Leighton, H. Vernon > John Kennedy Toole Research > St. Mary's Lecture

Notes for Toole St. Mary's presentation

Title: The Dialectic of American Humanism: John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Marsilio Ficino, and Paul Oskar Kristeller, or, How my Study of Medieval and Renaissance Literature Paid Off Big Time

H. Vernon Leighton

As presented on March 28, 2012

[text in brackets is not in PowerPoint slide, but my spoken comment on the slide.]
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Viewing the novel A Confederacy of Dunces filtered through the ideas of the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino adds layers of meaning to the text not discussed before. This perspective allows one to read A Confederacy of Dunces as a commentary on the scholarly dispute over the meaning of Humanism that was taking place at Columbia University in the 1950s when Toole was there as a graduate student. This presentation will discuss the investigative principle and methods that were used to discover the connection between Toole’s contemporary novel and Medieval and Renaissance studies.


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Slide 1: The Dialectic of American Humanism: John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Marsilio Ficino, and Paul Oskar Kristeller
How my Study of Medieval and Renaissance Literature Paid Off Big Time


[I would like to start out by saying that my knowledge of medieval and renaissance literature, as well as literary theory, even at this point, is fairly shallow. So if you disagree with some of my points, please share them at the end of the talk.

Now, I showed my wife this subtitle, and she said, oh yeah, what do you mean by paid off? I haven't seen any money. So what I mean is, that I made what I feel is a scholarly discovery. Money had nothing to do with it.

This evening, I will focus my talk around two points: first, the benefit of studying medieval and renaissance literature, and second, the value of using historical methods in the study of a literary text, especially one that has not been thoroughly studied yet.

Over the last five years, I have undertaken an in-depth study of the contemporary novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Initially I had seen a connection between the novel and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. As the project grew, I investigated the apparent connections between Confederacy and medieval and renaissance literature more generally, especially the ideas of Marsilio Ficino. That investigation lead me to a completely different perspective on the meaning of Confederacy. Today I hope to show you how I arrived at my Ficino-inspired interpretation.]


Slide 2:

[Before we dive into our main points, we need to get some preliminaries out of the way. Let's start with a quick definition of dialectic. There are two main definitions of dialectic, an ancient Greek definition and a modern definition.]

{Dialectic – /dī-ə-ˈlek-tik/}

{Ancient Greek: The art of debate}

[In ancient Greece, dialectic was the term used for the practice of question and answer debate style. Plato was a master of dialectic.

[In the] 19th Century [a different meaning of dialectic developed, a dialectic where one employed]: The use of contradictions ([a] thesis, [and its] antithesis) to arrive at a higher truth (synthesis)

[Immanuel Kant pioneered this sense of dialectic. Hegel and Karl Marx adapted Kant's style of dialectic.]

[My own thesis is that ... ]

In Confederacy, one definition of “humanism” is the thesis, a different definition is the antithesis. The text critiques both [the thesis and the antithesis] and points toward a synthesis. [So I am using the more modern sense of the word dialectic. But it is interesting to mention that Ficino was a Neo-Platonist who was well-versed in the ancient Greek style of dialectic.]


Slide 3: [Let's have a quick] Review of [John Kennedy] Toole and [his book, A] Confederacy [of Dunces]

Toole was born in 1937 in New Orleans. [He was] Part of an old New Orleans family, but poor.

[His mother's maiden name, for example, was French, and she from an old French Creole family. He mother, Thelma, was actually a difficult person. She always told other people that her son was a genius, but she told him he was an idiot.]

[He got scholarships and] Studied literature at Tulane [University] and Columbia.

[He] Wrote Confederacy in the early 1960's, {sent to S & S, not published. Taught.} [and sent it to Simon and Schuster. There, the first reader liked it, but it was eventually rejected. He taught English at a small college in New Orleans to support his parents. He started to work on a PhD.]

Committed suicide in 1968. [While Thelma claimed that it was the shock of Confederacy being rejected that caused him to kill himself, that was not likely, since his suicide was over three years after his rejection. Many think it was more likely that Thelma pushed him emotionally over the edge.]

His mother and Walker Percy got the book published in 1980. [In] 1981 [it won the] Pulitzer Prize. [And it has gone on to sell about 2 million copies. Part of the success of Confederacy is this emotionally compelling story of Toole's despair and suicide. The best description of the details about Toole and his mother is Joel Fletcher's memoir called "Ken and Thelma."]


Slide 4: [Another preliminary: I will try to give a ...]

