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L’Imaginaire-Melville

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Viola Sachs

Cash, Cant and Confidence

Of paper-money and Scriptures in The Confidence-Man

Michel Imbert

Résumé

A partir de la question de la vraie et de la fausse monnaie, Le Grand Escroc (The Confidence-Man) développe toute une réflexion sur les vrais et les faux prophètes et sur l’absence d’une autorité absolue qui permettrait de départager le vrai du faux dans le domaine monétaire ou religieux. Au dernier chapitre, un vieil homme, en compagnie d’un voyageur cosmopolite, tente de s’assurer de la valeur de billets qui lui ont été remis en consultant le journal officiel de la monnaie, The Counterfeit Detector. Selon cette revue le billet, s’il est vrai, doit comporter en filigrane une oie. Le vieillard cherche en vain sur la coupure l’indice de son authenticité. Du reste, comment se fier à une gazette dont le titre équivoque suggère à rebours qu’elle pourrait être également un faux ? Ainsi, de renvoi en renvoi, aucun signe n’échappe au soupçon. Le gage de leur valeur se dérobe indéfiniment. De même, à quoi reconnaître un escroc lorsqu’il n’est plus possible de se fier au signes ? Qui peut se porter garant que Guinée Noire (Black Guinea) n’est pas un imposteur travesti en mendiant noir, un « faux jeton » dont le nom ne doit pas être pris pour argent comptant ? Même la description signalétique du Grand Escroc dans l’avis de recherche officiel ne paraît pas une source d’information autorisée. En dernière instance, à défaut de gage d’authenticité, force est de s’en remettre à la foi. D’où le fidéisme foncier des affaires. Les transactions et le commerce au sens large reposent sur le crédit, la créance et la croyance. Tous les personnages du Fidèle, qu’ils prêchent la confiance ou la méfiance, spéculent donc sur la foi. Ainsi la charité est-elle une source de devises pour ce personnage muet qui exhibe une ardoise sur laquelle il inscrit un à un les versets de l’Epître aux Corinthiens en ne conservant que le maître mot « Charité », préfigurant ainsi la série des abus de confiance à venir qui ont pour point commun d’exploiter cette valeur capitale. Mais comment distinguer les vrais philanthropes des faux-prophètes ? Le problème de la fausse monnaie s’est déplacé sur le plan religieux sans être pour autant dépassé. En dernier ressort, la Bible qui fait autorité dans le domaine de la foi s’avère être une référence aussi suspecte que la revue fiduciaire dans le domaine monétaire. La vieille Bible que le vieil homme et le voyageur cosmopolite consultent et dont l’aspect rappelle de vieux billets usés incorpore des textes apocryphes. La Bible transmet donc indissociablement la parole révélée et un faux. L’ambivalence des signes est telle que si la métaphore biblique est prise à la lettre, il n’est pas exclu que le Christ dont l’Amérique millénariste guette le retour à l’Ouest du Mississippi revienne comme un voleur, un premier avril, en plein carnaval païen, non seulement sous les traits d’une superbe crapule métaphysique comme le voyageur cosmopolite mais diffracté à travers toute la troupe exténuée des petits escrocs. Somme toute, la foi comme le Mississippi ne charrie que des valeurs troubles.

Texte intégral

My paper is indebted to Viola Sachs’ seminal studies of Melville’s counter-Bible, bringing to light the doubling of the Scriptures in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Viola Sachs in la Contre-Bible de Melville (Mouton, Paris, 1975) and The Game of Creation (Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, Paris, 1982) shows how Melville’s apocryphal Gospel of the Leviathan constitutes a radical questioning of the tenets of the Christian faith. I am also indebted to Pierre-Yves Pétillon’s illuminating commentary on the novel in ‘’William Gaddis ou le Babil des Ténèbres”, Critique, mars 1989, pp. 133-53: “Wyatt Gwyon est un Emerson qui se retrouverait brusquement dans le monde de la ʻmascarade’ de Melville, The Confidence-Man (Le Grand Escroc), premier roman americain a renverser la devise nationale ‘In God We Trust’ en ‘No Trust’, saga du ‘discrédit’ ou un conte folklorique d’arnaque a la confiance ouvre peu a peu a une reflexion épistémologique sur la duperie inherente a tout signe, monétaire ou linguistique, pour finir par accepter que tout est leurre, qu’il n’y a pas de voix originale, rien que des signes apocryphes se renvoyant l’un a l’autre à l’infini" (p. 140).

1The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, which was published in 1857, records a dual historical phenomenon: on the one hand a plurality of issuing banks and on the other, an increase in the number of charitable organizations.

