Conservatism as titillation

5 12 2018


You can talk about John Kennedy Toole’s novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, from many angles, but here I wish to focus on the main character Ignatius J. Reilly’s views on modernity and how they are manifested in the narrative. As a brief introduction, Reilly is portrayed as a nee’r-do-well living in early 1960’s New Orleans who has failed to launch at the age of 30. He seems unable to hold down a job and protects himself from the world through his eccentric dress and constant excuses for failure. With more education than common sense, Reilly’s criticisms of his time are constant: entertainment is decadent, the Church is rife with heresy, sex is an ever-present abomination, etc. Instead of withdrawing into a cloister or at least walking away from the city, Reilly continues to plop himself right into the fray of things he despises. Like the proverbial gawker at a car crash, he simply can’t look away from that which he pretends to despise.

This is best witnessed through Reilly’s constant consumption of movies and television. In spite of his lazily jotted screeds against modernity in favor of medieval principles and  Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy,  Reilly consumes the media of his time religiously. His general reaction to modern culture is to guffaw an “Oh my God!” for all to hear. He hates the way the youngsters dance, he shows up at the movie theater only to register his hate of this actress or that scene, and so on. His nemesis throughout the book, an eccentric radical intellectual from New York named Myrna Minkoff, is his only real interlocutor who he vehemently opposes but can’t stop communicating with. Reilly thus comes across as someone who defines himself by what he hates, perhaps out of frustration with life itself. It is an easy cop-out to say that one was born at the wrong time. For those who always have excuses, all times are the wrong times.

After a string of disasters, Reilly hits his rock bottom at the end of the novel. Though I won’t give away any spoilers, his exasperated unlettered mother upbraids him by saying, “You learned everything except how to be a human being.” For me, this was the crux of his struggle, as is the common struggle of modern people seized by one particular ideology or the other. When ideas become a barrier to duty and love, they become an excuse for sloth, distraction, and titillation. For someone who focused so much on the humanities, Reilly failed to come to terms with his own humanity. In the last scene of the novel (which I won’t give away), perhaps he begins to find it again. Only the imagination of the reader can reach a definitive conclusion.

In the age of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, it is very easy to define ourselves by what we oppose. Twitter, Facebook, etc. are our own ways of exclaiming “Oh my God!” in the crowded theater of online eyes on pixels. In some ways, this started pre-Internet. Speaking only of American conservatives, I remember when talk radio and Fox News were the first forms of indignation as entertainment in recent memory. Then there was the advent of the “South Park conservatives,” followed by the emergence of the Alt-Right and 4chan. When critique ceases to be constructive and instead rejoices in mocking and drawing lines in the sand, it’s at that point that one is cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Perhaps the best way to defeat that which we hate is not to consume it. We may be getting so bogged down in a world that we oppose that it is dragging us down with it. I am not saying that no critique is warranted, only that one should ask at what price is one opposing the decadence of the current society. Do the ends justify the means? Are you just “feeding the trolls”? If we get satisfaction purely from critique and laughing at the “normies,” is that not our only reward?

I am not a conservative by any means, but I still see myself at times in Ignatius Reilly. Perhaps we all need to find our own ways to leave our failed situations, and reconnect with our humanity in little, unromantic ways.





%d bloggers like this: