Prose and Cons: On Melville’s “The Confidence-Man”
Telling someone “Trust me” is usually a dead giveaway that they should do exactly the opposite. A trustworthy person doesn’t need to insist on it. Professions of the need for trust are a pretty good sign that someone is trying to sell you something. Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, the last novel he published in his lifetime, which met with scathing and uncomprehending reviews, plays around with this theme. It’s a disorienting string of loosely connected scenes, tracking the schemes of a shapeshifting trickster aboard a Mississippi steamboat who solicits his fellow passengers through a variety of pitches, always insisting on the need for confidence in the goodness of the world.
The novel begins on April Fool’s Day, with the boarding of a steamer by a man who is, “in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger.” Over the course of the day, a number of apparitions wink into and out of existence on the same boat peddling several schemes. They might all be the same man, in what Melville calls “his masquerade.” They refer to each other, and each picks up where the last one left off. They talk up stock in something called the Black River Coal Company and ask for donations to the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum. Shares in a New Jerusalem founded by “fugitive Mormons” are offered. One, an herb-doctor, sells natural cures with names like the Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator and the Samaritan Pain Dissuader. Another has a proposal for a World's Charity, funded by a small tax on every member of the human race. He proposes to bring the “Wall Street spirit” to charity, offering contracts for the conversion of the heathens to end the “lethargy of monopoly” which plagues the current missionary system. In his breathless enthusiasm for the power of the market this one could fit right in on the New York Times op-ed page, but all of these charlatans are recognizable American types.
Yet the tone of the book isn’t quite satirical; it’s not exactly an indictment of the materialism and gullibility of American society. Melville’s confidence-man doesn’t try to persuade marks, not exactly. His method takes the form of a dialogue on why trust is better than mistrust, an argument for the need to have faith in nature and mankind. Much of the book is taken up with elaborate philosophical arguments on questions such as whether nature is always good, whether a boy’s character predicts the man he will become, the ethics of loaning money, and, above all, whether one should have confidence, or trust, in one’s fellow man. The effect is a bit as if Plato had Socrates, while arguing that justice is better than injustice, convince Glaucon to lend him his watch. It’s an odd book about materialism that spends all its time with its head in the clouds—although there’s no better time to pick a man’'s pocket than while he’s stargazing. There’s a slight scent of brimstone to the confidence-man, as if he’s come to earth as part of an infernal bet on the fallibility of human nature. Or, as the novel’s most caustic cynic, a one-legged man who believes that a crippled beggar called Guinea is a white man in blackface, says, “Money, you think, is the sole motive to pains and hazard, deception and deviltry, in this world. How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?” Yet as it turns out, the philosophical claims the novel’s characters dispute, about human nature and the obligations of human beings toward each other, have much to do with the particular economic form of the society they inhabit.
Few places in Melville’s day could be more representative of a market society than a Mississippi steamboat. It is a place in a constant state of flux. Arrivals, departures, and the passage from one port to the next create a stream of strangers, an environment in which all interactions are constrained by the impermanence of the contact between the parties. Melville’s description of the boat is almost Heraclitean:
Though her voyage of twelve hundred miles extends from apple to orange, from clime to clime, yet, like any small ferry-boat, to right and left, at every landing, the huge Fidele still receives additional passengers in exchange for those that disembark; so that, though always full of strangers, she continually, in some degree, adds to, or replaces them with strangers still more strange; like Rio Janeiro fountain, fed from the Corcovado mountains, which is ever overflowing with strange waters, but never with the same strange particles in every part.
One never steps into the same society twice? In this assembly of strangers, a man one meets one day will in all likelihood never be seen again. It’s a world of anonymity, shifting identity, and, because of this, mistrust. In a close-knit community, neighbors might think nothing of owing each other debts to be repaid at some indefinite point in the future, but not so much on a moving ship.
Yet the world of the ship is also a land of gab. Conversations and wheeling and dealing break out constantly. There’s a kind of aspirational sociability to life among strangers. It’s always possible that you’re walking into a den of thieves, but it’s more likely that most people are basically decent. If we took a position of total mistrust, we’d all wind up staying in our rooms the whole time to avoid getting fleeced or stabbed. There has to be some baseline level of confidence for exchange to occur, or even for people to just get along and pick up a story or two. Melville’s character hits people where they’re most vulnerable: by trying to act decently, by trying to follow humane norms of behavior, they end up suckers. A minister, for instance, denounces the embittered fellow who says a cripple is an imposter in blackface and gives the beggar a coin (rather than throwing it in his mouth, the cruel sport of the other guests). For his trouble he is rewarded with a visit from a man in gray, who praises him and says, “Since you are of this truly charitable nature, you will not turn away an appeal in behalf of the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum?” But the cynics don’t fare any better: a stingy miser buys some herbal concoction in the hope that it will soothe his pain, and a misanthrope who’d rather have machines than boys work his farm agrees to take on a lad from another smooth operator’s Philosophical Intelligence Office, a kind of antebellum temp agency. The confidence-man worms his way into the pockets of trusting and suspicious passengers alike.
He is able to do this because he embodies a particular contradiction regarding the need for trust in a market society. At both ends of the novel, in the confidence-man’s first and last guises, he meets a barber who has a sign saying NO TRUST—that is, pay up now, not tomorrow. This message is what the confidence-man argues against. One must always trust, extend it to all the world, he says. As a deaf-mute in the first chapter, he holds up a series of Corinthians-derived morals on charity—“Charity thinketh no evil” and so on—which strike the watching crowd as bizarre, while the barber’s sign elicits no comment. It’s clear why a barber who cut hair on credit would be risking a close shave. In his final costume, that of a garishly dressed and pompous universalist “Cosmopolitan,” he strikes up an argument with the barber. “Better cold lather, barber, than a cold heart. Why that cold sign?” One must trust mankind, he says.
Don’t you think consistency requires that you should either say ‘I have confidence in all men,’ and take down your notification; or else say, ‘I suspect all men,’ and keep it up."...To say that strangers are not to be trusted, does not that imply something like saying that mankind is not to be trusted; for the mass of mankind, are they not necessarily strangers to each individual man?
He convinces the barber to sign a contract agreeing to remove the offending sign and promising to have confidence in people; the confidence-man in turn agrees “to make good to the last any loss that may come from his trusting mankind, in the way of his vocation, for the residue of the present trip.” And then, deal done, he walks out, asking the barber to have confidence that he’ll pay him back for the shave.
* * *
Capitalism has a peculiar, contradictory relationship to trust. According to one way of thinking about it, if everyone’s looking out for their own interest, they’ll trust people as far as they can throw them, sleep with one eye open, because everyone’s out to screw you over. It’s not like there are communal bonds or family ties for people to rely on in most commercial interactions. But in everyday life, people are remarkably trusting. People go out and buy things from strangers, make and take loans, and don’t read the fine print. Capitalism depends on baseline trust to keep running. It may depend a whole lot more on a legal system and men with guns—but it needs some level of confidence to stop people from being misers hiding money in mattresses, or even for those misers to think that money is worth hiding in a mattress in the first place.
The confidence-man occupies the point of slippage between trust and distrust. If you distrust me, he says, you must distrust all men, and what a wretched way to live that would be. If you trust all men, he says, and I am a man, you must trust me. As he argues, he relies on an image of humanity in the abstract that is to be trusted, and from that he derives his own trustworthiness. This is the same move we have to make to have trust under capitalism. In a pre-modern community, trust is always specific, given to particular individuals based on a complex network of social ties. Under capitalism, trust is generalized, given to people and things on the basis of their being instances of abstract conditions. A dollar bill, a brand of product, an anonymous stranger are all trustworthy because of their resemblance to other things, not their specific qualities.
In the constant flurry of change characteristic of capitalism, trust in general certainties is possible even as fixed, particular certainties constantly dissolve. The structures that make this general trust possible also give rise to specific mistrust, since there isn’t anything to fall back upon in most instances other than the generalized laws of the market. This is why impersonal advertising tries to imitate personal connections, simulate homes and families, friendships and sex, to tie the generalized sense of products to a specific sensation. It’s this ambiguous spot that the confidence-man preys upon. There’s a kind of hypocrisy or bad faith that comes out when you’re skeptical of a particular stranger. If you have nice ideas about humanity, how can you justify brushing someone off? You should at least hear them out. And what they’re selling isn’t that expensive—how about two for the price of one—and it was nice to talk to someone, anyone, for a few minutes. The confidence-man is the person you shouldn’t trust who shows you how bad it is that you don’t trust people. The essence of the scam, the false promise of the con man, is this contradiction between trust and mistrust. And in fact, we experience participation in a capitalist society like this all the time, whether we’re blasting our banks for hidden fees or Facebook for changing its appearance. These companies couldn’t care less about us, and yet we place an unjustifiable amount of emotional investment in them, expect loyalty, and then get upset when they treat us as dumb sources of money.