  • 1 On the financial disorder subsequent upon the veto of the Bank of the United States, see Marianne D (...)
  • 2 See Ted Weissbuch, “A note on the Confidence-Man’s Counterfeit Detector”, Emerson Society Quarterly(...)

2A pluralist system of banking: In the last chapter of the novel, an old man and a cosmopolitan traveller compare a bill issued by the Vicksburgh Trust and Insurance Company with its description in a journal, The Counterfeit Detector. The scene refers to a precise context: since 1836, the year when the Second National Bank of the United States of America was vetoed, each state had been empowered to grant local banks the right to issue paper-money. Hence, the proliferation of “wild-cat banks”, in the West in particular1: there were so many kinds of bills in circulation that in order to make sure of their currency, people had to refer to journals such as The Counterfeit Detector2.

  • 3 See Perry Miller’s study on the rise of the Evangelical Crusade: The Life of the Mind in America fr (...)

3The increase in the number of charitable organizations: The word “Charity” is on everyone’s lips in the novel. During the second Awakening, believers had turned to social action and the number of organizations such as the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum or the P. I. O. office (which deals with juvenile delinquency) had risen3. But the charitable organizations were suspected of surreptitiously reintroducing the values of the market-world into the religious field on account of their professionalism. The promotion of faith might eventually degrade itself into charity business and decline into a show. The wild West was the place where the Millennium was to be achieved but it was also suspected of harbouring all sorts of heresies. There are various allusions, throughout the novel, to the New Jerusalem of the Mormons, to Catholic plots, to networks of Free-Masons, to obscure dissenters such as the Come-outers and to Fourierist phalanxes. The Confidence-Man shows the different varieties of American Messianism. Apart from the more traditional churches (which appear to be split into a multitude of denominations: the Episcopalians, the Methodists, etc.) the Fidèle gathers a whole crowd of dissenters who mix with outlaws of the West – pickpockets, quacks and crooks.

4There is more than a mere homology between the disorder of the banking system and the confusion in the religious field, between the absence of a central bank and the lack of a unifying creed. Deregulation in the financial field and freedom of worship were both the legacy of Jacksonian democracy. They both contribued to muddling monetary or religious values. The novel first raises the question of real and counterfeit money and then proceeds with the problem of the true and the false prophets. It deals with the impossibility of deciding between what is really genuine and what is really fake, both on the religious and the monetary plane.

Credit and Creed

5Utter confusion prevailed in the financial field, particularly in the West. By a curious coincidence, the novel is set in the Mississippi valley which was linked to a whole tradition of financial panic. It was indeed in order to implement the Mississippi System that John Law had issued his notes de confiance. The result was a well-known fiasco. The Fidèle looks like an exchange office or a stock-exchange market:

  • 4 All quotations refer to the Oxford University Press edition of The Confidence-Man (ed. Tony Tanner (...)

Merchants on ‘change seem the passengers that buzz on her decks (...) Auctioneer or coiner, with equal ease, might somewhere here drive his trade (Ch. 2, p. 7)4.

In the last chapter, an old man accompanied by a cosmopolitan traveller attempts to check the authenticity of a couple of bills by consulting The Counterfeit Detector:

“Here are two bills they gave me at St Louis, yesterday. No doubt they are all right; but just to pass time, I’ll compare them with the Detector here. Blessed boy to make me such a present. Public benefactor, that little boy". (Ch. 45, p. 331)

According to the journal, a genuine bill should present certain signs:

“The Detector says, among fifty other things, that if a good bill, it must have, thickened here and there into the substance of the paper, little wavy spots of red; and it says they must have a kind of silky feel, being made by the lint of a red silk handkershief stirred up in the paper-maker’s vat- the paper being made to order for the company”. (Ch. 45, p. 331)

But the journal adds that the authenticating sign can become obliterated with use:

“Stay. But then it adds, that sign is not always to be relied on; for some good bills get so worn, the red marks get rubbed out. And that’s the case with my bill here – see how old it is – or else it’s a counterfeit, or else – I don’t see right – or else – dear, dear me – I don’t know what else to think”. (Ch. 45, p. 332)

  • 5 “Usure” in French conflates two meanings 1, usury 2, wearing away. On the interplay between the two (...)

As the bill is damaged, the warranting sign is worn away and one has to rely on a multitude of contradictory clues. Signs proliferate for want of an unquestionable mark5.

