Friday, January 6, 2012

The Occasional Series of Ideas for Papers on John Kennedy Toole, Part 11

Evelyn Waugh and Toole, part 1, Ritual Scapegoats

There is solid evidence that John Kennedy Toole was exposed to, and may have been influenced by, the writings of Evelyn Waugh. In Joel Fletcher's memoir about his friendship with Toole, Ken and Thelma, he writes that he and Toole shared a fondness for both Flannery O'Connor and Evelyn Waugh (16). Another friend of Toole's, Nicholas Polites, was quoted by Randy Sue Coburn as opining that “Toole’s ambition was to be a Southern Evelyn Waugh …” (Washington Star, 2 June 1980, page D3). Finally, Rhoda Faust's bibliography of Toole's library includes a copy of Brideshead Revisited (Brideshead), which Faust described as "Condition: Very poor, pages darkening and falling out" (see Evidence of Influences 42).

A number of critics have interpreted Toole's vision as dark or nihilistic (see Evidence of Influences 31), but one can be negative about one's own society from a positive religious perspective, which one finds in Waugh's writings.

Sure enough, one can find themes in common between the writings of Waugh and Confederacy. Here I want to call attention to the threads of ritual scapegoat in Brideshead and their homologies in Confederacy. For example, Samgrass's book depicts the noble sacrifice of Lady Marchmain's male relatives as ritual victims "so that things might be safe for the traveling salesman, with his [...] grinning dentures" (bk 1, chap 5). Bridey himself is described in terms of being both partly animal and very alien to the society around him. "Bridey was a mystery; a creature from under ground; a hard-snouted, hibernating animal who shunned the light." Later, "He achieved dignity by his remoteness and agelessness; he was still half-child, already half veteran; there seemed no spark of contemporary life in him; [...] an indifference to the world, which commanded respect" (bk 2, chap 3). In a related theme, Brideshead portrays some women as emasculating men around them (Lady Marchmain and Celia) and gives symbolic weight to the act of male escape from suffocating female dominance: "my cuckold's horns made me lord of the forest" (bk 2, chap 2). The ending of Brideshead is positive: the small red flame is a beauty for the soul in the age of Hooper (Epilogue).

In Confederacy, Ignatius is described mostly in animalistic terms (see Evidence of Influences 22). He is alienated from contemporary culture and is treated as a 30-year-old child. At the end of the book, he is a ritual scapegoat, whose expulsion renews the society. Toole may have been referencing the tradition of writers influenced by Frazer's Golden Bough (see Evidence of Influences 30n16), and Waugh was known to have been part of that tradition via the influence of T.S. Eliot. Confederacy features a theme of renewal after throwing off suffocating female dominance (see Evidence of Influences 23-24). Obviously, the ending of Confederacy--comic expulsion of the Saturnalian scapegoat to renew the community-- is much different from that of Brideshead, but the comparison of the two texts shows a more positive side of Confederacy.

Thesis: Compare the scapegoat and Saturnine themes within both Brideshead Revisited and Confederacy.