dunces

Picaresque

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

(Jonathan Swift from “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”)

Do you ever go on a Google Safari?

This may look like a conjoining of two popular search engine names but really my meaning is the popular and ubiquitous meaning of the first word and the literal meaning of the second.

So, it may start by recalling a phrase or quotation or, in this instance, a title of a book, and I’m curious as to its origin or context or literal meaning. The book is the only work published by the author, John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.

This was a book I’d judged by the title back in – whoa! the 1990s, I reckon, when Penguin issued a series of modern classic novels at an introductory bargain price. I wasn’t disappointed.

The phrase used for the title came to mind this morning after reading the news, but in particular the readers’ comments which are invited below many of the news items. I will admit that I have commented on items myself though I hope I haven’t been typical of these commenters. It’s a healthy sign of freedom and democracy that we are allowed to express ourselves publicly even if we wrongly equate our opinion with that of the author’s. A moment’s thought would tell any reasonable person how wrong this is likely to be so they might discard their certainty before going in search of the truth. Yet vanity and pride overwhelm, so generally people will choose ignorance over correcting themselves.

So, discovering the title comes from Jonathan Swift rather than The Holy Bible or Shakespeare, and being happy with that, I find a term I wasn’t familiar with but ought to be: Picaresque.

Essentially, Picaresque is a literary genre which deals with the lovable rogue, in particular someone from the lower orders in society, though in a broader sense anyone swimming against the popular tide. I love this genre and find such persons, whether fictitious or real, interesting.

In human nature, I feel there must be a “gene” which compels us to move with the herd. You can see its possible “evolutionary advantage”, can’t you? The downside is, amongst other things, people are informed by a narrow section of news outlets – somewhat bias driven for cynically commercial reasons, we get hemmed in by “party politics” – mostly self-serving and unrepresentative of ordinary citizen’s needs or views, and a largely out-of-date and devalued education.


The author, John Kennedy Toole’s life story is a sad one. Having written A Confederacy of Dunces – a brilliant and funny debut novel, I thought – he failed to get a publisher interested in it. He suffered depression and took his own life at the age of 31.

It was his mother, an influential figure throughout his life though not always a welcome one, who championed the novel in her son’s memory and eventually had it published. Later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It reads like a good story in its own right and although there is a play, I don’t know if anyone’s made or thought of making a film of it.

Though the Safari could’ve gone on, I chose to end it there.

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