"I don’t know, I don’t know”, returned the old man perplexed. "There’s so many marks of all sorts to go by, it makes it kind of uncertain.” (Ch. 45, p. 331)

The journal indicates a sign which could be held certain. There should be the picture of a goose as a watermark if it is a good bill. The old man vainly takes a close look at the note. The goose remains invisible although the Cosmopolitan assures him that it can be seen:

“Stay, now, here’s another sign. It says that, if the bill is good, it must have in one corner, mixed in with the vignette, the figure of a goose, very small indeed, all but microscopic (...) Now, pore over it as I will, I can’t see this goose.”
"Can’t see the goose? Why, I can; and a famous goose it is. There” (reaching over and pointing to a spot in the vignette).
“I don’t see it – dear me – I don’t see the goose. Is it a real goose?”
“A perfect goose; a beautiful goose.” (Ch. 45, p. 332)

The supposedly reliable sign might prove deceptive. Perhaps there is no goose at all and the only goose is the person who tries to find it, the old man who is about to be fleeced by the Cosmopolitan or even the Cosmopolitan who keeps chattering ( “the two geese are gabbling”, Ch. 45, p. 325). The Cosmopolitan insinuates that you cannot possibly find authentic marks. He advises the old man to show less distrust and to give up this ( “wild-goose chase” in search of a guarantee.

"Dear, dear, I don’t see it” [the goose],
"Then throw that Detector away; it only makes you purblind; don’t you see what a wild-goose chase it has led you? The bill is good. Throw the Detector away.” (Ch. 45, p. 332)

  • 6 John Irwin in American Hieroglyphics, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1980, p. 346), and Tony Ta (...)

The Cosmopolitan seems to imply that no sign is reliable in itself. Its authenticity is founded on other signs which are equally suspicious. How can one trust the Counterfeit Detector whose ambiguous title hints at the fact that the authoritative document might be forged too6? Because of these constant cross-references, no sign is above suspicion.

  • 7 See Dominique Manjais, “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade et le problème noir”, in Le Blanc et le (...)

6How can one recognize a counterfeit bill? How can you identify the crook who is being looked for among the passengers on board the Fidèle? The question of real or counterfeit money is raised aigain concerning an old black beggar who is accused of being a fake. Is he really lame ( “game-legged”) or is he merely playing on it as is suggested by his “game of charity”, the cruel diversion which he has invented to attract a few donations. Should we take his name at its face value? Is it sterling gold or should we see through it and detect underneath the metal of little worth which it covers7?

Not more grateful for the coin than the kindness, the cripple’s face glowed like a polished copper saucepan. (Ch. 3, p. 20)

Black Guinea has no documentary evidence about him which would enable him to exonerate himself:

Had he any documentary proof, any plain paper about him, attesting that his case was not a spurious one.
“No, no, dis poor ole darkie hain’t none o’dem waloable papers”, he wailed. (Ch. 3, p. 14)

As a matter of fact, no official document can be an unquestionable proof in itself. There is no such things as a transparent text (a “plain paper”). What is deemed self-evident and trustworthy may prove murky ( “walloable papers”; a coined word which conflates valuable and wallow).

  • 8 Bruce Franklin, The Wake of the Gods, (Standford, Universtiy Press, 1963, p. 166).

7For want of documentary evidence, Black Guinea gives the particulars of various passengers who could vouch for him. But the description he gives seems quite inadequate as Bruce Franklin suggested8.

“But how are we to find all these people in this great crowd?” (...)
“Wild goose chase!” croaked he with the wooden leg, now again drawing nigh. Don’t believe there’s a soul of them aboard. Did ever beggar have such heaps of fine friends? He can walk fast enough but he can lie yet faster. He’s some white operator, betwisted and painted up for a decoy. He and his friends are all humbugs. (Ch. 3, p. 15)

The list Black Guinea makes up includes all the passengers who might testify in his favour; in fact it foreshadows the sequence of the crooks to come, who may turn out to be no one else but himself in different guises. Even supposing that those witnesses can be found, how could their testimony be accepted as an authority? None of those freakish characters who constitute an unclassified zoological species ( “duck-billed characters”, Ch. 14, p. 90) appears to be trustworthy. This wild-goose chase among duck-billed characters only brings us back to dubious bills.

8In fact, the description of the crook on the notice board, though assumed to be from official sources, is not reliable. The public notice is compared to a theatre bill. In other words, it is another kind of counterfeit bill. The story begins with a forged note which is the origin of a whole series of counterfeits. The curious on-lookers (and the readers who are just like them) should beware of not being taken in by the capitals of the bill (the word “capitals” conflates the block letters and the reward which they seem to offer) because meanwhile, behind their backs, pickpockets are busy trying to spirit away their possessions.

