident?"

"For a Christian to talk so!"

"But think of the obstacles!"

"Obstacles? I have confidence to remove obstacles, though mountains. Yes, confidence in the world's charity to that degree, that, as no better person offers to supply the place, I have nominated myself provisional treasurer, and will be happy to receive subscriptions, for the present to be devoted to striking off a million more of my prospectuses."
The Herb Doctor persuades a sick man to purchase a box of his Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator miracle cure:
"You ask not much; you are wise; not in vain have you suffered. That little you ask, I think, can be granted. But remember, not in a day, nor a week, nor perhaps a month, but sooner or later; I say not exactly when, for I am neither prophet nor charlatan. Still, if, according to the directions in your box there, you take my medicine steadily, without assigning an especial day, near or remote, to discontinue it, then may you calmly look for some eventual result of good. But again I say, you must have confidence."

Feverishly he replied that he now trusted he had, and hourly should pray for its increase. When suddenly relapsing into one of those strange caprices peculiar to some invalids, he added: "But to one like me, it is so hard, so hard. The most confident hopes so often have failed me, and as often have I vowed never, no, never, to trust them again. Oh," feebly wringing his hands, "you do not know, you do not know."

"I know this, that never did a right confidence, come to naught. But time is short; you hold your cure, to retain or reject."

"I retain," with a clinch, "and now how much?"

"As much as you can evoke from your heart and heaven."

"How?——the price of this medicine?"

"I thought it was confidence you meant; how much confidence you should have. The medicine,——that is half a dollar a vial. Your box holds six."

The money was paid.
The Man with the Weed accosts a college sophomore reading a volume by the Roman historian Tacitus and admonishes him to throw the book overboard:
"Nay, I foresee all that. But you carry Tacitus, that shallow Tacitus. What do I carry? See"——producing a pocket-volume——"Akenside—his 'Pleasures of Imagination.' One of these days you will know it. Whatever our lot, we should read serene and cheery books, fitted to inspire love and trust. But Tacitus! I have long been of opinion that these classics are the bane of colleges; for——not to hint of the immorality of Ovid, Horace, Anacreon, and the rest, and the dangerous theology of Eschylus and others—where will one find views so injurious to human nature as in Thucydides, Juvenal, Lucian, but more particularly Tacitus? ... Tacitus——he is the most extraordinary example of a heretic; not one iota of confidence in his kind. What a mockery that such an one should be reputed wise, and Thucydides be esteemed the statesman's manual! But Tacitus—I hate Tacitus; not, though, I trust, with the hate that sins, but a righteous hate. Without confidence himself, Tacitus destroys it in all his readers. Destroys confidence, paternal confidence, of which God knows that there is in this world none to spare. For, comparatively inexperienced as you are, my dear young friend, did you never observe how little, very little, confidence, there is? I mean between man and man——more particularly between stranger and stranger. In a sad world it is the saddest fact. Confidence! I have sometimes almost thought that confidence is fled; that confidence is the New Astrea——emigrated——vanished——gone." Then softly sliding nearer, with the softest air, quivering down and looking up, "could you now, my dear young sir, under such circumstances, by way of experiment, simply have confidence in me?"
The Man with the Brass Plate, claiming to be the representative of an intelligence office (archaism basically meaning an employment agency), finally coaxes a misanthropic homesteader to employ one of his farmhands:
The bachelor fell into another irresolute reverie; then said: "Well, now, you have suggested some rather new views of boys, and men, too. Upon those views in the concrete I at present decline to determine. Nevertheless, for the sake purely of a scientific experiment, I will try that boy. I don't think him an angel, mind. No, no. But I'll try him. There are my three dollars, and here is my address. Send him along this day two weeks. Hold, you will be wanting the money for his passage. There," handing it somewhat reluctantly.
"Ah, thank you. I had forgotten his passage;" then, altering in manner, and gravely holding the bills, continued: "Respected sir, never willingly do I handle money not with perfect willingness, nay, with a certain alacrity, paid. Either tell me that you have a perfect and unquestioning confidence in me (never mind the boy now) or permit me respectfully to return these bills."

"Put 'em up, put 'em-up!"