Quick Review of [the plot and basic views of] Confederacy

Ignatius Reilly [the main character, is], 30-year-old, lives [in New Orleans] with [his] mother, [he] thinks [the] medieval era [was] the height of human existence.

[Throughout the novel]

He writes angry letters to Myrna Minkoff [his not-quite girl friend who lives in New York. Myrna replies by belittling him and provoking him]. His mother, Irene, begs him to get a job. [which he doesn't want to do.]

His first job: [is as a] clerk [in the head office of a factory. He is ...] incompetent. [While there, ] Myrna goads. [him till he] Starts a botched worker's revolt. [which ends with him getting fired.]

His second job [is as a]: hotdog vendor. [where he eats most of his hotdogs himself. And while doing this, again Myrna's letters provoke him till he] Starts a botched political movement. [and again gets fired.]


Slide 5:

Quick Review of Confederacy, II

[If one steps back and views the novel as a whole, one of the most obvious themes is that the ...]

Other characters satirize consumerism and greed in modern culture.

[This includes the workers who long for consumer goods and the wealthy who are encouraged to exploit both workers and consumers.]

{Ignatius heaps scorn on modern society due to worldview. Critique valid.}

[Ignatius criticizes this culture and focuses his critique on the philosophical basis for modern culture. However,]

Ignatius is shown to be hypocritical [He enjoys the very excesses of modern culture that he decries. He refuses to participate in the career part of modern culture, but he participates eagerly in the consumption part. So the critic is himself criticized. In 1984, David McNeil called this a], reverse satire. McNeil identified as [an hegelian] dialectic. [but he didn't articulate what it was a dialectic of.]


Slide 6:

Quick Review of Confederacy, III

The Ending: Ignatius flees with Myrna to keep from being committed to [an insane] asylum.

[As for the] Other characters: [the] policeman catches [the] crook, [the] oppressed janitor gets [an] award and [a] job, [the] show girl gets her break, [the] factory owner [is] inspired to renovate [his] company, [and] Irene remarries.

[So a happy ending for most of the characters, though not Ignatius.]


Slide 7: [So with those preliminaries out of the way, let's move on to:]

The Benefits of Studying Medieval and Renaissance Literature, I

While [I was] an undergraduate In Fall of 1983, [I] took a course in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. [It wasn't that I was longing to study medieval literature: English majors had to take at least one medieval literature course.]

[Then over winter break, right after that course] In January 1984, [I] read Confederacy.

[It was] Thanks to my Chaucer studies, [that] from page one on, [I] saw Confederacy as a parody of Chaucer. [ It seemed obvious to me. There were so many potential allusions. At the time, I] Sketched a paper on the topic [I figured that if I went to graduate school, I could use the idea], then forgot about it for over 20 years. [I went on to do other things in life. So the benefit of studying medieval literature is that if contemporary texts use themes or allusions to those earlier texts (a big if), one will be able to see those connections.]


Slide 8:

In 2007, [my book club decided to read Confederacy. I decided I would find out who had written that obvious paper about Confederacy. When I discovered that no one had written the paper, I ...]

decided to write the paper

[Now, I had not gone to graduate school in literature. The only thing I knew well was that I was quite ignorant. I asked for help from as many professors as possible. And one who helped a great deal is St. Mary's own John Kerr, who was very generous with his time. Thank you, John.]

[So here are the steps that I followed: I ... ]

Read quickly the entire scholarly literature on Confederacy (which isn’t that big). [Confederacy has not been widely accepted in the literary canon. When I started the project, a search for Confederacy in MLA Bibliography only turned up 27 citations. By comparison, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow has 452 citations in MLA Bibliography and Shakespeare's Hamlet has 3,525. (I read 42 works for this part of the project, including dissertations.) I then ... ]

Read several surveys of the current scholarship on Chaucer, then some older. [Here I asked Kent Cowgill, the retired WSU Chaucer professor for advice with this;]

[and most important, I ] Conducted research in Toole’s papers housed at Tulane University, found that he had studied Chaucer. [That confirmation was crucial to the project continuing.]


Slide 9: [Now let's delve into the ]

Theoretical concerns [that I used in this project]

[As I have mentioned already, my understanding of the theory of literary criticism is weak. One of my readers, John Campbell, who teaches History at WSU, suggested that I ought to learn more about the theoretical foundations of my thesis and possible methods for the project. (John teaches a class in historical methods.) So at this time I also read a couple of introductory books on literary theory.

And here was my thesis for the first part of my project:]

My thesis: Toole intended to write a parody. [It seems pretty straightforward. But this thesis raised the  ... ]

Theoretical question: Should the meaning of a work be tied to the possible intentions of the author?