As if it had been a theatre-bill, crowds were gathered about the announcement, and among them certain chevaliers, whose eyes, it was plain, were on the capitals, or at least, earnestly seeking sight of them from behind intervening coats. (Ch. 1, p. 2)

It is vain to demand a warrant as does the Episcopalian minister ( “Of course you have papers?", Ch. 6, p. 44) or a receipt as in the case of the old miser ( “receipts, my receipt!”, Ch. 15, p. 99). Their requests are self-defeating. One has to have confidence for there is no available evidence. It is vain therefore to try to verify the truthfulness of the statements of the agent of the Black Rapids Coal Company by referring to his account-book (which only recounts his story in a different way) because eventually nothing can prove whether it is true or not:

“In my official capacity I have not been authenticated to you. This tranfer-book, now, holding it up so as to bring the lettering in sight, how do you know it may not be a bogus one? And I being personally a stranger to you, how can you have confidence in me? (....) you have not examined my book.”
“What need to, if already I believe that it is what it is lettered to be?”
"Doubts, maybe, it might suggest, but not knowledge; for how by examining the book, should I think I knew any more than I now think I do; since if it be the true book, I think it so already; and since if it be otherwise, then I have never seen the true one, and don’t know what that ought to look like.” (Ch. 10, p. 73)

  • 9 Jean-Joseph Goux points out that “Fiduciary” is derived from the Latin word fiducia, which means co (...)

Eventually there is nothing for it but to have confidence. Hence, the fundamental fideism of business9.

Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would like a watch, run down and stop. (Ch. 22, p. 171)

Faith cannot be altogether eradicated. However debased it may be, it remains the basis of exchanges. Distrust is but an unavailing denial of trust, as Pitch the Missourian admits unknowingly: “I have confidence in distrust”. (Ch. 21, p. 143)

The Fidèle mirrors in miniature a materialistic world which has turned away from faith, or rather which has turned it to account. A philanthropist can be a shark too. A strong believer who claims to trust in Providence takes a lot of precautions to protect his earthly possessions. The old man is not on the point of putting on the body of Christ but only of slipping a money-belt round his waist. The belt is designed to contain not only money but also the cesspool of his bowels ( “waist” sounds like waste). The old man desperately clings to his deep-seated corrupt values and he finally selects a stool by way of a lifebuoy. He goes offstage steeped in an excremential atmosphere:

“Still, I think that in case of a wreck, barring sharp-pointed timbers, you could have confidence in that stool for a special providence.”
(...) “But, bless me, we are being left in the dark here. Pah! what a smell, too.” (Ch. 45, p. 336)

  • 10 See Alan Taylor, “The early Republic’s supernatural economy: treasure seeking in the American North (...)

What we have here is a world apparently devoid of spirituality. Charity has become an empty word. Nobody gives anathing anymore; Charity is for sale only and if ever there is a gift it is never made without compensations nor unreservedly. Even the human livestock has come to be quoted on the Stock Exchange. The P. I. O. agent places his bondservants who are so many bonds. The bonds of friendship have been reduced to bonds in the financial sense of the word. “Dear” friends (Ch. 39, p. 273) are costly and risky investments. Friendship can be revived as if by magic by means of a few coins, in keeping with rites akin to spirit-rapping. The Cosmopolitan places coins in a circle around his lost friend to restore his confidence, which is reminiscent of a technique which was used to conjure up buried treasures in the United States in the 1830s10. Even philanthropy has been defeated by the prevailing mercenary mentality:

“Missions I would quicken with the Wall Street spirit (...) So much by bid for converting India, so much for Borneo, so much for Africa, Competition allowed, stimulus would be given. There would be no lethargy of monopoly”. (Ch. 7, p. 53)

Charity has lapsed into charity business. The representative of the hellish Black Rapid Coals Company also peddles shares in the New Jerusalem of the Mormons: Paradise can be bought on credit. As for the economic strategy of the B. R. C. C. – buying up its own shares at their lowest price and reckoning on a recovery which is bound to take place – it may evoke some providential design (Felix Culpa) but, consequently, it reduces Providence to a shady dealing, to a take-over bid of sorts.

9And yet, the novel invites us to look at the question from a radically different angle. Faith has been put on the market but, as a matter of fact, it is the market-world which is included in the sphere of Faith as all transactions implicitly rely on confidence. It is true that all the characters, whether they preach trust or mistrust, speculate on faith. Whenever they have dealings with each other, willy-nilly, they bank on belief since commerce requires credit which implies credence which supposes creed. The Fidèle is a modern-day ship of fools dependent on faith. Hence, an irrepressible sense of expectation, an implicit longing for hope even among the more skeptical characters. The barber, who advocates distrust, is an adventist in spite of himself:

Upon suddenly hearing the benediction above, pronounced in tones not unangelic, starting up, half awake, he stared before him but saw nothing, for the stranger stood behind (...)
"Ah!” turning round disenchanted, “it is only a man, then.” (Ch. 42, p. 299)

He perfectly typifies an age which was “mindful of the millennial promise” (Ch. 7, p. 55) but which was also the era of rampant materialism.

