Sunday, March 1, 2015

Pamuk and Neoplatonism

This is only marginally related to A Confederacy of Dunces. I just enjoyed the novel My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. One of that novel's main themes is the nature of art and its relation to Islam. It is clear from the philosophical ideas espoused in the book that these Islamic illustrators had been influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas. Confederacy's use of Neoplatonism is Pamuk's connection to this blog.

In "Red," set in the 1590s, the Ottoman Sultan wants his illustrators to create a book with illustrations using the new artistic techniques being pioneered by the western Renaissance. Because of the traditional proscription against idols, many Muslims are suspicious of any representational art. Those illustrators who do create representational art often follow a Platonic theory of representation. You should not draw the horse that is in front of you; you should draw the ideal horse as God envisions it. Illustrators should not have their own individual style but should try to follow the old masters as perfectly as possible. Old illustrators who have mastered their art will even take a stylus and poke out the lenses of their eyes and blind themselves. They then create illustrations from memory, holding in their minds the ideal leaves on the ideal trees. The plot revolves around the disruption in society stemming from the introduction of empirically driven, western artistic techniques.

A Confederacy of Dunces also draws on some Arab influences. I posit in my Dialectic of American Humanism that Toole learned his Neoplatonic ideas and his astrological personality characteristics from Paul Oskar Kristeller, a professor at Columbia. Kristeller was a scholar of the Italian Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino. With regard to Ficino's theories of personality, Kristeller looked favorably on the research of the art historian Erwin Panofsky. Panofsky showed that Renaissance astrology was influenced by the Arab astrologers such as Abu Masar, who created a system of personality characteristics influenced by the stars. Both Ficino and the Arabs held Neoplatonic ideas. By way of Kristeller and Panofsky, Toole used the Arab characteristics of the "child of Saturn" when crafting the character of Ignatius Reilly. In Confederacy, however, this Neoplatonism is mocked in the funhouse mirror of New Orleans Carnival.

I do not necessarily fully understand what Pamuk is striving for in his book, but he seems to treat the Neoplatonic worldview with more respect than Toole does. That having been said, there is a full awareness of the merits of both the more Aristotelian, empirical worldview of the West and the other influences on Islamic culture from China and the East.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Best of John Kennedy Toole Scholarship #8

As I said in June 2013, I would like to offer an annotated bibliography, one citation at a time, of the best of the scholarship on Toole's Confederacy that is findable via MLA Bibliography (as opposed to obscure). Here is item number eight:

Citation: Simon, Richard Keller. "John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy: Fiction and Repetition in A Confederacy of Dunces." Texas Studies in Literature & Language 36, no. 1 (1994): 99-116.

Annotation: This is a solid article, but it is a very dense and complex article, so every sentence should be read with care. I may be butchering the subtlety of his concept, but Simon uses the concept of repetition throughout the paper, so it is useful to define it. Repetition seems to be an echoing of a previous work by the work under study. It does not necessarily imply that the earlier work influenced the author of the later work, or that the author of the later work intended said work to be a parody or to reference the earlier work. Nevertheless, repetition does seem to hint at parody or literary reference. Simon shows that Walker Percy’s Moviegoer is a repetition of some of the texts of Soren Kierkegaard, in particular Kierkegaard’s Repetition. He then sees A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy) as a repetition of Moviegoer, which allows him to make this rather amusing sentence: "Toole's story is a repetition of a repetition of Repetition" (100). To outline the contents: Simon begins the article with a rapid-fire list of other authors and works that may have influenced Toole, including Don Quixote, Gargantua, Gulliver’s Travels, Tristam Shanty, Joseph Andrews, and Gone with the Wind (100). The comparison of Confederacy with Moviegoer (102, 110-111, note on 114) is thorough and compelling. Simon then explains (105-106) how some readers have interpreted Confederacy as a hoax written by Percy. The comparison of Confederacy to the Consolation of Boethius is less compelling (108-109). The three-way comparison of Confederacy, Moviegoer, and Repetition is not compelling as something that Toole may have intended, but it is still interesting (113). The identification of Ignatius with Fortuna herself (113 note 1) is very good. The most unfortunate part of the paper is the theory that Toole’s suicide was planned as part of his repetition of the earlier works which contemplate suicide (100, 104). Considering his family history of mental illness, this idea is the one poor part of an otherwise strong paper.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Ideas for Papers on John Kennedy Toole, the Occasional Series, Part 22

