It seems unwise to admire a book so tenuous as Melville’s The Confidence-Man, in which all identities are temporary and all boundaries are permeable, with an essay tightly glued together. Here, then, is a handful of scattered thoughts.

  • 1

From the very title of the book, we know that its central character is not to be trusted. We know that the words he speaks are not linked to the world in the usual way, that their sole meaning is the money they can make for him. It is, moreover, difficult to shake the feeling that the narrator is the confidence-man’s shill, deliberately working to make his cons respectable. And yet, from both mouths, confidence-man and narrator, are uttered truths, or at least persuasive errors, both about the nature of our species and about appropriate moral attitudes. Despite knowing that these profundities are mere means to disingenuous ends, we cannot help attending to their siren call. We cannot escape the ineluctable gravity of language, even of language we know to be empty.

  • 2

When the confidence-man first appears in the novel bearing his name (in the first sentence), he appears as an intrusion. “At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis.” There is a world, fully formed, into which he materializes, and from the perspective of this world, “it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger.” And for much of the book, he is a stranger, or rather a Heraclitean series of strangers, identified only by appearance, never by name. But somewhere around the middle of the, the book, this changes: he adopts a stable identity (the cosmopolitan) and receives a name (Frank Goodman). Interestingly, it is now his interlocutors who are referred to as strangers. The strange intrusion has become normal, has become the measure.

  • 3

I have fairly few childhood memories, but I distinctly recall the time when, while grocery shopping with my father, he commented to me that artificial banana flavoring actually tasted more like banana than an actual banana. I didn’t understand it then; perhaps I understand it a bit better after reading the 33rd chapter of The Confidence-Man. In that chapter, the narrator steps outside the story to address an imagined objection (“an imaginary censure applied to but a work of imagination”) to certain fantastical elements of his work. He justifies this lack of realism by insisting that his work is mere amusement, a diversion from life: “strange… that any one, who, for any cause, finds real life dull, should yet demand of him who is to divert his attention from it, that he should be true to that dullness.” But he finds a higher purpose in it as well: reality, as we find it, is not fully real. In works of fiction, therefore, good readers “look not only for more entertainment, but, at bottom, even for more reality, than real life itself can show.” Fiction, like religion, “should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.”

  • 4

I cannot stop myself from writing a unified piece, can I? Melville’s narrator says that fiction should present another world, one to which we feel the tie (§3). The central success of The Confidence-Man is that it accomplishes this. The Confidence-Man begins a stranger, as noted above (§2). Even as a stranger, however, we feel the pull of his language (§1). Not only his language is intoxicating: so is his formlessness. His true nature is obscure. He is a con-man, but the cons in which he engages range from the petty to the hefty. If money were the primary aim, why not focus only on those that better reward his efforts? We are forced to conclude that the money is a byproduct, that the real aim is the con itself. Somehow this makes it seem grander, and makes our familiar world—the world into which the confidence-man intrudes—seem insubstantial, a world of dupes. As this sense grows, more and more we enter into the world in which the confidence-man is the host, and we are guests—strangers (§2). We move from our reality to a reality somehow more real, “one to which we feel the tie” (§3). In this world, the fundamental contrast is between confidence and misanthropy, gullibility and cynicism. There are no other ways. Il n’y a pas de hors-con.

  • 5

I will end on a personal note. The confidence-man throughout preaches a philosophy of confidence: have confidence in me, in your fellow man, in everything. Let our lives be based on trust. This ethic has a metaphysical foundation: “a proper view of the universe, that view which is suited to breed a proper confidence, teaches, if I err not, that… all things are justly presided over.” And this foundation, in turn, allows the confidence-man to characterize atheism: “set aside materialism, and what is an atheist, but one who does not, or will not, see in the universe a ruling principle of love…?” As an atheist myself, I find I actually quite like this definition, and its implications. If correct, we must accept that love is something late-arrived to this world, something fragile and contingent. If we wish to preserve it, we must work to do so. It won’t maintain itself. It isn’t inevitable.

Advertisements

In May 2018, I read a fair amount; here are some reflections on my reading.

A longish trip out west in the back half of this month, much of which was spent on a bus, saw me complete May Swenson’s Collected Poems (Library of America). I bought this volume on the strength of her poem “Bleeding”. After reading the totality of her published work (plus a generous selection of her “uncollected” work), “Bleeding” remains her single finest poem, a harrowing picture of domestic violence, presented as a conversation between a knife and a cut. But her body of work contains a wealth of riches, peaking with her fourth book, Half Sun, Half Sleep. Toward the end of her career, her poems start to take on the appearance (accurate or not) of straight-out-of-life descriptions, and I become less interested, though every volume has a few poems I’ll remember. And the strange, extended exercise of “Banyan”, the final poem of her final book (In Other Words), is a triumph. A mix of prose and poetry, it ruminates on the purpose of life by telling a story that (surreally) glides between the realistic and the surreal. In another context, I described Swenson’s poetry as “concrete poetry that liquifies in the mouth”—I can’t do better here.

