Printer Friendly

'The Confidence-Man': Melville and the problem of others.

No characteristic of Melville marks his mind more clearly as modern than his profound engagement with questions of epistemology. Ever since Descartes, modern thought has been primarily concerned with establishing firm foundations for knowledge. Locke, for instance, recognized "that all metaphysical and ethical discussion must be preceded by epistemological investigations,"(1) and the prestige of Kant's Vernunftkritik has privileged epistemological questions in philosophical discussion until today.(2) But the triumph of epistemology inevitably also meant the triumph of skepticism: defining one's relation to the world as "knowing" immediately raises questions about the content and quality of such knowing. There is no certainty, in other words, that one's "knowledge" of the world corresponds to that world. Or as Richard Rorty puts it, commenting upon Descartes's First Meditation, "how do we know that anything which is mental represents anything which is not mental?"(3) Such radical skepticism, is, of course, a hallmark of modern thought: it is "that anxiety," in Stanley Cavell's words, "about our human capacities as knowers that can be taken to open modern philosophy in Descartes, interpreted by that philosophy as our human subjection to doubt."(4) Melville often dramatized that anxiety, as in Ahab's horror of inscrutability ("that inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate"),(5) or in Pierre's obssesive and, of course, doomed pursuit of "absolute Truth" (Pierre, p. 283). The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in its turn engages radical skepticism. According to R. W. B. Lewis, "the drastic aim of Melville's comedy of thought is to bring into question the sheer possibility of clear thinking itself - of knowing anything."(6) If Moby-Dick is Melvill'es most impressive literary exploration of what philosophy calls external-world skepticism, The Confidence-Man is his scarcely less impressive attempt to explore through the medium of literature what philosophy calls other-minds skepticism. "If Moby-Dick," Paul Brodtkorb says, "panoramically eyes the vastnesses of nature's varied phenomena, among which are her deceits, reversals, and metamorphoses, The Confidence-Man focuses most sharply on human nature."(7)

Philosophically speaking, the difference between the two kinds of skepticism is one of focus, not of epistemological principle. Doubt about everything outside one's own mind obviously covers both the external world and other minds. This congruence helps explain why Emerson, for instance, can treat the two kinds of skepticism as virtually one. When he says in his essay on "Friendship" (an essay, incidentally, that Melville exploited in The Confidence-Man, chapter 39), "I ... see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own," friends are clearly included in "nature." As he puts it earlier in the same essay, "I cannot deny it, O friend, that the vast shadow of the Phenomenal includes thee, also." Similarly, in Nature, when Emerson points to "the total disparity between the evidence of our own being, and the evidence of the world's being" and claims that the form "is perfect" and the latter "incapable of any assurance," one recalls that for him "the world" comprises "both nature and ... all other men."(8) But however epistemologically akin, the two kinds of skepticism invite very different literary treatment. That is one reason why as a work of fiction The Confidence-Man hardly seems to belong to the same genre as Moby-Dick.

The Confidence-Man problematizes the cognitive relationship of the subject (the reader, the narrator, characters-as-perceivers, Melville) to others in three ways: through characterization, through narrative, and through theoretical reflections.

Knowledge of others (as of the external world) is never something given. It is a product of the subjecvt's interpretation of the available data, of the "facts." Such facts, in their turn, are not purely objective: they are always perceived facts and hence bear the mark of the perceiver's mind and judgment. As Sir Isaiah Berlin put it, echoing Goethe, "no statement of fact is free from theory." Or in Ernst Cassirer's words, "all factual truth implies theoretical truth."(9) Melville repeatedy, on the levell of characterization, draws his readers' attention to the utter inaccessibility of the characters to each other and to the narrator. Melville's perceivers cannot interpret the facts because they cannot get hold of the facts in the first place. They are prevented from doing so by the impenetrable thicket of mystery, incongruity, and alienness isolating every character. In Mark Winsome's word's, "nobody knows who anybody is. The data which life furnishes, towards forming a true estimate of any being, are as insufficient to that end as in geometry one side given would be to determine the triangle" (p. 193). If the process of knowing involves overcoming the otherness, the alienness of the object of knowledge, it seems clear that none of Melville's perceivers overcomes that otherness. Every character maintains his or her absolute otherness, and every interpretation offered by the narrator or another observer never amounts to anything more than an exercise in creative misunderstanding - something that the reader may find interesting and entertaining, but that gets her or him no closer to knowing the character in question. Hence the endless critical disagreement about the meaning of every important character in The Confidence-Man.

