I Am a Strange Loop: The Life and Times of John Kennedy Toole

Here is the intro to a review essay:


Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces. Cory MacLauchlin. Boston and New York: Da Capo Press, 2012, 319 pages, $26.00 hardcover.

The book is not autobiography; neither is it altogether invention. While the plot is manipulation and juxtaposition of characters, with one or two exceptions the people and places in the book are drawn from observation and experience. I am not in the book; I’ve never pretended to be. But I am writing about things that I know, and in recounting these, it’s difficult not to feel them.

No doubt this is why there’s so much of [Ignatius] and why his verbosity becomes tiring. It’s really not his verbosity but mine. And the book, begun one Sunday afternoon, became a way of life. With Ignatius as an agent, my New Orleans experiences began to fit in, one after the other, and then I was simply observing and not inventing . . .

John Kennedy Toole, cited in Butterfly in the Typewriter, pp.178-179

We are all “strange loops” but perhaps none more so than John Kennedy Toole. His life’s narrative is a Möbius strip of irony layered upon irony, a loop of consciousness that had a deep seated self-prescience heightened by our presentism; a consciousness that continues to writhe, twist and fold back upon itself, throwing up a raft of self-referential and feedback paradoxes that concern the nature of the self or the soul.[1]

Where does the boundary between the protagonist George Arthur Rose (Hadrian the Seventh, 1904) and his creator Frederick Rolfe (a.k.a. Baron Corvo) lie? The same question can be asked of a handful of other twentieth-century literary titans, including Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and Yukio Mishima. Joseph K. has been taken to be Kafka’s alter ego in Der Prozess (The Trial, 1925), as has Ulrich in Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities, 1930–42), and Kochan for Mishima in Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask, 1949). To this very select group one must add John Kennedy Toole and his creation Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces (1980/1981).

One cannot help but feel that one is communing directly with Toole when Ignatius opens up his feverish letters with “Dear Reader,” a style of writing that displays a conceptual precision and biting observation that is more plausibly Toole than the whimsy of Ignatius.  This autoscopic[2] phenomenon had particularly deep implications for Toole, clearly exacerbated by a prevailing cultural antipathy to an autotelic[3] conception of aesthetic experience. This Gordian knot of the autoscopic and the autotelic presents a philosophical minefield for any would-be biographer.

With this in mind, Cory MacLauchlan’s new biography judiciously and deftly fills the lacuna between the low-grade psychological speculation that marred an earlier biographical (René Pol Nevil and Deborah George Hardy’s Ignatius Rising, 2001)[4] and the unabashedly affectionate but still informed memoir by Joel Fletcher entitled Ken and Thelma: The Story of A Confederacy of Dunces (2005). The former, an exercise in “farthing” journalism, shamelessly rides on the coattails of Confederacy. The latter was issued as a promissory note, awaiting someone with the right motivation and finesse to come along.

The discussion that follows is very much in keeping with MacLauchlin’s own methodological stance, sidestepping the hackneyed trope of the troubled artist: “I neither aimed to diagnose him, nor cast him in the mold of the tortured artist” (MacLauchlan, 2012, pp. xiv, 216). The body of discussion falls broadly into two sections. In the next section I discuss the notion of autoscopia as it relates to literature, discussing the “blurred” sense of self between the author and his creation.  The section that follows focuses on the notion of autotelic art, the idea that art should not answer to any extrinsic considerations, political or economic. This scaffolds the publishing backstory to Confederacy and the role of the didactically inclined editor – Robert Gottlieb – the then head of Simon and Schuster and an avatar for a broader cultural malaise. The closing section offers a few concluding remarks.


[1] Hofstadter, 2007, pp. 101-102. “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose for a life beyond” (Toole, 1981, p. 194; Hofstadter, 2007, pp. 9-10).

[2] “Autoscopic”: from the Greek autos (self) and skopeo (looking at). A dream-like apprehension of a duplicate self. Other literary names that are invoked in connection with autoscopic phenomena include Dostoevsky, Goethe, Hoffmann, de Maupassant, de Musset, Nabokov, Poe, Richter, Shelley and Stevenson (Mishara, 2010b; Sforza and Blanke, 2012).

[3] “Autotelic”: Greek autos (self) and telos (end). A self-complete artifact that doesn’t depend on any extrinsic considerations.

[4] As MacLauchlin summarizes it: “[T]hey also depict Toole as a man suffering from an Oedipal complex, suppressed homosexuality, alcoholism, madness, and an appetite for promiscuity” (MacLauchlin, 2012, pp. xiii-xiv, 214-216). Myrna writes to Ignatius: “Great Oedipus bonds are encircling your brain and destroying you.” (Toole, 1981, p. 156). Even a clinical psychologist such as Mishara resists the idea of diagnosing Kafka’s supposed schizophrenia on the basis of his literary work (Mishara, 2010a, p. 24).