"Thank you. Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would, like a watch, run down and stop. And now, supposing that against present expectation the lad should, after all, evince some little undesirable trait, do not, respected sir, rashly dismiss him. Have but patience, have but confidence. Those transient vices will, ere long, fall out, and be replaced by the sound, firm, even and permanent virtues..."
Conversing with his new friend "Charlie Noble" (likely an operator's alias) over wine and cigars, The Cosmopolitan ("Frank") arrives at confession:
"I am trying my best," said the cosmopolitan, still calmly companionable. "A moment since, we talked of Pizarro, gold, and Peru; no doubt, now, you remember that when the Spaniard first entered Atahalpa's treasure-chamber, and saw such profusion of plate stacked up, right and left, with the wantonness of old barrels in a brewer's yard, the needy fellow felt a twinge of misgiving, of want of confidence, as to the genuineness of an opulence so profuse. He went about rapping the shining vases with his knuckles. But it was all gold, pure gold, good gold, sterling gold, which how cheerfully would have been stamped such at Goldsmiths' Hall. And just so those needy minds, which, through their own insincerity, having no confidence in mankind, doubt lest the liberal geniality of this age be spurious. They are small Pizarros in their way——by the very princeliness of men's geniality stunned into distrust of it."

"Far be such distrust from you and me, my genial friend," cried the other fervently; "fill up, fill up!"

"Well, this all along seems a division of labor," smiled the cosmopolitan. "I do about all the drinking, and you do about all——the genial. But yours is a nature competent to do that to a large population. And now, my friend," with a peculiarly grave air, evidently foreshadowing something not unimportant, and very likely of close personal interest; "wine, you know, opens the heart, and——"

"Opens it!" with exultation, "it thaws it right out. Every heart is ice-bound till wine melt it, and reveal the tender grass and sweet herbage budding below, with every dear secret, hidden before like a dropped jewel in a snow-bank, lying there unsuspected through winter till spring."

"And just in that way, my dear Charlie, is one of my little secrets now to be shown forth."

"Ah!" eagerly moving round his chair, "what is it?"

"Be not so impetuous, my dear Charlie. Let me explain. You see, naturally, I am a man not overgifted with assurance; in general, I am, if anything, diffidently reserved; so, if I shall presently seem otherwise, the reason is, that you, by the geniality you have evinced in all your talk, and especially the noble way in which, while affirming your good opinion of men, you intimated that you never could prove false to any man, but most by your indignation at a particularly illiberal passage in Polonius' advice——in short, in short," with extreme embarrassment, "how shall I express what I mean, unless I add that by your whole character you impel me to throw myself upon your nobleness; in one word, put confidence in you, a generous confidence?"

"I see, I see," with heightened interest, "something of moment you wish to confide. Now, what is it, Frank? Love affair?"

"No, not that."

"What, then, my dear Frank? Speak——depend upon me to the last. Out with it."

"Out it shall come, then," said the cosmopolitan. "I am in want, urgent want, of money."
So we've got an idea of the characteristics Guinea's friends exhibit in common: they are gregarious, courteous, earnest (if not cloying) in their optimism, disarmingly persuasive, and have a kind of fetish for the word "confidence" and what it stands for. Additionally, these passages evoke why The Confidence-Man is a kind of literary durian: unless you're a connoisseur, you're probably not going to enjoy it. Most of the book is precisely what you see above: a pairs of passengers aboard the Fidèle carrying on sophistical dialogues on the subject of confidence (as in faith; faith in humanity, the world, and God). The confidence-advocate usually persuades his listener to give him money, whether as a handout, a charitable donation, or in exchange for a purchase. Then he disappears, and the next one materializes out of the ether to approach another (or the same) passenger with a question to ask and a pitch to make. Stories within stories abound here—which is not unusual in a Melville novel, and nor is the obviousness with which Melville inserts unused fragments and abortive short works into a longform piece as digressive chapters. (What's different here is the doubt they cast upon the coherence, the quote-unquote meaning of The Confidence-Man. But we'll come back to that.)

There's a lot of talking, a lot of ideas thrown around, a lot of money changing hands, a lot of stories (bogus or otherwise) being told, but not a lot actually happening. This also isn't out of the ordinary for a Melville book: White-Jacket is practically plotless, and the existence of abridged versions of Moby-Dick speaks to the (philistinistic, perhaps satanic) desire of some readers to just skip past the scores of "look at this thing on this ship, consider it means" chapters and get right to the mythology eps. But White-Jacket and Moby-Dick are so unrestrained, boisterous, even ecstatic, that the real joy in reading them is following Melville's train of thought. The Herman Melville who wrote The Confidence-Man isn't writing from his heart so much from as the titanic chip on his shoulder. That is this novel's tether to Pierre: the "Timonism" that bubbled up as the narrative (and its author) deteriorated. Melville's prose is lucid and efficient in The Confidence-Man, but he plays his cards closer to his chest than ever before. He doesn't seem so concerned with enlightening or entertaining readers as much as fucking with them.