My neglect of Wallace Stevens up to now mystifies even me. I’ve owned his The Collected Poems (Vintage) for some time, and I’ve known without a shadow of a doubt that, whenever I did get around to working through it, I would love it. I know this because the works of his I have read present abstract reflections with effortless beauty and striking imagery—present abstract reflections in gorgeously concretized form. He’s also quietly hilarious, when he wants to be. This is more or less what I strive for in my poetry, so I find in Stevens a kindred voice. At last, I’ve started working through Stevens’ corpus systematically. This month I read Harmonium, Ideas of Order, and The Man With the Blue Guitar, each delightful in its way.

The depressing thing about loving a book that you can only read in translation is knowing that you are held at bay from much of the original. But there is a happy complement to this: the possibility of reading the book in numerous translations, seeing it each time in a new light. This I’ve been doing with Zhuangzi, beginning with Palmer’s (mediocre) translation, then moving on to Graham’s translation (which is tied to a heavy-handed but compelling reconstruction of the text), and finally, this month, Brook Ziporyn’s translation (Hackett). Though not complete, it contains all of the Inner Chapters and generous selections from the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters. Other work I’ve read by Ziporyn has had a gratingly portentous style (see his SEP article on Tiantai Buddhism), but he approaches Zhuangzi with a lighter hand, and I found his translation a delight to read. It was also interesting to note places where his interpretation differed from Graham’s, and to consider the implications of these differences (which were sometimes substantial). In addition to reading Zhuangzi himself, I also read Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio’s Genuine Pretending, a book that attempts to position Zhuangzi’s philosophy as an alternative to the western dialectic of sincerity and authenticity. They argue that the Ruists presented an ethic of sincerity, to which Zhuangzi responded with a philosophy of genuine pretending, of being able to (genuinely) adopt whatever form is necessary in a given situation without identifying it with a fixed self to which one must be authentic. It’s a compelling take on a major strain running through the Zhuangzi.

Along with Swenson’s LoA volume, my main reading on my trip out west was Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, a look into court life in 10th century Japan. As she says in a section on “worthless things”, her aim is to record what is there to be recorded. She does not neutrally present it, however. The book is in effect a guide to taste: what is delightful, what is irritating, what causes regret, what nostalgia, etc.—a guide to the appropriate reactions to things. How much it reflects her individuality and how much merely the norms of the time is difficult to tell, and at times it seems to move between them. Regardless, the book is a treasure, endlessly charming, often funny, sometimes poignant. Though in many ways ridiculous to modern eyes, Sei takes her world with full commitment, and that enables the reader to enter into the book with ease, despite its strangeness. It is a delight to encounter a foreign way of life in this manner.

There is no satisfaction in poetry greater than the immaculate final line that brings a poem to its inevitable conclusion. Illustration: May Swenson’s “Ocean, Whale-Shaped”:

Ocean, whale-shaped, rocking between the dunes,
in the gateway of their great naked knees,
horizon chafing a tame sky,

your vast back purple, your shoreward side
wallowing blue, fretted with racing foam,
green, then diamond your fin flashes on sand.

Glazed monuments of the wind, the dunes,
their sprawling limbs Olympian lift and fall
to slopes and platforms seeming hard as bone,

but footsteps scar their flanks like snow;
their white bodies shift,
are shunted by you, blue-black, boisterous whale—

and whittled, are rewhittled by the wind
unsatisfied with any shape or perpetuity.
The land, the sand we tread is not the steady

element our feet believe.
Indelible ocean, humped beside the sky,
you unsubstantial we can’t grasp or walk on,

you pry at these gates and break them when you will—
overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper,
over and over carving your cradle here.

Take a moment, first, simply to linger over the sounds of this last line. It is a masterpiece of subtle transformations. It begins with outright repetition (“over and over”), but this soon shifts to the consonance of “carving”, which picks up both the “v” and the “r” sounds. This is transformed in turn when we reach “cradle”, which rearranges the “car” of “carving”, echoing it with modification. The short “a” grows long, leading us directly into the culminating word, “here”. This brings us back to the start, to “over and over”, but, once again, the initially short “e” re-appears as long: “-er” to “-ere”. Underlying this play of sounds and holding it all in place is the falling rhythm, which alternates dactyls and trochees until it at last lands on the final stress: / – – / – / – – / – /. The line thus parcels out into three neat units:

over and over / carving your cradle / here

The line resembles a Pindaric ode in miniature: strophe, antistrophe, epode. It is a perfect whole, worth savoring entirely independently of its meaning. But let us look at it in the context of the full poem.