[Now, there may be important theoretical issues that I have missed, but from my readings, the theorists did not say much about exploring the intentions of the author, and actually tended to be negative about it when they did mention it.]

{1930's New Criticism: No. Later, a qualified yes. Hutcheon: Theory of Parody.} [As far as I could tell, literary scholars before the 1930s valued the context of the text, including the author's intentions. In the 1940s, the literary theory called New Criticism emphasized looking at the work alone, without its social or authorial context. Later literary theory rejected New Criticism and returned in Reception Theory and New Historicism to an examination of the work's context.

Perhaps the best current literary theory for one text referencing another text is the concept of Hypertextuality put forward by Gerard Genette. The best book that I could find on my specific thesis--Linda Hutcheon's book entitled A Theory of Parody--drew on Genette's theories of literature. And her book dealt more with Art Criticism than with Literary Criticism.

My thesis might be part of historicism, because I was looking at the possible influences on Toole from his historical context. But one might want to call it "Old Historicism" rather than New Historicism. New Historicism focuses more on the cultural politics of the time period when it was written.]

My principle of investigation: In the end, [I should ...] only use sources of themes that could have been actual influences on author. [And this principle was ...] Crucial. [to my finding the interpretation that I eventually developed.] {Example: Bakhtin.} [For example, some Toole critics have used Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of carnival in relation to Confederacy. But that theory of carnival was not available in the English-speaking world until 1965, and Toole did not speak Russian. (Actually, the theory of carnival is important to our conclusion of the dialectic, so store it back in your memory.) The theory of carnival that was available to Toole featured a Lord of Misrule who was ritually scapegoated and expelled from the community in the act of rejuvenating the community. And that is what happens to Ignatius, and it is lacking from Bakhtin's theory.]


Slide 10: {Mike's Question}

[Now for you in the audience who have some knowledge of literary theory, I would appreciate it if you could think a bit during the talk about what might theoretical help might bolster my principle and method, or weaknesses I should consider. After the talk, perhaps we can talk about those concerns. For everyone else, I would like to introduce here Mike, my barber. I was talking to Mike recently about my project, and Mike asked what I consider to be an important and astute question. He asked: why is it that people write scholarly articles about literature? What is the point? So for those of you who are not pondering the complexities of literary theory, I would like you to try to come up with your own answer to Mike's question in terms that the guy on the street can under. After some of you in the audience share your ideas, I will offer my own answer to the question.

Now, after I have put Mike on the spot here, I am afraid to think of what my next haircut will look like. ]


Slide 11: [Now let's delve into] My Method

[I would] Take a possible influence on Toole with regard to some theme, and read as much as possible in current interpretation

[ ... regardless of the date of the book where I found that theme discussed. So, for Chaucer, I read recent Chaucer scholarship.]

{Within that current scholarship use references to search for pre-1962 sources on the same theme.}

[Within the recent Chaucer scholarship, I would look through the footnotes for pre-1962 texts.]

Once [an] old text [was] found, [I would] search for how Toole could have learned about that source. If an old text [was] unlikely to have been available [to Toole, I would], look for a more available pre-1962 text.

[So, if the text that was cited by current scholarship was rare and difficult for Toole to have found, I would reject that text and look around for other texts that dealt with the same theme and that were less difficult to find.] {Then read} [ Another important point is that once I found a text, I would then read it in its entirety, not just the part that was obviously most relevant.]


Slide 12: [Let's now walk through an example.]

{Boethius and Order (and Saturn)}

[One of the big themes that I investigate in both my Chaucer paper and in this Ficino paper is the influence of the planetary god Saturn from ancient astrology. But I actually did not start out focusing on the theme of Saturn in my studies. He wasn't on my radar when I started. Instead I started with a much more obvious theme, that of ...]

Boethius—[which is] a common theme in Chaucer and Confederacy. [He] Wrote Consolation [of Philosophy].

[both the Canterbury Tales and Confederacy explicitly name Boethius, and both texts have been given Boethian interpretations. To give a brief background here, Boethius was a 6th century Roman. He was both a learned philosopher and a powerful politician. He fell from political power and wrote his Consolation of Philosophy in prison awaiting execution. As many here no doubt know, Consolation was a very influential text for medieval intellectuals.]

{Consolation: fate is under the guidance of providence.}

[Boethius argued that the immediate misfortunes of this world are part of a larger pattern of beneficient order. (Now for you Boethian scholars in the audience, modern scholars might qualify that statement, but I believe that it was the basic understanding of Consolation in Chaucer's day.)