Melville's favorite descriptive term for his characters is "stranger," a term, John Bryant has noted, that he uses over fifty times in the course of the novel.(10) The narrator refers to the mute in the opening chapter as "in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger" (p. 3), and the mute remains such until he disappears from view. The other passengers on the Fidele - themselves part of a world "full of strangers" and of "strangers still more strange" (p. 8) - are in no position to cast light upon the mute. Chapter 2 opens with a series of nineteen "epitaphic comments, conflictingly spoken or thought" (p. 7) about the mute, and all of them are equally unenlightening to the reader. Sometimes, ironically enough, the reader is "promised" some insight into such strangers, as in chapter 18, which bears the hopeful title "Inquest into the true character of the Herb-Doctor." Unfortunately, those discussing him cannot agree whether the herb-doctor is a knave, a fool, or a genius, or all three in one, or one of those disguised "Jesuit emissaries prowling all over our country" (p. 92).

In a novel largely made up of dialoques, Melville repeatedly resorts to dialogue as a means of blocking the reader's access to the characters and the characters' access to each other. Melville's interlocutors do not achieve meaningful identity, and hence mutual knowability, because their dialogues never allow them to do what dialoque at its best requires of its participants, namely, to engage their true self and to be willing both to reveal their true self and to recognize the true self, that is, the real humanness, of the other(s). Melville's interlocutors either refuse to bring their true self into play or are prevented from doing so. The confidence-men aboard the Fidele - or assuming there is only one confidence-man, his several avatars - cannot allow their true self to become known by their intended victims since their success as victimizers obviously depends upon how successfully they hide their identity beneath deception and equivocation. And as victimizers, the confidence-men are not interested in the selfhood of their intended victims: these appear not as truly human interlocutors, but exclusively as belonging to the category "potential victim," that is, as objects to be turned into profit by means of ruse and stratagem. The intended victims, whether they succumb or not, react within the framework imposed upon them by the confidence-men and consequently, in their turn, fail to reveal their full individuality. Such failure in dialogic engagement often amounts to depersonalization of dialoque. Waichee Dimock has commented helpfully upon "the disjunction between speech and speaker" in The Confidence-Man: "what a person says has little to do with who he is - or rather ... it is impossible to tell who he is from what he says. ... Indeed, throughout the book, there is a certain arbitrariness in the assignment of speech." Or as Cecelia Tichi puts it, in a novel that demands a high degree of "aural sensitivity," that insists on one's listening rather than seeing, the reader "is nonetheless prevented from linking much of what he hears to its sources."(11)

Related to the failure of Melville's dialogues to bring into play the full humanity of the interlocutors is the theatricalization to which some characters are subjected. Melville, after all, wrote a comedy, a "comedy of thought ... [and] of action" (p. 71), and in true comedic fashion he turns life aboard the Fidele, that "ship of fools" (p. 15), into a spectacle to be watched with an eye to the incongruous and ridiculous rather than into an experience to be deeply felt (an experience of the kind tragic protagonists invite their audience to share). The spectacle of human follies, foibles, and illusions is what The Confidence-Man presents to the reader over and over again. Between characters this "turning into spectacle" sometimes takes the form of theatricalizing, in Stanley Cavell's sense of the term. Theatricalization occurs through one's refusal to acknowledge others, to recognize them in their full humanity and selfhood, and one enacts this refusal by hiding one's own humanity from them, by not allowing one's human self to become visible to them, knowable to them. In Michael Fischer's apt words, "by not making ourselves present to other people, we theatricalize them, turning their lives into a spectacle and their world into a stage that we (only) view."(12)

