Thursday, August 29, 2013

"What do you talk your hog-latin to me for?" - Melville's characters argue

What I was wondering, when I asked if there is anything in The Confidence-Man except argument, is what to do with all of the argument, all of the disputation and rhetorical slipperiness.  Melville had abandoned the mode that in Moby-Dick was his most original achievement, when he seized on a single object, a single aspect of an object, and riffed on it as long as he could, the trick he learned from reading Sir Thomas Browne.  The meaning of “whiteness,” that sort of thing, the parts a certain kind of reader brags about skipping.

A typical line of The Confidence-Man is not like the descriptions I enjoyed yesterday but more like this:

“To shift the subject, since we cannot agree. Pray, what is your opinion, respected sir, of St. Augustine?”

Then heck if they don't talk about St. Augustine for a while.  Or maybe this is more typical:

“Pun away; but even accepting your analogical pun, what does it amount to?”

Does anyone want to know what the analogical pun is?  It involves caterpillars and butterflies.  I do not see how it is a pun.  Never mind.  Both examples are from Chapter 19, as is the post’s title, the confidence man versus the Missouri bachelor.

The fact is that I do not care much about Herman Melville’s spiritual problems.  I stand off to the side with Nathaniel Hawthorne, as seen in The English Notebooks.  Melville is in England, traveling to Jerusalem (and securing his English copyright to his new novel).  He visits his friend Hawthorne; while walking on the beach they have a long talk:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief.  It is strange how he persists - and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before - in wandering to-and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting.  He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.

Melville’s distress cannot be attributed to the commercial failure of The Confidence-Man, since it had not yet failed.

I do care a lot about what artistic use Melville makes of his spiritual problems.  The Confidence-Man is such an inside-out book that I find myself reading around the exchanges more than worrying about the specifics of the argument.  Why this subject, why now, why with these characters?

In the 1979 article “Melville’s Quarrel with Fiction,” Nina Baym argues – you can tell what kind of critic she is – the kind I like – that the debates are purposefully obscure and irresolute, since they really serve a larger argument:

Apparently bristling with significance, the work plants clues that lead nowhere.  Ultimately we find that we have no questions answered, that we cannot even say what questions have been put.  As the subtitle states, the work is a masquerade.  In The Confidence Man Melville bitterly expresses the sort of truth that can be asserted in a mendacious medium and illustrates the convulsed ways in which it can be expressed. But the truths he speaks are only about fiction and language.

Tomorrow I will follow a clue or two.


  1. Hmm, interesting. Do you think that with all those arguments that seem to go nowhere, Melville himself as the author is acting a sort of confidence man?

  2. Many years ago, when I first read "The Confidence Man," I was reminded of several quatrains f
    rom Edward FitzGerald's version of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat:

    Quatrain XXVII

    "Myself when young did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
    About it and about: but evermore
    Came out by the same door as in I went."

  3. Ooh, that Fitzgerald stanza is good. What a clever connection. I hope Melville eventually read it.

    Stefanie, I think that is pretty close to Nina Baym's argument: Melville begins to feel that fiction is a confidence game and the author implicitly a confidence man. So he writes a novel that does, in an exaggerated way, what he fears he has always been doing in his fiction, not showing the Truth but hiding it.

  4. I hate commenting when it's so long since I've read this! And now I'm going to spend the weekend re-reading! But! With respect to Baym's argument and Stefanie's suggestion, I think I might go a little further. The book is not "[a]pparently bristling with significance," it is bristling with significance, and to say that the "truths he speaks are only about fiction and language" seems to ignore the fact that there is nothing else but language for us to communicate with. "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen"--you know the drill. Melville, of course, cannot schweigen--but he can talk talk talk to prove that schweigen is the only real answer after all.

  5. Perhaps the novel is about the tragic discovery that all he has is language.

    Actually, Baym seems to think that is what Pierre is about.

    I should read Pierre. The idea of reading it so close to The Confidence-Man induces weariness, though.

  6. Hmm, that is an interesting take on Pierre. I guess I will have to read the Baym essay!

  7. She argues that, in a common pattern for him, Melville shifted Pierre in the middle of the book. She points to the spot where Pierre becomes a writer.

    Melville is a classic example of the writer who has to write to find out what he is writing.

  8. The more I read your posts, Tom, the more I think this may really be the precursor of The Recognitions: characters come in and go out without warning, talk, talk, talk, infuse their conservations with lots of erudition, and nothing really happens.