Chaucer made a translation of Consolation of Philosophy, and Boethius is widely recognized as the philosophical foundation of the Canterbury Tales. Here is an example of how Boethius's ideas are manifest: In the ... ]

Knight's Tale: [the confusion and] Immediate disorder [drives the plot and] furthers greater order, [manifest in the] happy ending.

[So that is Chaucer's Boethian connection.

In Confederacy, Ignatius Reilly is obsessed with Boethius. He carries a copy of Consolation around and urges others to read it. This Boethian element was in fact one of the reasons that I thought that Confederacy was a parody of Chaucer's work.]

Confederacy: Ignatius’s disruptions propel the plot to happy ending.

[So in both Canterbury Tales and Confederacy, disorder drives the plot to a better order.]

{Muscatine: Saturn is the agent of disorder.}

[My research method started with those recent surveys on Chaucer. Several of them pointed to a 1957 book by Charles Muscatine. 1957 was about the time that Toole himself was studying Chaucer, so this book qualified as one that could have influenced Toole.

Here is where the historical method pays off: Looking for the Boethian theme within pre-1962 books lead me to Muscatine, and it was Muscatine who identified Saturn as a symbol of disorder in the Knight's Tale. Once I started seeing Ignatius as a Child of Saturn, many other connections from Confederacy started falling together. Ignatius has qualities of a saturnine individual, and the novel features many of the misfortunes that Chaucer had listed as misfortunes under Saturn's control.]


Slide 13: [When I started following the theme of Saturn, it kept growing until it threatened to take over my whole paper. Let's now follow the progression of this method as it led me to Toole's connection to Marsilio Ficino.]

{Applying the Method to Saturn}

Once Saturn [was] obtained from Muscatine, [I] read current scholarship [on the influence of Saturn in literature and medieval astrology], {ex. North.}

[The best recent book that I found was the 1988 book by J.D. North entitled Chaucer's Universe.]

North lead me to very old texts by John of Spain translating the medieval astrologer Alkabucius.

[This arab astrologer's ideas fitted Ignatius Reilly pretty well and were far superior to other discussions of the planetary god Saturn. I felt that I was on to something and that somehow these ideas had worked their way to Toole.]

North's citation to Alkabucius was too obscure [I felt it was unlikely that Toole could have read these old manuscripts from John of Spain, so I ... ], looked for other pre-1962 texts that discussed his ideas.

[So here was a text from the 13th century, clearly pre-1962. But the only modern avenue to it was North's citation, which was clearly post-1962. So this text did not qualify for my paper. I hunted for other texts that might have been available to Toole and that discussed Alkabucius's ideas.]


Slide 14:

{The Search for the Saturn of Alkabucius (or Alchabitius)}

I searched for other pre-1962 scholarship that discussed Alkabucius. [Here I have to give a shout out to the "Google book search", which is very useful for finding discussions of obscure topics in older books. From my searches] I found [a book by] Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl [called Saturn and Melancholy, from] (1964).

Klibansky [et al. did discuss Alkabucius, but they] also discussed Abu Ma‘šar's astrology along with Ficino’s [theory of the] Child of Saturn: [these two frameworks were] yet a better fit for Ignatius. [than Alkabucius.]

[So by insisting on an historical method, I was finding better material. But Klibansky was 1964, so it still didn't qualify.]


Slide 15:

What was so great about
Abu Ma‘šar and Marsilio Ficino?


Slide 16: [Let's digress here to discuss what was so fitting about Klibansky's material. First, let's start with]

Abu Ma‘šar’s Saturnine qualities

[Saturn is the most distant of the planets that could be seen with the naked eye by ancient astrologers, so it moves the most slowly in the night's sky. Those astrologers attributed ponderous qualities to people influenced by that planet. So here are some of Saturn's positive qualities:]

{Positive:} Loyalty, deliberation, persistence, valuing heritage

[Ignatius does not possess many of the positive qualities of Abu Masar's Saturn, but he claims that he possesses them; he claims that he is loyal, deliberate, and concerned with heritage. And here are some of Saturn's negative qualities:]

{Negative:} Haughtiness, poverty, impudence, loneliness, laziness, reversals of fortune, clumsiness

[Ignatius fits these qualities well: he is all of these things. There are further adjectives that he embodies that don't fit on this slide: trickery, gluttony, hard-heartedness, unsociability, physical decay, widowhood (his mother is a widow), and a hard life (both he and his mother complain about having a hard life).]


Slide 17: Ficino’sTwo Children of Saturn

[Before Ficino, Saturn's influence was generally seen as a bad thing. Ficino rehabilitated the child of Saturn.]

