The Con Man Cometh
Swathed in luminosity, we stir with measured competence our amber drinks in long-stemmed glasses. You are weighing my offer and I am waiting for your answer with hushed endurance. The armchairs are soft, the lobby is luxurious, as befits five-star hotels. I am not tense. I have anticipated your response even before I made my move.
Soon, temples sheathed in perspiration, you use the outfit's thick paper napkins to wipe it off. Loosen your tie. Pretend to be immersed in calculations. You express strident dissatisfaction and I feign recoil, as though intimidated by your loudness. Withdrawing to my second line of defense, I surrender to your simulated wrath.
The signs are here, the gestures, the infinitesimal movements that you cannot control. I lurk. I know that definite look, that imperceptible twitch, the inevitability of your surrender.
I am a con man and you are my victim. The swindle is unfolding here and now, in this very atrium, amid all the extravagance. I am selling your soul and collecting the change. I am sharpened, like a raw nerve firing impulses to you, receiving yours, an electrical-chemical dialog, consisting of your smelly sweat, my scented exudation. I permeate your cracks. I broker an alliance with your fears, your pains, defense compensatory mechanisms.
I know you.
I've got to meld us into one. As dusk gives way to night, you trust me as you do yourself, for now I am nothing less than you. Having adopted your particular gesticulation, I nod approvingly with every mention of your family. You do not like me. You sense the danger. Your nostrils flare. Your eyes amok. Your hands so restless. You know me for a bilker, you realize I'll break your heart. I know you comprehend we both are choiceless.
It's not about money. Emotions are at stake. I share your depths of loneliness and pain. Sitting opposed, I see the child in you, the adolescent. I discern the pleading sparkle in your eyes, your shoulders stooping in the very second you've decided to succumb. I am hurting for what I do to you. My only consolation is the inexorability of nature - mine and yours, this world's (in which we find ourselves and not of our choice). Still, we are here, you know.
I empathize with you without speech or motion. Your solitary sadness, the anguish, and your fears. I am your only friend, monopolist of your invisible cries, your inner hemorrhage of salty tears, the tissued scar that has become your being. Like me, the product of uncounted blows (which you sometimes crave).
Being abused is being understood, having some meaning, forming a narrative. Without it, your life is nothing but an anecdotal stream of randomness. I deal the final, overwhelming coup-de-grace that will transform the torn sheets of your biography into a plot. It isn't everyday one meets a cheat. Such confident encounters can render everything explained. Don't give it up. It is a gift of life, not to be frivolously dispensed with. It is a test of worthiness.
I think you qualify and I am the structure and the target you've been searching for and here I am.
Now we are bound by money and by blood. In our common veins flows the same alliance that dilates our pupils. We hail from one beginning. We separated only to unite, at once, in this hotel, this late, and you exclaim: "I need to trust you like I do not trust a soul". You beseech me not to betray your faith. Perhaps not so explicitly, but both your eyes are moist, reflecting your vulnerability.
I gravely radiate my utter guarantee of splendid outcomes. No hint of treason here. Concurrently I am plotting your emotional demise. At your request, not mine. It is an act of amity, to rid you of the very cause of your infirmity. I am the instrument of your delivery and liberation. I will deprive you of your ability to feel, to trust, and to believe. When we diverge, I will have molded you anew - much less susceptible, much more immune, the essence of resilience.
It is my gift to you and you are surely grateful in advance. Thus, when you demand my fealty, you say: "Do not forget our verbal understanding".
And when I vow my loyalty, I answer: "I shall not forget to stab you in the back."
And now, to the transaction. I study you. I train you to ignore my presence and argue with yourself with the utmost sincerity. I teach you not to resent your weaknesses.
So, you admit to them and I record all your confessions to be used against you to your benefit. Denuded of defenses, I leave you wounded by embezzlement, a cold, contemptible exposure. And, in the meantime, it's only warmth and safety, the intimacy of empathy, the propinquity of mutual understanding.
