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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.

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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.

Over the past few days, I read May Swenson’s first book of poetry, Another Animal. Having just written about Ashbery’s use of an extended “ocean of language” metaphor, I cannot resist also writing about Swenson’s take on a similar theme, in her poem “Stony Beach”. Here is the poem:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Stony Beach

. . . . . . . . . . . . . The sea like Demosthenes’ mouth
. . . . . . . . . . . . champs upon these stones
. . . . . . . . . . . whose many stumblings make him suave
. . . . . . . . . . The argument molded monotonously by all his lips
. . . . . . . . . in a parliament of overlappings
. . . . . . . . is vocal but incomprehensible because never finished

. . . . . . . Listen listen there is nothing to learn from the sea
. . . . . . Listen he is lucid in sound only
. . . . . convinces with broken phrases that wizardly
. . . . the waves round out a rune over riddling stones

. . . Beginning again and again with a great A
. . a garbeled alphabet he lisps and groans
. The insistent eloquence of echoes
has no omega

The sea is likened immediately to Demosthenes, the famous Greek statesmen and orator. Importantly, he is said to have overcome a speech impediment by forcing himself to speak with stones in his mouth. Thus, in the first two lines, we are presented with a sea that is attempting to say something but struggling to say it. Swenson captures the repetitiousness of these exercises with some choice alliteration (on ‘m’) and consonance (on ‘l’)—“The argument molded monotonously by all his lips”—as if the poem itself (or at least this line) were the sea speaking.

Whereas Demosthenes went on to great success, his exercises having worked to great effect, with the sea it is different. His voice is a “parliament of overlappings” (what an image!) that never quite becomes comprehensible because it is never finished. “Listen listen there is nothing to learn from the sea”, the second stanza tells us, and indeed there is nothing to learn from these exercises, whose content doesn’t matter. They are “lucid in sound only”. The last line of the stanza confirms this by exemplifying it: “the waves round out a rune over riddling stones”. Once again we get the impression that the sea is speaking, that the poem is the sea’s practice.

It is fitting, then, that the third stanza sees both the sea and the poem “Beginning again”—beginning and always beginning, never finishing. “The insistent eloquence of echoes / has no omega”. Meaning, oration, is never reached.

Third post in a series on John Ashbery’s long poem, “A Wave”, covering stanzas 6-8. Previous posts:

Stanzas 1-3
Stanzas 4-5

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In these three stanzas, Ashbery captures the interplay of freedom and captivity, as here, in the eighth stanza:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . By so many systems
As we are involved in, by just so many
Are we set free on an ocean of language that comes to be
Part of us, as though we would ever get away.

On the one hand there are the “systems… we are involved in” and from which, we learn by the end of the sentence, we can’t really escape; on the other hand it is precisely through these systems that we are “set free on an ocean of language”. With this image, Ashbery picks up on a metaphor he began developing two stanzas earlier. There, in discussing how “a mixed surface is revealed,” Ashbery likens the situation to “rocks at low tide”. We learn:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . And the mind
Is the beach on which the rocks pop up, just a neutral
Support for them in their indignity.

The simile of the rocky beach has been literalized, at least in the sense that it is found a continued existence outside of the original context of its invocation. At the same time, it has not quite become real, but merely a different metaphor, now for the mind. The rocks, perhaps, are thoughts—something, at least, for which the mind is the substrate.

In this light, we can better understand the “ocean of language” from stanza eight. We see our minds as touching on only the edge of language. “[T]he waves talk to us, / Preparing dreams we’ll have to live with and use”, but the center, the source of these waves, remains beyond us. Perhaps we are also to imagine ourselves as separate beaches, communicating across this center that remains equally inaccessible to all of us. Who can say what happens to our meanings in the meantime?

So much for the ocean of language. What of the systems that involve us, and that by so involving us set us free on this ocean? I take them to be systems of meaning and purpose—including, therefore, the very mind-as-beach, ocean-as-language metaphor I’ve been discussing. But there is another central metaphor in these stanzas, that of games. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of stanza 7:

I think all games and disciplines are contained here,
Painting, as they go, dots and asterisks that
We force into meanings that don’t concern us
And so leave us behind.

Games (and disciplines) are here portrayed as generators of meanings, meanings that we do not control and that “leave us behind”—like a retreating wave, perhaps. Later, Ashbery suggests that the game’s purpose is revealed only “at the moment / Another player broke one of the rules”, though, cagily, Ashbery only allows that “You thought you perceived a purpose in the game”, and not that a purpose was in fact found.

In the above paragraphs, we’ve seen two metaphors interlink and take on lives of their own, lives that extend beyond any fixed, initial meaning. In this way, even as he describes how language escapes us, is not fully our possession, Ashbery exemplifies it.