Ficino saw two types that are both Children of Saturn: The Divine and the Beastly.

[Ficino's theory was that, if you were a genius, you were divine and you were a child of Saturn. He pioneered the concept of "the Genius as the melancholy child of Saturn," and he kicked off an intellectual fad in Renaissance Europe for being melancholy. Many noble gentlemen tried to out-melancholy each other to show that they were geniuses. The fad was strong in English society at about the time of Spenser and Shakespeare. The peak of this fashion in England was a book by Richard Burton called Anatomy of Melancholie (1621).]

[In Ficino's system, the] Divine: [type was given to] contemplation, theology, [melancholy, and] genius

[Ficino really invented this divine type. Part of the reason Ficino developed this elaborate divine type was because he did his own horoscope and found that he was astrologically a child of Saturn, which at the time was mostly negative. And because he was a genius, all geniuses had to be children of Saturn.]

[The] Beastly [type]: suffers [from] madness and misfortune [and all of those negative qualities of Saturn that had been developed for thousands of years.]

[In] Confederacy: Ignatius says he is a genius, but is portrayed as beastly and mad.

[This contrast actually drives the humor of the book, and Ficino offers a powerful explanation for the title of the book. The title comes from a Jonathan Swift quote: You will know a genius because all the dunces are in confederacy against him. This title indicates that Ignatius is a genius, and Ignatius sees himself as a genius; however, Ignatius is constantly described by the narrator as beastly and part animal. His hands are described as paws 22 times in the text. Many other characters say that he is crazy. He constantly complains about his misfortune.

This finding explains why the theme of Saturn was threatening to take over my Chaucer paper. This finding was actually much better than my original thesis that Confederacy was a parody of Chaucer.]


Slide 18:

[But as I mentioned before, ] My Method would not let me just accept the Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl book.

It was published in 1964, and Toole wrote in 1963.


Slide 19:

[LEFT HAND SIDE OF SLIDE: picture of Dürer’s Melencolia ]

[RIGHT SIDE: It turns out that ... ] Klibansky was a revision of 1923 study of the meaning of Dürer’s Melencolia by Panofsky and Saxl. The P & S book turned out to be even better for Saturn. [It was spot on. It had all the necessary elements without extraneous materials. ] But [this book turned out to be inaccessible to Toole. He could not have read it directly. It was] in German.  [, and the Toole Papers at Tulane have his college transcripts. They show he was a complete beginner at German. No way he could have read it in the original.]


Slide 20: The Search for a plausible Source

Did Panofsky or Saxl write other pre-1962 books that were more accessible? Panofsky did. But not enough depth.

[I looked through many other candidates, and P & S was the best.]

If Panofsky and Saxl (1923) is the best source, how could the information have gotten to Toole?


Slide 21:

Enter Paul Oskar Kristeller

[Again, the Google book search helped here. I searched for the keywords "Panofsky Ficino melencolia", and one of the hits was Kristeller's book "The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino."]


Slide 22: [We can articulate a second benefit to studying medieval and renaissance literature here.]

{Paul Oskar Kristeller, Benefits II}

[In the 1920s, Paul Oskar Kristeller] Had studied at [the] best German universities.

[He wanted to be a philospher, and he studied under Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidigger, the best German philosophers of his day. He also studied philology and historical research methods. In the late 1920s, he was becoming known as an authority on Neo-Platonism. Now, he was Jewish, so ... ]

In 1930s, [he] fled [the] Nazis to Italy, where he made discoveries about Ficino in [the] Italian archives and rare manuscripts [collections].

[The Italian Education Ministry liked Kristeller's theories about renaissance humanism, so Kristeller was able to get a visa and a small salary to spend his time digging through old libraries and collections. He discovered many manuscripts that were unknown to modern researchers, and those documents changed our view of Renaissance philosophy. But his paying job was to catalog library resources, so one could argue that he was also a librarian.]

In late 1930s, [the alliance treaty between Italy and Germany required that Italy discriminate against Jews, and Kristeller] fled to NYC. As [a] leading scholar of Renaissance humanism, [he] was hired at Columbia.

[Here is another benefit of studying medieval and renaissance literature. Columbia University was America's center for studying both modern and renaissance humanism. Because Kristeller was the ascendant world authority on renaissance humanism, Columbia worked hard to get him a visa despite the intense competition for visas. So a word to the wise, studying medieval and renaissance documents might save your life.]


