‘Well, then’, continues the confidence man,
‘just lend me your watch till tomorrow‘.
— New Orleans Picayune, June 21,1849
From an earlier try I remembered Melville’s Confidence Man as an amusing but disjointed satire, but it turned out to be a Platonic dialogue on solitude / togetherness and trust / suspicion written as low comedy, and in it Melville shows American positive thinking for what it is in a way which today is more relevant than ever.
A steamboat starts from St. Louis headed down the Mississippi heading toward New Orleans, with passengers getting on and off at every stop. This area was still on the frontier, but Melville, unlike Mark Twain writing about the same time and place, doesn’t give you much local color. Instead you overhear a series of dialogues between strangers (or “brother strangers”, since we’re all strangers) on the subjects of confidence, credit, trust, faith, charity, conviviality, geniality, friendship, and so on. From the beginning we have reason to suspect that several of these mostly-nameless speakers are actually one man (but just maybe more than one) in various disguises — the title character, who sets up the chumps with spiritual preaching about “confidence” and “trust”. (The term “confidence man” came from the American frontier, and there are only a few recorded instances in English – from New York and New Orleans – earlier than the publication of Melville’s book).
Nothing improbable happens in the book, but Melville admits that the book still isn’t realistic. What’s unrealistic is his way of telling the story, which breaks several rules of fiction and is deliberately hard to follow. Few of the characters have names, and even these names are seldom used. Giving a name to the con man or men in their many disguises would reduce the necessary confusion, and anyway, as Melville says, everyone else is playing roles too, and no one’s name is really real.
Every optimistic cliché you have ever heard is heard in the first part of the book. Self-help writers, investment counselors, management consultants, prosperity theologians, gurus, futurologists, free-market visionaries – in the America of a century and a half ago, they were all already there. If you trust, you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams; but the doubters will be left behind. “Not a player but shall win”. “Missions I would quicken with the Wall Street spirit….In brief, the conversion of the heathen would be let out on contract.”
In the second half of the book, however, multiple transformations of the themes of solitude and togetherness, trust and fraud, autonomy and conviviality, and misanthropy and philanthropy are developed in a dazzling series of dialogues which lead to no certain conclusion. (Hawthorne on Melville: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief”). In this book you are often reminded of how powerful Christian belief (though often highly unorthodox belief) was in XIXc America, and how embattled unbelievers were.
On the one hand, the “philanthropists” seem mostly to be either con men or suckers. On the other, while the misanthropes initially seem either more perceptive or more honest than the philanthropists, often they cave in to the pious con man’s entreaties in the end. Seemingly this is from sheer loneliness – trust and charity make you easier to cheat, but also (like wine) make life bearable. In Plato, The Social Lie is a necessary evil but ultimately a good thing, whereas to Melville it is much more ambiguous.
Chapters 37-40 take a dig at Emersonian self-reliance. Melville was often dependent on financial help from others, and Emerson’s uncharitable principles had to seem unduly harsh to him. In chapter 39 Charlie, the Emersonian, refuses on high moral principles either to lend or to give money to his needy friend Frank — for friendship is something too high and pure to be smirched either by a business transaction or by charitable giving. Rabelais was one of Melville’s mentors, and many of the Emersonian anti-philanthropic speeches in the book are mirror images of the sponger Panurge’s praise of debt, debtors, and bankrupts in Book III of Gargantua and Pantagruel:
“Imagine the idea and form of some world….. in which there is not one debtor or creditor: a world without debts…. There, among the stars, there would be no regular course whatsoever. All will be in disarray….Among the elements there will be no sympathizing, alternation, or transmutation whatever, for the one will not repute himself obliged to the other; he hadn’t lent him anything….This nothing-lending world would be nothing but bitchery, a more unearthly wrangle than the election of the University Rector of Paris….. On the contrary, imagine a different world in which everyone lends, everyone owes, all are debtors, all are lenders. Oh, what harmony there would be among the regular movements of the heavens! I think I hear it as well as Plato ever did. What sympathy among the elements!….. Among humans peace, love, fondness, fidelity, repose, banquets, feasts, joy, blitheness, gold, silver, small change, chains, rings, merchandise will trot about from hand to hand. No lawsuit, no war, no dispute; no one will be a userer, no one a sneak, no one stingy, no one a refuser.” (Rabelais, tr. Frame, pp. 269-271).
Melville gives his blessed gift for the sardonic free rein throughout. He also agrees with me (and with Wittgenstein) on the following important point: “Even in the least virtuous product of the human mind, if there can be found but nine good jokes, some philosophers are clement enough to affirm that these nine good jokes should redeem all the wicked thoughts, though plenty as the population of Sodom.”
In the beginning, Melville describes optimistic American cheesiness definitively and for all time. As the book progresses, it raises larger and larger issues, without ever resolving them, making this book a classic.