Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man—His Masquerade

Is the Indicative Mood Safe and Effective?

But first a quote from financier Bill Browder:

“Met with Sen. Tim Scott, Republican candidate for President. When I asked about his position on US support for Ukraine, he was unequivocal, ‘It’s in the US national security interest that Ukraine defeats (indicative) Russia.’ A breath of fresh air. All candidates should repeat those words.”

If there be (subjunctive) one Thing that we all suspect, it is that Man knows nothing, virtually, about the Universe in its vastness, having explored nothing, virtually, of its time and space. Unsatisfactory as that may be, it can only wax, er, worser and worser, the Universe wending its way outwards as we speak.

To be brief, what this means for the form of language referred to as “speech”—as opposed to other forms we call physics, mathematics, music—is that the more readily it express (subjunctive) domains such as doubt, uncertainty, speculation… the closer it will likely reflect the frightening indefiniteness of Reality as the Universe would (indefinite form—subjunctive? conditional?) have it.

Of course, there are scary definite indicatives around and about as well. As the Scamdemic and its cortège of unending confidence-tricks torch the Western world, those scientists and public figures who express Doubt in the face of Safe and Effective Received Opinion (rather more dangerous than was ever Received Pronunciation, which one could at least FAKE) find themselves at best shadow-banned, at worst

Doubt, uncertainty, speculation ! Stifle it! Stifle hypothesis! Criminalise private conversations (private member’s Bill in process of being voted up in Parliament, that very venue where citizens argue with one another, and have to accept being contradicted. Creep into every man’s consciousness, inhibit thought by instilling fear—head hypothesizing off at the pass ! Keep fear alive, dixit Stephen Colbert in his halcyon days.

So, before the Azov Battalion’s fan club in London, Brussels and elsewhere gets round to burning Herman Melville’s books, or why not, Papa Mendelssohn himself, now for outing a damn’d spot of hypothesis.

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Melville’s strangest work is likely The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857); it is absolutely bizarre and in theory, makes no sense unless read with the hindsight of the late Safe and Effective Scamdemic hoodwinking the world. In other words, The Confidence Man perhaps, prophetic as a study in how one may abdicate judgment and ignore that faint, doubting voice of Reason, in favour of a chimera: “confidence” in a meretricious authority.

Rather than a plot, the novel is a string of ghoulish and extremely unfunny Strange Interludes (reverse gear into funny: “Pardon me whilst I have a Strange Interlude”—Groucho.

On the steamer Fidèle, drifting down the Mississipi from Saint-Louis to New Orleans, a shape-shifter, adopting disguises and pretexts each more unlikely than the next, variously begs, wheedles and swindles monies from his fellow-passengers – including the desperately sick and lame – by weasling out in close conversation precisely what they wish to believe.

Though perhaps a touch florid and self-aware, the prose shows Melville to be a master not only of the psychology of self-interest but above all, of the English language, its syntax and verbal forms, no lesser than Edgar Allen Poe or Dickens. (What holds him back, well below the level of Shakespeare, is his dreadful pessimism, but for today’s purposes, that is neither here nor there. For a look at the brighter side of the moon, readers are encouraged to read Professor Philip Davis “The Shakespeared Brain.”

On to today’s purpose—Melville’s use of the subjunctive mood. As we are all terribly busy, what with War, Pretty Vikki Nuland on the rebound and the Jabotinskian shape-shifters, Papa Mendelssohn will make it snappy.

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Eschewing linguist’s terminology—with which in any event, he is only faintly conversant—Mendelssohn has selected a few of the many passages where Melville goes over to the subjunctive mood.

NB: The page references to one of the few available editions: Prometheus Books, Amherst (NY), 1995.

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Stared at, but evenly pursuing the path of duty, lead (subjunctive) it through solitudes or cities…. (page 19).

Here, the text- book example of a clause which our contemporaries would likely consider either a spelling mistake, or lacking words forgotten by the compositor.

All it means is “despite being stared at, the shape-shifter, unperturbed, pursued his path, whether that path might lead him through…” etc.

….taking him for some kind of a simpleton, harmless enough, would (subjunctive) he keep to himself (page 20).

Which means “harmless enough, provided that he were disposed to keep himself to himself.”

Here, the meaning cannot be “translated” into current Nulandian “plain English”, without recourse to another subjunctive “provided he were…”

…“would (optative subjunctive) it had been possible”… (p. 42).

As the English language now stands, it lacks visible forms for the Greek moods known as the optative/putative (“I hope, I imagine”) and the subjunctive. Which is not to say that the moodsdo not exist. The English optative has simply borrowed the subjunctive form, which itself – some would suggest, regrettably – shares the form of the past tense, whilst remaining identifiable, unmistakeably, by the context. Just as one could make even Socrates look ridiculous, by putting him next to Vikki Nuland in an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny bikini, and have him chant along with Bill Browder “It’s in the US national security interest that Ukraine defeats (indicative) Russia.”

Meaningless, the indicative mood here, since the Ukraine has not, cannot, and will not defeat Russia, however much it be in the perceived neo-con interest that she defeat (subjunctive) Russia.