A clear victim of such theatricalization is the mute. Making the mute both dumb and deaf is Melville's almost too obvious way of precluding any possibility of a true dialogic relationship between him and other passengers. Such a relationship might have made him into a "you," a fully acknowledged human individual, but no passenger is able to engage his own humanity to the point of granting such acknowledgement and by the same token receiving such acknowledgement, in his turn, from the mute. A world that regards the barber's hanging up his "No Trust" sign as an action "quite in the wonted and sensible order of things" (p. 5) can hardly fail to misunderstand the mute's message of charity and to respond to him with surprise, derision, and eventually indignation. His message only heightens the discomfort caused by his "aspect so singularly innocent," an aspect the other passengers consider "to be somehow inappropriate to the time and place" (p. 4). When the mute persists in obtruding his message, he causes "some stares to change into jeers, and some jeers into pushes, and some pushes into punches" (p. 6). To some observers, his singularity begins to look like lunacy (p. 5). He obviously represents a category of being whose otherness is such that the passengers are unable to recognize it as fully human. He remains an unknown and unknowable entity, almost an "it." Some of the "epitaphic comments" referred to above do indicate some recognition of the sleeping mute's humanity, but he narrator is careful to point out that these comments were "spoken or though" by people who "had not witnessed preceding occurrences" (pp. 7-8), by people, in other words, whose only "evidence" is the mute's sleeping human form. Of those who had witnessed the occurrences and had interacted with the mute, not one was able to treat him as anything but an alien spectacle.

Another example of theatricalization is the treatment of Black Guinea, who is to the others "a curious object" (p. 11), an occasion for amusement ("in short, as in appearance he seemed a dog, so now, in a merry way, like a dog he began to be treated"), and a cause of disputation (as to whether his deformity is real or a profitable sham). At no point is he treated as anything but an object, whether of curiosity, amusement, suspicion, distrust, or charity. His dehumanized condition is manifest in the imagery depicting him: he has "the stature of a Newfoundland dog" (p. 10); the drover fingers Black Guinea's head "as if it were the curled forehead of a black steer" (p. 10); thoughts of winter make Black Guinea look like "a half-frozen black sheep" (p. 11), and so on. Non one, apparently, has ever made his own full humanness accessible to Black Guinea. Those willing to speak for him, assuming one can credit his claim, he describes in terms emphasizing their fragmentariness: for example, "[a] ge'mman wid a weed, and a ge'mman in a gray coat and white tie ... and a ge'mman wid a big book ... and a ge'mman in a yaller west; and a ge'mman wid a brass plate; and a ge'mman in a wiolet robe" (p. 13). Such fragmentary descriptions are intended, admittedly, to facilitate the persons' being recognized; at the same time, these fragmentary traits are the masks allowing their wearers to participate in the masquerade suggested by Melville's subtitle and thus to hide their true self from the other characters and the reader.

Black Guinea's dehumanization is an extreme form of the theatricalizing to which he is subjected. His deformed body draws attention to a larger question faced by other-minds skeptics, namely, whether the presence of a human body implies the presence of a human beings. As Cavell remarks in his discussion of "Skepticism and the Problem of Others," "to speak sensibly of seeing or treating or taking persons as persons - or of seeing or treating or taking a (human) body as giving expression to a (human) soul - will ... presuppose that there is some competing way in which persons - or bodies - may be seen or treated or taken."(13) Some competing ways are obviously at work in the treatment to which narrator and passengers alike subject the mute and Black Guinea. The observers recognize no real humanity, no true personhood in the body of either: the mute's "inarticulate" body veils his inner self as effectively as Black Guinea's deformed body does his. Melville returns to this problem in the narrator's account of Goneril:

It appeared that the unfortunate man had had for a wife one of those natures, anomalously vicious, which would almost tempt a metaphysical lover of our species to doubt whether the human form be, in all cases, conclusive evidence of humanity, whether, sometimes, it may not be a kind of unpledged and indifferent tabernacle (p. 60).

Toward the end of the book the cosmopolitan puts the matter emphatically: "you can conclude nothing absolute from the human form" (p. 226).

