Review: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

[This post belongs to my 2018 reading project.]

In A Confederacy of Dunces, a highly-educated layabout is forced to look for a job, with dramatic consequences for everyone who comes into contact with him, including his alcoholic mother, a hapless police officer, a tyrannical pornographer, and a henpecked industrialist.

It’s best known for exogenous reasons: it was published and won a Pulitzer prize after it’s author committed suicide; attempts to turn it into a film seem cursed; and it captures the accent and atmosphere of New Orleans particularly well.

Ignatius Reilly, the protagonist, feels contemporary. Or his situation does: there are a lot of over-educated people around right now for whom the academic system can find no place (even though it made them the way they are, and unfitted them for non-academic life). They’re out of work, many living at home with their parents. The elbow-patch precariat, let’s call them. Half my friends seem to belong to it, and Ignatius Reilly is archetypal.

Ignatius also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton (1874-1936) was a writer, activist, and self-caricature. Like Ignatius, he longed for the middle ages, maintained an operatic private fantasy starring himself, often devised harebrained and reactionary political schemes, displayed great quantities of verbal energy, was rotund, and sported a tremendous mustache. Ignatius quotes Chesterton once, so I suspect the resemblance is no accident.

G.K. Chesterton

A Confederacy of Dunces is satire, as its title — a quotation from Swift — portends. But I don’t think it deserves respect for the trenchancy of its mockery. As this review details, its satire implies a pretty unenlightened view of the world and relies on lots of pernicious stereotypes. Most of the humor arises from the contrast between contemptible private behavior and public pretentiousness. Characters are forever doing gross things when no one is looking, then grandstanding when someone is. What sets Ignatius Reilly apart, and makes him lovable amidst the “dunces” that surround him is that he’s publicly contemptible and privately pretentious; he grandstands in the theater of his own mind and the pages of his diary, and not just when bullying his interlocutors.

A Confederacy of Dunces characterizes through speech, then throws its characters violently against one another in conversation. Toole relies upon a very specific type of dramatic situation to create all his best scenes. This situation invariably has three parties, usually each party is a single person but sometimes one is replaced by a collective, functioning like a greek chorus. Two of the three parties in a given scene are antagonists attempting to manipulate each other with words, and the third is somehow oblivious and continually interrupts the sparring of the first two. This situation produces scenes that feel like they have dynamos in them. Unfortunately, once you notice it you can also predict how each scene will unfold.

Apparently, the novel reproduces the structure of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, which doesn’t surprise me, but doesn’t particularly interest me either.

I read A Confederacy of Dunces much faster than I expected to, and I feel like I learned something about scene construction.

Review: The Major Refutation, by Pierre Senges

The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (translated by Jacob Siefring) is a forged forgery falsely attributed to a real forger by a writer of fictions. Let’s pick that apart.

Antonio de Guevara existed. He was a monk and a courtier of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. He was also a popular author who provoked controversy by making spurious historical claims in his books. The Major Refutation is ostensibly a long-lost manuscript of Guevara’s, in which he attempts to refute Christopher Columbus’s #FakeNews that a continent lies across the Atlantic from Europe. An afterword casts doubt on Guevera’s authorship. Many other famous or obscure persons in and after the 16th-century might plausibly have written The Major Refutation. But The Major Refutation is actually, of course, a novel by Pierre Senges. He doesn’t drop character as the editor of a long lost manuscript even once, but copyright pages don’t lie (more’s the pity), so we know that if we go ad fontes, we find Senges. Amazon, happily, has been taken in by the ruse, and lists (as of this writing) Antonio de Guevara as one of the authors of the book.

The Major Refutation is an extremely weird and many-leveled experiment, seemingly committed to a motto buried in its own pages:

The fake does not have the qualities of the true, it only appears to have them; yet, at the risk of pleading against mine own cause, I must admit that the efforts used by counterfeiters often merit far greater attention […]

I have some thoughts about all of this. But first, a glance at the surface of the thing. The opening paragraph displays all the book’s tics and tendencies in one prefigurative sentence. It’s a dedication:

To Charles I of Ghent, who is as magnificent as I am lowly and disparate, formerly by chance, now by necessity; to Charles of Ghent who is the most extraordinary and by far the most fortuitously placed ruler Europe has ever seen on its soil, from Extremadura to the basics of Flanders to the ship of the Hansa; to Charles who, like a child dropped into the lions’ den and brought up alongside his fellow creatures, converts innocence to knowledge and hastens to redress his lack of preparedness through more work and authority; to Charles who has no peer in taking the power held out to him by his ancestors, as if he were accepting no more than a slice of pineapple, and who is peerless as well in relinquishing it, or feigning to do so, within his palaces, where he vows his humble powers to the God he imagines, summons, or dismisses at will; to Charles the Burgundian who knew how to strike fear into the hearts of the Spanish before he subjugated them, giving to eternity the example of a sovereign boldly coming face to face with each of his subjects, because he knew how to appear in their eyes as both a demon and an ordinary man (and to deceive them on both accounts, but with ample guile); to Charles who knew how to trim his family tree, to never subordinate the demands of State to filial love, nor waver in judgment before complaints or appeals, including those of kith and kin — to Charles I of Ghent, the author dedicates the present book.

Still with me?

As you will have noticed, The Major Refutation is written in a relentlessly oratorical style. The sentences are long, ornate, architectural, formal, yet digressive. They are stuffed with allusions to history and literature and out-dated science. The book is a triumph of research by Senges, but you will have to choose whether to allow those allusions to pour over you like water, or to track all or some of them down. I wavered back and forth, spending half an hour on some pages, and covering a few dozen others in as many minutes.

The novel is an undertaking (to read, to have written, to have translated). I think it’s a worthy one.

*

I hold that a good novel is, among other things, entertaining. The Major Refutation is entertaining. But not often in the normal ways that novels are entertaining, and not, I suspect, entertaining for everyone. Character and plot are buried here to be extracted, if you dig. Gradually, one learns about Guevara’s feud with another scholar named Peter Martyr; and the text itself tells the story of its author gradually confusing himself and coming to desire something different than he did at first. But these, as I said, are narratives to be extracted from a book which is, on the surface, exactly what it looks like: a long attempt to refute the existence of the Americas. It takes work to extract those narratives, and while some find such work good fun in itself, others might be dissuaded from the whole experience by the difficulty the form presents.

There are other possible entertainments on the surface of this book besides a plot: style above all. Long luxurious sentences eventually begin to spin by like lines of poetry. Also there is humor. Mostly wit, occasionally straight comedy, as when Guevara addresses his parrot from the midst of his increasingly insane ranting.

So that’s what The Major Refutation offers as an entertainment: strange, lovely writing; humor; a story-line if you squint.

*

What The Major Refutation offers uniquely, because of its unusual form, is a reflection on the value of counterfeiting to truth (and of course, by extension, the value of fiction to life). Guevara’s mode of “refutation” is actually conspiracy theorizing. As consumers, lately, of even more conspiracies than usual, we recognize the form: they render an unlikely alternative conception of reality plausible by forming a web of highly detailed minor connections. — Not unlike Sherlock Holmes, buttressing his unlikely large scale deductions by a host of minor observations. If this person has noticed all these subtle details and connected them with such ingenuity, how can they be wrong on the big glaring point their subtlety subtends?

Really good conspiracy theorists have the paradoxical effect of raising the standards of evidence and the scrutiny that precedes belief: it’s the casual counterfeiters we have to fear. We have to worry about the liars who don’t care how shabby and easy to dispel their untruths are, the fabricators who rely upon the prolificity of their perversions rather than intricacy or excellence of their designs. In our time, numerous parties seem to be attempting forgery by brute force, the deployment of auotmated repetition and dissemination as a form of persuasion — not verisimilitude but virality allow the lies that surround us to sink in. In such a climate, a conspiracy theory like The Major Refutation, with its elaborate scaffolding of plausibility and research, is also a pointed reminder of the tawdry laziness of much modern propoganda.

[M]y Refutation is not strictly speaking a work of debunking , and uniquely that, but rather an invitation from one dupe to other dupes to listen to how the stories go round and repeat, to see how a counterfeit money circulates…

The actually revolutionary implication of this investigation is the power it reveals to belong to the honest dupe: that is, to the wondering person, who innocently believes a lie. That person, who, multiplied, is the great sleeping beast of society coddled and lulled by the lies of the powerful, has, ultimately, all the power:

there comes a moment when the world’s last remaining free dupe holds unto himself the conditions necessary to the survival of the imposture : and paradoxically his power is then immense if the collective delusion is to depend on his credulity.

In an interview, Senges has said that the imposture of realism in literature supports that of liberalism: the idea that the free market is a basic reality rather than something forcibly imposed and continuously maintained by force. He has also said that he forbids himself short sentences because the short sentence is peremptory whereas it ought to doubt itself.

