In mid-March of 1969, John Kennedy Toole visited Milledgeville, Georgia, the home of famous southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor. By the end of the month, Toole committed suicide via gas asphyxiation. Such a story would lack resonance and significance if Toole was not the author of one of the most celebrated works of southern literature, A Confederacy of Dunces.
Dunces is a book so deeply embedded in the southern imaginary that a statue of the picaresque novel’s main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, has been erected in front of the former D.H. Holmes department store (the setting of the novel’s opening), on Canal Street. The statue is something of a shrine for lovers of literature, as it truly captures Reilly’s key characteristics. Reilly, an archetypal picaresque protagonist, appears paranoid, disturbed, and distrustful of his surroundings. Throughout the text, Ignatius rails against the “decadence” of modernity, decrying film and television as an inferior form of artistic expression than what was found in the Middle Ages. Ignatius’ distrust of the modern world runs so deep that he is unwilling to use soap, citing that Schiller enjoyed the smell of rotting apples when composing his legendary poetry and drama. Such a strong antipathy for the twentieth century does not stop Ignatius from scarfing down hot dogs, taking in movies, or writing angry letters to “liberal” professors.
Indeed, few aspects of the contemporary condition escapes Ignatius’ eloquent ramblings and moralizing crusades. Yet, what readers of Toole’s masterwork often neglect is the role the real main character of Dunces plays in the creation of a character like Ignatius. That character is the city of New Orleans, or more broadly, the southern imaginary. Ignatius does not leave New Orleans – his sole excursion away from his Frankish womb is to the nearby city of Baton Rouge, where he interviews for a teaching position at a university. Ignatius recounts this story often as one of unmitigated horror, describing the Greyhound ride over in the way some would describe going to war or surviving an attack. Ignatius is single-mindedly obsessed with his hometown, yet acts as its one-man moral police, delivering pseudo-prophetic judgments upon its denizens whose lives intertwine with his own.
It cannot be understated to what extent Toole intends to comment upon the ubiquity of Ignatius’ situation in the south. Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the “unthinking” way Nazi bureaucrats such as Adolf Eichmann engineered a cataclysmic genocide through sheer complicity and self-important ineptitude. Similarly, the city of New Orleans acts as a silent, unthinking witness to the impotent, arrogant anti-modernism of Ignatius J. Reilly. The book’s title, A Confederacy of Dunces, is derived from a Jonathan Swift essay: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that all the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
In a masterful turn, Toole twists Swift’s phrase and hands it neatly back to the reader: Ignatius thinks of himself as “the true genius” and that society is against him. In fact, Ignatius is a member of “the confederacy of dunces” and his intense antipathy towards modern society is a feature of the society he purports to hate. The “exceptionalism” of New Orleans and its laid-back culture enables Ignatius to engage in a Quixotic crusade against the very culture that protects him from prison. Throughout the novel, Ignatius’ antics are ignored and, in the worst cases, encouraged by those around him. Ignatius’ mother often yells at Ignatius, but it is not until the very end of the novel that she agrees to have him institutionalized. The managers of the movie theatre Ignatius frequents in order to loudly scoff at the films have since given up on making him leave. The professor Ignatius writes threatening letters to has also surrendered, seeking not to have Ignatius arrested, but letting out a nervous sigh when such a letter crosses his desk. Even the reader is encouraged to let out a resigned “leave him alone” when Ignatius causes a major scene at a Bourbon Street strip club at the end of the novel. In a sense, the reader and the characters of the novel share in a “wearing down” of one’s tolerance for such a character. Who was once an extreme nuisance and obstacle to the full enjoyment of the public sphere becomes a parody of such a nuisance. Ignatius becomes a “quirky character” to be tolerated, or worse, celebrated, rather than reformed or opposed.
