restricted access The Remains of Friendship and the Ethics of Misreading: Melville, Emerson, Thoreau
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The Remains of Friendship and the Ethics of Misreading:
Melville, Emerson, Thoreau

There is no friendship nor justice towards lifeless things.

—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Is it possible, without setting off loud protests on the part of militants of an edifying or dogmatic humanism, to think and to live the gentle rigour of friendship, the law of friendship qua the experience of a certain ahumanity?

—Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship (1997)

In chapter 39 of The Confidence-Man (1857), the “hypothetical friend,” Charlie Noble, ostentatiously dismisses Frank Goodman’s request for financial assistance: “The negotiation of a loan is a business transaction,” Charlie tells Frank, “and I will transact no business with a friend.”1 Herman Melville’s brief chapter proceeds to unfold the perverse logic of a philosophy of friendship that realizes itself most profoundly in the refusal to heed the friend’s cry for help. According to Melville’s fictional philosopher, Mark Winsome (as glossed by his fictional disciple Egbert), to come to the friend’s assistance is immediately to annul the friendship, to violate “the delicacy of the connection” (CM, 206). Beginning with Carl Van Vechten’s 1922 study, readers have been encouraged to construe such scenes as proof that The Confidence-Man is Melville’s “great transcendental [End Page 241] satire” and Mark Winsome his witty and critical stand-in for Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Emerson’s fatuous essay on Friendship,” wrote Van Vechten, “is required preparatory reading for this book.”2

But this approach to The Confidence-Man ought to be tempered—if not significantly complicated—by Melville’s comments to Evert Duyckinck in March of 1849 (“Yet I think Emerson is more than a brilliant fellow).”3 As this letter (and any extended consideration of his work) makes clear, Melville always preferred the Emersonian “fool” over the many representatives of what he called philosophical “mediocrity”: “I love all men who dive,” wrote Melville. “Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more” (C, 121).4 Melville’s take on Emersonian friendship deserves to be reconsidered, and we might begin by reading The Confidence-Man’s serio-comic account of friendship’s “transactions” alongside an apparently antithetical scene from “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853). In a moment of desperation, Melville’s lawyer-narrator tries to buy his way out of an unbearable relationship: “‘Good-bye, Bartleby; I am going—good-bye, and God some way bless you; and take that,’ slipping something in his hand. But it dropped upon the floor, and then,—strange to say—I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of.”5 No doubt a subterranean humor always threatens to break through the surface of this story too, but few readers would be willing to write it off as satire. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that “Bartleby” may well be one of the most philosophically provocative stories in the American literary tradition. Refusing any give or take, Melville’s idiosyncratic friends perform (as farce or tragedy) what might be called the impossibilities of friendship.6 Is the friend he or she who needs nothing from me, who “want[s] nothing” to say to me, to use Bartleby’s enigmatic closing words to the lawyer (“B,” 43)? Does exchange ruin equality? Is friendship a relationship without exchange, without economy, without debt? Without even a gift? But what kind of friendship would that be? How could we ever know that such a friendship has taken place? Such questions might provoke anxious amusement among certain readers of The Confidence-Man, but they also belong to a rich discourse on [End Page 242] ethics and friendship that, I would argue, brings Melville and his transcendentalist contemporaries (Emerson and Thoreau) into dialogue with much current work at the intersection of literature and philosophy.7

For those who buy into Van Vechten’s account of transcendental friendship, Melville’s fictional Emersonian engages in a “grotesque inversion of Jesus’ injunctions to lend to anyone, not merely ‘to them of whom ye hope to receive.’”8 But anyone looking to Melville for a reassuringly familiar Christian ethical philosophy will...