10After all, there is nothing unrealistic about the apparently utopian plan concerning a world-wide tax in aid of benevolent societies – a tax from which no one, not even the underprivileged, would be exempted. Such a tax already exists: it is Faith, for everyone on board the Fidèle is liable to be taxed with confidence.

[The World’s Charity] is to be empowered by the various governments to levy, annually, one grand benevolence tax upon all mankind; as in Augustus Caesar’s time, the whole world [is] to come up to be taxed; a tax which, for the scheme of it, should be something like the income-tax in England. (Ch. 7, p. 51)

Thus faith takes its toll. Charity, God’s gift, which not unlike the imperial tax should be returned to him, cannot be distinguished from the tribute to be rendered unto Caesar. Paradoxically enough, all swindles rest on a confidence trick. Confidence is thus the prerequisite of fraud. It is maybe the supreme cheat which conditions all the others, the hidden principle underlying all shady dealings. Faith is therefore deeply invloved in any swindle. On the whole, we have an apparently disenchanted world but which solely relies on confidence. The Fidèle, a real den of crooks – smuggles in Faith and peddles it around in an underhand way.

Scriptures as scrip

In "The Celestial Railroad" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a tale which clearly influenced The Confidence-Man, ethics have become a market and conscience serves as the legal tender. Similarly, Charity is clearly the currency in use on board the Fidèle. An enigmatic figure, who as we learn later on, is both deaf and dumb, rises up between the passengers and the notice board, displaying a slate on which several verses from the Bible appear. These verses are so many variations on the theme of Charity. He transcribes them one after the other, wipes the slate after each verse, leaving only the key-word “Charity”:

Shield-like bearing his slate before him, amid stares and jeers, he moved slowly up and down, at his turning-points again changing his inscription to –
‘Charity believeth all things’
and then
’Charity never faileth’
The word charity, as originally traced, remained uneffaced, not unlike the left-hand numeral of a printed date, otherwise left for convenience in blank. (Ch. 1, p. 3)

He keeps coining sayings about Charity which thus appears to be an inexhaustible reserve of currencies. The slate recalls a blank cheque. This litany which leaves the slate blank except for one constant, the word “Charity”, adumbrates the various swindles to come, the common denominator of which is to exploit this value of capital importance.

11The founding text is fractioned into a sequence of discrete verses which are transcribed successively. The previous definitions of charity are obliterated as new ones appear on the slate. The meanings of Charity in Scripture (s) multiply in a confusing way just as the value of scrip was made uncertain by the inflation of paper-money and the excessive increase in the amount of banknotes in circulation.

12Significantly enough, it is a dumb-show, a derogatory term often applied to papist rites which were accused of obscuring the Word of God. The opening playlet raises disquieting questions. Does charity consist in giving part of oneself away, in making donations or merely in making a show of oneself? From the moment it comes into play, it is suspected of being a mere masquerade. Are we dealing with a real prophet or with an impostor? A “green prophet from Utah” or a “humbug”, the onlookers wonder. In other words, is it a good bill, a genuine greenback or a forgery?

  • 11 On “wolves in sheep’s cloathing” see Increase Mather’s Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Provi (...)

13The growing number of the would-be representatives of faith throughout the novel raises again the question of real and counterfeit notes. The endless stream of so-called spokesmen of charity keeps swelling. By what sign can you recognize a real prophet from those who pass themselves off as philanthropists? Which of these innumerable doubles should you trust when thy all urge you to believe them? The man in a cream-coloured suit who preaches confidence, or William Cream, the barber, who challenges him? Black Guinea, the lame beggar or the one-legged discharged officer who claims that Black Guinea, is a sham? Each position is invalidated by the opposite view which takes it up again underhandedly. The novel is a hall of mirrors in which the antagonists turn out to have certain features in common, whereas similarities prove deceptive. The Confidence-Man, like Increase Mather’s works, is pervaded with the fear of conspiracy, the anxiety to unmask impostors11.

  • 12 Gilles Deleuze: “Comme dit Spinoza lorsqu’il définit la prophétie, le prophète juif privé de logos, (...)