Thesis #22: Ignatius and H.P. Lovecraft

I have to admit, even after long study of Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, there are some aspects of the tale that are still beyond my understanding. One has been Ignatius Reilly's fascination with destruction and apocalypse. I think I now have the beginning of a connection, and it is tied to the phrase "wrong theology and geometry." According to the interview that Robert Byrne gave to Carmine Palumbo, Toole got that phrase from Byrne, and Byrne got it from H.P. Lovecraft (see the discussion of this in my paper Evidence of influences on John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces," including Geoffrey Chaucer, page 7 in version 2.0).

I personally have never read H.P. Lovecraft. However, in the December 18, 2014, New York Review of Books, Charles Baxter has an essay discussing Lovecraft in relation to the new annotated volume of Lovecraft's writings. The essay is freely available online at this URL:

The passage from the essay that caught my eye and made me think of a deeper connection to Ignatius Reilly was this one: "As for Lovecraft, who died in 1937 at the age of forty-six, he never really grew up. 'Adulthood is hell,' he once wrote in a letter." That certainly describes Ignatius Reilly. And Reilly fantasizes about violence and destruction, much like a goth fan of Lovecraft. I could say more, but I don't want to write your paper for you.

Thesis: Discuss the psychology of Ignatius Reilly in comparison to the themes present in the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Best of John Kennedy Toole Scholarship #7

As I said in June 2013, I would like to offer an annotated bibliography, one citation at a time, of the best of the scholarship on Toole's Confederacy that is findable via MLA Bibliography (as opposed to obscure).

In August of 2013, I offered #2, admitting that there is a small crowd, all of which could be #2. I think that with #7, we are finally past the tie for #2, so this article is not part of that group. Here it is:

Citation: Kline, Michael. "Narrating the Grotesque: The Rhetoric of Humor in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces." Southern Quarterly 37, no. 3-4, (1999): 283-291.

Annotation:This article explores the mechanisms within Confederacy that generate its humor. Kline argues that the grotesque elements are not enough to carry the “extended narrative humor” (284). He uses the concept of metonomy, which he describes as the figure "responsible for the reader's perception of referential relationships of causality ..." (285) He then outlines the different narrative threads of the novel and shows how they interact. Humor is generated by the reader’s inability to foresee unusual plot connections—metonym mismatches—which are breaks in the causal chains. The reader’s pleasure comes from the balance between the dynamic plot and its grotesque disruption (288). Ignatius, he points out, is responsible for each mismatched situation. He identifies four disruptive operators: disproportion, decontextualization, irony, and inconsequentiality (289). He sees the ending as less a happy ending than “a problematic mythos of Spring …” (286). Like Clark, he points out that Ignatius has a limited understanding of Boethius, and that the narrative itself refutes Ignatius’s limited view with a deeper understanding of Boethius (287). I find Rowan Atkinson’s theory of physical comedy (in the documentary called “Funny Business,” 1992) to be more useful in discussing the novel’s humor, so while I do not agree entirely with his theory of the mechanism of the humor, this is a solid article that touches on many good points.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

I am behind the times, Pugh revised his essay

Back in May, I listed as #5 in my rank ordering of John Kennedy Toole research an essay by Tison Pugh from 2006, see May 2014. Unbeknownst to me, Pugh had published in 2013 a book which contains a revised version of the essay.

