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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.