The form of The Major Refutation mirrors its theme perfectly: a scrutiny so intense, brought to bear with specialties so hysterically refined, leads the object studied to crumble, and the investigator himself to vanish into self-doubt.

Review: The Lover, by Marguerite Duras

We project the reality of actual people much as we do the seeming reality of fictional characters.

Madame Bovary is, factually, a noun to which certain verbs are attributed. Functionally, however, she is a person whom you care for or despise, laugh at or despair of, picture in the round, treat as possessing interiority, and, perhaps, even conduct imaginary dialogues with. Likewise your own mother, in the most basic sense, is a series of impressions, conceptualized as a continuous entity, accruing, like a snowplow leaving drifts on either side, attributions of causality. You speculate that she is an outside-with-an-inside-that-seems-to-be-free-and-autonomous. Just like you. You recognize her in certain primordial ways too. I’m not denying that. But most of what you think about her is constructed by your ongoing work of fantasy. Actually, Madame Bovary can seem more real to you than your mother. When you’re tired or your mother transgresses the bounds of your fantasy by doing something unexpected, then at least Madame Bovary is coherent, neatly tucked into her narrative. This mother, though—! She practically dissipates into incomprehensibility unless you maintain her invisible dimensions.

Given the sheer effort you expend to maintain your perception of another person’s independent reality, you seize any shortcut or prefab element you can find. That’s one reason children universally adore stories: stories are prefab fantasies, enormously useful. But besides stories, we repurpose the traits, types, and projected motivations of our fantasies about one person in our fantasies about another. We form an idea of mother, and use bits of it in our idea of father, and so on. (It’s not linear like this, obviously, but circular and recursive.)

Your family, at the level of its fantasy-existence as a collection of real people constantly presumed to be carrying on their own lives outside your head, are all built from one another. This Frankenstein, this family, is nonetheless, for you, the very definition of the real, the distinct, the effortlessly independent and permanently stable surround. Your brothers and sisters and mother and father are the archetypes from which you draw the materials for all subsequent fantasies about the new, supposedly real, people who touch your consciousness.

Well, perhaps one other person adds something incontestably new: your first lover.

The first person who breaches that wall of physical distance, the wall you built up gradually from your naked and bawling babyhood, in clumsy childhood, in embarassed adolescence, in dignified adulthood. Your lover reorganizes the whole settled engine of your fantasies. This traumatizes however it happens.

Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a very short novel composed of tiny sections that leap back and forth in time and from one plot line to another. It forms a mosaic whose central figures are a fictionalized version of Duras herself—as a 15 year old girl—and her first lover. This lover is the son of a rich man and he is Chinese. Marguerite, of course, was French. She ostensibly goes with him because she wants money. Her mother, a bankrupt widow, stuck in the colonial Saigon, has awoken her to the need for money. And then later Duras thinks: perhaps I did love him.

From what I’ve been able to find out, the autobiographical events from which this tale stems, however, are different in one important way: the real Duras recollected that she only slept with the lover once, due to her racist revulsion from his body.

Imaginary-Duras, though, sleeps with him for two years. She’s a school-girl in colonial Vietnam. Perhaps you know about strained imperial communities that attempt to recreate the homeland’s social world. In such a recreations, polite fictions are continually undermined by the presence of the slave, the exploited, the subjugated, the ostensibly savage. Societies like that don’t handle scandal well (consult Kipling and the early Orwell). Young story-Duras is a scandal even before she takes up with a non-European who has no intention of marrying her. She wears a man’s hat and gold lamé shoes. She has a face, she tells us, that prophecies debauchery, a grown up dissipated face on a pubescent girl’s body. A delightful fictionalization, I thought, and then I found a picture:

This is, I believe, a young Marguerite Duras

Now I see that when I was very young, eighteen, fifteen, I already had a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age. Drink accomplished what God did not. It aslo served to kill me; to kill. I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it. The space for it existed in me. I knew it the same as other people, but, strangely, in advance. Just as the space existed for desire. At the age of fifteen I had the face of pleasure, and yet I had no knowledge of pleasure. There was no mistaking that face […] That was how everything started for me—with that flagrant, exhausted face, those rings around the eyes, in advance of time and experience.

For The Lover, Duras won the Prix Goncourt. To win such a major prize with barely a hundred pages: astonishing.

The story shows how one cannibalizes family members in an attempt to construct a fantasy about the lover’s independent reality. She imagines him as mother, father, brother. (“He takes her as he would his own child. He’d take his own child the same way.” Yes, admittedly creepy.) But ultimately, the lover breaches any merely borrowed fantasy. What most people take to be a recognition in later life that she actually loved the lover, and didn’t just go with him for his money, I take to be a surrender to the necessity to form fresh elements of fantasy to cope with his memory.

