Herman Melville, “The Confidence-Man” (1857)

“If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life. As elsewhere, experience is the only guide here; but as no one man’s experience can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every case to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.” (914)

Well, this is the world we live in to some degree, in constant war with our intellect and education. In The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade Herman Melville dreams up an incredible host of characters on a riverboat on their way South. Some of them certainly do not fit our taxonomy of life—such as the white man posing as a black man—, but they are all rendered so as to appear from life. This novel was Melville’s farewell to the world of publishing. Facing failure after failure since he wrote Redburn, he gave up on the public. He made some money from lecturing but eventually took to simply working at the New York customs office until he retired. His only outlet to the public was a few works of poetry. I still do not know for sure if Melville has spoken his peace or if he had more to say but lost faith in his listeners. As a farewell, The Confidence-Man does not disappoint. It is a brilliant tale and is endless quotable. As I am already prone to over quoting, I will try to avoid the temptation to go overboard.


What makes this novel work is the cast of characters, each of whom has a story, an agenda, or a scheme. In this way, it is a microcosm of mid-nineteenth century democratic America. But in the mixture of people trying to take advantage of each other, sell their scheme or idea, there is a shared solidarity that Melville touched on previously in regards to the ship and its crew, but not seems to come from the shared experiences of all sorts of people. As the narrator points out, the riverboat is a great place to explore the full diversity of humanity because at every stop people get on and others get off. The population is steady but always changing. Perhaps more darkly we could read this as a story of liquidity. As soon as someone bores us we can take comfort in the fact that they will be gone and someone different will be talking to us in a few minutes. Reflecting this impatience, The Confidence-Man never dwells long on one person. Even the styles shift, with short chapters devoted to tangential points of philosophy. The narrator seems to be in the position of someone in a bar, drinking all day, eavesdropping on every conversation. (Maybe the narrator is a bee moving amongst the riverboat.) Whatever the narrator is, it is always able to learn something from the interactions, even to the point of offering commentary.

Melville makes it clear that we are dealing with America in all its diversity and energy. “As pine, beech, birch, ash, hackmatack, hemlock, spruce, bass-wood, maple, interweave their foliage in the natural wood, so these varieties of mortals blended their varieties of visage and garb. A Tartar-like picturesqueness; a sort of pagan abandonment and assurance. Here reigned the dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide.” (848) The stories these varied people told revealed many aspects of American life, turning the novel into something closer to an American version of The Canterbury Tales.

The people on the riverboat are more or less equal (in part because there seems to be no end to the masks that people are wearing and no one can know the real status or condition of others). Despite this equality—or maybe because of it—there is a constant give and take as people try to recruit others into their various schemes. One person invented the “Protean easy-chair” during “odd intervals stolen from meals and sleep.” (881) But that is not the limit of his inventiveness. He has also come up with a scheme to reduce poverty in the world by imposing a global progressive income tax that would produce almost one billion dollars a year. (Notice that this plan is not so different from the proposal of Peter Singer to reduce poverty with a 1% voluntary tax on the wealthy people of the world.) It is not a spur of the moment idea, this particular character through long and hard about this scheme. But it exists only in the realm of ideas. He lacks, of course, the power to implement it. The entire thing may be (actually probably is) a scheme. For all the machinations, because no one has power over any of the others, it comes off as a bit of a game. And the concept of “confidence” (required by any schemer) runs through the story as a type of common vocabulary.

Other subplots revealed during this single day on a riverboat reveal a darker side to the American experience. We meet an Indian hater, for instance, who spends considerable time discussing his life-consuming ambition to slaughter Indians in revenge for the murder of his family (a crime for which was already avenged earlier in his life). As is so common in Melville’s work, the dark undercurrent of American democracy and diversity comes in the form of brutal violence and authoritarian sentiments.

“Well, there is sorrow in the world, but goodness too; and goodness is not greenness, either, no more than sorrow is.” (865)

Philip K. Dick, “Solar Lottery” (1955): Randomness and Obligation

Philip K. Dick’s Solar Lottery begins like many of his novels, with an alienated worker.  In this case, Ted Benteley gets fired (“break his fealty oath”).  He was part of a massive layoff.  “The first reaction from Oiseau-Lyre Hill to its limited catastrophe was to create total catastrophe for fifty percent of its classified employees.  Fealty oaths were dissolved, and a variety of trained research technicians were tossed out.  Cut adrift, they became a further symptom of the nearing moment-of-importance for the system.  Most of the severed technicians floundered, sank down, and were lost among the unclassified masses.”  Like many companies, Oiseau-Lyre has no problem using a small crisis, like a few employees talking union or a slightly higher marginal tax rate, to begin layoffs or talks of offshoring.  Protected by spreadsheets and the equality provided by the randomness of economics they can avert any moral burden.


