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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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In the introduction to My Ántonia, we are told the (fictive) genesis of the book to follow: Jim Burden and an unnamed female acquaintance (a childhood friend) discuss a shared figure from their past: Ántonia Shimerda, and make plans to write about her. The woman never does, but Jim writes rather a lot, and it is this that constitutes the novel. The name is the name Jim gives it. Jim says:

“Of course, […] I should have to do it in a direct way, and say a great deal about myself. It’s through myself that I knew and felt her, and I’ve had no practice in any other form of presentation.” (p. 713; W. Cather, Early Novels and Stories, Library of America)

He is, as he self-consciously notes, giving only his version of Ántonia, and is a bit sheepish about it: he knows that his recollections cannot capture the whole of such an independent personality, but at best only a part. And this is reflected in the title he gives his notes:

He went into the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote on the pinkish face of the portfolio the word, “Ántonia.” He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it “My Ántonia.” That seemed to satisfy him. (p. 714)

At first glance, this title seems to call for a stress on “my,” emphasizing the perspectival nature of the account to follow. But the title can’t be pronounced that way, because—as is stressed several times early on, ‘Ántonia’ takes a strong stress on its first syllable, next to which ‘my’ fades into insignificance. Even here, the force of Ántonia’s individuality shines through. And while I have not finished the novel, this has been true so far: Ántonia has not been contained by the limits of Jim’s memory. The meter of the title nicely foreshadows this.

 

In My Ántonia, Willa Cather explicitly identifies the narrator in the novel’s introduction: it is Jim Burden, an acquaintance of Ántonia, writing his understanding of her through his understanding of himself. By contrast, in Death Comes for the Archbishop (which I previous wrote about here) and O Pioneers!, Cather never indicates directly the perspective from which the story is told. At least in the latter case, however (and I suspect in the former, but I’d need to re-read it to be sure), the novel’s curiously impersonal tone makes the most sense if one supposes that the narrator is not human at all, but is rather the land itself.

Why think this? As mentioned, the tone of the novel is one reason. The novel is noteworthy for avoiding drama and intrigue. Cather never tries to surprise, never makes a major plot event arrive unexpectedly. Events unfold with a serene, implacable necessity: we can see them coming, yet are powerless to stop them. We must adapt to them: they will be what they are regardless. Even the novel’s climactic scene in the fourth act (“The White Mulberry Tree”), terrible as it is, arrives with quiet elegance, like a dream. No matter what is occurring, the narrator speaks with the same tone, an observer tied to yet somehow apart from the drama—and this seems the attitude of the Nebraska landscape.

The judgments made on the characters are also in keeping with the supposition that the story is told from the land’s perspective. For the most part, such judgments are rare, and when present they are muted. They are, however, there. One parallel set of judgments runs through. On the one side, there is, if you’ll pardon the paradox, an indifferent love for the pioneers, for the father John Bergson, for Alexandra, and for the vivacious young Emil. I call it an indifferent love because, while the warmth is clearly there, it is not overstated, and feels like admiration “from the wings.” There is no sense of an impulse to aid them, and there is a stoic acceptance of all their misfortunes. It is love that is tempered by the fatalism described above. On the other side, the inverse of this indifferent love, there is disdain for the conformists, Lou and Oscar, who lack any pioneer spirit, who prefer to fit in and be comfortable. When Alexandra, even as she ages, continues to innovate, Lou and Oscar are concerned only about the risk it poses to their children’s inheritance (earned entirely by Alexandra’s work, over their earlier protests). The reader can sense the narrator’s disgust, but again it is distanced, and without any impulse to intervene.

There is exactly one overtly exultant moment on the part of the narrator, in the book’s final lines, and it confirms all the forgoing:

Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!

The secret to good literature is simple enough, abstractly considered. Humans are complicated and beguiling. They talk to each other and fail to talk to each other, often simultaneously. They are disappointingly predictable, and yet resist easy summation. Good literature should capture this perplexity while still maintaining some sense of order. It should chart a path through the murky waters of human life without pretending the waters are clear.

Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America”, the third story in her collection Birds of America, does this well. It begins with two tragedies of different orders, the broken life and breaking body of the narrator, and the foreseeable death of her friend Cal’s young son, Eugene. These intersect when the narrator, a dance instructor, goes to visit Cal, who she has not seen in a dozen years.

Moore’s handling of these two tragedies is masterful. That Eugene is dying of cystic fibrosis is laid out upfront, but, once the narrator starts interacting with Eugene, it fades into the background. It sets the mood of these interactions, lurks in the background, but becomes explicit only in small details, as when, in the middle of a pre-bedtime dance:

…Eugene suddenly sits down to rest on the sofa, watching the grown-ups. Like the best dancers and audiences in the world, he is determined not to cough until the end.

These moments are touching, but not maudlin. And that is appropriate, for the story belongs to the narrator, and Eugene’s disease is not her tragedy. It belongs to Cal, to his wife Simone, and of course to Eugene. For the narrator, it is background, is an element of the tone of her experience reconnecting with her friend.

Much more at the center of her mind is her own tragedy. This is twofold: her marriage has failed, and her body is starting to break down. She cannot dance as she once did, and is transitioning into the mode of an instructor. And though this is less devastating than, not just the death of one’s child, but living with the knowledge that that death is coming, it is nonetheless more prominent in the narrator’s mind, and understandably so. Though she shows few outward signs of being upset about the failure of her marriage, it creeps up on her, until:

All I can think of is how Patrick said, when he left, fed up with my “selfishness,” that if I were worried about staying on alone at the lake house, with its squirrels and call girl-style lamps, I should just rent the place out—perhaps to a nice lesbian couple like myself.

This charge of selfishness weighs heavily upon her, and comes to a head in the most charged passage in the story. Cal, Simone, Eugene, and the narrator are all dancing before Eugene goes to bed. As we have seen, Eugene has stopped dancing mid-song to rest. The narrator goes to draw him back in:

“Come here, honey,” I say, going to him. I am thinking not only of my own body here, that unbeguilable, broken basket, that stiff merinque. I am not, Patrick, thinking only of myself, my lost troupe, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?

This passage refuses to be simplified. I will need three passes to cover it, and that is only because I will not discuss an aspect of it that would require a fourth.

First, then, take the narrator’s perspective for granted. She is not, she says, being selfish, and indeed she is not. She is helping Eugene to dance, is overcoming her broken body to help another, even more broken. She is putting another first.

But we cannot rest in that reading. Is she not, after all, making her “selfless” act about herself, an attempt to prove to Patrick that his accusation was false? And is she not also making it about her aging, her inability to dance as she once did? It is almost a paradox: precisely by insisting that her act is not about all this, she ensures that that is precisely what it is about.

In the end, though, we cannot rest in that second reading, either. The conception of the philosophers, that the selfless act requires a certain inner purity of mind, has always been a caricature. Humans are complicated. They may act for another and yet be unable to escape themselves—such is the position of the narrator here. She is at once selfless and selfish, reaching out across the gap between minds to interact with the life of another and, simultaneously, trapped within her own mind. But that is what human communication is. Lorrie Moore is only doing justice to the facts. The secret, as I said, is simple enough.

An especially apt passage from Pessoa, in light of my recent post:

The highest honour for a superior man is to not know the name of his country’s chief of state, or whether he lives under a monarchy or a republic.

He should be careful to position his soul in such a way that passing things and events can’t disturb him. Otherwise he’ll have to take an interest in others, in order to look out for himself.