The Frontier as Apocalyptic Place: Melville’s Indian Hating Revisited (I)

Some two weeks ago, after I had taught a class session on Melville’s The Confidence Man, I needed to do some grocery shopping, and who would I meet, right there at the register, if not a student of mine, who was just about to act a practical lesson in charity: a customer had run out of money and needed some change to pay for the few odd wares she had lying there. The money was procured, offered, accepted – and she went away, slowly, staggeringly, intoxicated or just out of her wits (and most likely both).The sight is not too unusual in that place which an old acquaintance of mine once refered to as having that “quaint anti-social charme”, – a pretty roughed urban discount grocery store and a drop-in popular with all the boozers living close by.

Obscurely enough, the woman had to make a choice, when she was standing at the register, all flustered because a dozen or so customers were queuing in line, waiting nervously for her to make a move. Even with some money proffered, she had to make a decision between a bunch of beer bottles and a bag of candy – and finally chose the candy.

All the while, I was standing there, mildly amused, and repeated to myself, silently -“Give me your confidence! -…now give me 23 cents!” – several times over, until she had cleared the area and the chance to crack a real good insider joke (that exactly two people would have appreciated at the time) was gone with her.

The joke would have been on the tag line of Melville’s protagonist, of course, of whom I have yet to find any image, at all – Give me your confidence…now give me 100 dollars!.

The details have been told to familiarity, how Melville based his con man on a real life model, who had cheated confiding people for their watches – and how Melville made his novel into an April Fool’s Joke – published in New York on April 1, 1857 and set on April 1 – an excruciatingly bitter joke that has been ringing for 150 years ago. It tends to be one of these books that (academic) readers rate high exactly because they understand just enough of it to get a glimpse of its richness – not quite as “unread, but talked about” as Joyce’s Ulysses (guilty on that count) or Finnegan’s Wake (and on that) or Homer’s Iliad (though not on that), but almost there. It’s a complex read, and saying that is to sweet-talk the experience, – all the more did I find it great to read it with second year undergrad students who are not yet beyond saying they don’t understand, when they don’t understand – and since I just barely got a teachable hold on that one, the experience was one of shared bewilderment and confusion…

…and it didn’t transmute into easier going, when we finally came to the Indian hating cavalcade in chapters 24-28.

I now realize my frantic attempts at comprehending the novel as, explicitly, apocalyptic were doomed as long as I didn’t also involve the downriver voyage of the Fidèle as a frontier experience. The application of the apocalyptic label, as brought forward, most systematically, by Jonathan Cook, is strongest on the The Confidence Man when it operates with structural – “stage” – devices that stress the theatricality of the plot: action almost being excised from the novel, the characters move into various conversational constellations, and the confidence man plays the anchorman and tries to get his play onto the stage. Notably, the curtain rises and falls with him –

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. (ch. 1)


“I have indifferent eyes, and will show you; but, first, for the good of all lungs, let me extinguish this lamp.”

The next moment, the waning light expired, and with it the waning flames of the horned altar, and the waning halo round the robed man’s brow; while in the darkness which ensued, the cosmopolitan kindly led the old man away. Something further may follow of this Masquerade. (ch. 45)

Something further may follow of this Masquerade. – naturally, that does not refer to any sequel, or the possibility thereof. Melville quit the novelistic writing treadmill after the apparition of the con man and helped make New York a little safer by serving the city as a custom officer. Strange how custom offices can literally kill off creative drives, isn’t it?

The final sentence, of the paragraph and of the novel, opens the historical timeline, flexes it and bends it into a circle – the Fidèle’s stage apocalypse, opened and consummated so nonchalantly by the con man (and realized, prepared, and set in countless references to the biblical apocalyptic: Cook really does a fine job and gropes all of Melville’s threads in that direction apart in his careful study), will be rewound and repeated. The actors will cast off their masks, and the play will begin anew.

This looks bold, reads bold and very self-confident, in an abstract, metaphysical way – is Melville here anticipating Nietzsche’s idée fou and introduces the eternal recurrence, before the German even had the chance to? Nietzsche is difficult to handle on that point. It seems most tightly and comprehensively argued for in The Gay Science, paragraph 341

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!”— Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you; the question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more, and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? — (Nietzsche’s emphasis in cursives, mine in bold print)

The notion is an affirmation of life, all of it, including pain: the eternal recurrence becomes thus a baptism of fire: you have to comprehend and appreciate your life in the fullest sense possible, so as not to be driven down the road of insanity by the thought of living it again and again, and then some more, along exactly identical routes. This may not be plausible in the domain of quantum theory, but it helps define Nietzsche’s stand on history – brave it, you’ll never get rid of it, anyway.

The character cast on the Fidèle, that good steamboat going down the big river from St. Louis, is not quite up to it – yet.

In comes the confidence man, in various disguises (and apparently somewhat unimaginable: or is it just me who cannot find images of the Melville character on the net?), but always acting as a Nietzschean prompter – teasing the travellers into re-affirming their biases and positions and prejudices (and greeds and compulsions…), but never changing their course.

“SO you are a philanthropist, sir,” added the barber with an illuminated look; “that accounts, then, for all. Very odd sort of man the philanthropist. You are the second one, sir, I have seen. Very odd sort of man, indeed, the philanthropist. Ah, sir,” again meditatively stirring in the shaving-cup,” I sadly fear, lest you philanthropists know better what goodness is, than what men are.” Then, eying him as if he were some strange creature behind cage-bars, “So you are a philanthropist, sir.”

“I am Philanthropos, and love mankind. And, what is more than you do, barber, I trust them.” (ch. 43: “Very charming” – the barber is conversing with the con man).

He has to be philanthropic at least in so far as the characters, “mankind” as far as it is represented on the boat, are his to direct – he cannot quite be as devastating to them as, say, Goethe’s Mephisto – also, like the con man, a tempter, deceiver, trickster – is to Faust. Unlike Faust, the people on board are never aware of who it is they are communicating with – they are naive, slow to react, and in need of protection. And the con man grants as much to his personnel inventory.

I find the idea of the Fidèle as a theatrical stage a little tricky to maintain when the novel moves into the topic of Indian hating & killing.


1 Comment

  1. […] said, here’s the job. I gave a general introduction to Melville’s The Confidence Man, asked whether or not it was actually staging Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence, […]

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