[I]t was when the boat uttered its first farewell, when the gangway was hauled up and the tugs had started to tow and draw the boat away from land, that she had wept. She’d wept without letting anyone see her tears, because he was Chinese and one oughtn’t to weep for that kind of lover.

What makes The Lover extraordinary, I think, is that it combines these two things: the way a first lover reorganizes the material of your fantasies about other people, and imperialism. Marguerite’s lover resists her existing stock of family fantasies not just by being a lover, but also by being Chinese. The foreignness (and perceived inferiority) of his being Chinese, however, cannot be maintained as a shadowy otherness when he is her first lover. It’s an intractable problem and their “love” does not work out—quite apart from its external obstacle which is, ironically, not her mother (who nonetheless beats her and screams at her for degrading herself with another race, even while accepting the monetary bounty that flows from her daughter’s promiscuity), but his father, who considers the girl beneath them.

At one point in the novel, Duras tosses out a little line that struck me between the eyes like a poleaxe: she says there is a “superstition if you like, that consists in believing in a political solution to the personal problem.” I thought about it and she’s right: there isn’t a political solution to a personal problem. (A thing we are about to learn with searing clarity.) But what is left unsaid—and Duras usually speaks as much through what she doesn’t say as through what she does—is that personal problems might have political origins.

Take her personal problem with that first lover. It wouldn’t be a problem—or not as intractable a problem—without the fact of Imperialism.

And that of course raises the question: though there can’t be political solutions to personal problems, can there be personal solutions to political problems? Well, suppose the novel is an attempt to answer that question. I’ll leave it to you.

Review: The Immoralist, by André Gide

I think I can be forgiven hoping to find something lurid in a novel entitled The Immoralist, written by a notorious French pederast. But at first blush there’s not all that much to blush about in André Gide’s book. I closed it a bit underwhelmed, feeling as if I’d finished a competent but frankly somewhat prudish mashup of Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Edgar Allen Poe. The story had, however, entered the two-chambered stomach of my mind. I chewed the cud of it for a day, and by the time I’d digested it I realized just how interesting it was.

Michel, the eponymous immoralist, is a bookish and independently wealthy young man. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Marceline. On their honeymoon he almost dies of tuberculosis. Galvanized by his escape, he decides to abandon books in favor of sensual experience: sunbathing naked, hanging out with pretty little boys, roaming about at night poaching rabbits on his own lands, that sort of thing.

Marceline doesn’t much like Michel’s new philosophy, and when she gets pregnant he seriously considers taking back up the burdens of typical bourgeois life. But then Marceline miscarries and gets tuberculosis herself. By way of a cure, Michel foolishly hustles her from place to place. He convinces both of them that carting her around the Middle East is the best way to treat her. They retrace the path of their honeymoon: for him it was a journey of convalescence, but for her, now, it’s a journey of deterioration. In a suitably gothic finale, she dies hemorrhaging, drowning in her own blood, covered in sheets of it, just about where Michel was definitively cured, in a remote desert village beyond the reach of any doctors.

Plenty is disturbing in this story, especially the fate of Marceline. But where’s the immorality? A bookworm almost dies and realizes he needs to live a little. For the most part he doesn’t hurt anybody, except by accident. It is disturbing when the narrator suggests that Michel was unmoved by the death of Marceline. But even there, apart from Michel’s poor medical theories — for which he did, actually, have some basis, since he’d been cured by the same desert that kills Marceline — he does nothing to deserve serious opprobrium, offering Marceline devoted daily care, even though he’s long since ceased to base his happiness on their love. Can you fault someone for being unable to muster an emotion, when he doesn’t allow that inner coldness to interfere with any external duties? Where’s the immorality?

I think questing for that immorality, an almost inevitable readerly task, as Gide surely realized when he chose the title, unfolds a seemingly straightforward and simple story into something more profound and challenging.

Perhaps the key to the book is a conversation that takes place about halfway through. After Michel and Marceline’s honeymoon they end up back in Paris where Michel gives some lectures. He tries to express his new philosophy of sensuality in these lectures, but nobody understands. Nobody except one former acquaintance, Ménalque, a man much further along the same path. Here’s the pertinent exchange:

Ménalque, who was walking up and down the room, absentmindedly lit a cigarette, then threw it away at once. “There is,” he continued, “a ‘sense,’ the others would say, a ‘sense’ you seem to be lacking, my dear Michel.”

