In this very moment, the announced lecture on Melville is taking place. Here's an abstract.
Many masterpieces of the 19th - early 20th centuries deal with the sea: Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emilio Salgari (the Italian creator of the noble pirate Sandokan) . . . but Melville, among the greatest writers, is possibly the one in whom the sea plays the most important role. See his early best-sellers Typee and Omoo, describing Tropical paradises à la Gauguin, then his masterpiece, Moby-Dick -- according to us, but his great failure, according to his contemporary readers.“No problem,” Melville says, “I will rally!” And he publishes Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, that will prove far “worse” both as to its scandalous contents (the destruction of family values, incest, . . . ) and as to its post-modern, de-structive style. Melville will keep writing novels up until 1857 with The Confidence-Man, his final crash, then forever stop with novels. The irony of fate: his last success will be Billy Budd, a sea story that, however, will only be published in 1924, much later than his death. Cf. Tasso’s posthumous glory with his long poem Il Mondo Creato [The Seven Days of Creation], that would even inspire Milton.The Confidence-Man deserves to be rediscovered as, possibly, Melville’s co-masterpiece together with Moby-Dick. Not many years before, in 1842, Alessandro Manzoni had published the definitive version of I Promessi Sposi [The Betrothed], the Italian novel matching Ivanhoe in English literature. Manzoni’s insights into social evils, politics and psychology have lost nothing of their relevance to the present day, but the world he describes, fictionally set in the 17th century, is gone: country villages with their old customs and their parish priests, and Italy being ruled by Spaniards! Whereas the world Melville describes in The Confidence-Man is exactly ours own: a multi-ethnic society, the Stock Exchange, businessmen cheating common people, the triumph of technology. It makes a strange effect to think that the two novels were written in the same epoch.The C-M is “based on a true story,” a skilled thief who had been arrested some years earlier. But the greatest “ambiguity” in the novel is that it is not even clear who the C-M is, or how many of them may be out there. (On the other hand, the whole story in set on April 1st.) According to the three main critical hypotheses, there may be (a) one C-M, or (b) a group of them, say three to five, or (c) a lot of them, maybe all the principal personages.In my opinion, the “leading” C-M is just one, a total shift-changer like the Chameleon, a super-villain in the long list of the enemies of Spider-Man. But who is he? A good critical hypothesis identifies the C-M with the devil, here repeating, again and again, the temptation of Eve by getting the confidence of people and having them give him some money, even small sums, it doesn’t matter. In fact, each time Melville provides us with clues about the C-M’s identity, they often come from Milton’s Paradise Lost. On the other hand, the more the story goes on, the more the protagonist looks bewildered, naive, etc., that does not fit in well with such a satanic role.So, my hypothesis is that the C-M is ------ Moby-Dick! The Other par excellence in Melville’s mythology. Now on board, no longer underwater. The Whale himself was said to have a human-like intelligence. He has evolved up to the point of being able to turn into a human being, like the White Worm (i.e. serpent, dragon) in Bram Stoker’s last novel. Melville seems to suggest this by giving Ahab-like features to all the men who do not trust the C-M: an artificial leg, a bad temper, a very young daughter, etc. -- the more so as the actual captain of the steamboat is never shown.Like Moby-Dick, the C-M is simply a mask, the mask hiding the mystery of life, a mystery involving the human need for confidence: the basic sentiment that is, at the same time, the strong point and the weak point of humanity.