I only ask of you one thing: the fullest trust, a willingness to yield. I remember having seen the following in an art house movie, it was a test: to fall, spread-eagled from a high embankment and to believe that I am there to catch you and break your lethal plunge.
I am telling you I'll be there, yet you know I won't. Your caving in is none of my concern. I only undertook to bring you to the brink and I fulfilled this promise. It's up to you to climb it, it's up to you to tumble. I must not halt your crash, you have to recompose. It is my contribution to the transformation that metastasized in you long before we met.
But you are not yet at the stage of internalizing these veracities. You still naively link feigned geniality to constancy, intimacy and confidence in me and in my deeds, proximity and full disclosure. You are so terrified and mutilated, you come devalued. You cost me merely a whiskey tumbler and a compendium of ordinary words. One tear enough to alter your allegiances. You are malleable to the point of having no identity.
You crave my touch and my affection. I crave your information and unbridled faith. "Here is my friendship and my caring, my tenderness and amity, here is a hug. I am your parent and your shrink, your buddy and your family." - so go the words of this inaudible dialog - "Give me your utter, blind, trust but limit it to one point only: your money or your life."
I need to know about your funds, the riddles of your boardroom, commercial secrets, your skeletons, some intimate detail, a fear, resurgent hatred, the envy that consumes. I don't presume to be your confidant. Our sharing is confined to the pecuniary. I lull you into the relief that comes with much reduced demands. But you are an experienced businessman! You surely recognize my tactics and employ them, too!
Still, you are both seduced and tempted, though on condition of maintaining "independent thinking". Well, almost independent. There is a tiny crack in your cerebral armor and I am there to thrust right through it. I am ready to habituate you. "I am in full control" - you'd say - "So, where's the threat?" And, truly, there is none.
There's only certainty. The certitude I offer you throughout our game. Sometimes I even venture: "I am a crook to be avoided". You listen with your occidental manners, head tilted obliquely, and when I am finished warning you, you say: "But where the danger lies? My trust in you is limited!" Indeed - but it is there!
I lurk, awaiting your capitulation, inhabiting the margins, the twilight zone twixt greed and paranoia. I am a viral premonition, invading avaricious membranes, preaching a gospel of death and resurrection. Your death, your rising from the dead. Assuming the contours of my host, I abandon you deformed in dissolution.
There's no respite, not even for a day. You are addicted to my nagging, to my penetrating gaze, instinctive sympathy, you're haunted. I don't let go. You are engulfed, cocooned, I am a soul mate of eerie insight, unselfish acumen. I vitiate myself for your minutest needs. I thrive on servitude. I leave no doubt that my self-love is exceeded only by my love for you.
I am useful and you are a user. I am available and you avail yourself. But haven't you heard that there are no free lunches? My restaurant is classy, the prices most exorbitant, the invoices accumulate with every smile, with every word of reassurance, with every anxious inquiry as to your health, with every sacrifice I make, however insubstantial.
I keep accounts in my unstated books and you rely on me for every double entry. The voices I instill in you: "He gives so of himself though largely unrewarded". You feel ashamed, compelled to compensate. A seed of Trojan guilt. I harp on it by mentioning others who deprived me. I count on you to do the rest. There's nothing more potent than egotistic love combined with raging culpability. You are mine to do with as I wish, it is your wish that I embody and possess.
The vise is tightened. Now it's time to ponder whether to feed on you at once or scavenge. You are already dying and in your mental carcass I am grown, an alien. Invoking your immunity, as I am wont to do, will further make you ill and conflict will erupt between your white cells and your black, the twin abodes of your awakened feelings.
You hope against all odds that I am a soul-mate. How does it feel, the solitude? Few days with me - and you cannot recall! But I cannot remember how it feels to be together. I cannot waive my loneliness, my staunch companion. When I am with you, it prospers. And you must pay for that.
