[Marxism] Panurge and Melville's "The Confidence Man"

Louis Proyect 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 
till to-morrow.'

 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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