So here, the clause ”would (optative subjunctive) it had been possible” means “how one would not have wished, that it had been possible!”, noting, en passant, that the negative NOT is often used as a marker in English for an optative, exhortative, putative or subjunctive mood. As for “had been possible”, that is a classic subjunctive.

In Nuland-Speak, one would translate into the conditional and infinitive, thusly: “I would have liked for it to be possible”.

“the Man with the Weed makes it an even question whether he be (subjunctive) a Great Sage or a Great Simpleton”—title to chapter 5, page 43.

Melville has outdone himself in ambiguity here. Use of the subjunctive “be” in the title with the present tense, can be taken to mean two markedly different things, owing to the lack of a comma before the word “whether”.
Either : “no matter whether he might be a sage or a simpleton, the man with the weed has made (whatever the issue is) a fifty-fifty toss-up.

Or, “one simply cannot decide whether the Man with the Weed be a sage or a simpleton”. In fact, Melville intended the latter, but neglected the comma before “whether”. In this instance, there is fairly faint advantage to using the subjunctive. And as it happens, languages which make a liberal use of that mood would likely avoid it here “este señor nos hace dudar si nos enfrentamos a un sabio o a un imbecil”… “ci fa dubitare se ci troviamo di fronte ad un uomo saggio od …”

Little profit derives from the subjunctive here, because the mind’s eye imagines the passengers on deck physically before the shape-shifter, asking “Is he … or is he?” It’s the clear-cut either/or quality that tends to make the Doubting Mood undesirable, indeed superfluous.

“Call him back, and let me ask him if he were really in earnest,” page 51.

Current usage would translate this as “and let me ask him if he actually said (indicative) that in earnest”, or alternatively, “if he was (indicative) in earnest, when he said that.”

Observe how the subjunctive mood leaves little doubt but that the speaker doubts, whereas the indicative mood would more or less assume that the absent party could not have been in earnest.

These things are rather examples of wonders that were (subjunctive) to be wished, than wonders that will happen.” page 62.

We are all now, I imagine, getting the hang of it: these are wonders, that, in current-speak, “one can only dream of materialising” – the economy and suggestive power of the subjunctive “were to be wished” is in itself quite wonderful.

I were (subjunctive) inhuman, could (conditional/subjunctive) I take affront at a want of confidence,” page 102.

Translated into current speak, this yields “should I be the sort of person to be offended by a lack of trust in me, I would qualify as a nasty piece of work”. Melville’s use of mood packs as much or more meaning, into half as many words.

But whether it involve (subjunctive) honour or otherwise might be mooted…”—page 92.

In current-speak, this gives the following: “It may be questioned whether this matter involves (indicative) honour, or perhaps something else than honour”. Perfectly humdrum, the indicative mood is blah – a matter of fact question.

Here, with Melville, we have a present-subjunctive, as the moot point is being mooted before our eyes; other writers might prefer a comma after “honour,” and/or after “otherwise,” but Melville’s delving into the brackish waters of dishonour is nevertheless plain.

Ah, did anyone make such a bed for himself, instead of having it made for him, it might be just...”—page 95.

Melville refers here to the wildly swaying hammocks in which third-class passengers were expected to fitfully “rest.” This translates as “rather than being forced by circumstance to lie in such a hammock, if for some strange reason, someone should purposefully decide to make so miserable a bed for himself, one might deem that fair.”

Again, the economy and force of that subjunctive “did,” raising the shadow of the unlikely, surpasses whatever the indicative mood might achieve in its descriptive blandness.

Now, one does find, perhaps surprisingly, instances where Melville’s inclination to the subjunctive causes us to be startled by asudden and perhaps inappropriate use of the indicative. For example,

but this notion, that science can play farmer to the flesh, making there what living soil it pleases (indicative, rather than the subjunctive/putative, “please” one had expected,,,”—page 101;

you will see the word confidence, which is the countersign of the medicine, as I wish it was of the world” (“was”—indicative—rather than the expected “were” subjunctive)—page 107;

and other instances where in a single sentence, he oscillates between the two moods:

Because, either he spurns (indicative) the powder, or, if he take (subjunctive) it…“—page 104, where one would expect two subjunctives.

Melville’s intent here is open to question; is “spurning” more likely, ergo indicative mood?

Taking the powder may be unlikely but intriguing nonetheless. Ergo, shall one gingerly entertain that possibility, by the putative/subjunctive mood? Or might a desire for euphony simply have prevailed, the sound of “if he takes it” being less attractive in this environment than “if he take it” which trips readily off the tongue?

As if nature were (subjunctive) aught but health, as if through nature disease is (indicative, rather than the expected subjunctive were) decreed!”—p. 104.

In this sentence, Melville has used the subjunctive “were” to stress the preposterousness of contending that nature might be something other than health. Uncertainty attends on his decision to follow with the indicative “is”. Did he mean to portray disease as something both all-too-real, impending and contrary to nature, the latter not being the responsible actor of disease?

In the interest of brevity but in hopes of provoking inquiry, we shall stop here for today.


Mendelssohn Moses writes from France.