I have no choice but to abscond with your possessions, lest I remain bereft. With utmost ethics, I keep you well-informed of these dynamics and you acknowledge my fragility which makes you desirous to salve my wounds.
But I maintain the benefit of your surprise, the flowing motion. Always at an advantage over you, the interchangeable. I, on the other hand, cannot be replaced, as far as you're concerned. You are a loyal subject of your psychic state while I am a denizen of the eternal hunting grounds. No limits there, nor boundaries, only the nostrils quivering at the game, the surging musculature, the body fluids, the scent of decadence.
Sometime, the prey becomes the predator, but only for a while. Admittedly, it's possible and you might turn the tables. But you don't want to. You crave so to be hunted. The orgiastic moment of my proverbial bullets penetrating willing flesh, the rape, the violation, the metaphoric blood and love, you are no longer satisfied with compromises.
You want to die having experienced this eruption once. For what is life without such infringement if not mere ripening concluding in decay. What sets us, Man, apart from beast is our ability to self-deceive and swindle others. The rogue's advantage over quarry is his capacity to have his lies transmuted till you believe them true.
I trek the unpaved pathways between my truth and your delusions. What am I, fiend or angel? A weak, disintegrating apparition - or a triumphant growth? I am devoid of conscience in my own reflection. It is a cause for mirth. My complex is binary: to fight or flight, I'm well or ill, it should have been this way or I was led astray.
I am the blinding murkiness that never sets, not even when I sleep. It overwhelms me, too, but also renders me farsighted. It taught me my survival: strike ere you are struck, abandon ere you're trashed, control ere you are subjugated.
So what do you say to it now? I told you everything and haven't said a word. You knew it all before. You grasp how dire my need is for your blood, your hurt, the traumatic coma that will follow. They say one's death bequeaths another's life. It is the most profound destination, to will existence to your pining duplicate.
I am plump and short, my face is uncontrived and smiling. When I am serious, I am told, I am like a battered and deserted child and this provokes in you an ancient cuddling instinct. When I am proximate, your body and your soul are unrestrained. I watch you kindly and the artificial lighting of this magnific vestibule bounces off my glasses.
My eyes are cradled in blackened pouches of withered skin. I draw your gaze by sighing sadly and rubbing them with weary hands. You incline our body, gulp the piquant libation, and sign the document. Then, leaning back, you shut exhausted eyes. There is no doubt: you realize your error.
It's not too late. The document lies there, it's ready for the tearing. But you refrain. You will not do it.
"Another drink?" - You ask
I smile, my chubby cheeks and wire glasses sparkle.
"No, thanks" - I say.
Virgil Oldman is an auctioneer: he helps to determine the price of art in public, rule-based jousts. He is rich, middle-aged, well-respected, if somewhat eccentric and misanthropic. He is an avowed bachelor, the kind of man who has transformed his firewalled reclusiveness into a prideful ideology. He adores women – but only of the two-dimensional kind, in captive portraits which he suspends in a vault in the recesses of his gloomy mansion. He is also a con-artist: he knows the correct prices of all items, but profitably misleads others in cahoots with a swindler artist, Billy. The movie revolves around this dichotomy: the price of everything and the value of nothing. Of course, the main protagonist’s name gives up the game: the poet Virgil was publicly disgraced when he fell in love with the wily Lucretia.
When this latter-day Virgil meets the agoraphobic Claire, he is smitten with her and besotted despite her extreme approach-avoidance games – or maybe because of them. Oldman (yes: Old man) is supposed to auction off a collection of art and antiques Claire had inherited from her deceased parents. Robert, a friend of Virgil’s, coaches him in the art of courting women and reassembles an ancient automaton from mechanical parts that Virgil finds strewn in Claire’s sprawling abode. The movie is anything but subtle and the reconstructed robot is a parable and metaphor corresponding to Virgil’s own resurrection as a man and, indeed, a living human being whose robotic days are past him, now that he had met the only love of his barren existence. In her home he finds the broken pieces. Love and friendship bring him back to life after decades of mechanical disintegration.
