Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Two Apothecaries: Novalis and Derrida

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Two Apothecaries: Novalis and Derrida

Article excerpt

HERMAN MELVILLE'S THE CONFIDENCE MAN (1857), CHAPTER XVI, "A SICK man, after some Impatience, Is Induced to Become a Patient," finds us aboard the steamboat Fidele, gliding down the mighty Mississippi on our way to New Orleans and the Gulf. It is April 1st, the Feast of All Fools, and the confidence man, disguised as an herb-doctor, is plying his trade. Like a salesperson at Whole Foods, well-informed and bursting with good faith, he is selling his "Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator" to those passengers who will profit most from it--if only they have confidence in its curative powers and confidence in him. The confidence man inveighs against the atheistical science of his day, priding himself on his piety and his complicity with nature. "How different we herb-doctors!" he exclaims, in disdain of the scientists. For the herb-doctors "claim nothing, invent nothing; but staff in hand, in glades, and upon hillsides, go about in nature, humbly seeking her cures." (1) Theirs is the piety, humility, and wisdom of Solomon. Yet also of Medea, whom the herb-doctor also cites: Medea, who serves up wolfs-bane, or aconite, distilled from the foam spewed by the hellhound Cerberus. Hebrew king and Greek witch--that is Melville's figurative lineage for the herb-doctor. When an invalid begs to know precisely which herbs are mixed in the Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator, the confidence man refuses to list them. "A sick philosopher is incurable," he says, if said philosopher lacks confidence. "Because either he spurns his powder, or, if he take it, it proves a blank cartridge, though the same given to a rustic in like extremity, would act like a charm. I am no materialist; but the mind so acts upon the body, that if the one have no confidence, neither has the other" (86). The invalid timidly objects that he has heard of a book entitled Nature in Disease. The herb-doctor professes to be shocked:

   "A title I cannot approve; it is suspiciously scientific. 'Nature
   in Disease'? As if nature, divine nature, were aught but health; as
   if through nature disease is decreed! But did I not before hint of
   the tendency of science, that forbidden tree? Sir, if despondency
   is yours from recalling that title, dismiss it. Trust me, nature is
   health; for health is good, and nature cannot work ill. As little
   can she work error. Get nature, and you get well. Now, I repeat,
   this medicine is nature's own." (86)

"Get nature." One is reminded of Derrida's allusion in Of Spirit to Matthew Arnold, one of whose fictitious personages urges us to "Get Geist." (2) Get nature, and you get well, says the ethereally oily herb-doctor. Get nature and you get the good Geist into the bargain.

Later, in chapter xxi, "A Hard Case," another of the confidence man's victims, a sickly old miser, is chastised by a Missouri frontiersman for having succumbed to the blandishments of the herb-doctor. The following dialogue ensues, about "yarbs" (which is apparently Missourian for "herbs") and the putative beneficence of nature:

"Think it will cure me?" coughed the miser in echo; "why shouldn't it? The medicine is nat'ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me."

"Because a thing is nat'ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?"

"Sure, you don't think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?"

"Natur is good Queen Bess; but who's responsible for the cholera?"

"But yarbs, yarbs; yarbs are good?"

"What's deadly-nightshade? Yarb, ain't it?" (113)

The confidence man now enters the fray, sensing that the old miser is not doing so well against the skeptical Show-me Missourian. The confidence man addresses the skeptic:

"Now, can you, who suspect nature, deny, that this same nature not only kindly brought you into being, but has faithfully nursed you to your present vigorous and independent condition? …

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