In the fourteenth chapter, Melville himself calls the book a comedy—which might be so, but it's a tremendously sarcastic and ironic piece of work.

Or maybe it isn't. Who knows?

David Eustace, Ship of Fools of Uncharted Depths

Let's address first The Confidence-Man's most obvious area of ambiguity—that which immediately concerns the logic of the plot. The Confidence-Man is such a novel that this is practically an extraneous variable; whatever value it assumes might be beside the point. That factor is the true identity and nature of the Confidence Man. Obviously the reader catches on pretty quickly that The Mute in White, Black Guinea, The Man with the Weed, et al. are one in the same person: the ingenious impostor on the wanted sign. (Henceforth we will refer to this lot collectively as the Confidence Man's avatars.)

Question #1: Are the avatars disguises of the same genius flimflammer, or is there a small confederacy of operators working in tandem?

Question #2: We are told that the Mute in White gets on board carrying "neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel." So where has he stashed away all his changes of clothes, wigs, props, and makeup? If nobody else is involved (again, this can only be an if), how the heck does he transform his appearance so radically and so quickly?

Question #3: Is the Confidence Man human? Could he be some kind of shapeshifting supernatural agent?

Question #4: What does the Confidence Man want?


Answer #1: We don't know. The text provides no evidence for either proposition. People tend to assume they're all the same person. Unless they don't.

Answer #2: We don't know. Melville doesn't tell us.

Answer #3: We don't know. It would account for quite a bit of his behavior aboard the Fidèle, but it is never addressed. Nor is there anything else in the text that suggests this is a world where spooky things are permitted to occur. All we can do is guess.

Jon B. had to parse a deluge of emails from me doing just that. Guessing. Analyzing. Theorizing. Citing evidence for one idea, only to send another message ten minutes later with a scrap of text that invalidates it. His take on the whole situation was pretty much "uh, I have no idea." This is ultimately the correct answer to almost every question the novel raises.

Answer #4: That's a very good question, and much more pertinent than the details of his identity. It's also one of the most suffusive clouds of ambiguity enveloping this book.


Black Guinea is a cripple who performs for tossed coins. The Man with the Weed was financially ruined by divorce and is hard up for cash. The Man with the Big Book has stock in a coal mining company to sell. The Herb-Doctor peddles miracle cures. The Man in Gray solicits donations for charity. All of them ask for money. All of them ask for confidence. The Herb Doctor asks that the buyer have faith in the efficacy of his medicine. The Man in Grey asks that his donors have faith in the power of philanthropy to feed all the starving people of the world. The money itself may not be the aim—which is precisely what the man with the wooden leg warns the young Episcopal priest and the Man in Gray:
"I think that without personal proof I can convince you of your mistake. For I put it to you, is it reasonable to suppose that a man with brains, sufficient to act such a part as you say, would take all that trouble, and run all that hazard, for the mere sake of those few paltry coppers, which, I hear, was all he got for his pains, if pains they were?"

"That puts the case irrefutably," said the young clergyman, with a challenging glance towards the one-legged man.

"You two green-horns! Money, you think, is the sole motive to pains and hazard, deception and deviltry, in this world. How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?"
After a while, one gets the impression that the cash that changes hands is merely collateral, a token of the confidence that has been secured. Handing over money is the ultimate secular act of faith. You wouldn't hand the green apron at the Starbucks counter your seven dollars unless you were absolutely certain you would receive a Grande Half-Caff No Whip Placenta Spice Latte as an immediate consequence. You wouldn't deposit your paycheck at the bank if you weren't confident your money would available to withdraw whenever you had need of it. You wouldn't contribute to a charity if you felt unassured that your donation would be used in support of the advertised cause.

What the Confidence Man appears to desire most is that people trust him. Not only in him, but in humanity writ large, in the innate goodness of man and nature, and in God's Providence. In White-Jacket, Melville yearns for extraterrestrial missionaries to come to Earth (seriously!) to "visit this poor pagan planet of ours, to civilize civilization and christianize Christendom." The Confidence Man might be a creature very much like a gospel-bearer from another world. Because on the face of it, it is difficult not to wish he were right, or to feel that the world would be a better place if more people subscribed to his way of thinking. Don't you suppose global nuclear disarmament would already be in the history books if everyone with warheads trusted everyone else with warheads not to retain secret stockpiles? If every nation agreed to cut back on emissions and trusted every other nation to make similar cuts (with all the economic restructuring and downsizing it would entail), don't you think we'd have a better chance at keeping our coastal cities above water? If our politicians had confidence that the other side of the aisle was acting in good faith, don't you suppose the government would be functional?

And that's what's so vicious about this whole affair. We might forgive the Confidence Man his iffy (even anti-intellectual) reasoning and readiness to misquote classical texts to suit his arguments if could be confident that he means what he says, if we were certain of his honesty. But we have no good reason to give him the benefit of the doubt, and it looks an awful lot like he's just ripping everyone off. We have no cause to trust that the stocks The Man with the Big Book sells are legitimate, that The Herb Doctor's medicine actually works, that The Man with the Brass Plate will really dispatch a farmhand to the Missourian's homestead, that The Cosmopolitan will return in the morning to pay the Fidèle's barber for his shave.

Can you imagine anything more cynical than an evangelist for trust, charity, and humanism who helps himself to his converts' money and keeps moving?

Or...wait. Hang on.

Question #5: Does the Confidence Man actually rip everyone/anyone off?

Answer #5: THE FUCK IF WE KNOW. FOR ALL WE KNOW, FOR ALL THE TEXT TELLS US, THE ANSWER IS INCONCLUSIVE. Maybe all of these people simply are who they say they are. Maybe The Man in Gray is going to funnel the money he collects into the Seminole Widows and Orphans Asylum. Maybe the stock The Man with the Big Book sells is going to pay off. Maybe the Herb Doctor's medicine will work. Maybe the Missourian will find The Man with the Brass Plate's farmhand delivered to him in two weeks. Maybe The Cosmopolitan will return tomorrow to pay the barber for his shave. But the aftermath of these transactions, all of them, remains unknown.

By presuming the Confidence Man is scamming everyone without any evidence of it, perhaps we betray our own inclination towards suspicion, our own poisonous cynicism, the Canada thistles with which our own hearts are overgrown. Our own lack of confidence.

But if we're right, then it means that all the miserable, cynical assholes of the novel—which the Confidence Man's detractors invariably are—are correct in their assessment of the world as a rotten place, of humanity's toxicity.

Jon B. had to read a lot of long emails regarding these matters. I wouldn't blame him for having gotten bored of it.


The email chain between Jon B. and me bespeaks the tremendous differences of our experiences in reading The Confidence-Man. There are dozens of messages from me (timestamped well after midnight), and they are plainly indicative of a kind of rising mania ("WHAT IS THIS BOOK ABOUT? WHAT'S HAPPENING? I THINK I KNOW—YES, YES THAT'S IT! WAIT NO IT ISN'T BUT THAT'S OKAY I THINK NOW I UNDERSTAND OH GOD I DON'T I DON'T UNDERSTAND") while Jon's occasional notes were more characteristic of a raised eyebrow and a shrug.

I think the fact that I have the lit theory implant may account for this variance.

The lit theory chip is a fairly simple device. It consists of an index of critical or philosophical filters (Marxism, feminism, queer theory, structuralism, postmodernism, etc.) through which to scrutinize a text. It is thought that by finding one or more of these characteristic patterns within a text that we can understand what the author is really saying, what the work is really about.

The Confidence-Man, by accident or by design, is a novel that not only resists interpretation, but actually causes the theory chip to short-circuit.

Midway through the book—Chapter 22 of 45, the exact center of the novel, when the sun that rose over St. Louis in the first chapter dips below the horizon—things get gummed up. The Man in the Yellow Vest was a no-show. The Soldier at the end of the list never appears. The Man with the Violet Robe might be The Cosmopolitan, whom we follow for the remainder of the novel, and who sounds a lot like the other avatars, though his actions don't quite match his predecessors' MO. (He doesn't collect money from anyone, for one thing. We may—or may not—have reason to suspect he exists independently from the Confidence Man entity or entities we've been observing thus far.) It is a jarring shift; the verse-chorus-verse of the first twenty-two chapters ceases, the pattern we've been conditioned to seek out and recognize abruptly decoheres.

Melville issues a phony cipher in the form of Guinea's list, and one suspects he wants the reader to drive himself to distraction trying to compel the novel to adhere to the pattern laid out at the beginning. These symbols, these tokens, these transformations—there's something going on here, the reader is inclined to suspect; all of this must add up somehow, it must have a meaning. It's just a matter of viewing it from the correct angle. Right?

Watching critics try to "translate" The Confidence-Man into an articulate moral statement or metaphorical pattern is actually pretty fun. My copy was rife with editorial annotations making facile attempts to tie the whole thing together with Hindu mythology. Other critics have sought to find transpositions with The Book of Revelations. One critic makes the case that the Confidence Man is a demon, and the story is purely pessimistic; another makes the case that the Confidence Man is Christlike and the novel slyly reaffirms Christian charity. Some reviewers vouch for the novel as a broad allegorical caricature of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. The chapters in which The Cosmopolitan meets and argues with fictional versions of Emerson and Thoreau suggest to some (mostly dust-jacket copywriters, apparently) that the whole affair should be approached as a refutation or a parody of their work. I've seen cases made for the centrality of the stories-within-stories (particularly the tangents about white hatred of Native Americans) to any moral understanding of the novel—as the excerpt from Plinlimmon's pamphlet helps to decode Pierre. Given the abundance of stories within the story, and the novel's explicit awareness of itself as such, some argue that The Confidence-Man's true meaning is to be found by approaching it as metafiction.

The latter group might be on to something. In fact, they're probably closest to being right, even if that only amounts to being the least incorrect. And this is kind of astonishing because The Confidence-Man was written well over half a century before the Modernists pried open the chassis of Western art and literature, and a hundred years before postmodernists like Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and John Barth started turning out fictions that were about themselves as fictions.

At three points in The Confidence-Man does Melville halt the narrative to offer the reader a few comments about his book, about writing fiction and reading it: these are Chapters 14 (on inconsistent characters in fiction), 33 (on the fidelity of fiction to "real life"), and 44 (on "original" characters in fiction). Although none of these (neither by themselves, nor as an aggregate) point to a royal road to understanding this peculiar masquerade, we can take them as an indication that Melville's message is profoundly implicated in his medium. In the nature of fiction as artifice.

Does anyone remember when the guy from Oasis talked shit about novels?
"I only read factual books. I can't think of ... I mean, novels are just a waste of fucking time. I can't suspend belief in reality ... I just end up thinking, 'This isn't fucking true," rants the musician, who says he is currently reading The Kennedy Tapes.
"It's all about the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis——I can get into that. Thinking, 'Wow, this actually fucking happened, they came that close to blowing the world up!'"
And he's right! Novels aren't fucking true. They're all made up! We know they're made up. Conversely, when reading nonfiction we trust that the events disclosed are matters of immutable historic fact. Unable to alter actual events or interpolate nonfactual events, the author of nonfiction is more curator than composer, selecting, emphasizing, and omitting contingent and coincident occurrences, arranging them as a narrative from which meaning can be extrapolated. When reading a work of fiction, we are aware that the author contrives events to create both a narrative and its delineate or implied meaning. We know that in nonfiction, we are considering events; in fiction, we consider ideas. The heightened responsibility of the author of fiction, who must fabricate his or her material rather than simply report it, is commensurate to the fiction reader's increased burden of appraisal and interpretation. When the author writing a memoir describes her father's habit of smoking cigars in the house, it is simply a material fact. When the author writing a novel describes her protagonist's father's habit of smoking cigars in the house, the critic or close reader has to ask: what does it mean? Why was this included? What does it represent?

If we trust the author's competence in his or her craft, we are probably disposed to have confidence that we are not being led astray, that there is a reason for each path the author chooses to lead us down. Picking up a novel is an act of faith in itself: I'm going to read you; I'm going to engage with you; I'm going to follow you in the belief that you're taking me somewhere I'll be glad to have gone.

In my estimation, The Confidence-Man lives up to its title and imitates the paradoxes enacted by its titular character(s) by justifying our trust through the very act of violating that trust.

The novel doesn't add up. There is no intelligible allegory, message, or moral at the heart of this thing, and the story is far too inconclusive to be called complete. It is a textual Mad Poiuyt, a confounding illusion of coherence that you can stare at forever and never truly apprehend. And that is the point, suggests critic John Bryant in "The Confidence-Man: Melville's Comedy of Doubt:"
What "may follow of this Masquerade," however, is not as important as what has happened to the reader. We have experienced the breakdown of an allegory and the failure of an empirical process. But the disintegration has proved instructive. We have found patterns of iniquity keyed to a larger pattern of allegory which we assume will be sustained throughout the novel; we have been forced to revise our assumptions when [The Cosmopolitan] fails to conform to those allegorical requisites; and having once revised, we have learned (ironically) that our original suspicions are perhaps (but only perhaps) correct. By having us adopt, challenge, and finally reject a set of assumptions about the nature of confidence men, the comedy thwarts our understandably human desire to discover "True knowledge." Ineluctably, Melville's willful creation and negation of norms pushes us beyond authority and certitude into a world of perpetual questioning....In reading The Confidence-Man, we are made to live the kinds of philosophical inconsistencies of human nature that Melville's characters merely project.
Perhaps we could categorize The Confidence-Man not only as a forerunner of metafiction, but as a work of meta-philosophy: it has been more than two millennia since Plato lived and died, and all the intervening years of arguments, revisions, schisms, theories, and frameworks have led to no grand unified theories of life, humanity and the world; everything is ambiguous, our knowledge is fragmentary, and we most of we claim to know is taken on faith. As Ahab ruminates in Moby-Dick, neither the world nor humanity can solve itself.