Slide 23: [How did these newly discovered documents change our view of the Renaissance? I should say that my perspective here is taken largely from James Hankins, so I want to credit him with this argument. Let's talk about]

K's Discovery: Two [different] Humanisms [One that began in the Renaissance and one that began in the 19th century. Some scholars would say that the humanistic theories of Garin were a third humanism, but I won't go into that discussion here. First,]

Renaissance [humanism]: Used classical rhetorical forms for persuasion. [It was] Anti-utilitarian

[The earlier tradition of scholasticism was oriented toward professions: law, medicine, theology for the church. In contrast to scholasticism, Renaissance humanism was anti-utilitarian and imparted the literary skills that facilitated a role in court and civic life. The word "Humanista" was in the early sixteenth-century a slang term for a professor of rhetoric, grammar, or poetry. In contrast,]

Modern [humanism that began in the 19th century was a]: Philos[ophy] of man that advocated reason and service in this world. [These philosophers saw scientific and techical advances as genuine progress. In America, these philosophers were associated with John Dewey's Pragmatism] {Dewey}

[These philosophers used the term humanism because they believed, first, to quote a researcher in this area, that Renaissance humanists “created a new philosophy which destroyed the systematic metaphysics of medieval scholasticism” (Pine 213). So the ... ]

Moderns saw Renaissance [philosophy] as sharp break with Medieval philosophy, and ...

[Second, this school argued in favor of a strong philosophical individualism and it saw the Renaissance as the point of origin for ideas of man’s radical autonomy from society and nature, in what has been called (by James Hankins) the Modernist Paradigm.]

{Individualism beginning in Renaissance.}

[In Europe, this school valued a classical education, just as the Renaissance humanists themselves had valued classical literature. Some American humanists were overtly hostile to a classical education. Interestingly, one could argue the American attitude can be seen as akin to medieval scholasticism, well, at least a little bit, because they both valued a practical education.]

[These modern humanists wanted to claim that their own break with the past was not as sharp as it seemed, and that the real break had been during the Renaissance.]

[What was important about] Kristeller [was that Kristeller] could prove {them} [the modern humanists] wrong. [with these newly discovered documents.]


Slide 24: [Back to John Kennedy Toole, what is the ... ]

The Kristeller Connection [?]

[In his landmark study of Ficino,] The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (PMF): Kristeller [specifically]  praises [the 1923] Panofsky and Saxl [book] in 1943.

[Kristeller comments that Panofsky and Saxl establish that Ficino was the origin of the melancholy genius in Western culture.]

In late 1950s, Kristeller was at peak of influence at Columbia. {Pres. of society.}

[He was very active in combating the false Modernist interpretation of Renaissance philosophy. He travelled the country and gave hundreds of public lectures. From 1957 to 1959, he was the president of the Renaissance Society of America. And on the Columbia campus, he was leading the charge against the Modernist Paradigm.]

Toole attended Columbia, studied Renaissance Lit from 1958 to 1960.

[Now there is no direct evidence of contact. Toole did not take any classes from Kristeller or work under him. Except for the hints of Ficino in Confederacy, there is no evidence that Toole was influenced by Kristeller's movement. But he did take many classes in Renaissance and early modern English literature, so it is unlikely that he was ignorant of this intellectual revolution going on around him. From Toole's Columbia transcript (also in the Toole Papers), he took courses in: Spenser, Shakespeare, two other 16th century literature courses, Augustan satirists, one other 17th century literature, one Victorian, one in contemporary English literature. But beyond this, Columbia had open lectures at that time. So even if Toole was technically enrolled in other classes, he could have attended Kristeller's lectures.]


Slide 25:

[My] Principle of Investigation [is] satisfied: This path from Panofsky and Saxl through Kristeller is chronologically possible and [in my humble opinion] seems adequate.

I then read the rest of the Kristeller book for more supportive evidence.

[Part of the method is to be thorough. Once a pre-1962 text is found, it needs to be itself researched.]


Slide 26:

[To my surprise] There were [at least] as many connections between Confederacy and Kristeller’s Ficino as there were between Confederacy and Panofsky and Saxl’s Ficino.

[This is where my research method paid off. I never would have been reading Kristeller if I hadn't been trying to establish the plausibility of Toole's access to Panofsky and Saxl's writings on Ficino.]


Slide 27: The Benefits of Studying Medieval and Renaissance Literature, II

If you find a possible allusion to a much earlier work, you will benefit from finishing the relevant texts.


Slide 28: {Kristeller's Ficino and Confederacy}

[At this point, I want to present several examples of how Confederacy connects to Kristeller's Ficino. If I discussed all of the connections, we would be here all night, so I will only give two large, structural connections, and two small-scale parallels between the texts.]


