On the Southern Literary Trail
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A Confederacy of Dunces
> Ignatius J. Reilly - American Quasimodo (Spoilers allowed)
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Mar 19, 2012 11:04AM
When thinking about "A Confederacy of Dunces" it is necessary to think of its place in American literature and specifically where it falls in Southern literature. This is a unique problem as on first read it seems to be missing a number of tropes traditionally associated with Southern literature: slavery, religious (generally Calvinist) overtones specifically addressing the concept of predestination, and the grotesque.
As Flannery O’Connor said in her essay on The Grotesque in Southern Literature the reason Southern authors write freaks so well is because they can still recognize one. That was written well before Toole created Ignatius J. Reilly and surrounded him with Burma Jones, Patrolman Mancuso, the people at Levy Pants and Paradise Hot Dogs. The grotesque is a character dating back, in the popular sense to the Romantics of Europe. Properly I suppose you could take the grotesque back to Euripides if not earlier if you wanted. But the influence European Romanticism had on Southern Romanticism cannot be underestimated.
Toole wrote Confederacy during the sturm and drung of the civil rights movement. Much of the hard work had been accomplished and momentum was carrying the movement through victory even in the deepest parts of the South. Lee, Faulkner, O’Connor and so many more had carved the grotesque in Southern literature as a vicious racist. And though there remained pockets of racism (as long as lazy people can feel envy and direct their subsequent anger outward there will likely always remain pockets of racism), I think Toole was smart enough to realize that, to abuse Flannery’s brilliance again, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” And so Toole had a couple of problems: Where does an author go after Faulkner? Where does the South go after the Civil Rights movement? Who would be his grotesque?
It is well known that Toole created a semi-autobiographical story with Confederacy. But I think that perhaps he was creating in Ignatius the modern grotesque. He is not particularly racist, though he is more than a little homophobic. He is also generally disgusting. Rhetorically, Toole repeatedly associates Ignatius with animals describing his body using metaphors, synecdoche and metonymy of animals.
Now the grotesque is generally identifiable by the paradoxical relationship between what we see on the outside and what is on the inside. Perhaps the most famous grotesque is Quasimodo, only barely beating out that other early Romantic creation, Frankenstein’s monster. On the outside he is repugnant, but on the inside kind and decent. This seems to be the beginning of the stereotypical “hooker with the heart of gold” and “poor man with more ethics than the rich banker”. (One might argue that those tropes go as far back as antiquity again, but again, it is important to remember the impact of the Romantics on American literary history).
The power of the grotesque lay in its ability to highlight hypocritical and unjust truths about society, in a tangential sometimes ironic, way. Inner beauty juxtaposed with the inner ugliness of the beautiful people highlighted the superficial way nineteenth-century France operated, even at the level of the Church (a topic that concerned Hugo much, though that is a topic for another thread). But Ignatius is ugly both outside and inside. On the surface, he is not a grotesque, he is just plain gross. How is he a paradox? What does he illustrate about twentieth-century America?
Toole, an academic at heart, drew his grotesque from his experiences in academia. The first page of the book contains a jab at academia. After describing a wholly repugnant, judgmental, man-child Toole punctuates the description with the phrase, “The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.” If you’ve spent any time in a humanities graduate program you’ll recognize the phrase “a rich inner life.” Even today it is part of the justification given by those seeking PhDs, or with them in hand, for their chosen profession. Another popular phrase is “living the life of the mind.”
Some modern academics are truly good people. I’ve known many of them. But there are a lot of petty and childish people among the intelligentsia and cognoscenti. Anyone who has had to sit through a blowhard or tyrant in the classroom can probably picture them in the real world. Many are not too different from Ignatius internally: self-important (“your working boy” letters), concerned with things that have no value in the real world (Boethius and scholastic philosophy), and often thinking themselves above physical work (getting a job commensurate with his skills). Through Ignatius Toole juxtaposes the pompous with the childish and creates a modern American grotesque. Externally he is a man perfectly capable of taking care of himself, and internally a boy still in need of his mother.
Perhaps it was prescience. Or perhaps it was autobiography, but Toole created a character that reflects one of the most un-talked about phenomenon in the modern world. The Japanese call them hikikomori, in America we use the term boomerang generation. But both describe adults living with mom and dad. But even among those who do not live with their parents, or who did not return home, the adult-child syndrome is still felt. We have a generation that was brought up learning the value of education, who upon graduation learned their education had little value. Contemporary pop culture is fixated on a return to the halcyon days of the 1980s. One of the most celebrated books of last year (among my friends anyway, was Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”. The book’s appeal is based on the myriad of 80s pop culture references.
I think there is, unfortunately, a little Ignatius in most of my generation (myself included). Within a few years I fully expect to hear that forty is the new twenty. The grotesque is a mirror to reflect the worst traits of a society back at itself. But I’m afraid contemporary America is too busy navel gazing or celeb watching to reflect on Ignatius J. Reilly.
Please excuse any grammatical or historical mistakes, not to mention any imprecise quotes. This is a shorter lunch-break rewrite of something I'd been working on recently. But please do contribute your thoughts on a man whose influence on American literature and American comedy is, I think, a little under appreciated.
Also, members, please do feel free to post your thoughts on the books as we are reading them. Just mark your spoilers. There is no need to wait for permission to contribute.
Mar 19, 2012 05:04PM
Many years ago I drove to Nashville from Michigan in my VW van to take in the C&W sites. After a few days of going to the Grand Ole Opry and the various C&W museums etc, I thought every singer was famous since s/he was in evidence in all the venues I visited. Since there is a sidewalk statue of Ignatius in NOLA and a small cottage industry promoting him and his hangouts (so I am told), maybe CofD is very well known some places and not at all in others. I wonder how well known Our Man is outside his home territory. Any of you folks out in the wider world know Ignatius before this?
And, btw, Everitt, this sentence headed me to the dictionary in a NY minute but maybe you could give an example or two? "Rhetorically, Toole repeatedly associates Ignatius with animals describing his body using metaphors, synecdoche and metonymy of animals."
Mar 19, 2012 05:12PM
Quick example from the beginning of the book (as it is one of the first you'll see):
"This is clearly a case for the Civil Liberties Union" Ignatius observed, squeezing his mother's drooping shoulder with the paw.
p6 paperback. It is one of the things that I noticed while rereading the book. His appetite, his physique are quite frequently compared to animals, probably to help us create a subconscious picture of Ignatius.
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