Or: could it be that Jon B. is correct in positing that maybe—maybe—it's just not a very good book? (After all, T.S. Eliot came to the same conclusion with Hamlet.) Maybe what seems mysterious in it is actually sloppiness. Maybe Melville changed his mind halfway through, like he did with Pierre. Maybe he was rushing through it; maybe he decided to just leave it unfinished; maybe the last line really means "the hell with this, I'll just hint at a sequel and take a long vacation."

We don't know. As darkness envelopes the stage, Melville hints that something further may follow of his Masquerade, but the the rest is, indeed, silence, as the con-man slips away.

5 comments:

  1. Lately I've been interested in novels that are structured through means other than plot. Like how the scenes in Through The Looking-Glass are linked only by Alice's movement on the chess board, or how Huck Finn is largely plotless for the whole middle section, with only the linear movement down the Mississippi tying the vignettes together. It's pretty difficult to scrounge up books like these, and there's no "Top Ten Structured Novels That Lack A Unifying Plot" list. At least not that I'VE found. You had so many interesting points about the novel that I couldn't possibly respond to everything I want to, which is just as well because I'm not sure I have anything substantive to add. So I'll just say that when you brought up that the novel was ostensibly structured around a list, that really piqued my interest. That the structure was so clearly laid out and yet started fraying early with fragments and digressions and eventually broke apart almost completely and descended into ambiguity is even more interesting. That having come up with this unconventional structure and having laid it out so clearly for readers he would subvert it... or not subvert it, just let it fall apart. What he really subverted is the idea of structure. That's cool, like if halfway through Looking-Glass Lewis Carroll started ignoring the rules of chess (I mean, moreso than he already did) and even the idea of moving from square to square, but left some vestiges of it, just to keep us wondering if the rules still apply at all, and if they do-- how?

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    1. I'm not sure you'll even check back and see this, but I was trying to think about novels I read that fit the description. Almost Transparent Blue might make the grade, only because its plot is just "do heroin, go to orgy, do heroin, go to orgy." The Sound and the Fury is a description of eighteen years in the life of a family conveyed by four chapters about four days experienced by certain characters in 1910 and 1928. Or what about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Man wakes up in gulag, goes about his business in the gulag, goes to sleep in the gulag.

      Escaping plot is tough when it's founded on a habitual tool for making sense of events the occur in linear time. Hrm.

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  2. Great read. I've never picked up The Confidence-Man, one of these days I'll have to give it a spin...I'm currently in a 'literary comfort-food' phase, which means lots of Philip Dick.

    I actually had a good time with Pierre. I've been trying in vain to get Mrs. T. W. to read it for a while now. It's so different than anything else Melville wrote...reminds me a more of Russian Lit, really, could be Melville's The Idiot.

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    1. I really, REALLY like Pierre, and I'm glad you enjoyed it too!

      At some point I need to tackle Melville's Clarel. It's an epic poem based on his tour of Israel and environs. Apparently it's the single longest American poem.

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  3. This was an excellent post. I agree and sympathize with most of what you said, and you brought so much more to my attention than I could have caught on my own, that it would be tedious to start quoting things.

    I just finished reading The Confidence-Man today—which is much later than I thought it would be, seeing how I galloped through the final 30 pages of the last novel I was reading to catch the Fidèle in time to brazenly declare that I started it on April 1st. It is a strange little book, but one that has given me confidence. And my confidence is this: The more I read of Melville, the more confident I am that there is intent behind his ostensibly frantic style.

    I'm now left wondering what Melville book to swim to next. I've read Moby-Dick, Pierre, The Confidence-Man, Bartleby, Clarel, and most of his short stories. I've been considering Mardi, but your post has more or less recommended White-Jacket. So I'll do that.

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