What I was wondering, when I asked if there is anything in The Confidence-Man except argument, is what to do with all of the argument, all of the disputation and rhetorical slipperiness. Melville had abandoned the mode that in Moby-Dick was his most original achievement, when he seized on a single object, a single aspect of an object, and riffed on it as long as he could, the trick he learned from reading Sir Thomas Browne. The meaning of “whiteness,” that sort of thing, the parts a certain kind of reader brags about skipping.
A typical line of The Confidence-Man is not like the descriptions I enjoyed yesterday but more like this:
“To shift the subject, since we cannot agree. Pray, what is your opinion, respected sir, of St. Augustine?”
Then heck if they don't talk about St. Augustine for a while. Or maybe this is more typical:
“Pun away; but even accepting your analogical pun, what does it amount to?”
Does anyone want to know what the analogical pun is? It involves caterpillars and butterflies. I do not see how it is a pun. Never mind. Both examples are from Chapter 19, as is the post’s title, the confidence man versus the Missouri bachelor.
The fact is that I do not care much about Herman Melville’s spiritual problems. I stand off to the side with Nathaniel Hawthorne, as seen in The English Notebooks. Melville is in England, traveling to Jerusalem (and securing his English copyright to his new novel). He visits his friend Hawthorne; while walking on the beach they have a long talk:
Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists - and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before - in wandering to-and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.
Melville’s distress cannot be attributed to the commercial failure of The Confidence-Man, since it had not yet failed.
I do care a lot about what artistic use Melville makes of his spiritual problems. The Confidence-Man is such an inside-out book that I find myself reading around the exchanges more than worrying about the specifics of the argument. Why this subject, why now, why with these characters?
In the 1979 article “Melville’s Quarrel with Fiction,” Nina Baym argues – you can tell what kind of critic she is – the kind I like – that the debates are purposefully obscure and irresolute, since they really serve a larger argument:
Apparently bristling with significance, the work plants clues that lead nowhere. Ultimately we find that we have no questions answered, that we cannot even say what questions have been put. As the subtitle states, the work is a masquerade. In The Confidence Man Melville bitterly expresses the sort of truth that can be asserted in a mendacious medium and illustrates the convulsed ways in which it can be expressed. But the truths he speaks are only about fiction and language.
Tomorrow I will follow a clue or two.