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616. Darkening of the light (XI)

As you may have noticed, we live in a narcissistic age—and narcissism is even worse when combined with irony; indeed, narcissism requires irony to facilitate the various poses that garner attention and flatter your self-perception. This struck me this morning because I happened to see an image of Rod Dreher, a notable American “traditionalist” journalist whom I have never read, posed next to a bust of Ignatius Reilly—the lead character in John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980); the pose was very ironic, open-mouthed and “in the know” (as people used to say circa 1956, or so I like to think; they say my locution is slightly out of date, but never self-consciously so—I am merely possessed by the departed).

A Confederacy of Dunces is very funny and I remember when I first read it I devoured in two days or so—it is that kind of book, cult. Dunces is a comedy about Ignatius Reilly, a scholar of the medieval philosopher Boethius who lives with his mother—he has never left home, in fact—down in N’rleeens. Reilly is a rather repulsive man—obese, dirty, rain-mack’d and addicted to the almond pop drink “Dr. Nut”, a kind of sub-variant of Dr. Pepper that went bust before the novel was published. The novel’s humour derives from Reilly’s medieval pose as contrasted against sleazy modern New Orleans nightlife; naturally, Reilly is a hypochondriac and a high-strung moral nag—he intellectualises everything and is cut off from life.

When his mother has an accident, Reilly is thrust from his sheltered existence—basically an adolescent existence, although he is in his thirties—and forced to take a job; in the process he mixes with hookers, negroes, cons, rednecks, and sweatshop owners—and all the while he keeps up the intellectual pose, endless references to Boethius, and moralisation. As with all great moralists, Reilly furtively adores everything he condemns; so though he claims to loathe Hollywood, he obsesses over Hollywood starlets. He engages with modernity in order to indulge in the most squalid vice of all: moralisation—the quasi-erotic thrill that comes from righteous indignation, he just has to watch the latest film to tsk-tsk at it. Similarly, he bemoans post-Scholastic modernity and then condemns swamp-dwelling rednecks for their reluctance to use technology.

His only genuine sexual interest is “that minx” Myrna Minkoff—a proverbial New York Jewish intellectual who, despite being a Jew and a Communist and a graduate student, represents Reilly’s true other half; the two flirt throughout the novel via correspondence—although it never comes together because Reilly refuses to leave New Orleans. Reilly’s Boethian position is a mask, a narcissistic mask, to help him deal with his own inadequacy and reluctance to face life.

I knew a graduate student who looked just like Reilly’s depiction on the novel’s cover, except his crutch was Marxism not traditional Catholicism; just like Reilly he was ultra-bright but only did menial jobs and led a sexless life. Why? He could not stand the power and joy that would come about if he engaged with reality. I was exactly the same when, at seventeen, due to shyness and inexperience, I would wear a white suit and pretend to make notes in night clubs instead of just dancing; the intellectual pose is a means to avoid reality—power, sex, joy.

Reilly was based on Toole himself—who also lived with his mother in adolescent Lovecraft-style sterility—and yet Reilly was a comic exaggeration: unlike Reilly, Toole admitted that he loved Marilyn Monroe films. As with many comics, he took elements from his own life and exaggerated them for laughs—his scholarly interest in Boethius, for example. Reilly is not someone to be narcissistically imitated, even ironically; he is meant to be pitiable. Contemporary “trads” and “traditional Catholics” who moan about how “it all went wrong when we abandoned Scholasticism” exhibit Reilly’s defence against life—in a novel this is funny, in life it is a tragic waste.


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