“Money, you think, is the sole motive to pains and hazard, deception and devilry, in this world. How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?”
— Herman Melville,
The desire for authenticity dominates society, be it seeking a traditional, “authentic” Mexican meal or “authentic” Renaissance furniture, the need for something to be genuine stems from natural abhorrence of anything false, for that implies some sort of trickery. To be honest indicates credibility, which in turn facilitates trust and confidence, key aspects of the identity of the self. Personal authenticity can be defined as a sense of self while simultaneously being aware of others, as to be authentic to oneself is also to be authentic in an entire world of personal selves. To ignore the outside world and only focus on the individual is egotistical and self-serving, and promotes hypocrisy and false projections, albeit adaptation to the world being crucial for human development. This struggle is played out in the more philosophical of Herman Melville’s works, The Confidence-Man. Truth and trust become commodities for the eponymous Confidence Man, whose primary goal is in fact to prove the inauthenticity of the people he meets. Melville explored this theme previously in Typee, Moby-Dick, and Pierre, all of whose main characters actually fail in their search for authenticity by becoming victims of radical individualism.
Like authenticity, confidence cannot be measured or quantified, and yet it is sought after by the Confidence Man as if it were precious jewels. If the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition of The Confidence-Man is to be believed, the titular character is the Devil himself, attempting to con the other passengers on their riverboat journey. Though he seeks material possessions like money at first, in the end, he primarily focuses on the intangible—that is, faith and trust. The Devil has no need for these fruits of the Spirit, nor the earthly coins, but he desires to prove the insincerity of man—or rather, human inauthenticity. Undeniable credibility and absence of pretense, facets of true authenticity (Yacobi), are purely divine Christian values. The idea of the Christian gentleman and aspiration toward that ideal constitutes Pierre’s main conflict in his novel.
Pierre’s obsession with Isabel and what it means to be truly Christian leads him from reality into fiction. He is unable to find authenticity in his father’s past, due to Mr. Glendinning’s infidelity. The Christian gentleman is supposed to be above tangibles, but people of wealth are treated with utmost fear and respect, specifically those of high status and fair skin. To be truly authentic would be to resist earthly temptations: acknowledging their presence and importance, to be sure, but ultimately retaining focus on the heavenly. When Pierre discovers his father to have fallen from that ideal, he burns a portrait of his father, proclaiming: “Henceforth, cast-out Pierre hath no paternity, and no past; and since the Future is one blank to all; therefore, twice-disinherited Pierre stands untrammeledly his ever-present self!—free to do his own self-will and present fancy to whatever end!” (Pierre). Pierre equates authenticity with freedom of self, but authenticity “involves not just knowing oneself, but also recognizing others and their influence on oneself, and the influence of one’s actions on others” (Yacobi). For the remainder of his story, his driving focus is his own self. He abandons his family, and those who have been dragged inadvertently into this mess suffer greatly, their pain going unnoticed by Pierre. Having read an insightful pamphlet on the subject of Heavenly and Earthly time, he believes to have unlocked the secrets to a life as a true Christian gentleman. Admittedly having sacrificed much for the sake of Isabel, Pierre begins to think of himself as a martyr, giving up happiness for what is righteous, believing himself to be true and honest for this admission.
The search for authenticity is essentially a journey of self-discovery, a fluctuating manifesto of opinions, ideas, beliefs, and thoughts. Regardless of the religion’s rules themselves, “religious practice and deliberations do not encourage individual choice” (Yacobi). An unfortunate paradox, to be sure, as many religions do promote authenticity, but that freedom is ultimately restrained by their respective tenets, as well as that the earthly rewards for charitable acts often outweigh the spiritual desire. Hypocrisy, intentional or no, remains the primary drawback of organized religion. For Pierre, it is the very acknowledgment of the sacrifices he has made that reveals his self-serving, egotistical nature, thus destroying any authenticity of his character. He does not strive to be a Christian gentleman for the desire to be righteous, but to prove to others his sincerity and then to expect some sort of reward or acknowledgment. He neglects to “be mindful of one’s own inauthenticity and imperfections” (Yacobi) and ignores the consequences of his actions on the others, his individualism leading him to isolation and inevitable death. Pierre has failed not only by revealing his innate inauthenticity but also by relying on organized religion to provide authenticity in the first place.
Moby-Dick has less to do with an organized religion like Christianity, inasmuch the sea itself commands its own set of worshipers, i.e., the sailors. To be sure, life on the high seas probably provides more opportunities for authenticity, in that the need for survival dampens the need for approval from others. On a ship, the communal style of living forces one to be aware of the presence of others while still retaining a sense of self, despite the naval hierarchy. Ahab, being the captain, has no need to prove his worth, aside from being true to himself. Sincerity should dominate his rather vibrant personality, influencing the others to work well for him and for themselves. Unfortunately, Ahab seeks authenticity to establish himself as master and commander of the sea. His sense of identity has been shattered by the loss of his leg. The proper reaction should have been to accept the loss as “devoid of meaning and purpose” (Yacobi) as per the principles of authenticity, and focus on his family and work, proving his worth by living well. Instead, he tries to prove authenticity by projecting his insecurities onto Moby Dick.
Unlike Pierre, who focused too much on himself, Ahab focuses too much on the outside world, thinking that the destruction of the whale will be proof of his authenticity, though instead being a form of radical individualism, since he ignores the dire ramifications of this goal. An impassioned speech to the crew makes clear his desperation for personal validation: “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” (…) (A)nd I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up” (Moby-Dick). Because he decides the whale is evil, and to destroy it would be a boon for all mankind, he fails to notice the inauthenticity of this plan, namely that his true motive is revenge. Starbuck, acting as the man of reason, argues that “vengeance on a dumb brute” is “madness” (Moby-Dick), a sentiment that aligns with an attribute of authenticity, specifically that “nature . . . is indifferent to human life and suffering, being neither malicious nor caring. Nature is neither moral nor immoral; it has no sense of right or wrong. Such concepts as . . . sense of justice . . . and authenticity are unique to humans” (Yacobi). Whales, despite having a brain and some semblance of a thought process, are a part of nature, and thus fall under the category of being blameless and inherently innocent. Ahab is unable to accept the loss of his leg as a personal mistake, thereby placing his life and the lives of his crew in danger as he pursues the inauthentic goal of revenge. His goal not being pure, his search for authenticity fails, as he is not being honest with himself.
In Typee, Tommo’s search for authenticity is unique because he technically is on the right track for awhile. He immerses himself in a new culture and accepts his role in their society. He is content with being part of the Typee and yet avoids losing his sense of self; that is, until he starts to worry about that very thing. He starts to focus too much on the past—what he had been—and ends up panicking about what he will be. Being authentic is “a dynamic process of endless becoming in a changing society and world, rather than a fixed state of being” (Yacobi), and Tommo suddenly loses faith in himself and his identity and thus tries to return to the past to find authenticity. The fall from authenticity comes about when the Typee pressure Tommo to be tattooed, a prospect that frightens him to the very core of his being. Such an act would mark him as “other”—at least, back in his old life. He has made great strides in personal and cultural growth, to the point of acknowledging the Typee as a sort of surrogate family. He did find true authenticity in their presence, as he was able to accept their limitations along with his own, and maintain a honest balance of self and others.
The threat of a tattoo knocks him out of that idyllic state of being and into individualism, as he is not willing to take the mix of native and civilized into physical form: “This incident opened my eyes to a new danger; and I now felt convinced that in some luckless hour I should be disfigured in such a manner as never more to have the FACE [sic] to return to my countrymen, even should an opportunity offer” (Typee). The main maxim of authenticity is to be honest and true to oneself. It is somewhat implied that Tommo is not necessarily adverse to the idea of tattooing itself, but the reaction from his peers. Put simply, he worries too much about what other people will think of him, which leads to his failure. “The fear of rejection . . . and lack of understanding” (Yacobi) hinder the development of personal authenticity, and his anxiety reveals Tommo to be inauthentic. He failed in his search because he refused to change—or rather, accept change—and focused too much on public opinion of himself, a selfish attribute of individualism.
The Confidence-Man, in a certain way, takes these characters and redistributes them into various stories. The Devil—if that is indeed who the Confidence Man is—seeks to prove everyone’s inauthenticity and emerges victorious in the end. A significant example is the elderly man who obsesses over his money, worrying that it is not as real as he hopes it to be, and uses a counterfeit-detector to ascertain its validity. The obsession itself is inauthentic, as it betrays lack of trust. The old man’s problem is that the money’s own authenticity is unknown, and the “unknowable [is part of] the inherent anguish of fragile human existence” though “the struggle to transcend the unknown provides some meaning in life” (Yacobi). His search for authenticity does not elevate him above anxiety but instead, firmly places him in a place of distrust and lack of confidence.
The Confidence Man attempts to steer him away (or perhaps provokes him into revealing his inauthenticity) by saying, “’Then throw that Detector away, I say again; 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’” (The Confidence-Man), but the old man is resolute. He believes authenticity to be tangible and able to be detected and quantified via physical means. His concern over whether he has been tricked exposes his individualistic nature, as it is purely selfish and not out of interest for the accused party, be they innocent or guilty. The old man fails, then, in the search for authenticity, not only due to relying on a machine to determine validity but also for desiring to use such a device in the first place. Where there is no trust, there is no authenticity.
Really, in the end, authenticity is mainly about confidence: in oneself and in others. The philosophy of authenticity is admittedly tricky and difficult to define; “it is related to an intricate blend of elements that make up human personality and life” (Yacobi). Life is unpredictable and full of paths that may take one to truth or toward failure. It may be said then, that the true quest for authenticity is to maintain an open mind and be willing to place confidence in others (who are on the same journey) while remaining true to oneself. Pierre, Ahab, and Tommo were unable to meet those qualifications and failed; therefore, the Devil won.
- Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2009. Amazon.com. Web. June 2013.
- —. Moby-Dick: or, the White Whale. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2011. Amazon.com. Web. June 2013.
- —. Pierre: or, the Ambiguities. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2011. Amazon.com. Web. June 2013.
- —. Typee: A Romance of the South Seas. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2012. Amazon.com. Web. June 2013.
- Yacobi, B.G. “Elements of Human Authenticity”. Philosophy to go. Philosophy to go, 4 January 2011. Web. June 2013.
The last essay for this 2013 Melville class, hence its length and mentions of the previous three books. It was also my final, so I don’t have any feedback for it. I don’t remember reading any of these novels, but hey, I think it sounds pretty good! XD
“New Orleans – Mississippi River – Looking Downstream” by Jared is licensed under CC BY 4.0.