Second post in a series on John Ashbery’s long poem, “A Wave”, covering stanzas 4-5. Previous posts:

Stanzas 1-3

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In Ashbery’s poetry, the boundary between reality and writing is blurred, to the point where one cannot tell whether the poem is about the search for meaning in this dusty world or only about its own inscrutability. This is what makes Ashbery thrilling, for those of us whom he thrills, and it is equally what makes him insufferable, for those who find him so. It is on display in spades in these four stanzas of Ashbery’s poem.

The search for meaning haunts these stanzas, as in these lines from stanza four:

Remains, something like a kiss, but fainter. Were we
Making sense? Well, that thirst will account for some
But not all of the marvelous graffiti; meanwhile
The oxygen of the days sketches the rest,
The balance.

Ashbery calls our desire for meaning a “thirst”, indicating it as a basic need—remember that dehydration kills much more quickly than starvation. Interestingly, though, this accounts for only a portion of the “marvelous graffiti”. This image requires some unpacking. Graffiti suggests defacement, something outside the accepted order, though it may be beautiful, “marvelous”. It is also often difficult to read (at least to me) even in the best circumstances, and often we encounter it far removed from these: faded by the elements, partially covered by further graffiti, and so forth. Beyond this there is the clash of voices: multiple people contribute to the graffiti in any one area. We are left with a mess, something that, even if it was produced out of a thirst for meaning, is as likely to exacerbate as quench that thirst in others.

Moreover, only some of the graffiti is produced in this way; the rest is the product of “the oxygen of the days”. Where thirst requires action to quench, breathing, though not wholly involuntary, largely happens without our paying it much mind. The suggestion, then, is that much of the graffiti is produced quasi-automatically—there may be no original meaning to reconstruct, not that that will stop us doing so.

But what is this graffiti? It is the world, and it is the poem. Ashbery has here captured the way in which the world disorients us as we attempt to make sense of it. What we have here is not the existentialists’ notion of absurdity, where we ask of the world what it cannot give. Rather, the world gives us meaning, but fragmented, polyvocal, and often indistinguishable from the meaningless. At the same time, however, the poem is characterizing itself, and the experience of attempting to make some sense of its radical and rapid perspective shifts, its jumble of imagery: the poem is among the bits of graffiti.

In stanza five, the issue of polyvocality is addressed from another angle. “One idea is enough to organize a life”, it begins, but many ideas “Lead one thither into a morass of their own good intentions”—and who has only one idea? (Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps.) Ashbery goes on, a bit later in the stanza:

The suspicions of their possessors. It’s fun to scratch around
And maybe come up with something. But for the tender blur
Of the setting to mean something, words must be ejected bodily,
A certain crispness be avoided in favor of a density
Of strutted opinion doomed to wilt in oblivion: not too linear
Nor yet too puffed and remote.

Here we are imagined scratching around in gestures, gestures that, like writing as Plato understood it, have “no life of their own”. They indicate only “the suspicions of their possessors”, and these we attempt to recover through our rooting. Pleasant enough, Ashbery says, but for this to mean anything we may need to let it go out of focus, until it becomes a “tender blur”, a “density / Of strutted opinion”. Taken individually, each opinion expressed is, no doubt, believed by its utterer, but each wilts. The value lies, not in the individual particle, but in the collective motion, which blurs them together. (Think about the poem’s title: a wave travels across the ocean’s surface, even though each water molecule ends where it began.)

This skeptical attitude is reaffirmed beautifully at the end of the stanza:

Blazing with the sunset? So that if it pleases all my constructions
To collapse, I shall at least have had the satisfaction, and known
That it need not be permanent in order to stay alive,
Beaming, confounding with the spell of its good manners.

Our meanings stay alive only in their impermanence, in their openness to co-option. The original construction in which we housed them collapses, and they are taken over elsewhere. This occurs both over the course of the individual’s life (“Then the advantage of / Sinking in oneself, crashing through the skylight of one’s own / Received opinion redirects the maze…”) and across generations.

Impermanence plays a further role. Over this search for meaning hangs the fear of death:

Nor yet too puffed and remote. Then the advantage of
Sinking in oneself, crashing through the skylight of one’s own
Received opinions redirects the maze, setting up significant
Erections of its own at chosen corners, like gibbets,
And through this the mesmerizing plan of the landscape becomes,
At last, apparent.

The crucial word here is ‘gibbets’, meaning gallows, or at least a projecting arm used to hang the bodies of criminals post-execution. It is through these symbols of gruesome death that “the mesmerizing plan of the landscape becomes, / At last, apparent.” (We soon find that it is not a landscape at all, but at this point we’ll welcome even the temporary appearance of clarity.) This returns us to the very beginning of the fourth stanza:

In the haunted house no quarter is given: in that respect
It’s very much business as usual.

Ashbery is punning here. The obvious meaning is that in the haunted house no lodgings are given. One does not, after all, sleep there. But ‘quarter’ can also refer to a reprieve from death—this same death that makes everything seem, if only spuriously, so clear. And Ashbery is quite right to call that “business as usual.”