A Confederacy of Dunces (kudos to John Kennedy Toole)

John Kennedy Toole wrote the now cult-classic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces in the early 1960s; it concerns one Ignatius J. Reilly as a sort of modern-day Don Quixote. It’s a great read full of colorful characters, with laugh-out-loud episodes woven throughout its 400 page narrative. Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. Unfortunately, JKT wasn’t able to accept the award, as he had committed suicide 12 years earlier at age 31, having had the manuscript for the book rejected over and over and over. He likely suffered from myriad inner demons who mingled with his despair over the book’s rejection, resulting in his suicide; but his death did not deter his mother from relentlessly continuing to seek a publisher who saw the talent its pages clearly reflected. Walker Percy, a novelist himself and instructor at Loyola University in New Orleans (the setting for Dunces) was able to get Louisiana State University Press to publish the book in 1980.

Dunces is one of my favorite reads ever, the type of book that can be opened to any page and invite settling in with it all over again in such a piecemeal manner, though multiple complete reads are included with such personal favorites.

The Book’s title refers to an epigram in Jonathan Swift’s essay, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

Given our current political turmoil, pre and post-2016 election, I am compelled to wonder who, if anyone would aptly fit the title of “genius” when surveying today’s political landscape. Certainly, I can identify the dunces. They infest our country’s landscapes to every horizon. Guess who I consider to be the biggest dunce of all? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

Okay, that was easy. But as to that “genius” person. Hmm. Don’t think we have one to fit the bill. Seems we indeed have a confederacy of dunces, that’s for sure, with scandal, corruption and cover-ups simmering away, with each day appearing to point toward a need for accountability. But the dunces rule. And the dunces who were hoping to rule don’t have the means–nor the will, I say–to put the Dunce Master and his Dunce acolytes and lackeys in their proper place, that being the political dumpster, to be hauled off into the legislative, judicial and executive landfill, to be further hauled off on a barge and anchored in the middle of the Black Sea, or the Dead Sea, or perhaps packed into a Titan rocket and blasted into deep space, where no one can hear them scream for mercy.

Nah. Not going to happen. Too many dunces, and not just infesting our the corridors of power, but the general public as well. After all, it was a confederacy of dunces that, according to my calculations, number at least 137,000,000 who either voted for our Dunce-in-Chief, or didn’t bother to vote at all.  We are a country with 200,000,000 registered voters, according to Politico. Clearly, then, two-thirds of that number did not vote for the dunces running the entire Roman farce that has ensued since November 8th, 2016.

But, as the saying goes, “you get the government you deserve,” and so Dunceville it is. It’s rather twisted up, no?, turned on its head, if that Jonathan Swift quote is taken at face value. There certainly are no geniuses in our current state of affairs. But plenty of dunces in confederacy against…well, one another.

It’s quite the absurdist situation. Cannon fodder for the satirical elements of late-night /cable television. But it is tragi-comic, as far as I’m concerned. Joke about it, but it is inherently, dark, derisive laughter, not belly laughs, that’s for sure. I’d prefer laughing at something that ultimately provides for a sense of enjoyment, relief, especially with a touch of genius behind the fun house storytelling.

For me, that’s Ignatius J. Reilly, from the brilliant mind of John Kennedy Toole, whose genius was indeed confronted by the dunces at publishing houses that rejected his impassioned effort to give the public something to provide relief from everyday stresses, really laugh about and thoroughly enjoy, page by page. We could use more of Toole’s kind, right here, right now.

And that’s no joke, folks!

About jharrin4

mass communication/speech instructor at College of DuPage and Triton College in suburban Chicago. Army veteran of the Viet Nam era.
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