“You mean a ‘moral sense,’” I said, trying to smile.

“No, just a sense of property.”

Michel doesn’t lack a moral sense; he lacks a sense of property; yet we find him in a book called L’immoraliste. This isn’t a contradiction because there’s a difference between immorality and amorality. An important difference actually, one all-too-often elided. If two people believe in different accounts of what is good, and therefore judge different actions to be right, each will perceive the other to be immoral. If one of them didn’t believe anything was good, and that there were no right actions, he would be amoral.

Michel does lack something: a sense of property. And this makes him appear immoral to people who possess that sense.

What does it mean that he lacks a sense of property?

In the remark’s immediate context, it quite literally means that he isn’t jealous of his possessions. He lets a child steal from him for the pleasure of witnessing the theft, for instance.

But in a deeper sense that Ménalque teaches him, Michel has no property because he lives entirely in the present. Don’t cling to memory, advises Ménalque. Don’t steer your craft by the north star of principle or any particular constellation of previous felicity, but follow the erratic comet of present inclination. If a friend tires you, drop them; if a former hobby bores you, neglect it; if you want something, buy it. Relinquish both the past and the future.

What becomes of property if there is no past or future? It ceases to make sense as a concept. For something to be “property” to you, you must project your possession of it into the future as a right, on the basis of some supposedly legitimating act of appropriation in the past. Perhaps you bought this banana yesterday, and therefore you consider that only you or your agents may eat or dispose of it tomorrow. (My beloved and I experience the antinomies of banana ownership on a weekly basis, as she considers her act of purchasing the bananas reason enough to deprive me of what I perceive to be my right to dispose of them when they get black and mushy.) The very coherence of the idea of property depends upon time-consciousness, depends upon our not fully inhabiting the present.

But why does Michel’s lack of a sense of property, in either the shallow or the deeper sense, make him immoral? Remember, the immoral is a comparative term, used by those with a different conception of the moral than those whom they consider immoral. We may therefore presume that Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he appears to those who differ from him in the essential way that they possess a sense of property. And indeed this is fully borne out by a second key scene in the book.

One of Michel’s tenants realizes that his landlord is poaching rabbits on his own land. He’s buying copper wire to help the son of his overseer set up illicit snares, and then he’s running around at night setting them up, taking great delight in, essentially, stealing from himself. Michel’s tenant, Charles, delivers a sermon to his landlord:

Charles’s voice grew more and more assured. He sounded almost noble. I noticed that he had shaved off his whiskers. […] “It was Monsieur who taught me last year that property involves certain responsibilities — but Monsieur seems to have forgotten. Either you take those responsibilities seriously and stop dealing with those [poachers] or else you don’t deserve to own anything.”

Michel doesn’t deserve to own anything: but what would make him deserve ownership? Presumably, the missing sense of property. The circularity of this observation delights me. It highlights the arbitrary nature of ownership itself. The will to own is itself the prime justification and qualification for ownership. And in fact isn’t that the disillusioning reality?

I think I’ve found what makes the immoralist immoral. Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he is perceived by a bourgeois who properly understands what Michel has become. What has he become? A sensualist, someone wholly absorbed by the present and therefore unwilling and unable to entertain a sense of property. That’s not so bad, though, I don’t think. In fact it’s… admirable. Not being amoral, Michel is immoral because he has detached himself from the obsession with property that festers at the heart of bourgeois morality. Earlier, before the perfection of his sensuality, he saw just how unhappy this obsession could make him:

Furniture, fabrics, engravings, everything lost all its value for me at the first blemish — things stained, things infected by disease and somehow marked by mortality. I longed to protect everything, to put it all under lock and key for myself alone. How lucky Ménalque is, I thought, owning nothing! It’s because I want to save things that I suffer.

A year ago I was briefly misdiagnosed with a heart problem and spent several weeks convinced I might die at any moment. It was among the best things that ever happened to me. Months later, I wouldn’t trade the memory of that gaze into the abyss for anything. Among its many lingering effects is a strong and existential disgust with possessions. I keep finding ways and reasons to get rid of my things. The Immoralist revealed something to me about this disgust: it’s the obverse of a newfound appreciation for immediacy, for the present. All those things, mementos of the past or collections curated and aimed at a future completion, were bifurcations of the present, so many incursions of death upon life.

The various gothic thrills and horrors of The Immoralist conceal a quietly more interesting idea: the transvaluation of values effected by a clear perception of the precious contingency of existence.