* * *
When relations are mediated by money, the pendulum between trust and mistrust can swing very rapidly. The confidence-man’s final tricks focus on the ethics of lending. In one scheme, the cosmopolitan, going by the over-the-top name of Frank Goodman, befriends a bit of a dim bulb named Charlie, and the two toast to the glory of friendship. After several pages of warmth, praise of geniality and companionship, the cosmopolitan lets Charlie in on a secret.
“Now, what is it, Frank? Love affair?”
“No, not that.”
“What, then, my dear Frank? Speak - depend on me to the last. Out with it.”
“Out it shall come, then,” said the cosmopolitan. “I am in want, urgent want, of money.”
Here the chapter ends, and another begins, one called “A metamorphosis more surprising than any in Ovid.” Charlie recoils and gets up to leave, calling the man who only moments before he had chosen to think of as a dear friend an “imposter.” In a mock ritual the cosmopolitan tries to summon his friend back, playing it off as a prank, but it’s clear no money is forthcoming. The scene’s irony is that while the narrator emphasizes the transformation wreaked by the mention of money on Charlie, it is the confidence-man who really embodies the metamorphoses of money, changing from valuable friend to worthless beggar in the course of a few sentences.
Money changes people, but it also is changed itself. All cash is change. In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber, drawing on British classicist Richard Seaford’s Money and the Early Greek Mind, suggests a link between the history of coinage and that of philosophy. The Greek city of Miletus was, around 600 BC, perhaps the first city where coins instead of credit were used in daily life. Around the same time, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes were arguing that there was a universal substance that could turn into everything else—water, or air, or a special substance called the apeiron. They theorized that this material could, under different conditions, be transmuted into anything. The analogy is clearer if you think of gold as the universal substance The metal in a coin has its own physical characteristics, as do seashells or fire or the enormous stone disks of the isle of Yap. Owing to particular social circumstances, that metal has an additional property of being exchangeable for anything, provided you have enough of it and someone else has and will give up what you want. But here one runs into a contradiction that's vexed thinkers since the Axial Age. Are there fixed, natural reasons for gold to be worth something, or is it an arbitrary social convention? It’s been very important to a number of people to insist that there’s a particular value embodied in gold. This is a question about how much you can trust money.
The essence of capitalism is, as Marx recognized, its dynamism, its capacity and need for constant change. Money and commodities constantly metamorphose into each other, and with them, whole societies are in flux. In this sense it’s important that Melville’s book about money is also a “masquerade,” an eternal shift between costumes. What the book does not include is what the character might look like without a costume. His is a constant shift between masks. Transaction complete, he takes on another form. In this sense, the confidence-man is a bit like money. The promise of money isn’t what it is, but what it can appear as—anything. Through the circulation of commodities a sum of money can become so many things that it wouldn't make sense to speak of an essence. Yet it requires the illusion of a singular, fixed form in order to make its transformations.
Melville asks if we should have faith in the natural order of things when that order is constantly shifting and being replaced. The confidence-man offers platitudes and certainties to assure his marks that there are fixed values and then uses that faith to pull the ground out from under them. It’s interesting that in an authorial digression preemptively defending the book from imagined hordes of detractors Melville asserts the value of inconsistency. “No writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has,” he writes; if nature can bring forth duck-billed beavers, perhaps the novelist should be granted “duck-billed characters.”
Though there is a prejudice against inconsistent characters in books, yet the prejudice bears the other way, when what seemed at first their consistency, afterwards, by the skill of the writer, turns out to be their good keeping. The great masters excel in nothing so much as in this very particular. They challenge astonishment at the tangled web of some character, and then raise admiration still greater at their satisfactory unraveling of it.
The inconsistent character embodies a contradiction that isn’t just a jumble but a tension that can resolve into something else. The confidence-man is trust and mistrust at once, a number of different people in one, an impossible ability to transform—and also the exact symbol of an emerging market society, the no-man and everyman you need to both trust and mistrust in order to exist under capitalism. But, in another intrusion, Melville asks:
Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his. But in the one fair, new species of quadrupeds are hardly more rare, than in the other are new species of characters—that is, original ones.
If the novelist is part of this same trade, a con man in his own right, he deserves that same mix of trust and mistrust. He’s out on the road making deals, looking for specimens to exhibit. There he goes, transforming experience into remarkable distilled concoctions of truth. Look at this amazing, original character, calls the novelist, see the skill with which something of human character is revealed. Step right up, enjoy the show. The novelist is in this same spot between the general and the particular, offering a meaningful, personal connection through a product of which, if the vagaries of the publishing industry are favorable, vast numbers of copies are made. In The Confidence-Man, Melville’s showing off his showmanship, letting you know he’s bluffing. And that’s the only way you know to trust him.