The use of fealty oaths is intriguing.  In other ways the society described in Solar Lottery (Dick’s first published novel) is the logical extension of global modernity.  Winners and losers are chosen at random through a global game of chance, “Minimax.”

The former Quizmaster (a new one is chosen at random among the population at large) Reese Verrick discuss this system in the early part of the novel.  They debate if the game of life is based on chance or strategy and skill.  “They [the mathematicians who developed Minimax] saw that social situations are analogues of strategy games, like poker.  A system that works in a poker game will work in a social situation, like business or war. . . . Minimax was a brilliant hypothesis.  It gives us a rational scientific method to crack any strategy and transform the strategy game into a chance game, where the regular statistical methods of exact sciences function. . . The random factor is a function of an overall rational pattern.  In the face of random twitches, no one can have a strategy.  It forces everybody to adopt a randomized methods: best analysis of the statistical possibilities of certain events plus the pessimistic assumption that an plans will be found out in advance.  Assuming you’re found out in advance frees you of the danger of being discovered.”  I think it is hard to deny that randomness is the experience most people feel in a liquid world.  When a job posting attracts 500 qualified applicants, all with similar applicants, how can we say that the “best” or “most skilled” or “most qualified” candidate received the job.  And if we know in our field that the average position attracts 500 applicants, we send out 500 applications to different companies (all across the country – since we long have cared about retaining our communities).  In a sense, we are accepting the logic of Minimax.  We now have markets that can predict presidential elections with a fair degree of certainty.  Although, still far from random (we do not choose our politicians by chance) we cannot say we are choosing the most qualified candidate.  We are in the realm of chaos theory, where predictability is lost and randomness reigns.  This is the world of fated, atomized, and interchangeable citizens.

Philip K. Dick combines this system of Minimax with what seems to be the exact opposite, the political of personal loyalty.  A type of neo-feudalism shaped the relationship between employers and employees.  When Benteley lost of his job, he had to annul certain loyalty oaths.  When seeking new employment, he had to re-swear loyalty to his new employer.  These are not truly in conflict.  My husband may have come to me by random chance and fate, but I still interpret that relationship through the comparatively old-fashioned concepts of loyalty, vows, and mutual obligation.  It does not matter that I was just as likely to marry another man, or not marry.  Absolute randomness is only palatable if we impose on it the language of choice.  The fact that we make vows and oaths does not mean we have control, anymore than a dog has a choice to be dutiful to its master.

The plot of Solar Lottery is about the rise of the new Quizmaster, Cartwright, and the attempt to assassinate him.  Like the Quizmaster, the assassin is chosen at random and does not necessarily have any political gripes.  Indeed, with an entire system run by Minimax, individuals are mostly irrelevant.  Power exists in the aggregate and in the random.  By the end, we learn that Cartwright is actually a revolutionary figure who seeks to restore individual choice.  He essentially figured out how the system made its choices and took advantage of it.  “I played the game for years.  most people go on playing the game all their lives.  Then I began to realize the rules were set up so I couldn’t win.  Who wants to play that kind of game?  We’re betting against the house, and the house always wins.”    Cartwright realized this and became a follower of John Preston (a shout out to the mythical Christian African king Prestor John?).  Preston gets the last word in the novel and makes an argument for human agency in resistance to systems that chain us to fate.  “It isn’t senseless drive.  It isn’t a brute instinct that keeps us restless and dissatisfied.  I’ll tell you what it is: it’s the highest goal of man-the need to grow and advance . . . to find new things . . . to expand.  To spread out, reach areas, experiences, comprehend and live in an evolving fashion.  To push aside routine and repetition, to break out of mindless monotony and thrust forward.  To keep moving on. . . ”  One gets the sense that reading this out loud will summon the ghost of Gene Roddenberry.  Preston’s dream is not the world we live in.  We live in the liquid world of late capitalism.  Yet, since we can look forward to precious little optimism in PKD’s novels, I will take it for now.  I might need it before this project is done.