“I refuse to ‘look up.’ Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man’s fall, his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.” With that kitchen table declaration, one of the most Falstaffian of all modern protagonists–or, as Walker Percy labels him, “a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas,” Ignatius J. Reilly, reminds his mother of man’s theological plight and of the only sensible response against the seemingly capricious whims of the rota fortunae.
In John Kennedy Toole’s comic masterpiece, and 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner–an unjust twelve years after the author’s suicide, Ignatius rails against modern life, an ideological milieu void of theology and geometry, taste and decency. While his exploits should be legendary to anyone of a literary bent, whenever he picks up one of his trusty Big Chief tablets to continue penning his manifesto, the reader can count on the most dizzying display of supercilious wit and polemic.
After a period in which the Western world had enjoyed order, tranquility, unity, and oneness with its True God and Trinity, there appeared the winds of change which spelled evil days ahead…..Merchants and charlatans gained control of Europe, calling their insidious gospel “The Enlightenment”….The Great Chain of Being had snapped like so many paper clips strung together by some drooling idiot; death, destruction, anarchy, progress, ambition, and self-improvement were to be Piers’ new fate. And a vicious fate it was to be: now he was faced with the perversion of having to GO TO WORK.
Elsewhere: In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the Negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I cannot imagine why. I must admit that this desire on their part leads me to question their value judgments.
Glorious to read his plan for world peace–riding the tiger: As I was wearing the soles of my desert boots down to a mere sliver of crepe rubber on the flagstone banquettes of the French Quarter in my fevered attempt to wrest a living from an unthinkable and uncaring society, I was hailed by a cherished old acquaintance (deviate). After a few minutes of conversation in which I established most easily my moral superiority over this degenerate, I found myself pondering once more the crisis of our times. My mentality, uncontrollable and wanton as always, whispered to me a scheme so magnificent and daring that I shrank from the very thought of what I was hearing. “Stop!” I cried imploringly to my god-like mind. “This is madness.” But still I listened to the counsel of my brain. It was offering me the opportunity to Save the World Through Degeneracy. There on the worn stones of the Quarter I enlisted the aid of this wilted flower of a human in gathering his associates in foppery together behind a banner of brotherhood.
Our first step will be to elect one of their number to some very high office–the presidency, if Fortuna spins us kindly. Then they will infiltrate the military. As soldiers, they will all be so continually busy in fraternizing with one another, tailoring their uniforms to fit like sausage skins, inventing new and varied battle dress, giving cocktail parties, etc., that they will never have time for battle.
Degeneracy, rather than signaling the downfall of society, as it once did, will now signal peace for a troubled world. We must have new solutions to new problems.
As grand as the belching, lute-playing, Dr. Nut-drinking, modern-Catholic-Church-despising medievalist (and alarmingly predictive caricature of Rad Trad Catholics), he, I dare say, is not the prophet of our times. Rather, that mores meteorologist must come from the exquisitely unadorned work of Michel Houellebecq.
In the foreword to Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen writes, “[Guardini’s] thesis is that, for the first time in history, man has absolutely no place in the universe. This alone cuts the new age away from the modern world which has gone before it….Men of classical antiquity…had a well-defined place in the universe. They took their stance at the center in the universe….Medieval man retained his limited universe of his pagan forefathers, but he cracked its shell with the Christian Revelation and thus broke through to the Godhead.”
As for the early modern man, he was told : “Follow nature: develop your personality: become cultured!….If a thing was natural, it was good. If it furthered personality, it was an absolute.” However, whom Guardini labels mass man (late modern man), now has a different point of departure: he “rejects the old confidence in and love of nature; he rejects the ideal of a full development of human personality; he is uninterested in the old culture. Man no longer feels any need to refresh himself at that spring of being–the world of nature….Nature, therefore, has no value as it is in itself; it exists solely for the sake of its exploitation and ‘humanization’ at the hands of technology….Mass man dreams of looking out upon a world which is nothing but a mechanical image of himself….For the first time in history, man lives within a world he cannot see with his eyes and feel with his hands. But he does not seem to miss the experience! His goal is not experience but power.”
Houellebecq’s characters are those who have peered into the abyss of modern life to see only the abyss of our own hearts, detached from all higher concerns, even from a vague sentimental naturalism that, at least, kept us rooted in the rhythms and limits of nature.
In Whatever, winner of the Prix Goncourt, the narrator, like Ignatius, addresses his reader, expressing a comparable disgust for modern life, though without the Ignatius-esque hope that he can (or that he should try to) provide a corrective.
The problem is, it’s just not enough to live according to the rules. Sure, you manage to live according to the rules. Sometimes it’s tight, extremely tight, but on the whole you manage it. Your tax papers are up to date. Your bills are paid on time. You never go out without your identity card (and the special little wallet for your Visa!).
Yet you haven’t any friends.
The rules are complex, multiform. There’s the shopping that needs doing out of working hours, the automatic dispensers where money has to be got….Above all there are the different payments you must make to the organizations that run different aspects of your life. You can fall ill into the bargain, which involves costs, and more formalities.
Nevertheless, some free time remains. What’s to be done? How do you use your time? In dedicating yourself to helping people? But basically other people don’t interest you. Listening to records? That used to be a solution, but as the years go by you have to say that music moves you less and less.
Taken in its widest sense, a spot of do-it-yourself can be a way out. But the fact is that nothing can halt the ever-increasing recurrence of those moments when your total isolation, the sensation of an all-consuming emptiness, the foreboding that your existence is nearing a painful and definitive end all combine to plunge you into a state of real suffering.
Unlike Ignatius, the narrator does not hope to compose a Euclidean-like systematic worldview; rather, this narrator wants to burn away the gloss, points of differentiation, in a manner that parallels quantitative-prioritizing/efficiency-producing trends of modern mass life: “To simplify. To demolish, one by one, a host of details….The world is becoming more uniform before our eyes; telecommunications are improving; apartment interiors are enriched with new gadgets. Human relationships become progressively impossible….And little by little death’s countenance appears in all its glory.”