03 December 2006

That brain fever accounts for it all.

I had a long talk last week with a friend about the differences between being educated and being smart. I am educated, but he is smart. For a variety of classist reasons, we value the former more than the latter. It got me to thinking about Melville. Brilliant, but not educated, his insight into early America is still stunningly original and hilarious to me. I realized after reading my favorite novel of his, The Confidence Man, that he engaged with the pseudo-science of physiognomy more than I initially realized. The perverted logic behind this thinking is that we can judge individual character, or soul by looking at appearance. Appearance includes skin and eye color as well as style of dress. So, with that said, and especially for K, here are some of my favorite quotes from this book:

“Ay, sir, permit me – when I behold you on this mild summer’s eve, thus eccentrically clothed in the skins of wild beasts, I cannot but conclude that the equally grim and unsuitable habit of your mind is likewise but an eccentric assumption, having no basis in your genuine soul, no more than nature herself.”

“When man judges man, charity is less a bounty from our mercy than just allowance for the insensible lee-way of human fallibility. God forbid that my eccentric friend should be what you hint. You do not know him, or but imperfectly. His outside deceived you…”

“He was, as before said, a young man of about thirty. His countenance of that neuter sort, which, in repose, is neither prepossessing nor disagreeable; so that it seemed quite uncertain how he would turn out. His dress was neat, with just enough of the mode to save it from the reproach of originality; in which general respect, though with a readjustment of details, his costume seemed modeled upon his master’s. But, upon the whole, he was, to all appearances, the last person in the world that one would take for the disciple of any transcendental philosophy; thought, indeed, something about his sharp nose and shaved chin seemed to hint that if mysticism, as a lesson, ever came in his way, he might, with the characteristic knack of a true New-Englander, turn even so profitless a thing to some profitable account.”

Then from the discussion between the Confidence Man and the Barber:
“But what I want to learn from you, barber, is, how does the mere handling of the outside of men’s heads lead you to distrust the inside of their hearts?”
“What, sir, to say nothing more, can one be forever dealing in macassar oil, hair dyes, cosmetics, false moustaches, wigs, and toupees, and still believe that men are wholly what they look to be?”
This exchange is toward the beginning of the “Very Charming” chapter, and following these quotes is an extensive discussion of hair. Wild, huh?

I’ll end with my favorite quote from the book:
“Then you shall hear my story. Many a month I have longed to get hold of the Happy Man, drill him, drop the powder, and leave him to explode at his leisure.”


Blogger Herman said...

h,Melville in the promse land! Francis you have hit some wonderful passages. For me, it has always been the ability of the C-Man to pass, to change race, ethnicity, class status at will -- the mark of clothing makes the man.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Weeping Sore said...

I like your observation about the difference between being smart and being educated. My old boss used to make a similar distinction between being "ignorant" and being "stupid". If we are ignorant of something, someone could (arguably) teach us. If we are are stupid however, there is probably not much they could do to enlighten us.

I also like your/Melville's comments about judging by appearances. I submit that our brains were programmed to judge others by appearance. It's a trait selected from our prehistoric ancestors to enable them to climb a tree when they spotted a sabertooth tiger in their neighborhood.

Unfortunately, our appearance-judging instincts are more often used these days to jump to unfounded conclusions about somebody's character based on their taste in shirts. It may not be a matter of life and death any more, but it's still entertaining to evaluate whether somebody's sense of style includes "just enough of the mode" to spare them "from the reproach of originality."

2:28 AM  
Blogger K said...

Well, you know that in the language of flowers China Aster means 1) variety, 2) I partake your sentiments, and 3) I will think of it. All three meanings work beautifully with the themes developed out of the confidence game in the book.

4:33 AM  

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