Slide 29: [Let's dive into that connection to Kristeller's Ficino.]

{Ficino's Good and Evil}

[To start out, let's look at Ficino's view of, first, evil, then, a limited goodness, and finally the highest good. For Ficino, ]

{Evil doesn’t exist, is an absence of qualities. Wrong to choose lesser joys instead of infinite joy. Lust is evil.}

[Ficino and other theologians did not believe that evil itself actually existed. All things had some goodness. So evil is an absence of good things. To him, lust is an example of evil, which is a lack of goodness. Next, moving onto limited goodness, the]

Outward life and worldly love ( [represented by] Venus) [are] better than lust, [but they are] worse than love of God.

[So an outward life and love have good qualities and are better than evil's lack of qualities. But God is the highest good, so leading an outward life, while good, is not the highest good. This worldly love is symbolized by Venus.]

Love of God (divine Saturn) is highest good: achieved via inner contemplation.

[One approaches the highest good through internal experience, by turning within oneself and rising to a knowledge of God. This contemplation is symbolized by the divine Saturn type.]


Slide 30: [Now let's move on to the]

Confederacy Parody of Ficino, I

[Evil in the book is symbolized by] Lana Lee [She], runs [a strip tease club called] Night of Joy [instead of eternal joy], sells porn [to school children], and {is} [Ignatius actually calls her] “a negation of all human qualities” [when he first meets her.]

[Next, Toole's represents the outward life with ...]

Myrna [Minkoff. She] preaches political action and sexual liberation. [And at one point, she actually says] "Open your heart to the world."

[Myrna is a parody of a successful actor in the world, though, because her political causes go nowhere, and her own sexual adventures turn out badly. Finally,]

Ignatius [is the parody of Ficino's genius child of Saturn. He] praises [the] rich inner life ([as you would expect the] divine [Saturn type to do]), but then [is portrayed as an animal, and, instead of contemplation rising to God, he] masturbates [while fantasizing about his dog.] {( beastly)}.


Slide 31: [Let's look at another parody of Ficino's philosophy that is a major thematic element.]

{Ficino's Philosophy of Love}

[Let's look at Ficino's philosophy of love. For Ficino, ]

Beauty is a sign of goodness. Love for fellow man is a precursor to love of God. {Invented "platonic love."}

[And inner beauty, contemplative beauty, is better than physical beauty, because it is closer to God. Ficino actually originated the concept of "platonic love." So whenever you say that two people have a platonic friendship, you are making a reference to Ficino. What Ficino meant by "platonic love" though, was not "no sexual contact," but a love that allows the lovers to rise above the outward life and approach the perfect love of God. As you can imagine, Ficino had a strong influence on the love poetry of the Renaissance, because being beautiful and inspiring love was almost a holy thing.

As a consequence of his philosophy, ]

Ficino wrote letters to other men filled with professions of love and semi-erotic imagery.

[Ficino felt that all relationships had some love, and all love was approaching God, and that two persons of the same sex could have this sort of god-approximating love without there actually being a physical relationship.]

Kristeller [felt it necessary to insist that] {insisted}  "Ficino was not a homosexual."

[and that all those love letters were part of his philosophical outlook.]

[Even soon after Ficino's death, critics reading his personal correspondence suspected that he was sexually attracted to men. Today, with gay rights, Kristeller's declaration that Ficino was not gay makes you think of the line in Hamlet "The lady doeth protest too much, methinks."]


Slide 32: [Now let's move on to the]

Confederacy Parody of Ficino, II

[Throughout the book] Other characters [are] suspicious of Ignatius's gender identity

[In the opening pages, Mancuso defends his attempted arrest of Ignatius because he looked like “a great big pervert”. Myna worries about his becoming homosexual, Lana Lee tells him he looks like a queer, and Dorian Greene says he looks “Like Bette Davis with indigestion”.]

In his second crusade, Ignatius conceives of plan to infiltrate armies of the world with “Sodomites.” World peace not through universal love, but with a global orgy. “Save the World Through Degeneracy”


Slide 33: [I will now show two instances where Confederacy very specifically parodies passages from Kristeller's book on Ficino.]

{Detailed parody, I}

[For] Ficino: leading a worldly life causes spiritual misery. The most miserable persons are unaware they are miserable. [So if you are having a great time and leading a very worldly life, you are secretly very miserable.]

[In] Confederacy: Ignatius insists [that his mother] Irene is miserable. [She replies] “Ignatius, I ain’t miserable. If I was, I’d tell you.”