14But, as soon as one asks oneself: How can one tell a real prophet from a false one? by what signs? one necessarily admits that belief in signs fails to authenticate the signs of belief. True, Faith makes up for the absence of a reliable sign and supplies the missing guarantee, but far from providing some ultimate principle, it appears to be caught in the entangled web of spurious signs. It fails to settle the problem of marks which need to be certified by other marks12. The problem of the doubling of marks cannot be solved. It can only be deferred. It has just shifted to the religious plane. Far from putting an end to the inflation of suspicious signs, which keep splitting on account of their inherent duplicity, belief also contributes to it. It brings a surplus of additional signs which are equally dubious. The dumb man looks “lamb-like”. Does this mean that he is the image of Christ or that he is just a false Messiah?

15The signs which inspire confidence only serve to defer doubts. They cannot countersign signs and thereby unquestionably warrant their worth. They are just more signs which are in essence suspect. Paradoxically enough, if mistrust was but the envelope of belief ( “I have confidence in distrust”), conversely faith is the denial of a doubt which it attempts to suppress but which it betrays as soon as it finds expression through signs:

“Take the wrapper from any of my vials and hold it to the light, you will see water-marked in capitals the word "confidence”, which is the countersign of the medecine, as I wish it was of the world. The wrapper bears that mark or else the medecine is counterfeit. But if still any lurking doubt should remain, pray enclose the wrapper to this address”, handing a card, “and by return mail I will answer”.
At first the sick man listened, with the air of vivid interest, but gradually, while the other was still talking, another strange caprice came over him, and he presented the aspect of the most calamitous dejection.
"How now?” said the herb-doctor.
“You told me to have confidence, said that confidence was indispensable, and here you preach me to distrust. Ah, truth will out”. (Ch. 16, p. 108)

The Counterfeit Detector begged the question of counterfeit and could only dodge it momentarily, as is suggested by the recurrence of the negative prefix “counter” in the sentence:

“I’ve always thought that much of the want of confidence, in these days, is owing to these Counterfeit Detectors you see on every desk and counter. Puts people up to suspecting good bills”. (Ch. 45, p. 332)

16Likewise, faith defers constantly underlying doubts. The public notice concerning the confidence-man was intended to be a warning. It inspires the dumb-show which teaches trust but which only provokes a counter-order which advocates distrust. Towards the end of the novel, the Cosmopolitan will manage to induce the barber to remove the sign “No Trust” but only for a short while, until he goes back on his decision.

17And yet, there remains in the field of faith an authority, the Word of God as revealed in Scripture. Whether they preach confidence (as the man in a cream-coloured costume) or mistrust (as the barber), all of them refer to the Bible which is accepted as an authority and which could therefore decide which are the authorized spokesmen among the host of would-be prophets. It is significant that The Counterfeit Detector should be offered while the old man and the Cosmopolitan are perusing a copy of the Bible which has been put at the disposal of the travellers. They skim through the journal before taking up the Bible again. The narrative keeps switching from the Good Book to the profane brochure, which may suggest a contrast between material and spiritual values, between the corroding doubt instilled by the journal and the raptures inspired by faith:

With an expression very unlike that with which he had bent over the Detector, the old man sat meditating upon his his companion’s remarks a while; and at last, with a rapt look, said: “And yet, of all people, the travelling public most need to put trust in that guardianship which is made known in this book”. (Ch. 45, p. 333)

But what is intimated here is some sort of equivalence between the two texts which are both authorities in their respective fields. The old Bible recalls the banknotes they have just been talking about. Just as damaged bills remain valid, so the Bible looks worn outwardly, but its inward value remains unimpaired.

“Old without and new within. This aptly typifies that internal freshness, the best mark of truth, however ancient”. (Ch. 45, p. 33)

Just as the hallmark of the bills had been obliterated with use, so the name of the society which donated the Bible can hardly be read now.

He turned the large volume slowly over on the table, and with much difficulty traced the faced remains of the gilt inscription giving the name of the society who had presented it to the boat (ibid.).

The discrepancy between the economic and the religious realms is only apparent. The Bible is the counterpart of The Counterfeit Detector on the religious plane, so that faith only reproduces the market-world which it purports to found.

