Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Reflections on The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

“Melville, Pennsylvania” Project – Book VII

Whose “masquerade”? This was the first thing that came to my mind upon seeing the subtitle for Book VII of this project, Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, his last full-length novel. And even having read the book, I’m not at all sure of the answer.

This book is not the most entertaining of Herman Melville’s novels; I doubt many who have read it would disagree. But it is one of the most intriguing, in terms of what his designs were – what he was trying to say or accomplish – before more or less riding off into the sunset, in terms of fiction writing, for the next 20 years.

The Confidence-Man barely qualifies as a novel at all; some critics have argued that it flat-out is not. It has no discernable plot; thin pastiches for characters; and leads to no “resolution” by any reasonable definition of the term. The general situation of the novel, let’s say, is that a gallery of characters have been thrown together on a steamboat that is descending down the Mississippi River. It makes stops along the way, like a bus, to drop people off and bring on new passengers. The people on the boat, mostly white men, meet and converse with one another; the book consists of a long series of those conversations, which Melville allows us to eavesdrop on, while offering little explanation or back story.

It seems that every one of the passengers has something to sell or try to push on others in some way. One man is an “herb doctor” trying to sell what we might call “organic” remedies today. Another is a self-described philosopher who advocates the “principles” and thinking of a kind of 19th century Tony Robbins/guru type of figure. Another tries to interest the passengers in an almost utopian American village that is being established in the farther reaches of “Indian country”. (Interestingly, a similar “frontier” village is described in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, his only novel to feature scenes set in the United States, published in the 1840s.)

As I have already indicated, the structure and execution of The Confidence-Man doesn’t make for a very engrossing or fast-paced read. It’s hard to think of a long string of dialogues as storytelling, especially when relatively little has been done to flesh out the characters who are speaking. So what is really going on in this book? The most interesting question to me is not what happens or how entertaining is it, but what was the motive? What was Melville trying to achieve, or say, or both, when he offered this book to the public?

I can’t say I have an answer to those questions. This is probably the novel I am most interested in reading more about in my upcoming exploration of Melville biography and criticism. I am looking forward to gaining more insights into what he was looking to accomplish when he wrote The Confidence-Man. Especially coming on the heels of three novels in a row that were not well received by the American public – Moby Dick, Pierre, and Israel Potter. Though they’re all wildly different, and each of them has merits, as I have argued here, none of them was embraced by readers on the whole. You would think that Melville might return to his “roots” and write another sea tale or adventure story (he finally did much later with "Billy Budd, Sailor"), but something instead compelled him to produce this baffling conglomeration of dialogues in which a microcosm of America, or at least male America, is almost literally being sold down the river towards a destiny that is never quite reached.

The lack of distinction between the “characters” aboard the Fidele, the ironically-named vessel floating down the Mississippi here, doesn’t seem accidental. Most likely driven by his own late experience, Melville appears to be making the point that men disguise their true natures and motives from one another, as if the whole earth and our experience of it are much like the “masquerade” of the subtitle. Everyone wears a mask, perpetually. Consider the following passage from the middle of the novel, lifted from one of the various conversations:


What are you? What am I? Nobody knows who anybody is. The data which life furnishes, towards furnishing a true estimate of any human being, are as insufficient to that end as in geometry one side given would be to determine the triangle.


I admit that I struggled reading this book, not finding it very palatable to my own tastes, but at the same time I thought there was much about it that was impressive. It seems well ahead of its time once again, as many other of Melville’s novels eventually proved to be – the dialogue-heavy technique was repeated later by many prominent writers, including Hemingway and Joyce; and the very notion today of the “con artist” or “hustler” seems predicated by this novel. An entire genre of novels, films, and television shows - those dealing with con artists in general - seems to owe a debt to Melville. There are also smaller moments where the author seems prescient, including one exchange where a character seems to be advocating homeopathic medicine.

Furthermore, the nearly constant references to a virtual encyclopedia of mythology, Scripture, American and English literature, philosophy, history, art, and music that Melville employed with breath-taking frequency and variety are, it seems to me, a feat unequaled by any other novelist in our history. Plenty of people are well-read; plenty of novelists seem to know a lot about a lot of things; but no one in our literary landscape touches Melville as far as making far-flung reference to the widest spread of cultural information. I remember being blown away by the range of vocabulary alone from 1848’s Mardi, which also makes voluminous reference to a myriad of other things. And Melville was not even thirty when that earlier book was published.

Nonetheless, the question(s) that lingers(-ed) with me after reading Melville’s last novel is: where was Melville, in terms of his mental state, and his view towards his fellow man? Is The Confidence-Man the work of a bitter, jaded artist, who’s best work had been rejected by readers and critics, whom here throws up his hands and declares that no one can ever know anyone else, and everyone in the United States is being sold down the river by someone or something? Or, is it more of a great artist’s effort to hold a mirror up to the nation, letting it know that we were headed somewhere ambiguous, somewhere unknown, but ominous and murky in nature??

In the novel’s enigmatic coda, an old man is guided by another figure slowly towards an area of the vessel that is described as darkened, shadowy, and nondescript. Who is that man? Is it the author? Is it the title character? Is it each of us, a personification of America itself?

The Confidence-Man is the work of a mature writer, precisely crafted, sometimes hilariously funny, girded with a dizzying knowledge of culture and the world at large, but also inscribed in a moment of tremendous change. The United States was transforming rapidly, heading for Civil War and the Industrial Revolution after that. Melville, a great student of human nature and civilization across the globe and across time, must have been fearful of what he was seeing.

The notion of “confidence” as another way to say “trust” is repeatedly explored in these dialogues; it’s difficult for me to believe that Melville held much of that nebulous commodity left in escrow to invest in the onrushing future.

4 comments:

淑君 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
韋于倫成 said...

果然很有意思呀....這當然要頂一頂呀 ̄﹏ ̄........................................

育德 said...

人生不如意事,十常八九。 ..................................................

淑怡 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.