Slide 34: [Next]

{Detailed parody, II}

“[Ficino] compares the Soul which obeys the desires of the body to the indulgent mother of a spoiled child.” (PMF 93).

[Now, I wanted to end with this item, because you could argue that this quote from Kristeller actually sums up Confederacy, because in]

Confederacy: Irene is indulgent, and Ignatius is immature. (Several critics [of the novel] blame Irene for spoiling Ignatius.)


Slide 35:

In all these cases, the parallels identify Ignatius with a carnival inversion of Ficino's ideas.


Slide 36: [Now, you may have noticed that I have not really been leading up to an explanation of the "Dialectic of American Humanism" that I see going on in the novel. Instead, I have been explaining how Ignatius is an embodiment of the ideas associated with Ficino, both his ideas about genius and other aspects of his philosophy. But I will end here by outlining the dialectic.]

{Dialectic of American Humanism}

Ignatius ([the] antithesis) offers a critique of modern humanism ([the] thesis) and the consumerist culture it supports.

[Ignatius specifically identifies this consumerism with the philosophical basis for the society. He feels that western culture has been going downhill ever since the Renaissance. So the Modernist Paradigm of humanism itself is the initial thesis, which is critiqued by Ignatius. And the novel does successfully satirize and critique many aspects of our society.]

The novel then critiques Ficino's philosophy. Ignatius is a satirized version of Ficino, [which creates a] reverse satire. [In this way, the] Antithesis [is] rejected.

[As explained above, there is a tradition in Toole scholarship begun by McNeil in 1984 of examining the doubling back of the critique within Confederacy. Though the book satirizes consumer culture, it then critiques "Ignatius the critic" by showing him to be hypocritical. McNeil calls this reverse satire. McNeil himself identified this as a dialectic, but he did not explain what it was a dialectic of.]

One could view novel as nihilistic (rejecting both types).

[The book tears down modern culture, including Myrna's socialism, but then it tears down the medieval / renaissance critique of modern culture. Nowhere in the novel is a synthesis spelled out. One could read the conclusion as a universal rejection of all options.  My conclusion, though, is that ... ]

The happy ending to the book ( [is the] synthesis) [and it] comes about when the other characters in the book ritually scapegoat Ignatius. [This ties the ending of the book into traditions related to Carnival and] Saturnalia.

[The nihilistic hypothesis misses the renewal which comes from expelling Ignatius from the community. Ignatius, through his disruption and disorder, has released some of the other characters from the ill fortune they were suffering. But then his actions threaten to cause them even more ill fortune (jail, bankruptcy). By expelling him, the characters seize an opportunity to change for the better.]

[So remember that discussion I had about theory of carnival that I asked you to remember? The theory of carnival that was available to Toole was one that featured a Lord of Misrule who is ritually scapegoated for the community to renew itself. Other critics focused on theories of carnival that are popular today, which do not have this scapegoat function. So again, sticking to a method of historical investigation has helped with my interpretation.]


Slide 37: [I offer] Two conclusions:

[My] First: [is that] Research in Medieval and Renaiss. literature did pay off. It revealed an undetected dimension of Confederacy.

[Those 27 earlier critics did not find this connection between Confederacy and Ficino. Confederacy acts out the struggle between the two schools of humanism at Columbia in the 1950s and turns that argument into a dialectic. And it was through the pursuit of medieval and renaissance literature that that fact became evident. And]

Second: Hypothesizing about author’s intentions might be productive strategy for investigating the meaning of a text.

[This method may not be based on the most fashionable theory of literary criticism, but you may find valuable connections between your text and other sources.]


Slide 38: Thank you, Questions?

Others who have helped this project:
James Hankins, Michael J. B. Allen, John Kerr, Kenneth Holditch, John Campbell, Helen Neavill, Hans Madland, Lauren Leighton, Mary White, Melissa Smith, and Joel Fletcher

[Would Anyone Like To Offer Their Own Answer To Mike's Question?]

[My answer: Compare a work of literature to a joke. Say someone tells a joke, but you don't understand what some of the words in the joke mean. Then you aren't going to get the punch line, are you? So one of the functions of literary scholarship is to help the reader "get" the text. Now, someone who says that you shouldn't take the intention of the author into account is suggesting that there are reasons why the joke is funny that even the guy who told the joke doesn't understand.]

[Comments: One audience member had taken a class from Kristeller, and he concurred with the description of Kristeller's style and views. Another audience member's father had gotten a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia during the 1950's, and his father's stories supported these descriptions.]

[Total Time: 60 Minutes]