Love does wonders for Claire as well. It ostensibly heals her agoraphobia and she moves to cohabit with Virgil. She confesses her emotions when Virgil entrusts her with access to his priceless collection: money is known to have this amorous effect on some people. Momentarily, Claire, Billy, and Robert collude to deprive Virgil of his museal pride and joy. In the wake of the robbery, Robert leaves behind the now functioning robot with a message: even a forger is an artist of sorts. After a spell in a mental asylum, Virgil is left to ponder whether Claire’s passionate lovemaking and professions of love were as contrived as the forgeries he came across in his career. Ironically, Virgil’s forte was passing off genuine art as fake in order to deceive trusting clients into selling cheap. Now he is faced with the opposite conundrum: was Claire a forgery passed off as real art?
But the film raises more profound and troubling issues.
Was Virgil truly conned? Granted: Claire did not spell out her agenda, let alone the con. But Virgil should have seen through her, he should have known better, experienced and uniquely equipped as he was to do so. His gullibility appears contrived: as though he wanted Claire to devastate the penal colony that his life had become. Don’t we often invite others into our lives in order to disrupt them because we feel trapped and incapable of growth? Claire was Virgil’s agent of change. She transformed his life by ruining it. She sprang him from his vault by emptying its contents.
Then there is the question: was Claire for real? Did she really love Virgil?
She appeared real enough to him, that is for sure. But what if happiness is the
outcome of a delusion, of insanity, or a shared psychosis? Denying reality and
living in a fantasy make some people elated. People collude to create imaginary
spaces - like nations, or cults, or religions, or, indeed, romantic couples -
where they feel safe, optimistic, and content.
Is such felicity which is divorced from reality - real? Do we have to intervene with psychotherapy to wake up these deluded souls and reintroduce them to the world? Or should we leave them to their bliss, however outlandish?
The surprising answer is that people who are both joyful and functional require no help, healing, or behavior modification even if their well-being is based on a patently fictitious narrative. If people are made cheerful by believing in the existence of a god, or that their nation is superior, or by harboring a grandiose view of their talents and qualities - good for them. As long as it does not interfere with their functioning in any way, it is not harmful to themselves or to others, they can sustain the fiction financially and psychologically, and as long as they feel at ease with who they are (ego syntony) - all is well. Placebos are often more effective than real medication. Virgil was beside himself with happiness and that is all that matters and all that mattered to him.
But, many would say, what Claire did to Virgil was unfair: she took away his prized possessions, having manipulated his emotions cruelly. I disagree. Claire gave Virgil 2 years of happiness and in return took all his paintings. It strikes me as a balanced trade. Better a short period of bliss in an arid life than none at all. Virgil got the better deal methinks: money and property come and go and, when the ineluctable moment is upon us, we leave them behind like so many pieces of colored glass. Happiness is the treasure that keeps on giving for as long as our memory holds. Claire gave Virgil a lasting gift – and took from him crumbling canvasses and peeling paint. She gave Virgil access to a real woman in lieu of the dead ones whose portraits he morbidly collected and revered.
Finally, Virgil himself understood that he may have paid a steep price but he did receive some valuables in return. The dénouement finds him in Prague, patiently waiting for Claire to frequent her favorite haunt and restore him to those few moments of ecstasy and bliss, the only time he felt alive.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER
This part is meant only to provoke thoughts. It is not a substitute to independent thinking, criticism, and analysis.
Are all narcissists con-artists? Do they all abuse their victims' trust?
Why do victims trust narcissists in the first place?
Do narcissists think that their victims "had it coming" and "deserve what they get"?
Who is the narcissist in the story? Perhaps both protagonists are?
What is the special significance of money to the narcissist?
The Misanthropic Altruist