Ugh–and Obesity is now on the horizon.
I just hate it when I don’t write clearly. I noticed that a few posts back I mentioned not understanding what a book title meant. The antecedent was unclear. It seemed that I meant I didn’t understand the title of Waugh’s Decline and Fall, when what I meant was I didn’t understand the title of MacLauchlin’s Butterfly in the Typewriter. There is a lot to criticize about the postmodern way I read Butterfly in the Typewriter. Chiefly, allowing my focus to drift from one thing to another interfered with my ability to follow the consistent thread of thought MacLaughlin set up. The book gives a clue to the meaning at the beginning with a quote from Toole himself, and then toward the end of the book the allusion to the butterfly is elaborated with what I assume is a quote on a page between sections, and introducing the chapter 12, “Final Journey.” The connection of Toole and his project to the evanescent butterfly is appropriately fragile. Understands the artistic sensibility.
I understood the title of Waugh’s Decline and Fall, or at least I did when I first read it about 40 years ago.
My university’s Irish Studies Program is contributing to my work on this monograph. The program’s director, Ryan Dye, is having a birthday soon, and he replied to my birthday wishes to say that he is reading A Confederacy of Dunces. I sent him this reply, and, realizing that it reflects some of my thinking for the monograph, I have copied most of it here, with some revision.
If you’ve read A Confederacy of Dunces, you’re probably wondering how there’s anything Irish American about it. Culturally, the people in NO are similar. You pick up on the names Reilly, and conventions or ticks in speech, such as Ignatius’s mother telling him to go to the “Greek” on Magazine to pick up some donuts. The similarity in their behaviors and irregular conventions of syntax, whatever their ethnic origin, is in the book in the description of Santa Battaglia. There’s more than a hair’s difference between Santa and Irene Reilly, who you could also imagine smudging the photo of her mother with greasy kisses, but not so much difference that they don’t understand each other completely. Santa is, of course, Italian, and Irene is Irish, but they came out of the same New Orleans Catholic mold. A New Orleans Catholic is not the same as a Boston Catholic, or a Chicago Catholic, a St. Louis Catholic, or a Davenport, Iowa Catholic. Santa and Irene are fully observed NO characters. Real people. And, oddly enough, so is Myrna Minkoff.
Ignatius is so suffused in the everlasting NO ennui–a malaise that only gives way for Carnival or entertainments–that he has completely succumbed to a New Orleans-centric “world view,” in Ignatius’s own words, in which NO is at the spiritual, geographic, and virtual center of the world, that he can’t even conceive of seriously living anywhere else. He is removed from NO. There are no circumstances under which he would leave on his own steam. This is not unusual. Lots of people are stuck to New Orleans like a big pink was of bubble gum to the bottom of a shoe. I suppose I’m one of ’em.
Irishness in New Orleans is a distinction without much meaning. It’s little more than an excuse to have another parade, and other celebrations in the Irish Channel area. You notice that the book takes place outside of Carnival or any other major celebrations, yet has a carnivalesque ethos.
But, underneath the surface of the failure to signify ethnic difference is an ineluctable catechism of hierarchy, with European French and Creole Catholics at the top, and the disposable/interchangeable Irish and southern blacks at the bottom. The characters in the book all participate in New Orleans culture–just as any visitor to New Orleans is welcome to do–it’s utopian in that way. But, in the life of the author, the family was split between the mother’s side, who were descended, in means as well as station, from established New Orleans families, and the father’s side, who were Tooles. Irish. Drunkards. Charmers. Ne’er-do-wells. Working Class. Always on the brink of bankruptcy. People whose financial fortunes were always changing. Unable to cling to New Orleans style Uptown stability and respectability. Toole got the looks of the dark New Orleanian, and the sensibility of refinement and good taste from his mother. From his father, though, he got a charm, affability, and wit that made people want to be in his company. That’s a thumbnail picture of the person who wanted to observe in writing the upside-down world of New Orleans that he inhabited with such ease, yet that demanded so much of him that he ultimately couldn’t withstand the burden.
Although A Confederacy of Dunces is absurd, it is more real than a documentary could ever be.
As far as my own trip to NO, it is delayed again, so I’m still here in Iowa. I’m trying to figure out when would be a good time to go. I could go in September, and be at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival at the same time. The weather is usually good around the time of the fest. But, it’s cooler in New Orleans right now than it is here. Maybe I will go for the first two weeks in August, and again in September. Reading, writing, and thinking right now. Chastising myself for not working on a schedule.
I can’t go on to reading Ignatius Rising just yet. I’ve already formed such a negative opinion about it, that I moved on to read Sander Gilman’s medical history of obesity, called Obesity. Gilman is a New Orleans native, with bachelor’s, master’s and PhD from Tulane. I think he carved out an area for himself in the field of cultural/medical history. I spent a few hours chauffering him around Tempe and Phoenix a decade ago or more, and he spoke to me about New Orleans, and Ignatius, and Falstaff, and the changing meaning of obesity over history. I assumed he meant over the past five or six hundred years of history, but, now reading the book, I realize he meant recorded history. I find a lot in the book to provide a relatively unexplored angle on Ignatius.