Just how fat IS Ignatius?

by doctorquinn

Today’s little riff or rant, I realize, fails to live up to its title. I’m still working on that. In the meantime, what I think today is:

Sander Gilman’s chief argument in Obesity is that obesity has meant different things through history, and he breaks history into the Western intellectual history scheme we’re accustomed to: ancient before the Greeks and Romans, the Greeks and Romans, the Medieval, Enlightenment and Renaissance, industrial and present times, I suppose–I haven’t gotten that far. Gilman read religious scholars, physicians, health fanatics, and cites cases from literature that have endured in medical literature and the educated minds of people who have thought about obesity.

Some of the histories made a distinction between corpulence and obesity, with corpulence being viewed as a sign of health. The thing that interests me most in reading this book is the point made by many of the people Gilman cites that the young body bears the burden of excessive weight, whether corpulence or obesity, better than an old body does. With age, the weight the body once hoisted about without experiencing limitations in mobility, energy, or other general discomforts, becomes unmanageable.

In his discussion of Medieval cases and authors/scholars, Gilman doesn’t mention Gargantua. He doesn’t mention Ignatius, either, although he is well aware of him. Rabelais’s breathless descriptions of what it took to clothe, feed, amuse, and just generally provide for Gargantua extra-human appetites, is a hilarious catechism that demands the appreciation of exaggeration gone wild. Ignatius has a lot in common with Gargantua. Gargantua was a giant and a king, and his enormity was redoubtable, respectable, extravagant, and wild. Most of what I know about Gargantua and Panagruel I know through Mikhael Bakhtin’s explanation of the Medieval world through Rabelais. Book 1 of Gargantual and Pantagruel is among the books I’m reading simultaneously. I’m confused about what the titles of the books are, and exactly how many of them there are. The books I downloaded to my iPad and just called Gargantua and Pantagruel, and there are, I think, 5 of them.

I resolve right now to stop being fuzzy about the things I don’t remember in detail–at least in these notes. It’s just going to make an editing nightmare at the end of the project if I don’t. I’m going to look up what I’m not sure of. Starting now. I just looked. I do have 5 illustrated books called Gargantua and Pantagruel on my iPad, plus another book just called Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Anyway, what started me to thinking about this is Toole’s description of Ignatius as huge–and yet he’s not really huge in the representations of him I’m familiar with. Some of the funniest parts of A Confederacy of Dunces are the descriptions of Ignatius’s body lumbering through the hall in his nightshirt in the shotgun house in the Irish Channel, and being hoisted on a worktable in the Levy pants factory, and then being left on his own to gingerly struggle off of it. Ignatius’s respect for his body–the seriousness with which he takes his personal safety and assumes that everyone else shares–is funny because Toole describes him as fat, and evergrowing in the book. We don’t revere  what Ignatius saw as his redoubtable dimensions.

I find Toole’s description of Ignatius a bit like Rabelais’s description of Gargantua–to be understood as exaggeration. This is so delicate. The characters in the book are as real as a New Orleanian can get. Utter verisimilitude, and yet Toole uses exaggeration to describe them. This device is part of what creates the understanding of New Orleans and the people who live there. This is the essence of Toole’s project. Can your mind accept the contradiction of exaggeration and truth at the same time? Without wanting to iron out the gnarly contradiction? Joel Fletcher quips in Ken & Thelma; The Story of A Confederacy of Dunces, that “almost everybody in New Orleans is eccentric. Eccentricity loses its meaning there” (p. 48). Yes. The city that care forgot is also the city that time forgot, and the city that eccentricity forgot. And all this forgetting is not for real, because in fact in New Orleans, the city where the dead are always with us because their bodies are buried in cities within the city above the ground, much is forgiven, but little is ever truly forgotten.