Sunday, December 22, 2013

Melville, The Confidence-Man*

Here I was, blithely hoping to get an enlightening - with a focus on light - read in before settling down to write something on the topic of impostors, and was instead flattened by the metric-ton (per something cubed) density of this book. Lesser idiots than myself would've perhaps suspected as much and stayed away after having read Moby Dick to absolutely no benefit in high school, and "Bartleby the Scrivener" with only the most meager grasp of its point much later. It's no wonder Paul Cantor was satisfied to give it the most passing of mentions in his own article on impostors, because to dwell on it further would require a doctoral dissertation.

Melville had, it is clear, read a lot of philosophy. This much I gathered. And that he was not a cheerleader for "confidence" in men or markets, romantic naturalism, transcendentalism, or the advance of "geniality":
By the way, talking of geniality, it is much on the increase in these days, ain't it?" 
"It is, and I hail the fact. Nothing better attests the advance of the humanitarian spirit. In former and less humanitarian ages—the ages of amphitheatres and gladiators—geniality was mostly confined to the fireside and table. But in our age—the age of joint-stock companies and free-and-easies—it is with this precious quality as with precious gold in old Peru, which Pizarro found making up the scullion's sauce-pot as the Inca's crown. Yes, we golden boys, the moderns, have geniality everywhere—a bounty broadcast like noonlight." 
"True, true; my sentiments again. Geniality has invaded each department and profession. We have genial senators, genial authors, genial lecturers, genial doctors, genial clergymen, genial surgeons, and the next thing we shall have genial hangmen." 
"As to the last-named sort of person," said the cosmopolitan, "I trust that the advancing spirit of geniality will at last enable us to dispense with him. No murderers—no hangmen. And surely, when the whole world shall have been genialized, it will be as out of place to talk of murderers, as in a Christianized world to talk of sinners." 
"To pursue the thought," said the other, "every blessing is attended with some evil, and——" 
"Stay," said the cosmopolitan, "that may be better let pass for a loose saying, than for hopeful doctrine." 
"Well, assuming the saying's truth, it would apply to the future supremacy of the genial spirit, since then it will fare with the hangman as it did with the weaver when the spinning-jenny whizzed into the ascendant. Thrown out of employment, what could Jack Ketch turn his hand to? Butchering?" 
"That he could turn his hand to it seems probable; but that, under the circumstances, it would be appropriate, might in some minds admit of a question. For one, I am inclined to think—and I trust it will not be held fastidiousness—that it would hardly be suitable to the dignity of our nature, that an individual, once employed in attending the last hours of human unfortunates, should, that office being extinct, transfer himself to the business of attending the last hours of unfortunate cattle. I would suggest that the individual turn valet—a vocation to which he would, perhaps, appear not wholly inadapted by his familiar dexterity about the person. In particular, for giving a finishing tie to a gentleman's cravat, I know few who would, in all likelihood, be, from previous occupation, better fitted than the professional person in question." 
"Are you in earnest?" regarding the serene speaker with unaffected curiosity; "are you really in earnest?" 
"I trust I am never otherwise," was the mildly earnest reply; "but talking of the advance of geniality, I am not without hopes that it will eventually exert its influence even upon so difficult a subject as the misanthrope." 
"A genial misanthrope! I thought I had stretched the rope pretty hard in talking of genial hangmen. A genial misanthrope is no more conceivable than a surly philanthropist." 
"True," lightly depositing in an unbroken little cylinder the ashes of his cigar, "true, the two you name are well opposed." 
"Why, you talk as if there was such a being as a surly philanthropist." 
"I do. My eccentric friend, whom you call Coonskins, is an example. Does he not, as I explained to you, hide under a surly air a philanthropic heart? Now, the genial misanthrope, when, in the process of eras, he shall turn up, will be the converse of this; under an affable air, he will hide a misanthropical heart. In short, the genial misanthrope will be a new kind of monster, but still no small improvement upon the original one, since, instead of making faces and throwing stones at people, like that poor old crazy man, Timon, he will take steps, fiddle in hand, and set the tickled world a'dancing. In a word, as the progress of Christianization mellows those in manner whom it cannot mend in mind, much the same will it prove with the progress of genialization. And so, thanks to geniality, the misanthrope, reclaimed from his boorish address, will take on refinement and softness—to so genial a degree, indeed, that it may possibly fall out that the misanthrope of the coming century will be almost as popular as, I am sincerely sorry to say, some philanthropists of the present time would seem not to be, as witness my eccentric friend named before." 
"Well," cried the other, a little weary, perhaps, of a speculation so abstract, "well, however it may be with the century to come, certainly in the century which is, whatever else one may be, he must be genial or he is nothing. So fill up, fill up, and be genial!"
For the rest, including even the basic question about whether the titular "confidence man" is one person throughout the book or several, I wish I still had access to Harvard's library.

*Shameless blogging style-cribbing from Withywindle hereby admitted. I think he also may have recommended the book in the first place though.


Withywindle said...

David Salmanson, in comments at A&J. I started the book afterward, but I confess I bogged down a few chapters in. I thought I'd gotten the point. I may not have confessed my short attention span on the blog, though.

Miss Self-Important said...

The first chapters seem to be clear - the stranger discerns what it is that passengers do have confidence in after they assert that they have none, and exploits it. There Melville seems to be criticizing "confidence" as a kind of sunny American optimism in progress, nature, religion, markets, etc. But in the last third of the book, the stranger is named and stops swindling people, instead engaging in several long discussions of misanthropy, and there I think it becomes less clear that confidence is simply folly b/c it also seems that the people most immune to confidence tricks are wretched people themselves (one of these is Thoreau). It then seems that the best attitude is uncalculating generosity, knowing you'll be swindled some of the time and accepting it without particular shame. But I don't know; it was a really strange book.