Just as the external-world skepticism of Moby-Dick suggests the possibility that the world of appearances hides no reality, that the only reality is the appearances themselves (Ahab's "how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? ... Sometimes I think there's naught beyond," Moby-Dick, p. 164), so does the other-minds skepticism of The Confidence-Man suggest the possibility that phenomenal human existence blocks one's access to the inner humanity of others so effectively that one not only cannot get to know it, but even cannot be sure whether others have an inner humanity analogous to one's own. On such ultimate questions Melville expresses himself, of course, with appropriate ambiguity. For instance, "with these words and a grand scorn the cosmopolitan turned on his heel, leaving his companion at a loss to determine where exactly the fictitious character had been dropped, and the real one, if any, resumed. If any ..." (p. 223). The pointed ambiguity of this statement reinforces the book's message that the question of one's ability to know others belongs to the realm of doubt.

Melville's narrative strategies also call into question the possibility of one's knowing others. Critics have often commented upon the narrator's unreliability, inconsistencies, equivoques, and general trickery at the reader's expense - characteristics reflected in, among other things, a self-contradictory rhetoric and an indirect, involuted, self-referential, and sometimes "self-erasing" style.(14) With such a narrator, the reader's experience of the book's epistemological problem becomes,, not surprisingly, an experience of utter doubt concerning every character he or she encounters. This is all the more so since the narrator has no monopoly on the stylistic traits mentioned. Several or all of them are shared by quite a few of the characters, including some of the confidence-men, and this fact only contributes to the reader's perplexity.

Melville's overall narrative strategy emergers perhaps most clearly in his treatment of some of the interpolated stories. These stories confront important moral questions and thus might advance the reader's understanding of human nature as it appears in the novel. Unfortunately, Melville prevents one from reaching a satisfactory interpretation of the stories and their protagonists. A good example is the story of Goneril (chapter 12). The narrator tells the story to the reader "in other words than [those]" (p. 59) in which the merchant tells the story to the man with the traveling-cap. The merchant had heard the story first from the man with the weed, whose story was subsequently confirmed and amplified by the man in the gray coat. The man with the traveling-cap does not at all see the story in the same moral light as the merchant does. After all this dodging - and keeping in mind the general unreliability of the narrator, the problematic identity of the characters just mentioned, and the self-questioning style - the reader may be forgiven for concluding that Goneril is too chimerical to be susceptible to meaningful interpretation.

For the multilayered provenance of the Goneril story Melville may have been technically indebted to Plato's Symposium and Parmenides, both of which he had known since the early 1850s.(15) In the Parmenides, in A. E. Taylor's apt summary, "the whole is recited by a speaker to whom it had been formerly recited by a second person, who in his turn had heard it from a third."(16) In the Symposium, the dialogue is reported by Apollodorus, who had heard it from Aristodemus; and within the report there are, of course, a considerable number of quoted speeches and conversations. But more relevant to this argument than a possibly Platonic derivation is Gerard Genette's principle that "every event told in a story is on a diegetic level immediately superior to the level on which the narrational act producing that story is situated."(17) Applying Genette's different levels of diegesis, or different levels of fictionality, to The Confidence-Man as a whole makes one realize the extreme fictionality of the Goneril story. If one opposes, for a moment, fact to fiction, it seems clear that the novel's three theoretical chapters (chapters 14, 33, 44) are extradiegetic (extradiegetiques): they are not part of the fictional world of the book; they are Melville's theoretical confrontation with some questions raised by the fiction. Equally extradiegetic is the narrator's narrational act, which is a basic, nonfictional given; the reader - presumably a member of a real, nonfictional world - is confronted with an equally real, nonfictional fact: the story he or she reads is narrated by a narrator. The content of the narrator's story is, in accordance with the principle quoted above, on a higher diegetic level, in this case the primary diegetic level (immediately superior to the extradiegetic level), which is the basic fictional level (le niveau diegetique). Immediately superior to this level is the fiction within the fiction, the metadiegetic level (le niveau metadiegetique). Levels of fictionality can go higher and higher: Genette speaks of "metametadiegese, etc."(18) the status of the Goneril story should now be clearer. It is metadiegetic in, at least, the second degree: the narrator, though using his own words, is not, at this point, concerned with his basic narrative (diegetic level); instead, he presents a story told by the merchant, to whom it was told by the man with the weed, and, in a different version, by the man in the gray coat. That the narrator insists on telling the story in his own words merely adds an additional layer of complexity. The important point, thematically speaking, is that the Goneril story is far removed from the "real," extradiegetic world. The further one moves away from its factuality, the more intensely fictional and, therefore, in Melville's view, the less knowable and, consequently, the less "truthful" the content of the narrative becomes. Daniel G. Hoffman has suggested that the interpolated stories "dramatize depths of experience beyond the capacity of the rational premises of the argument to define." Such depths may indeed be "experienced" (also by the reader), but they cannot be sounded by one's understanding; they cannot be known. In fact, they only cause bewilderment. Joel Porte recognized this when he called The Confidence-Man an "exponential romance - the kind of book that intellectually, as it were, invites the reader to step between opposed sets of mirrors."(19)