Surrender and southern nihilism
The question of “surrender” and nihilism in the south, like that seen in Toole’s masterwork, catalyzed an interesting literary discussion among bloggers in the last year, especially those in the south. Does Wendell Berry “whitewash” or attempt to under-represent the deep problems of the south? Such a topic is close to the minds and hearts of a generation of southerners. Even non-southerners who grew up in similar conditions, such as J.D. Vance, author of the best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, remark upon the depleting economic conditions and growing anger and antipathy with the status-quo. Such dissatisfaction with said status quo is a major factor in the surprise election of Donald Trump.
When I was 17 years old, shortly after electoral victory of Barack Obama, I traveled to Kentucky with my father to retrieve my paternal grandmother from relatives in the mountains. Such a visit was a strange voyage into another world, far removed from the petit-bourgeois sensibilities of my suburban Atlanta upbringing. My father, a proud manager of a Kroger, stopped into a Kroger for directions and gas during this sojourn and, to his intense dismay, found a management distrustful of outsiders. After retrieving said grandmother, we dined at a “Big Boy” establishment (your author, a lover of all things retro, kitsch, and petit-bourgeoisie insisted), and were greeted with a question we thought anachronistic: “Smoking or non?”
The world of rural Kentucky is one of intense impulse, of disregard of one’s individual longevity. The plight of the coal miner in Kentucky is one of inelegant danger. The dwindling Kentucky proletariat is either succumbing to petit-bourgeoification or heroin addiction. In a word, they are either physically dying or joining a classless class –hatred by the left for its backwardness and crass exploitation by populist demagogues like Donald Trump. The underlying philosophical ethos of such a class is nihilism and self-destruction.
This nihilism, while by no means contained to the south, finds its most forceful expression in places like Corbin, Kentucky, and Anniston, Alabama. Outside of the major cities in Virginia, it is not uncommon to find gas stations and bathrooms in disrepair, hanging onto their last gasps for dear life. Much of the intelligentsia, right and left, are aware of such dire conditions in rural areas of the country. However, literary debates such as the aforementioned Wendell Berry question only serve to obfuscate. The question should not focus on whether Wendell Berry whitewashes the south, but whether projects like The Front Porch Republic do. Put another way, it is probable that Wendell Berry’s work does not underemphasize the economic plight of the rural south – but Wendell Berry’s readers and admirers certainly do.
When the “traditionalist” wing of the conservative media is not idyllicizing the south as a misunderstood, but flawed landscape, where people are “more polite” and “genteel” and things move “at a slower pace,” they are exploiting the nihilism faced by the median denizen of these spaces in order to launch an overly-sentimental screed against “the elites” who “ignored” these people. Either exposition is exploitative – a misunderstanding of the lived reality of the south at best. Such an exploitation finds its beginning in the works of Richard Weaver who in his Southern Tradition at Bay, described the south as possessing “a feudal theory of society, a code of chivalry, the ancient concept of the gentleman, and a noncredal faith.” Further, the idea of land ownership gave the individual a degree “stability, responsibility, dignity, and sentiment” that was non-accessible in the industrial north. Such an exploitation reached its zenith during the Inaugural speech of Donald Trump, who said: “January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of this country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.”
The sentiments of both Weaver and Trump represent a Reilly-esque antipathy towards modern society. In the case of Weaver, it is the south’s “genteel culture” and “gentlemanly values” and its focus on “feudal land ownership” that makes the south an exemplary sub-nation. The people are nicer, they ask how your day is, and smile more often than their Northern counterpart. Such a vision of the south has more in common with Splash Mountain than the actual south inhabited by millions of people. It has all the kitschy charm and authenticity of an animatronic show – the people of the south do not struggle with poverty, racism, homophobia, or class anxieties in Weaver’s world. It is the abandonment of “landed gentry” that generated this tension. Yet, Weaver speaks not of the south’s continued fixation with landed property (Alabama famously has very low property taxes) and the legacy of the Civil War as a major point of contention during the Civil Rights era. Instead, he focuses on a fictional, idyllic past where people sit on the front porch and sip lemonade in seersucker suits. Such a vision is not charmless; after all, Splash Mountain, whose narrative is based in the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris, attracts millions of visitors each year. However, basing one’s understanding of a region on soppy, overly-sincere narratives make the realization of the problems of the actually-existing-south that much worse.