  9. Melville was being at least partly clear about the hidden meaning[s] of Confidence Man. It may prove useful to quote a bit of the malicious, Orwellian fun of its chapter xvi, where the confidence man is tricking a poor sick moribund into buying some snake oil. (Sorry for the long quote, but it helps to show what exactly is being parodied here).

    "A sick philosopher is incurable because he has no confidence. Now then, sir, in your case, a radical cure—such a cure, understand, as should make you robust—such a cure, sir, I do not and cannot promise."

    "Oh, you need not! only restore me the power of being something else to others than a burdensome care, and to myself a droning grief. Only make me so that I can walk about in the sun and not draw the flies to me, as lured by the coming of decay. Only do that—but that."

    "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. 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." [then again, make sure to buy only my vials and not cheap imitations]

    "You told me to have confidence, said that confidence was indispensable, and here you preach to me distrust. Ah, truth will out!"

    "I told you, you must have confidence, unquestioning confidence, I meant confidence in the genuine medicine, and the genuine me."

    "But in your absence, buying vials purporting to be yours, it seems I cannot have unquestioning confidence."

    "Prove all the vials; trust those which are true."

    "But to doubt, to suspect, to prove—to have all this wearing work to be doing continually—how opposed to confidence. It is evil!"

    "From evil comes good. Distrust is but a stage to confidence"

  10. So what he's peddling is "confidence": confidence in the purity/efficacy of his goods, and the only way to confidence in the purity of his goods is through some kind of acceptance of the necessity of evil?

  11. Gaddis has a lot of Melville in him. Even the religious stuff. Wait till you see the end. Holy cow.

    Scott, right, but with the twist that the snake oil salesman's products are, in fact, worthless. So the confidence is misplaced, a mistake, unless etc. - this can go in circles. I believe bibliographing was going after this point once.

    One of the open scholarly questions, at least in 1971, at least judging by the Norton, is the definition of Cleanthess's "at least partly." Some aspects of the book that seem clearer at our distance seem to have escaped the novel's contemporaries. It is a curious phenomenon.

  12. So, okay, the only thing that maintains the structure of a God-centric universe is our (likely misplaced) confidence in God's existence, and our willingness to accept evil as a price of goodness? And this could all be just a big scam? Or something? And Christ is just the devil in a new suit and a fancy hat? Or something?

    This reminds me of the Flannery O'Connor story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."

  13. Scott, you hit the nail on the head. Melville probably wrote the whole chapter in order to be able to include a parody of the next two Bible verses. (Melville drops subtle hints about what this chapter is getting at, by quoting, or concocting quotes, by Vergil and Homer and about King Solomon):

    1 Thessalonians 5:21
    Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

    Isaiah 45.7
    I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

    Also, most of the philosophical discussions inside Confidence Man are supposed to be subjects of derision, like the commonplace notions contained on the Dictionary of Received Ideas Bouvard and Pecuchet prepared.

  14. You are both now well ahead of me, and one of you has not even read the book.

    Scott, it may interest you that the novel is only half-built out of the Bible. The other half of the quotes are from the other Bible, Shakespeare.

  15. It may be even more complicated. In a review "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville wrote this about Hawthorne and Shakespeare (and probably himself): "Through the mouths of the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago, craftily says, or sometimes intimates, the things which we feel to be so terrifically true that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them."

    And later:

    "For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth--even though it be covertly, and by snatches."

    While the review is ostensibly about Hawthorne, I think Melville writes of himself also.

  16. That Hawthorne review is definitely largely about Melville. Maybe it is about Melville absorbing Hawthorne, but still, Melville.

    This search for Truth is a good part of Melville's trouble with fiction. Put baldly, this sounds laughable. In context, the crisis is legitimate.

  17. It is legitimate. All of fiction is artifice, and at some point some writers realize that they're hemmed in by an essentially false medium. There is no way to produce the truth via storytelling, via novels. You can produce a sort of version of some idea of some truth, but is that enough? Probably not, for a thinking guy like Melville. What do you do then? You can't reproduce the "real" world because there is no such thing as the "real" world, but you love working with the language. I guess Melville's solution to the unsolvable problems of fiction was to write poetry. I wonder how he felt about that. I've never read any of his poetry. But the problems for serious writers of taking writing seriously is a serious problem. That sounds facile, but I can't think of a better way of putting it.

  18. It is possible that Melville found the artificiality inherent in poetry to be a useful source of distance. I don't know. The fact that he wrote a gigantic novel-in-verse suggests that there was continued strain.

    Then there is the return to fiction, decades later, in Billy Budd, for Melville a direct, character-driven story, which also includes an extended argument about good and evil.