[Marxism] Panurge and Melville's "The Confidence Man"
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 23 11:57:52 MST 2013
Melville’s The Confidence Man
New Orleans Picayune, June 21,1849:
`Well, then,' continues the `confidence man', `just lend me your watch
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. I now have something new for my all-time greats list.
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 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 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?) with his (their?)
many disguises would reduce the confusion, and anyway, as Melville says,
everyone else is playing roles too, and none of their names are 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 was in XIXc America -- often highly unorthodox belief.)
On the one hand, the “philanthropists” seem mostly to be either conmen
or suckers. On the other, while the misanthropes initially seem either
more perceptive or more honest than the philanthropists, they often 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
Chapters 37-40 take a dig at Emersonian self-reliance. Melville was
often dependent on financial help from others, and the Emerson’s
uncharitable principles must have seemed 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 charitable giving. Melville mentions Rabelais in
one place, 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 (a view which is,
I suspect, closer to Melville's):
"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. O 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 as
well as anyone could wish. As the book progresses, it raises larger and
larger issues, without ever resolving them, thus becoming a classic.
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