115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Aesthetics of Usury: Generating Interest in The Confidence-Man

Chad Luck, California State University, San Bernardino

This paper argues that Herman Melville's final novel, The Confidence-Man, carefully explores the trope of usury--or loaning at exorbitant interest--in order to think through the ways in which textual meaning is generated... and then lost.  Prefiguring Derrida's much later discussion of usury, Melville here proposes a model of meaning-making that crucially links the economic and aesthetic generation of "interest."


In White Mythology, Derrida makes the surprising claim that usury—the practice of charging exorbitant interest on a loan—“constitutes the very history and structure of the philosophical metaphor.”  What he means by this is that financial usury can function as a kind of model for the way in which new philosophical concepts and terminologies develop from older ideas.  New, more abstract metaphors are generated—like interest on a loan—from older more concrete figures.  But more particularly, in this movement from physical to metaphysical, the concrete origins of the metaphor are erased, “used up,” in the same way that the inscription on a coin can be worn away.  It is this double aspect of usury—both using up the old and generating the new—that recommends it to Derrida as a model for how philosophical discourse proceeds by obscuring its own origins.

It is perhaps ironic, then, that Derrida’s double-sided usury model seems itself to have a powerful antecedent in the nineteenth-century writing of Herman Melville.  This paper argues that the “China Aster” subplot in Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857) employs usury as a robust conceptual framework for thinking through the production of philosophical meaning and value.  In this embedded narrative about a candle-maker who is undone by a usurious loan, Melville, I contend, calls attention to the ways in which the production of philosophical meaning requires a simultaneous erasure, deferral, and obscuration of origins.  In this way, my reading is in keeping with a body of criticism that interprets the China Aster chapters as a satire of Transcendentalism:  Melville, I suggest, uses usury to critique the pretensions and obfuscations of (in particular) Emersonian thought.  More significantly, though, Melville’s proto-Derridean approach allows him to question any romantic faith in origins or originality.

Unlike Derrida, however, Melville extends the reach of his usurious model beyond just philosophical metaphor and into the realm of a full-blown literary aesthetic.  That is, for Melville, usury helps explain not just the generation of new meanings and metaphors but the generation of new narratives.  The China Aster subplot thus functions as a meditation on the means by which authors borrow bits and pieces of other texts and then generate new literary interest from them, often erasing or obscuring the original text in the process.  Prefiguring Derrida by a hundred years, Melville offers us not just a model for the dynamics of philosophical metaphor, but a sophisticated aesthetics of usury that sheds light on the very nature of literary creation.