Living in the Confederacy of Dunces

When A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole came out nearly 45 years ago, it must have been one of the strangest books ever written. Its protagonist, Ignatius C. Reilly, is truly unique: a highly educated philosophical social critic who happens to be an obese, unhygienic, hypocrite who brings chaos to any situation. He lives with his mother in New Orleans, writes manifestos and essays in his bedroom, obsessively hate-watches mindless TV shows and movies, and fervently cultivates a reactionary traditionalism while excusing his own obvious failures. He routinely denounces all aspects of modernity, recommends reading Boethius and Batman, and insists on wearing a green hunting cap and red flannel shirt.

Ironically, the closest thing Ignatius has to a friend is his ex-girlfriend Myrna Minkoff, a progressive social justice warrior and amateur psychologist who gives lectures in empty halls about the power of sexual liberation and takes it upon herself to “help” Ignatius. Although diametrically opposed in their philosophical outlooks, the two often work together (or really, compete against one another) to take down the system. It’s out of spite for Myrna that Ignatius organizes an unsuccessful strike at a clothing factory and tries to bring about world peace by queering the federal government and military.

Although Ignatius’s character was completely unfamiliar to audiences of yore, the supporting characters were, and still are, uncomfortably familiar. While Toole is admirably inclusive and diverse, he didn’t hesitate to indulge in more than a few stereotypes. To list only a few, there is Burma Jones, a lazy and mischievous black janitor who is constantly in and out of jail for vagrancy; Darlene, a blonde bimbo with ambitions to become an exotic dancer; Miss Trixie, a crabby old woman never allowed to retire from her job; and Dorian Greene, a flamboyant gay man who hosts sex parties at a house. The reader can tell Toole developed these characters with warmth and sympathy, but on the surface, he seems to exhibit every kind of prejudice: racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia—and, if one includes Ignatius, fat-phobia.

In all likelihood, it was this odd yet hilarious combination of characters, along with Toole’s Southern heritage, that led to the book’s posthumous release. Even in the early ‘60s, the novel offended the progressive sensibilities of publishers based in New York. It took a fellow writer from Louisiana, Walker Percy, to agree to read the manuscript and advocate for the book’s publication nearly a decade after Toole committed suicide. As if to satisfy the demands of divine justice, the book went on to become a bestseller and win the Pulitzer Prize for that year.

However, what really makes A Confederacy of Dunces a classic worthy of being read today is how closely and how well it predicts the future—our present. Even if Ignatius was a complete anomaly in his own time, there’s a whole generation of Ignatiuses today: vain, overeducated young adults who can’t hold a job, live healthily, own any property, or maintain a friendship or romantic partnership, and yet often feel proud of themselves. Like Ignatius, they feel qualified to deliver their opinion on a whole range of issues they have no clue about. Without a doubt, if Ignatius existed today, he would likely be an online influencer hosting a popular YouTube channel or podcast that spoke to disaffected men like himself.

This isn’t to say that today’s influencers are quite as pathetic as Ignatius—after all, it takes some effort to create content and market it—but it’s fair to say that there’s an eerie parallel at work. Instead of constituting a productive class of people who can integrate with their community, so many young millennials and older Zoomers make up a passive rabble who lack the capacity to feel shame about their condition. And when circumstances force them to go out and do something, they will do as Ignatius does and make impassioned rants on Tiktok about the innumerable injustices of the modern world.

Ignatius is an insane person living in a sane world (though he would claim the opposite); modern-day Ignatiuses are still insane, but they now inhabit an insane world that reinforces mental illness.

In most cases, additional formal education seems to backfire in this cohort’s development. So many young adults are pushed into colleges and graduate schools, only to become less practical and more intransigent about interacting with others. The lessons they learn about in college are not necessarily toxic, but the vanity that accompanies the diploma certainly is. Ignatius feels that his graduate degree precludes any need to serve other people, but instead means that people should serve him. He can’t even bother with doing the typical work of a professor. When his students start to complain about him, he calls them idiots and dumps their ungraded exams out the window.

Naturally, today’s political and cultural discourse is increasingly being warped by this phenomenon. Although Ignatius would technically qualify as a traditionalist conservative, pushing for a monarchy and lamenting the lack of a “good authoritarian pope” in charge of the then pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, he is effectively a political radical with the same anti-establishment views as any other partisan. He may wax philosophical on his views, but much of it is incoherent and serves to compensate for his own impotence. The same could be said of young adults now who often espouse contrary principles in their politics and culture. A few might commit to political action, but the great majority of young people mainly post memes and rants, paradoxically displaying shocking degrees of naivety and cynicism.

That said, today’s ideologues are much worse off the Ignatius. Whereas the latter could at least leave his house (albeit reluctantly) and go on escapades, confronting the world face-to-face, the former are tethered to their devices, forever oblivious to everything around them. They don’t have amusing adventures, nor do they really have meaningful encounters with other human beings. All physical reality is mediated by technology and the utopian delusions of these twenty-first-century loafers thus remain blissfully intact.

So, what eventually becomes of Ignatius, let alone a whole generation of Ignatiuses? Without giving away the ending, it’s safe to say that Ignatius’s gross incompetence prevents him from achieving any kind of stability or self-sufficiency, and his megalomania puts him at odds with the people who care for him like his long-suffering mother. Put simply, Ignatius is impossible to live with, work with, or even talk to. And it’s only when this truth is finally expressed clearly and loudly that Ignatius realizes his days of loafing are over and finally begins to take action. In other words, after escaping from his own delusions or crass pop culture for so many years, Ignatius finally experiences a much-needed reality check.

Thus far, this reality check has yet to happen for Ignatius’s spiritual descendants. In similar fashion to Ignatius, they lose themselves in delusions and mass entertainment, which are now enhanced and facilitated by high-speed internet and digital media. As such, it falls to their loved ones to intervene and help them come out of their literal and metaphorical caves. Unfortunately, many of their parents have given up on them, and the “friends” they make in the virtual world are just as lost as they are. Perhaps in the past, some teacher or professor would take it upon himself to say something, but this would be considered hateful and judgmental by current standards.

Not surprisingly, this peculiar form of mass neglect carries significant consequences for society. When it’s one person in a book, the result is an entertaining comedy. When it’s millions of people, the result is mass depression. Ignatius is an insane person living in a sane world (though he would claim the opposite); modern-day Ignatiuses are still insane, but they now inhabit an insane world that reinforces mental illness. Any hope for reform, then, depends on the few sane people coming together and confronting this issue and helping their troubled brothers and sisters to resist the madness. They can take their cue from A Confederacy of Dunces, which may be a dark comedy overall, but still allows its characters to experience some modicum of redemption, even Ignatius. This suggests that it’s possible to redeem those lost souls who are currently frustrating themselves and others as they refuse to cope with reality. Hopefully, it wouldn’t require the same drastic measures as the novel, but it will nevertheless demand great effort, and firm grip on the truth, and a deep reservoir of love.