How crucial such failure of understanding may be is illustrated by the critical fate of the interpolated story of Colonel John Moredock and Indian-hating (chapters 25-28). This section has often been regarded as the moral center of the novel, indeed as "the crux of the book,"(20) and it has exercised the keenest minds among Melville critics. Yet the result has been the most extreme interpretive disagreement.(21) Though such disagreement is far from uncommon in literary studies, with The Confidence-Man it seems to derive from the author's fictional demonstration of his radical skepticism about the very possibility of knowledge. The reader cannot achieve a satisfactory understanding of the Moredock episode largely because he or she is denied any real knowledge of Moredock himself.

The colonel is repeatedly referred to as the late Colonel John Moredock (p. 140). Having passed into history, he survives only in the mind of posterity, that is, in posterity's thoughts and stories. Like all forms of narrative historiography, such stories interpret and fashion "the facts" in accordance with the storytellers' (unavoidable) preconceptions and sense of generic imperatives (the demands of narrative). Repeated retelling tends to make the better stories, that is, stories in which "the facts" are made to fit ever more meaningfully and smoothly into a narrative whole. This is clearly the case with Judge Hall's story. As Charlie Noble remarks,

I [have] heard his [Moredock's] history again and again from my father's friend, James Hall, the judge....In every company being called upon to give this history, which none could better do, the judge at last fell into a style methodic, you would have thought he spoke less to mere auditors than to an invisible amanuensis; seemed talking to the press; very impressive way with him indeed (p. 142).(22)

Skillful narrator that he is, the judge employs such devices as "an imaginary kind of dialogue between a backwoodsman and a questioner" (p. 148) and translates inarticulacy into effective utterance: "not that the backwoodsman ever used those words, you see, but the judge found him expression for his meaning" (p. 149). Rhetorically, he is also a master of the concessive gesture: "still, all this is less advanced as truths of the Indians than as examples of the backwoodsman's impression of them" (p. 146). The story of Moredock, in addition, is shaped by what it is supposed to illustrate. Instead of focusing on the unique details characteristic of an individual life, it uses that life as representative, as illustrative of Indian-hating. In Hall's own narrative, Moredock's career was but one instance among many of Indian-hating in action (p. 506, "Editorial Appendix"). In Melville's adaptation, the "metaphysics" of Indian-hating plays an even more dominant role (p. 281, "Historical Note"). Such a procedure, obviously, puts an additional barrier between the reader and the "real" Colonel Moredock,

As a further complication, the reader receives the judge's story through Charlie Noble. Noble claims, by way of introduction, that he can render the judge's story "almost word for word" (p. 142); and he concludes by saying: "there, I have done; having given you, not my story, mind, or my thoughts, but another's" (p. 155). What one has here is a feat of memory: it is Noble's "impressible memory," as he puts it (p. 142), that allows him to repeat the judge's words. Remembering something, however, is always, as Cassirer says, giving it "a new ideal existence"; remembering is an act of "ideal reconstruction."(23) Noble, moreover, adds a considerable amount of editorial comment, thus further "distancing" the reader from the judge's story. Furthermore, Noble tells the story to make a point - not so much about Moredock as about Pitch (pp. 139, 155). Finally, Goodman's reaction to the story (chapter 28), though equally shaped by preconceptions, cannot but increase one's doubts. One is unlikely to quarrel with Goodman when he says, in reference to the story, "to me some parts don't hang together" (p. 156). In sum, the story of Moredock, like so much else in this book, illustrates Melville's radical doubt about the possibility of one's knowing others.

