Confederacy of Dunces: The Future in our Midst

I am ashamed to admit I have never read it (as I warned below, I am no intellectual), but I certainly will read it now, as it appears John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Confederacy of Dunces may have been prophetic, in a way. Note Max Lindenman’s exposition of the book’s anti-hero, Ignatius Reilly:

[Ignatius] is a figure few readers would care to identify with. Obese, a sloppy eater, and a fashion nightmare—the earring, though exceptional for him, does little harm to the effect of his usual getups—he’s also a hypochondriac obsessed with his pyloric valve [...]

But what makes Ignatius such a prophetic figure (and his creator, by extension, a prophet) is the rich virtual life he manages to lead. In his own mind and in his own words, Ignatius is a very formidable figure. He has worked out his own thought system—a kind of medievalism based on the philosophy of Boethius—which he expresses with considerable force and eloquence in a collection of Big Chief writing tablets. He engages with the general culture, feeding himself a steady diet of Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon-type movies, which tend to support his thesis of a decaying society. Through long, often spiteful letters, he carries on what amounts to a long distance relationship with Myrna Minkoff, a New Yorker he met while studying at Tulane.

No longer a regular churchgoer and inclined to mock his mother’s rosary beads as “religious hexerei,” Ignatius remains in some ways more Catholic than the pope. He criticizes St. Peter’s current successor—presumably John XXIII—as insufficiently authoritarian, and is quick to invoke the saints against his enemies. As he writes to one of his former professors:

Your total ignorance of that which you profess to teach merits the death penalty. I doubt whether you would know that St. Cassian of Imola was stabbed to death by his students with their styli. His death, a martyr’s honorable one, made him a patron saint of teachers.

Pray to him, you deluded fool, you “Anyone for tennis?” golf-playing, cocktail-quaffing, pseudo-pedant, for you do indeed need a heavenly patron. Although your days are numbered, you will not die as a martyr—for you further no holy cause—but as the total ass which you really are.

Ignatius signs off—pseudonymously, as on the internet—as “Zorro.”

If Ignatius Reilly is even more an everyman—and an EveryCatholic—now than he was back in the days of Camelot, it’s because whatever defined those times defines ours even more. Social change and political polarization? Check. The isolating effects of urban life? Check. Dissatisfaction with Church leadership, and indeed, with authority in general? Please.

Prophetic, indeed, in it’s way — right down to the sad obesity that has overtaken us as we sit around online.

Read the whole piece; it is an oxymoronic, thoughtfully-sad delight

I can’t help thinking, as I read the description of Ignatius Reilly, what a hoot he would be as a guest character on The Simpson, perhaps as the long-lost brother of Comic Book Guy, who would seem his match in both physicality and nerdy-but-eloquent unctuousness. One can almost read the above quote from Reilly and hear it in that character’s voice.

Except Comic Book Guy would end his missives (or more likely his combox remarks) with a succinct “Worst. Church. Ever.”

And then he’d hit “send,” registering his disgust throughout the world.

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About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Marie E

    I’m not an intellectual but have reread it several times. But be warned, you will find yourself sighing “O Fortuna!” at the vagaries of your life. Or perhaps (like my family) you will now address those with whom you disagree as “communiss” (though I advise you to keep that accusation in the family!)

  • Joe Carter

    Confederacy of Dunces is one of the most overrated books ever to come out of the South. If you think an obese guy having erotic dreams about a collie is inherently amusing, then you may think it worthwhile (NB: I don’t). Otherwise, you’re likely to wonder what all the fuss was about.

  • The Crescat

    I agree with Joe. It was a terrible book.

  • Bill

    There is a statue of Ignatius Reilly in New Orleans!

    I’ve read the book. I thought it was entertaining, and worthwhile despite objections like Joe’s, which I completely understand. Ignatius is like a couple of people I’ve known but not someone I’d care to spend a lot of time with. He does inspire readers to consider what the heck they are doing with their lives (and to be grateful they aren’t Ignatius!).

    No, the book doesn’t have Flannery O’Connor’s class, but overrated? Only in the way that some think Joyce’s Ulysses is overrated. In fact, Leopold Bloom might be Ignatius’ cousin, in some ways.

    It’s a shame about the author of Confederacy of Dunces. One wonders what he would have produced. It is surprising how current a lot of the content of the book seems, despite having been written over forty years ago. The opening sentence is one of the most memorable in modern literature, in my opinion, and a great example of how to grab a reader immediately.

  • Joseph Moore

    Most disappointing book I’ve ever read. It came highly recommended by people I respect (Walker Percy!!) – and I end up baffled as to ‘why’.

    Trying too hard to be funny, mostly failing, with a central character who hard to sympathize with. The New Orleans setting helps (I have a picture of myself standing with the Ignatius statue) but not nearly enough.

  • daisy

    Dunces and Flannery O’Connor are both simply mysteries to me. Every Catholic I admire thinks they’re both wonderful and I just don’t get it. They are horribly overrated and disgusting.

  • Gabriel McAuliffe

    It reminded me of Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. Sort of trying to re-invent the wheel (or the Church) on your own. That is why I enjoyed it, among other reasons.