Trump’s vision, on the contrary, is a cynical exploitation of the south’s problems, stating that the denizens of the south have been “forgotten” and that through his political program, their problems will be privileged in America from here on out. Trump’s inaugural sentiment was immediately falsified by the CBO’s discovery that millions of the poorest Americans, a good proportion of which are presumably also “forgotten,” would either face outrageous premium hikes or lose access to health insurance altogether, as a result of proposed legislation that would “repair” Obamacare. Such a failure on the health care front has been precipitated by Trump’s decision to “end the war” on coal in a nakedly obvious attempt to appeal to members of his base in Kentucky, West Virginia, and other states. However, even proponents of Trump’s energy policy remark on the unsustainability of the coal industry over time. CNBC’s Jake Novak writes, “So no, President Trump cannot prevent the coal industry’s demise. That will likely happen over the next century… or two. But he and his new policies can ensure that it dies of natural causes and not a mob-induced euthanasia.” Novak’s sentiment betrays a level of cynicism among Trump’s advocates in the media. Key industries in the south will collapse, leaving millions of people dispersed and without jobs (and if Trumpcare succeeded, without health insurance), but these “forgotten people” will die on their own terms. Put lightly, Trumpism is not a sign of rural revivalism, but of economic euthanasia that will take place “over a century…or two.”
From the literary perspective, both the Weaver and Trump interpretations of the south belong to the “confederacy of dunces” rather than to the confederacy of “true genius.” For true genius in interpreting the historical conditions of the south, it is more apropos to turn to one of the south’s true treasures, its literary legacy.
Authors such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and John Kennedy Toole, see the south as a place of possibility, but of clandestine danger as well. O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and novel, Wise Blood depict a south where “No man with a good car needs to be justified!” O’Connor’s south, like Weaver’s south, is one of hospitality and gentility, but this gentility is generated by necessity, by the knowledge that this world of post-feudal agrarianism is a chaotic one. And, that in order to avoid this chaos and prevent a moral breakdown, manners and pleasantries are needed. The misfit of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” kills a family he does not know after a hectic highway chase. When asked why he is killing them, he responds with the titular, “a good man is hard to find.” For O’Connor, such a coldly delivered sentence is not merely rhetorical, but is a confirmation that the world of the south, underneath its sycamores and moss-draped facades, is a world of real danger – the southern way of mannerisms is a way of maintaining that world and keeping dangers at bay, rather than trying uphold some mythical “gentility.”
Faulkner’s south, likewise, is a highly complex world where people struggle with the dynamics of the Southern identity. At the end of Absalom Absalom, Quentin, the main character is asked why he hates the south. Quentin responds “’I don’t hate it,’ he said, ‘I don’t hate it,’ he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” Quentin’s repetition implies he does hate the south, but for complicated reasons. The expectation that Quentin live up to the myth exposited by Weaver masks certain realities that are difficult to deal with internally. Likewise, Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, ends with Ignatius fleeing New Orleans with the bohemian Myra Minkoff, his ostensive opposite, to New York City. Like Quentin, Ignatius is simultaneously enabled in poor behavior by the south, but feels a deep aversion to it as well. Instead of reforming himself or changing his behavior, Ignatius flees, spreading his toxic ideology and behavior like a virus.
Through the gift of the south’s literary legacy, we can see a clear diagnosis and cure for society’s ills. The disease is nihilism, the cure is not to flee into preposterous populism or a mythical south, but to affirm the reality of Faulkner, Toole, and O’Connor’s south – one that is simultaneously touched by a certain mysterious charm and with untold danger and precarity. The response is a gentility of the soul, but in response to soulless conditions, not because of an unhealthy and unconsciously racist ethos of “gentility.” The problems facing the south are real and since southern nihilism is a disease of the soul, restoring the economic conditions of yesteryear would be a nostrum. The solution is psychic and within all peoples, southern or not. The south is dead. Long live the south!
Featured image is Old sidewalk street name tiles for Constantinople Street, New Orleans.