18The Cosmopolitan, who is puzzled when the barber uses the Bible to recommend mistrust, looks up the “Good Book” to check the truthfulness of his allegations. The barber apparently relies on certain apocryphal texts which obliquely discredit God. Interpreted literally, they cast doubt on the false prophets only, but suspicion may extend to God. So, within the canonical text, doubt coexists with faith, threatening to invade it. And yet, oddly enough, the apocryphal section is part and parcel of the authorized version. It is set in it, as it were. The unexpurgated edition covers (in every sense of the word) the apocryphal parts, so that the “Good Book” passes on both the Revealed Word and a forgery. How could it serve to distinguish the real from the false prophets since it is dual and seems to hint at some double talk from the start? Accordingly, the various heresies can no longer be seen as departures from the original text. They derive from the inner discrepancies of the authorized version. This state of confusion is highlighted by a misunderstanding: one of the passengers who has overheard the conversation between the old man and the Cosmopolitan mistakenly thinks that he has just heard “apocalypse” instead of “apocrypha". Dissembling ( “apocrypha” means “hidden” etymologically) is confused with revelation.

  • 13 Ann Douglass in The Feminization of the American Culture, (New York, Alfred Knopf, 1977), p. 319, s (...)
  • 14 On the biblical symbolism of the last chapter, see Carolyn Karcher’s Shadow over the Promised Land, (...)

19The Evangelical Crusade had paradoxically relegated the biblical text to a position of secondary importance and had promoted activism rather than textual commentary. It is a fact that nobody reads The Bible anymore on board the Fidèle, as the Cosmopolitan remarks, though the word “Charity” is on everyone’s lips13. However, a closer scrutiny of the text would reveal that heresy and orthodoxy are concomitant. Philanthropists of all kinds are spawning on the contemporary scene. This proliferation can be ascribed to the original text which is manifold from the start. How could one take this two-fold reference text seriously? The title of the chapter “Increase in Seriousness” hints at the process of dissemination initiated by this inner split. The interpolated apocryphal portion is the central section which multiplies it from within, thus blurring any clear-out distinction between the true and the false. Faith is divided by this inner crease (in-crease) in the canonical text which results in the excessive increase in the number of the supposedly authoritative sources. The final chapter shows how undetermined the boundary line between the Revealed Word and the Apocrypha has become. Does the advent of the Cosmopolitan mean a decisive revelation or is he yet another crook? Is it the Second Coming of Christ or only another confidence trick14? He is Christ-like in the sense that he is also a bridegroom on the nuptial day. He is an angelic voice in the darkness of the night which elicits visions and prophecies. Like the Son (the Sun), he seems to dispense a new light in this far western country where God’s Will (through the Manifest Destiny) is to be done, but he eventually puts off the light – the better to plot in the dark? Does it mark the dawn of a new era in which the artifice of lamps has become obsolete or does it show that the Fidèle is forever plunged into darkness? Is it a “new morning” in the sense of a reneval or only the mourning of a world which God seems to have forsaken. The lamp which lights up the last scene is hardly illuminating though it is supposed to be an unmistakable harbinger, “a sure word of prophecy”:

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts. (2 Peter, 1, 19)

This light, far from giving any proof, may lead us to endless checks and counterchecks.

Quench not the spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. (1, Thessalonians, 5, 19)

Signs are so equivocal that it may be no longer relevant to ask ourselves if the Cosmopolitan is the Saviour or a swindler. The interplay between the narrative and the Bible completes our confusion. In Revelations, Christ is compared to a thief. The last scene of the novel may allude to this metaphor:

I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee (Revelations, 3; 3)

Interpreted literally, the biblical text does not rule out that God might become incarnate in a crook, his antithesis, and that divine rectitude might take the form of fraud. Faith must be extorted from believers and is indistinguishable from a confidence game:

Being crafty I caught you with guile. (2, Corinthians, 121; 16)

  • 15 Jean-Louis Chretien shows in Lueur du secret, (Paris, L’Heme, 1985), how, in Luther’s works God can (...)

20Pierre; or, the Ambiguities explores the reversal which the shift from the divine order ( “chronometricals") to human history ( “horologicals”) entails. In The Confidence-Man, God might get involved in the human comedy in various guises. Investment on his part might prove inseparable from putting on vestments. God only appears disguised as a crook on board the Fidèle which is the assumed name of a Shakespearean character and, as a consequence, a twice-removed fictitious figure. The mystery of Incarnation – Hoc est corpus – boils down to a kind of hocus-pocus, whereby God, relinquishing his glory, inverts himself and represents himself as an impostor15. Besides, he might (re) appear not only as a superb “metaphysical scamp” (p. 182) but diffracted through the whole exhausted crowd of smalltime crooks. In the economy of Providence, the invisible hand of God and that of the pickpocket might be one and the same:

As if it had been a theatre-bill, crowds were gathered about the announcement, and among them certain chevaliers, whose eyes, it was plain were on the capitals, or, at least, earnestly seeking sight of them from behind intervening coats; but as for their fingers, they were enveloped in some myth. (Ch. 1, p. 2)