  • craig

    Terrible book. The main character’s oppressive stupidity reminds me right now of the attitude of moonbats currently occupying Wall Street: “somebody else ought to supply my needs so I can indulge my wants without consequences”.

  • GT

    To those scolds chastising the book, I quote noted 20th Century philosopher Sgt. Hulka: “Lighten up, Francis.”

    Elizabeth, if you have an appreciation for the absurd and find benign misanthropy amusing, read the book. O’Toole didn’t write Ignatius to be the most sympathetic literary character since Tiny Tim; he is supposed to provoke mild revulsion. That is one of the elements that make the book so amusing. The screeds Ignatius launches against then popular culture are incredibly funny and still relevant today.

  • Donnie

    I loved this book and highly recommend it. It’s not high art like Flannery O’Connor, but it’s hilarious. I especially laughed when he tried to stir up a mob…. well, I won’t say anymore.

  • Manny

    I’ve never heard of it. By the sounds of the reactions, it sounds like it’s worth reading at some point, though it doesn’t sound like it’s an immediate must.

  • SteveM

    I thought the book was a hysterical stew of inter-personal dysfunction. There really is no protagonist, because all of the characters are (entertaining) idiots.

    Rather than searching for an island of rationality in your read, just surrender to the idea of immersing yourself in a Confederacy of Dunces. Then you may really enjoy this book.

  • Thomas R

    I think I had Joe Carter’s reaction, I couldn’t finish it. I mean I got the sense the guy was so out of it he was unaware that what he was doing was fantasizing about a collie, but still it was too weird for me.

    Still being born in the South I’m kind of interested in the Catholic Southern thing. Is Walker Percy any good?

  • Maureen

    It sounds like one of those books that should come with a warning about “Your sense of humor may vary.”

    I mean, they made us read Catch 22, and some people obviously think that book is howlingly funny, whereas I think it’s just stupid and pray never to be forced to read it again.

    But then again, I think there are chunks of Moby Dick that are funny, funny stuff, but most people think it’s entirely serious and never crack a smile when Melville throws in a joke.

  • Gregg the Obscure

    Sloth has prevented me from starting a video podcast “The Ignatius Reilly Factor” where Mr. R – who was in suspended animiation from about 1966 to 2009 – spouts off on the issues of the day. Anyone who is sufficiently reactionary is welcome to the idea gratis.

    Ignatius is a sad character, but he’s very much a product of the marginal civilization into which he was born – a civilization that has become vastly less worthy of such a name in the interim.

  • Brian

    I’m glad you mentioned Comic Book Guy!! I am absolutely convinced that his character was based partly on Ignatius Reilly.

    Great book by the way, as long as you don’t mind reading a book in which you don’t like the main character.

  • Joseph Moore

    Thomas R – assuming you aren’t just kidding around, yea, walker Percy is good. The different senses of humor mentioned here are definitely in play. I find Percy’s humor very funny, O’Toole’s not at all funny. I agree with Maureen above about Moby Dick – if you don’t find it at least quietly amusing, it’s just a long, long book.

    We might set up a handy guide, A Southern Writer’s Humor decision tree, maybe something like:

    Three Stooges > Marx Brothers => Dunces
    Three Stooges Love in the Ruins

    Or something. Mostly kidding around.

  • Joseph Moore

    Hmmm. Seems HTML or some other technical goblin decided my decision tree needed to be excised. Probably all for the best.

    [nothing in my spam filter -admin]

  • SteveM

    Re: Joseph Moore: “O’Toole’s not at all funny”

    Don’t you have a bottle of muscatel baking in the oven?

  • Gabrielito

    I love the book, when I first read it I could not put the book down. I find it funny and very conducive to my imagination. I enjoyed reading it.

  • Beth

    Confederacy of Dunces made me laugh out loud over and over. i’ve read it many times and still find it the funniest book I’ve ever read. Then again, I do have a certain offbeat sense of humor. Strangers With Candy ( the TV show) anyone?

  • GT

    19 SteveM

    Re: Joseph Moore: “O’Toole’s not at all funny”

    Don’t you have a bottle of muscatel baking in the oven?

    Absolutely hilarious reference.

  • SteveM

    Re: GT

    Thanks :)

  • Ed Peters

    It’s worth the read. At a certain point in one’s life, with certain suppositions firmly in place. But yes, do read it.

  • Fritz

    The book obtains exactly the reaction predicted in the motto which gives the book’s title: The dunces shall rise against him. This is not just a Funny” book though it is that abundantly. It is “The” American Novel so many tried to write. One of the greatest books ever written. Alongside Doktor Faustus, Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote.

    The long diatribes in Ignatius’ letters and the complex plot will quickly bore consumers of cartoon strips, sitcoms, and Potter movies, as the comments above attest. Hollywood tried to make a movie from it but a few very powerful people who may have seen themselves in the book, bought the rights and buried it. There is a whole novel, and several movies, in how this was achieved.

    Not much to do with Catholicism though. Boethius’ book, central to one of the main themes, juxtaposes Reason and God.