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literature

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Toole, John Kennedy (1936-1969)  
 
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Toole's festivity is evident in the carnival of eccentrics that he assembles under the circus tent of A Confederacy of Dunces. They might be divided into exploiters and their helpless exploitees, but for the fact that the oppressors wield no real power and the exploited invariably are as much the victims of their own stupidity or laziness as they are of the abuse of others.

Thus, while Mrs. Levy, who has taken a single correspondence course in psychology, may take on as her personal project the rejuvenation of doddering Miss Trixie, in actuality the only one who profits from the arrangement is Mrs. Levy herself, who finishes feeling all the more superior to her husband in terms of social awareness and commitment to helping others. And however ardently Myrna Minkoff may preach a gospel of sexual liberation and social justice, she is invariably taken advantage of by the supposed idealists, her support for whom she advertises in a series of highly self-aggrandizing letters to Ignatius.

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Likewise, while the reader may sympathize with hapless Officer Mancuso as he is daily tormented by his precinct sergeant, much of the novel's comedy comes from the ridiculous disguises that call attention to him as he works "undercover," and from his unerring ability to attempt to arrest the wrong person. Only Burma Jones, the jive-talking janitor who delivers a running commentary on the inequities of the American social system from behind a pair of dark glasses and a cloud of cigarette smoke, can escape being labeled hapless or self-deluded, but his motivating desire is not social justice, but simply to avoid being arrested on a vagrancy charge.

At the center of the circus is Ignatius J. Reilly. Far from being its ringmaster, however, Ignatius is notable for overshadowing everyone else in terms of the magnitude of his foibles. Ignatius, who professes a particular regard for the tranquility and austerity of the medieval nun Hroswitha and for the Roman moralist Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, is educated well beyond the attainments of any member of his immediate society, and is a startlingly original social critic. But he is so self-indulgently lazy that his intelligence is invariably employed to rationalize his own irresponsibility rather than to effect any real social change.

Words cascade from him as he rants against such "horrors of modern life" as canned foods, Greyhound Scenicruiser buses, technicolor movies starring perky film actresses like Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds, the rock and roll gyrations of teenagers on the television program "American Bandstand," and "that dreary fraud, Mark Twain" (whose Mississippi narratives are the antitheses of Toole's own). He is moved to interact with other people only when forced by his mother to find employment or when his self regard is insulted by his college nemesis and would-be seducer, the self-proclaimed "social radical" Myrna Minkoff.

Ultimately, Ignatius is as much a victimizer as a victim. He exploits his mother financially, terrorizes his hard-working but mild-mannered supervisor at his first place of employment, daily consumes the stock of the mobile hot dog stand that he tends as his second job, is indifferent to the arrest of an elderly man who attempts to defend him when he is accosted by a policeman who suspects him of aberrant activities, and even coerces a junior high school panderer into watching his cart while he catches a matinee at the local cinema.

At the same time, however, Ignatius is continuously put upon by the less imaginative for his failure to conform to their narrow expectations. Early in the novel he is nearly arrested in a department store simply for looking odd, and the novel concludes with him narrowly escaping being forcibly committed by his mother to a state mental hospital. As Ignatius writes in his journal (at what the reader must remember was the height of the Civil Rights Movement), "In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary."

Toole's is a world of dunces, none of its inhabitants proving capable of clear sightedness or the most rudimentary act of self-realization. For Toole, Fortuna's Wheel spins round and round, making this a world without stability or any permanent values.

Contrary to the teaching of Ignatius's spiritual mentor, the Roman philosopher, Boethius, who sought consolation or transcendence of flux through a stoical philosophy, all one can do in Toole's world is immure oneself to human idiocy and enjoy the outrageous spectacle that it creates. If, as Ignatius laments, "the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste" have indeed gained ascendancy over humankind, the reader can only admire the fervor with which they are worshipped, even at times by Ignatius himself.

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