I read the poem as a love story, of sorts: as a polyamorous love story between ocean, wind, sky, land, and people. It shuttles between multiple scales and perspectives. There are the humans who walk on the dunes, and who instinctively (in their feet), believe them to be a “steady // element”. But they are not. They are reworked on all sides: by these very same feet (“footsteps scar their flanks like snow”), by the wind (“are whittled, are rewhittled by the wind”), and by the ocean (“overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper”).

That brief phrase—“overwhelming whale of water”—deserves careful attention. By this point, in the penultimate line of the poem, we seem to have reached the culmination. While there are multiple agents and perspectives in the poem, people and wind and dunes and sky, the ocean dominates it. The poem opens with the “ocean, whale-shaped”, and as we near the end this is re-affirmed as the ocean is described as “overwhelming”. It overwhelms the poem just as it overwhelms the dunes.

We have, however, not reached the culmination in seeing the ocean as overwhelming. The very next word gives us yet another transformation: the ocean is an overwhelming whale. We are, very suddenly, brought back to the poem’s smallest scale, the animal. A whale is, to be sure, a very large animal, but it is an animal nonetheless. Over the course of the poem, the ocean has transformed from something merely “whale-shaped”, something like but not quite a whale, into a whale, without qualification. The simile has become a metaphor. Why?

In making the ocean an animal, Swenson gives it needs, desires. And it is here that the last line comes in: “over and over carving your cradle here.” The sea, great “mover and shaper”, is carving out its home, is making a world into which it fits. (To use the phrase du jour, it is constructing its niche.) This great, overwhelming presence, so vast and unlike us, suddenly comes to seem vulnerable—comes to seem like us.

Some highlights from my April reading:

May Swenson. A while back, I bought May Swenson’s collected poems (Library of America), entirely on the strength of her poem “Bleeding”. I’ve finally started making my way through the rest of her oeuvre. Thus far I’ve read her first two books, Another Animal and A Cage of Spines. Already in these early works she mixes a playful use of sounds with careful attention to how the poem appears on the page, not always successfully, but often. (See, for instance, “Stony Beach”, which I wrote about here.) At times the language-play gets in the way of the poem, but at her best—“Stony Beach”, “The Garden at St. John’s”, “Another Animal”, “Secure”, “Sunset”, “The Cloud-Mobile”, “Seven Natural Songs”, “Ornamental Sketch with Verbs”, “The Day Moon”—she makes a claim to be one of the great American poets. I look forward to seeing where she went from here.

John Keats. More than anyone, Keats shows that it only takes a handful of great poems to make a reputation. In reading his Selected Poems (Oxford World Classics), the vast majority of what I encountered left no impression on me. But then the famous poems—“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, etc.—come along, and the source of his reputation is immediately apparent. I also discovered a number of poems previously unknown to me, such as this surprisingly disturbing one:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is
I hold it towards you—

Arthur Schopenhauer. I picked up Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms in my local used bookstore for $3.75. It was one of my better finds there. I’ve previously read The World as Will and Representation, but the scope of that work can make it difficult to really see the broad overview of his thought. Essays and Aphorisms rectified that—I wish I had read it before The World as Will and Representation (which I may now want to revisit). The core of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is his pessimism, the view that (a) existence has no intrinsic value, (b) the suffering on earth outweighs the pleasure, and (c) pain is the substantive state, and pleasure the negative state (in the sense that it is the mere absence of pain). The upshot of Schopenhauer’s pessimism was that we ought to be nicer to one another, more forgiving. I found this short selection of Schopenhauer’s thought extremely useful for placing myself in relation to his work, for seeing exactly where my disagreements lie.

And, lastly, this month, I read an interesting pair of books about the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn: Bojana Mladenović’s new book, Kuhn’s Legacy, and an older book by Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions. They work well together. Mladenović’s book stresses Kuhn’s epistemology, tying it to the American pragmatists. She makes a strong case that he still has much to say for contemporary philosophy of science, and that the initial uptake of his ideas was substantially misguided (in particular, the common tendency to take him as an irrationalist). Some aspects of the Kuhn she presents I find unpersuasive (especially the notion of scientific progress she attributes to Kuhn), but on the whole it’s effective. Hoyningen-Huene’s book complemented hers nicely, as he focused in great detail on Kuhn’s metaphysics. With admirable clarity, he excavated the commitments behind Kuhn’s enigmatic comments on world change during scientific revolutions, helping me to see where I do and do not find Kuhn’s views plausible.