The new citation is: Pugh, Tison. "'It's prolly fulla dirty stories': Queer Masculinity and Masturbatory Allegory in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces." Queer Chivalry: Medievalism and the Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature. Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

I have glanced over the new essay to verify that it is in fact a revision, but I have not read it closely. The book as a whole makes an argument about southern culture and literature, and the amendations of the Toole essay seem to be focused on integrating it within Pugh's new, larger thesis. But a couple of details I did note: Pugh now states as a certain fact that Toole was gay, and instead of calling what Toole does in the novel "queering medievalism," in which queering isn't necessarily homoerotic, he now calls Confederacy pseudo-homosexuality. While the evidence does not disprove this position, I haven't seen undisputed positive proof for it either. Interesting that the book was published by Louisiana State U. Press, which also published Ignatius Rising, a book which was criticized by those close to Toole for questionable behavior by the authors and which also takes the position that Toole was gay.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review of Reference Book entries on John Kennedy Toole and Confederacy of Dunces

Although searching the Web and using Wikipedia has often displaced going to a library and using the reference collection to look things up, scholars still trust published reference books more than freely available Web resources. But that does not mean that every entry in a reference book is excellent.

Below is a review of the entries on John Kennedy Toole and Confederacy of Dunces from several reference books.

Berman, Milton and Tracy Irons-Georges. The Eighties in America. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2008.

The article on John Kennedy Toole is poorly written and largely dependent on the Nevils and Hardy book.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale Research Company.

This reference source has excerpts from articles about late 20th century or early 21st century literature in English. There are two volumes that have entries relating to Confederacy of Dunces.

volume 19: This entry contains excerpts from: Walker Percy’s introduction, book reviews from Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, NYT Book Review, TLS. These are representative of the initial reception of the novel by critical readers. No scholarly criticism here.

volume 64: This entry includes large excerpts from the scholarly articles by McNeil and Simmons (for citations, see Other References from my annotated bibliography of Toole research). It also has book reviews for Neon Bible. While reading these excerpts might give the user some ideas about the novel, I do not recommend using the scholarly excerpts in a paper, because they give different interpretation of the novel than the originals. For example, the main thesis of the McNeil article is not included in the excerpt and the reader would misunderstand McNeil without going back to McNeil's full article.

Magill, Frank N. (Frank Northen), and Tracy Irons-Georges. Cyclopedia of World Authors. 4th rev. ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.

This article is good, but it was written before Fletcher's Ken and Thelma (2005) was published. It takes ideas from McNeil's 1984 article on Toole's use of reverse satire.

Travisano, Thomas. "The Confederacy of Dunces." In Masterplots II: American Fiction Series. Edited by Frank Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1986, I-319-324.

The summary and perspective are good but not excellent. The entry misses some aspects of the book. Travisano is correct that Confederacy has a traditional comic structure. The bibliography is very poor and should not be used.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ideas for Papers on John Kennedy Toole, the Occasional Series, Part 21

Thesis #21: Myrna as Leftist Humanist

My work with Toole's Confederacy of Dunces and Ficino has not caused a huge buzz of activity surrounding the topic, or at least, not a buzz that I can hear. One aspect of Confederacy and Humanism that I did not explore in the "Dialectic of American Humanism" paper, and which I had expected to appear when the chatter went viral, was the issue of more politically and socially leftist versions of 20th century humanism. I am very disappointed in all my blog followers (wait, I have no blog followers!) that I have to bring this topic up myself.

In my Dialectic paper, I discussed the influence of Paul Oskar Kristeller on John Kennedy Toole. I cited the work of James Hankins. However, Hankins also studied the ideas of Eugenio Garin, an Italian leftist, who formulated a more culturally leftist form of philosophical humanism. In Hankins's essay, "Two twentieth century interpreters of Renaissance humanism," he compares Kristeller's ideas to those of Garin. That essay is found in volume one of his opus, Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance.

Within Confederacy, Myrna and her more socially leftist worldview stands as a counterweight to Ignatius and his Neoplatonic worldview, both offering a critique of mainstream American culture. This counterweight is somewhat similar to the counterweight Garin offered to the ideas of Kristeller.

Thesis: Discuss the possibility that Myrna and her worldview are a carnivalesque version of Garin's humanism. You could even speculate on why I chose not to include Garin in my own paper on Toole's use of humanism in Confederacy of Dunces.