The swap of cash for confidence which is the mainspring of the various transactions sketches out the equivalence between financial loss and spiritual gift. Vice and sainthood might be the obverse and reverse sides of the same coin, “the rake being the crude material for the saint” (Ch. 22, p. 166). The Fidèle is the scene of “a sort of visitation” of scamps (Ch. 24, p. 182) in which God offers himself by inflicting financial losses. What emerges half-way between the Holy City (St Louis) and the den of iniquity (New Orleans) in the secret equation of the temple with the gambling joint (to the great dismay of the Temperance Movement activists). The Second Coming of Christ longed for by millenarian America might unexpectedly take place on the first of April, that is, on All Fools’Day, while the pagan carnival is in full swing.

21God, if he reveals himself at all, hides himself beneath a series of masks. On the whole, faith, the cornerstone of commerce, is subject to fluctuations. It seems to be the only reliable rule in a shifting world of ambivalent signs but there is some play in its workings.

22The novel was published in 1857, at the height of a financial scare, at a time when most of Melville’s contemporaries sought shelter in faith. Melville went against the tide by unmasking the complicity between mammonism and faith and by locating the origin of the crisis in the heart of religious belief. Religion, on board the Fidèle, carries along only murky values and, far from supplying a stable foundation, is swept away by the Mississippi river which is described as “one cosmopolitan and confident tide” (Ch. 1, p. 9) but which turns out to be less the site of a fusion than a scene of confusion.

Notes

1 On the financial disorder subsequent upon the veto of the Bank of the United States, see Marianne Debouzy, Le capitalisme “sauvage" aux Etats-Unis, (Paris, Le Seuil, 1972).

2 See Ted Weissbuch, “A note on the Confidence-Man’s Counterfeit Detector”, Emerson Society Quarterly, n° 19, (II Quarter, 1960).

3 See Perry Miller’s study on the rise of the Evangelical Crusade: The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, Book 1, (New York, Harcourt and Brace, 1965). On the benevolent societies and the suspicion they aroused, see p. 79 and 83.

4 All quotations refer to the Oxford University Press edition of The Confidence-Man (ed. Tony Tanner and Hohn Dugdale, Oxford, 1989). Italics are Melville’s.

5 “Usure” in French conflates two meanings 1, usury 2, wearing away. On the interplay between the two meanings see J. Derrida, “La mythologie blanche”, in Marges, (Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1972), and Jean-Michel Rey, L’enjeu des signes, Lecture de Nietzche, (Paris, Le Seuil, 1971, p. 100).

6 John Irwin in American Hieroglyphics, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1980, p. 346), and Tony Tanner in his Introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the novel (p. 32) have commented the ambiguity of the compound name "counterfeit detector”.

7 See Dominique Manjais, “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade et le problème noir”, in Le Blanc et le Noir chez Melville et Faulkner, (Paris, Mouton, 1974, p. 51).

8 Bruce Franklin, The Wake of the Gods, (Standford, Universtiy Press, 1963, p. 166).

9 Jean-Joseph Goux points out that “Fiduciary” is derived from the Latin word fiducia, which means confidence, in Les Monnayeurs du langage, (Paris, Galilée, 1984, p. 66). On money and religion, see Joachim Schacht, Anthropologie culturelie de l’argent, (Payot, Paris, 1973).

10 See Alan Taylor, “The early Republic’s supernatural economy: treasure seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830”, American Quarterly, 38 (1).

11 On “wolves in sheep’s cloathing” see Increase Mather’s Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, quoted in Elizabeth Foster’s edition of the book (New York, Hendricks House, 1954), p. 297.

12 Gilles Deleuze: “Comme dit Spinoza lorsqu’il définit la prophétie, le prophète juif privé de logos, réduit au langage des signes, a toujours besoin d’un signe pour se persuader que le signe de Dieu n’est pas trompeur. Car même Dieu peut vouloir le tromper”, Proust et les signes, (Paris, PUF, 1964), p. 136.

13 Ann Douglass in The Feminization of the American Culture, (New York, Alfred Knopf, 1977), p. 319, sees such a disregard for the Holy Book at the height of the Evangelical Crusade as a feature of the religion of the heart.

14 On the biblical symbolism of the last chapter, see Carolyn Karcher’s Shadow over the Promised Land, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1980).

15 Jean-Louis Chretien shows in Lueur du secret, (Paris, L’Heme, 1985), how, in Luther’s works God can never be seen face to face but only obliquely, disfigured through a process of inversion.

© Presses universitaires de Vincennes, 1992

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