Saturday, April 2, 2011

Theology and Geometry

"What the United States needs is Theology and Geometry." - Ignatius Reilly, Confederacy of Dunces

John Kennedy Toole's tragical-comical character, Ignatius Reilly, can't seem to get out of his own way. He wreaks havoc upon everyone he meets, he can't keep a job, his relationships always go awry, and he finds himself in the most compromising of positions, and all of this through no fault of his own-so he believes.

We bought this book because it was recommend to us by our good friend April. I have just finished reading it and I must say that it was intriguing. Probably the strangest thing I have read since David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.  Walker Percy wrote the introduction. In it he said he found it passable to begin with but then it grew on me. I agree, the oddity of the characters and events was a little hard to digest but for some reason, by the time I finished the first quarter of the book, I really wanted to know about this pugnacious, disgusting, gluttonous, slothful man- Ignatius Reilly.

About halfway through, I took a break and researched the author, JK Toole. The author's bio on the back page of the book interested me in that he grew up in the deep south, (New Orleans-where we used to live and the Big Easy is really one of the main characters), received a Phd, became a professor at a New Orleans college, and died all before the age of 32. Both of his books were published posthumously. He committed suicide at this young age after Confederacy was rejected for the fourth or fifth time by publishers that kept telling him, "the story isn't about anything." He drove to Mississippi from New Orleans after withdrawing $500 from the bank- reportedly leaving thousands of dollars in savings, rented a cabin, ran a garden hose from the tail pipe of his car to the cabin and slowly asphyxiated. The publishers had it all wrong. A Confederacy of Dunces is about something. At the very least it is about  "nothing" and what happens when lives lose their shape (Geometry) and their belief in something (Theology). At its worst it shows that nothing much has really changed since the 1950s in America. Science is replacing Sense, frequently people are jumping from one cause to another in a frantic search for meaning. A false sense of Truth handed down from the generation before has lost its efficacy as a "social hammer" to beat in good behavior but even now the blows fall all the more rapidly.

In his own way, through the Reilly character, Toole was struggling with his own issues - a domineering mother whose concern for her social status in New Orleans was veiled as concern for her son. Is it not odd that she is responsible for Confederacy being published after her son's suicide? A book that has as its focal point the dysfunctional relationship between a doting mother and a slothful son? Toole had a largely absentee father whose work-a-holism/ethic was a veil for concern for his son. In the book, Ignatius' father no longer existed and was referred to by his wife as "Mr. Reilly".

But even through all the inanity, absurdity, and insanity of the novel, Toole speaks directly to the real problem he saw in American culture in the 60s and even into today. The lack of something solid to hold on to - Geometry - and the lack of something to believe in - Theology. We wonder why young Americans don't vote, don't leave home and live life!; we wonder why families are disintegrating, why we fill our lives with rush inducing speed technology. We wonder why personal relationships have been supplanted by words (or acronyms) sent through the air.

It is because we've left the concrete things in life - Geometry and Theology- behind for something we can make for ourselves, something posing as safety.

Ignatius Reilly was desperately trying to fashion his own safe world wherein everything that went wrong was some outsider's fault, paranoia becomes self-preservation; stuff becomes security and psychology (or psychosis) becomes the fulcrum of relationships. In the 60's, the Ignatius Reilly characters of the world may have been rare. Today there are Reilly-s are everywhere.

Politics is now passe and those that participate in it are mistaken in their fervent belief that it is Geometrical or Theological; that it is real.

We don't need a new president - not one named Newt for sure - we don't need a larger growing economy - not one built on the nothingness that is our DEBT - and we don't need any more Reilly-s refusing personal accountability for their actions.

What we need are personally accountable, real men and real women who know that their faults are not the world's doing. We need Geometry and Theology or we will end up like Ignatius Reilly, searching desperately for purpose and peace and finally ending in... well you'll just have to read the book.

1 comment:

  1. The secrets of understanding creation are embedded in geometry. For example, the point identifies an exact location in space yet it has no dimensions and therefore has no physical existence. Thus if you touch a surface with the tip of a needle you are covering an infinite number of points. Yet every measurable physical structure is a conglomeration of lines connecting one non-existant point to another. Thus the point is a geometric key to understanding the concept of G-d creating something from nothing.