Monday, March 31, 2003

My Masquerade

Well, at long last, I'm back! Blogging duties should commence with a bit more normalcy than of late, now that Katrien is once again slaving away in the salt mines and I have free reign of the internet. I was going to jot down a quick post about my weekend, highlighting my Saturday watching Euro 2004 qualifying action -- Go Lithuania!! -- and walking around a reconstructed 19th-century Belgium in Bokrijk, but then two things happened. First, I realised that, wow, I had a really boring weekend; second, I remembered that I'd still not finished the paper I'm supposed to be reading on Saturday, and have thus been consumed with that since Sunday. In an effort to further explain my centripetally-challenged PhD thesis (for a reasonable example -- though I am no means saying the quality of my work matches his -- see the structure of Douglas Hofstadter's classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid), I thought I would instead post the summary-version of Saturday's paper. It doesn't completely nail down what I'm trying to do in my thesis, but it is at least where the tale begins.

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If all writing is a peculiar rewriting, what gives the secular and sacred texts that we read their currency? In Herman Melville's final novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, this question takes on an unexpected, radically theological tone. Enveloped in an economy of duplicity, Melville's oeuvre itself bears the dubious marks of that which has secrets to tell and faces to disclose. His is a puppet-show proscenium, which leads him eventually to one final disguise. The masquerade, of course, is basseted by silence. But how silent is a secret when, to be itself, it must unveil with the left hand what the right hand is forever trying to conceal? It is, I wish to show, a giving and a taking, and is thus closely parallel to the character, that is, the being-itself, of theology. In other words, the destabilisation and uncertainty of characteristic consciousness that Melville (dis)embodies is in fact the crisis of theology.

In The Confidence-Man it is also the impulse that propels the steamship 'Fidele' down the Mississippi River towards New Orleans. With nothing completely denied or affirmed, Melville's novel ostensibly pulls the wool over its readers' eyes. As its seemingly random episodes of peddlers and beggars of uncertain character accumulate and expand, one's confidence in stable identification is, equivocally, stressed. Retracting as it is expanding, moving and going absolutely nowhere, The Confidence-Man signals the transfer of the mask that Melville had self-consciously suffered behind, at least since Moby-Dick, to its snug replacement upon his reader. Loving his text much, he would set it adrift down the mighty Mississippi, and neither it nor his readers ever returned. This is a sacrifice of character -- a 'characteristic sacrifice', we might say.

If this is true, Melville's reader is in much the same predicament as the old man at the end of The Confidence-Man who, while examining a bill with his newly purchased 'Counterfeit Detector', laments, '"there's so many marks of all sorts to go by, it makes it a kind of uncertain."' To make matters even more complex, the old man realises that some signs, such as red marks on a 'three dollar bill of the Vicksburg Trust and Insurance Company', which, by their absence, hint at a counterfeit, also cannot be trusted because '"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."' The implications of these worries reach beyond a nascent nineteenth-century American economy, and interrogate contemporary theological assumptions about identity.

To characterise the theology of the masquerade or the counterfeit is to be confounded by the blurring of secrecy and sacrifice. Here, reading and writing is a violent economy, a sacrifice of the returned stability and 'value' we naturally assume when doing either. Consequently, the secret, the counterfeit as counterfeit, remains elusive, both spoken and unspoken. Melville's unsubtle use of biblical imagery and eschatological allusion in The Confidence-Man portends a sacrificial promise of 'something further', which betrays an unsettling resemblance to the return of a sacrificed Christ and the forgiveness wrought by the blood of a bull, each of which must necessarily remain just beyond the clouds or behind the temple's veil. Is something similar occurring in the Gospel of Matthew, where the resurrection, from which Jesus ostensibly claims his identity and authority, is also presented and regarded by some, even amongst the disciples (Matt. 28.17), as a 'deception' (Matt. 27. 63-66; 28.11-15)? Does not the same Gospel quickly conclude with an affirmation, one that might be paraphrased 'There is no secret as such; I deny it'? Much like sacramental wine, affirmation and denial necessarily bleeding into one another, confusing the sacred good news with the indeterminacy of a secret, secular passion.

Blurred distinctions litter The Confidence-Man, but particularly in the novel's ambiguously climactic final chapter. Here we find the same old man with the Counterfeit Detector explaining the nature of the Apocrypha to another passenger. It is, he points out, literally tucked, 'in black and white', between the 'certain truth' of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, adding that it is of an 'uncertain credit'. The other passenger is relieved to have been reminded of the distinction, but is quickly troubled anew by the fact that he had failed at all to notice the distinction of value. He thus espies a problem that persists today in various forms and contexts: '"For the moment, its being such escapes me. Fact is, when all is bound up together, its sometimes confusing. The uncanonical part should be bound distinct."

The counterfeit coinage of sacrifice, the necessary blurring of sacred and secular, is the programmatic problem that pricked Melville for most of his writing career up to The Confidence-Man, where, it seems, he came to a certain set of conciliatory terms with his own sacrifice, as well as that of his reader. This proposed paper will explore the structurally problematic implications of the intertwining secret and sacrifice in the equally, but often silently, intertwining texts of Herman Melville and theology. Indeed, the stammering of confusion and uncertainty found in and between so-called secular and sacred discourses revaluate these self-perpetuating, but themselves also counterfeit, currencies that potentially make them both radically emergent and adaptive in an increasingly fluid marketplace.