The problem of knowledge also plays an important part in the three theoretical chapters in The Confidence-Man (chapters 14, 33, 44). Melville here attempts to defend the art of fiction from the simplistic expectations of his audience, expectations usually taking the form of demanding fictional characters that are easy to understand.

In chapter 14, Melville opposes demands for consistency in characterization. He justifies the inconsistent behavior of the merchant (in chapter 13) by pointing out that inconsistency is part of human nature, that "in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis" (p. 69). Readers recognize - in fact, insist on - the writer's duty to be true to nature. Yet they object to his representing inconsistent characters. Melville comments:

The distaste of readers of [inconsistent characters] in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity as to understanding them. But if the acutest sage be often at his wits' ends to understand living character, shall those who are not sages expect to run and read character in those mere phantoms which flit along a page, like shadows along a wall? (p. 69).

Naive readers do not want their encounters with the characters to be marred by doubts and uncertainties; they expect the writer to provide clarity and ready accessibility. And yet, Melville says,

upon the whole, it might rather be thought, that he, who, in view of its inconsistencies, says of human nature the same that, in view of its contrasts, is said of the divine nature, that it is past finding out, thereby evinces a better appreciation of it than he who, by always representing it in a clear light, leaves it to be inferred that he clearly knows all about it (p. 70).

In chapter 33, Melville opposes demands for what Martha Woodmansee has called "a transcript-of-the-facade realism."(24) If fiction were to provide nothing more, it would not be worth reading because it would give readers only what they find everyday in the phenomenal world around them: a world of surfaces whose familiarity dulls their perceptions. Good readers, therefore, expect that "fancy shall evoke scenes different from those of the same old crowd round the custom-house counter, and same old dishes on the boarding-houses table, with characters unlike those of the same old acquaintances they meet in the same old way every day in the same old street" (p. 182). Good readers, however, want not just novelty and entertainment, but also "more reality, than real life itself can show" (p. 183). In Aristotelian fashion, they want the universal rather than the particular because the former brings them closer to the truth about human nature.(25) "The people in a fiction," therefore, "must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts" (p. 183, emphasis added). The writer must transcend such exactness of detail as too limiting, too confined to the particular, and to superficially realistic. To be sure, he must provide "nature...but nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed" (p. 183). Such transformation, however, results from an act of imagination, of vision, of creative interpretation; and the reader in his or her turn can only reinterpret the vision presented by the writer. "Truths" about human nature thus attained are, clearly, not accessible to knowledge. Surfaces and exact details are knowable, but hardly worth knowing. The deeper reality, as stated in chapter 14, "is past finding out" (p. 70). The only valid response to it is faith - faith in one's ability to give it meaning and thus make it relevant to oneself: "it is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie" (p. 183).

Chapter 44, which treats of originality of character, is perhaps the most intriguing of the theoretical chapters. Melville confronts two questions: is the confidence-man a truly original character? And, what is meant by "original character"? The first question, obviously, cannot be answered until the second is answered. Authorial modesty, moreover, would hardly have allowed Melville to answer the first question affirmatively. Instead, as Edgar Dryden says, he places "the question of the [confidence-man's] originality . . . squarely in the lap of the reader."(26) Melville has no qualms, however, about answering the second question, but his answer is deceptive in that it deals with the original character's sources and effects - in a word, his existence - rather than his essence.

