It is—or seems to be—a wise sort of thing, to realise that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes, if he have them. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed round pretty liberally & impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it. -- Herman MelvilleThe con is as old as serpents and fruit, as old as stealing a birthright for soup. Since we first crawled from primordial ooze, we’ve longed to run a fast one on another person. Yet something about the word “con” feels quintessentially American. The first reference to “confidence man” is reportedly from an American criminal trial.
The Confidence Man was Herman Melville's final novel. He published it on the very day the novel’s events were set to occur: April Fool’s Day, 1857. The book is described as a satire, a metaphysical rumination, and the precursor to the modern novel. Melville gave up on fiction writing after it flopped.
Who better to acknowledge the cruel joke of life than Melville? Like so many great artists during their lifetimes, he died all but anonymous. Life, as he so beautifully expressed above, cons us all in one way or another.
America especially loves a crafty liar. The Color of Money and The Sting. Sawyer from LOST. Danny Ocean and his mythical 10 pals. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Catch Me If You Can. Matchstick Men. The Music Man. Paper Moon. Most of David Mamet’s CV.
Do we see something in the con that reminds us of life? Are con job movies and TV characters just a metaphorical and blown-up look into our daily lives? Or, do we watch these films as a kind of cautionary tale, a reminder why we should be happy and satisfied to stay in our vanilla and harmless shiny little boxes? Or, do we simply enjoy movies about karma, since the end result for most grifters is to find themselves grifted, the hustler transformed into the mark?
Most days I think we love con artist characters and con job movies because we find ourselves wondering how much of our own life or situation is an accidental con. How many conversations do we have, private and personal and confessional, where the crux of the subject is “I feel like I’m pulling the wool over their eyes,” or “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this”?
In Dallas, a man is recovering from a full face transplant. (Warning: don’t view the link if you’re at all squeamish.) It’s an amazing story of science, but it’s also one more reminder of how much of what we naively consider our “identity” is, in fact, mutable. Your gender, every last bit of your appearance, even every last aspect of your face, can be massively altered in the 21st Century. Meanwhile, in the techno-world, the non-physical things are ever easier to shift and change as well.
A face transplant or a sex change isn’t a con, per se, but it is just one more way the world seems chock full of uncertainty, of shifting sand.
I can’t think of a week that’s gone by since I was in junior high where I didn’t look myself in the mirror at some point and wonder who I was foolin’. My parents thought I was a great kid. My friends thought I was a great friend. My teachers thought I was a great student. My wife. My kids. My pastor. My boss. Anyone whose path I crossed, my darkest thoughts go, probably left with a better impression than I deserved.*
In my darkest flashes, I am the Fast Eddie or Sawyer of my own story, fighting to keep the long con from imploding. Each episode comes complete with dramatic, hair-raising moments where someone is on the verge of discovering my deception until I duck into a restroom stall, lift my legs on the seat, and wait anxiously as the footsteps clop and clack on the bathroom tiles.
I sit there, hands against the sides of the stall, not daring to let even a molecule of air escape my lungs, and I hear the click of the gun as it cocks.
Cut to commercial.
All that tension build-up and anticipation just to help Proctor & Gamble sell some detergent. One more con job in our modern world.
* -- The Jonathan Franzen write-up in the NYTimes again gets at this far better than I, but who wants to reference the same guy’s writing twice in a single week??