Thirty years ago, I offered an "uncharitable" reading of The Confidence-Man. I argued that attempts to unify the book around the actions of a single figure, whether devil or trickster, were really efforts to impose our own desire for unity on a book that denies us any stable interpretive authority or ground. Such a deconstructive reading maps all too well onto today's landscape of "alternative facts," "truthiness," and "fake news," unfortunately. But it is the novel itself, not a poststructuralist analysis, that best captures the terms of our current crisis: the fragmentation of discursive community and the replacement of argument by rhetorical sleight of hand or conspiratorial fantasy. One may wish to escape the novel's verbal flux through a totalizing, morally unambiguous reading, but that reading still posits a single demonic presence as its unifying center. The darkness of Melville's novel lies in its refusal to mediate between these two poles—between interpretive conspiracy and interpretive chaos, between what Thomas Pynchon terms paranoia and "anti-paranoia."


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pp. 43-50
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