Original characters - "whence came they? Or where did the novelist pick them up? . . . Where does any novelist pick up any character?" (p. 238). In the world around him, Melville answers, where true originality, however, is so rare that "to produce but one original character," an author not only "must have seen much, and seen through much," but also "must have had much luck" (p. 239). Therefore, an original character "cannot be born in the author's imagination - it being as true in literature as in zoology, that all life is from the egg" (p. 239). If Melville thought that such statements provided a satisfactory definition of "original character," he was guilty of what Northrop Frye called "the fallacy of thinking that we have explained the nature of something by accounting for its origin in something else."(27) Melville was undoubtedly aware of the inadequacy of his answers, just as he knew that he was not answering the question when he described an original character as not "something ... confined to itself," but as "a revolving Drummond light, raying away from itself all round it - everything is lit by it, everything starts up to it (mark how it is with Hamlet), so that, in certain minds, there follows upon the adequate conception of such a character, an effect, in its way, akin to that which in Genesis attends upon the beginning of things" (p. 239). Here, if one may reword Frye, is the fallacy of thinking that one has explained the nature of something by pointing to its effect on something else. In this passage the subject (the original character, Hamlet, God) seems to dissolve into its predicate: the creative effect absorbs the subject in such a degree that God's creation, for instance, comes to define God. In fact, the predicate becomes the real subject in the reader's thoughts, while the original subject (the divine essence) continues to defy conceptualization.(28) Melville's answer to the second question, in sum, fails to define "orginal character" essentially, and this failure inevitably affects one's answer to the first question.

It seems clear that, by Melville's criteria, the confidence-man is indeed a truly original character. R. W. B. Lewis puts it well:

[The confidence-man's] motive is to trick, beguille, maneuver or force each and every person he accosts to declare himself - to announce, whether consciously or not, his own fundamental moral and intellectual nature. . . . He has, in short, exactly the same prodigious effect as that attributed by Melville to the great original in literature. . . . Everyone he meets "starts up to" him, the moral reality of each is lit by contact with him. This man of many masks is after all the great unmasker; this unrivaled obfuscator is the great illuminator.(29)

The confidence-man's effect is clear, but not what he is himself. On this crucial point he remains throughout the man of many masks, the unrivaled obfuscator. Like God's, his essence remains "past finding out." From beginning to end, his "Masquerade" conceals him, and ultimately the concealment was as impenetrable to Melville as it is to his readers.

The Confidence-Man demonstrates that knowledge of others is so highly problematic that it cannot serve as a valid determinant of one's relationship to them. What is needed is a more satisfactory mode of being in the world with others. The proposed alternative is charity, urged emphatically in chapter 1. Charity makes claims upon people that knowledge does not. It makes claims, in Warner Berthoff's words, "on the germ of humanity within us,"(30) and an essential part of one's humanity is accepting the humanity of others. Unlike knowledge, charity means, by definition, concern for others and thus engages one's moral being. To true charity, knowledge is irrelevant ("charity believeth all things," p. 5). As Christopher Sten says, "if we |trust' someone whom we know we can trust, we are not |trusting' him at all."(31) Charity, in a word, demands a leap of faith, and like faith it inhabits a realm of absoluteness far beyond the relativity of all knowledge ("charity never faileth," p. 5). Charity does not dissolve into its predicates but maintains a concrete "subjectness." Whereas "knowledge" is an empty term unless one knows what the knowledge is of, unless one knows its object, the term "charity" taken by itself carries the full definitional weight of a fundamental personal and social attitude. In chapter 1, therefore, when the mute repeatedly erases and changes the Pauline attributes of charity that he has written on his slate, "the word charity, as originally traced, remained throughout uneffaced" (p. 5).

It is true that, as Warner Berthoff says, "through most of The Confidence-Man charity is honored only in the breach." But it is equally true that "the command to charity so remarkably erected [in the first chapter] stands over the whole book and carries through it with positive force."(32) Charity provides the novel with its moral norm. Just as only humans can be inhuman, so only where there is charity can there be uncharitableness. Only a world that recognizes charity as a moral ideal can fail in charity. The many such failures in the world of The Confidence-Man are, paradoxically, the best evidence that charity is its normative value.

Notes

(1) Hans Vaihinger, quoted in Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), p. 135 n. 5. (2) Rorty, p. 134 and n. 4; Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), p. 482. (3) Rorty, p. 46. (4) Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 4. (5) Moby-Dick, p. 164. All page references to Melville's works are to the volumes of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle, et al., 12 vols. to date (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and The Newberry Library, 1968 - ). Page references will appear parenthetically. (6) R. W. B. Lewis, Afterword to The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (New York: New American Library, 1964), p. 265. (7) Paul Brodtkorb, Jr., "The Confidence-Man: The Con-Man as Hero," SNNTS, 1 (1969), 423. (8) The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Alfred R. Ferguson et al., 4 vols. to date (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971 - ), Vol. 2, 120, 116; Vol. 1, 37, 8. (9) Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder (New York: Random House, 1977), P. xiii. Cf. Johann Wofgang Goethe, "Das Hochste ware: zu begreifen, db[beta] alles Faktische schon Theorie ist," Maximen und Reflexionen, no. 575; Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gesprache, ed. Ernst Beutler, 27 vols. (Zurich: Artemis, 1948-71), Vol. 9, 574. Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1944). p. 174. (10) John Bryant, "Citizens of a World to Come: Melville and the Millennial Cosmopolite," AL, 59 (1987), 29. (11) Wai-chee Dimock, Empire for Liberty; Melville and the Poetics of Individualism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 207-08; Cecelia Tichi, "Melville's Craft and Theme of Language Debased in The Confidence-Man," ELH, 39 (1972), 641 - 42. (12) Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge: In Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 103-04; Michael Fischer, Stanley Cavell and Literary Skepticism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 96. (13) Cavell, The Claim of Reason, p. 372. (14) On Melville's self-erasing style, see Lewis, pp. 264-65, 272. (15) Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Melville's Reading, Revised and Enlarged Edition (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1988), pp. 76-77, and Pursuing Melville (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1982), pp. 299, 391 n. 35. For Plato's influence on The Confidence-Man, see Sealts, Pursuing Melville, pp. 326-27, and John Wenke, "|Ontological Heroics': Melville's Philosophical Art," in A Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), pp. 576-77. (16) A. E. Taylor, Plato: The Man and his Work (London: Methuen, 1978), p. 349. (17) Gerard Genette, "Discours du recit," Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972), p. 238 ("tout evenement raconte par un recit est a un niveau diegetique immediatement superieur a celui ou se situe l'acte narratif producteur de ce recit"); see pp. 238-51 for detailed discussion of the different diegetic levels. For further discussion, see Gerard Genette, Nouveau discours du recit (Paris: Seuil, 1983), pp. 55-64. (18) Genette, Figures III, p. 239 n. 1. (19) Daniel G. Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961), p. 289; Joel Porte, The Romance in America (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1969), p. 166. (20) Hershel Parker, "The Metaphysics of Indian-hating," in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, ed. Hershel Parker (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 324. See also The Confidence-Man (Northwestern-Newberry Ed.), "Historical Note," p. 281 n. 30 ad finem. (21) For helpful surveys of the criticism, see Northwestern-Newberry Ed., pp. 340-42, and John Bryant, "The Confidence-Man: Melville's Problem Novel," in A Companion to Melville Studies, pp. 336-37. (22) The real Hall was apparently exposed to similar narrative treats. He refers to Moredock as "a gentlemen . . . whose history we have often heard repeated by those who were intimately conversant with all the events." See The Confidence-Man, "Editorial Appendix," p. 506. (23) Cassirer, p. 174. (24) Martha A. Woodmansee, "Melville's Confidence-Man," in Der amerikanische Roman im 19, und 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Edgar Lohner (Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1974), p. 66. (25) See Aristotle's Poetics, chapter 9. (26) Edgar A. Dryden, Melville's Thematics of Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1968), p. 182. (27) Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 332. (28) See Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phanomenologie des Geistes, ed. Johannes Hoffmeister (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1952), pp. 51-52. (29) Lewis, p. 271. (30) Warner Berthoff, "Herman Melville: The Confidence-Man," in Landmarks of American Writing, ed. Hennig Cohen (New York: Basic Books, 1969), p. 132. (31) Christopher W. Stern, "The Dialogue of Crisis in The Confidence-Man: Melville's |New Novel,'" SNNTS, 6 (1974), 174. (32) Berthoff, pp. 131-32.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Van Cromphout, Gustaaf
Publication:Studies in American Fiction
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:6499
Previous Article:Israel Potter: Melville's 'citizen of the universe.'
Next Article:Sincerity, secrecy, and lies: Helen Hunt Jackson's no name novels.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |