Monday, January 25, 2010

A Confederacy of Merry Wives

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

-Jonathon Swift


In college I briefly dated a girl named Claire who was obsessed with A Confederacy of Dunces.

On our first date I borrowed my roommate Bill's Oldsmobile and we tried to go to a Jamaican restaurant. The restaurant was in downtown Minneapolis, and so we tried to park in a parking garage, but Bill's window got stuck in the rolled down position. The backseat of Bill's Olds was perpetually filled with CDs, VHS tapes, books, homework, probably an old television, some Christmas presents and a case of Ramen, so we couldn’t very well leave the window rolled down, lest his stash be ransacked. 

So, instead of Jamaican food, we drove back to Macalester and she treated me to Subway using her vast collection of Subway stamps. While we ate she told me all about John Kennedy Toole and how he had committed suicide and after his death his mom had found his manuscript and sent it all over to try to get it published. Eventually it was published and won the Pulitzer. Claire had been on a tour of his childhood home and taken the Ignatius J. Reilly tour of New Orleans visiting the colorful locales described in the book. This is exactly the kind of nerdiness I adore.

This was just before Christmas and she bought me a copy of the book so that I could read it when I was in Ecuador studying abroad the next semester. I must have read it at least four times. Back to back to back to back. It was my link to the States. It was my solace and Ignatius J. Reilly, the Quixotic Falstaffian antihero, was my best friend.

Ignatius really is a lot like Falstaff. And the Jonathon Swift quote in the front of the book, from which the title is derived, reminds me especially of the production of The Merry Wives of Windsor that I attended this weekend.

Falstaff is broke and being a jolly thief and rapscallion, he comes up with a plan to get money by seducing the wives of two of Windsor’s wealthiest gentlemen to steal from them. His plan is almost immediately betrayed to Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page by two of Falstaff’s former servants. They were angry that he fired them (because he was broke) and they wanted revenge.

Ignatius, in Confederacy, is himself in search of money, and in every situation he gets himself into, the people around him laugh at him, and then they abuse him. After his humiliations Ignatius finds solace in his Big Chief Notebooks, where he expounds upon the theology and geometry lacking in the rogues and philistines he’s forced to interact with.

But Falstaff is a social being. He adores sack and the pursuit of fun and one gets the impression that his devious diversions are merely that: diversions. Here is a man, who when caught in a lie in Henry IV Part 1, exploded the lie, exaggerated it further and further until he had entertained everyone so much that they forgot he was a dishonest coward. Or they didn’t care.

This must be why some of the critics consider the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor to be a lesser manifestation (some even take the character’s inferiority as evidence that the play could not have been written by Shakespeare at all). In the final act of the play everyone gangs up on Falstaff. They trick him into meeting Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page in the woods dressed as a deer, then they fool him into thinking that he’s stumbled upon a fairy gathering. Dressed as fairies, they pinch and torture him and then, after he realizes they’ve made an ass of him, they really tear him a new one:


Mrs. Page: Why, Sir John, do you think, though we would have thrust virtue out of our hearts by the head and shoulders, and have given ourselves without scruple to hell, that ever the devil could have made you our delight?

Ford: What a hodge-pudding? A bag of flax?

Mrs. Page: A puff’d man?

Page: Old, cold, wither’d, and of intolerable entrails?


Evans: And given to fornications, and to taverns, and sack, and wine, and metheglins, and to drinkings and swearings and starings, pribbles and prabbles? (5:5)


To which, Falstaff sadly says:


You have the start of me, I am dejected… Use me as you will. (5:5)


When I first read this I did not read it as that pitiful, I thought he was merely conceding. “Yup, you got me. You win.” But in the performance, Falstaff played it contrite, like a puppy who was being admonished. I felt so sorry for him.

Well, screw all those self-righteous pricks in Windsor. I wish Falstaff had boned your wives and taken your money, cause at the end of this play I get the impression that he’s going to go off and amend his wicked ways. But who wants Falstaff to amend? This is Falstaff! He’s a proud, ingenuous troublemaker. It reminds me of those wretched, unauthorized Calvin and Hobbes stickers on the backs of retarded cars that show Calvin kneeling in prayer before a cross. Christ! Someone stab me in the face. As long as there is trouble to be made, I want Calvin and Falstaff making it!

SPOILER ALERT. In case you haven’t read A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius gets away in the end. He’s rescued from imminent committal to a mental institution by Myrna Minkoff, and the two drive away from New Orleans. He’ll be out there forever criticizing banal artists and forcing stray cats into his hot dog cart’s bun warmer while his valve opens and slams shut. Ignatius is undefeatable because we never have to see him reformed on the page.

It’s a sad ending to see Falstaff outwitted by the mediocrity of the Merry Wives’ mischief, and it’s even worse to think that these characters of short consequence would ever teach a lesson to someone of such mental and physical profundity as Sir John Falstaff.

I don’t think Falstaff has to be played as pitifully as he was in the production I saw Saturday night, but Shakespeare sure didn’t leave him a lot of wiggle room… He barely speaks at all at the end of the play.

For my part, I’ll freeze Sir John as he was in his prime. Like one of those Good Ones that dies young. Leaving behind only a glimmer of genius in a single posthumously-published novel. Their lost time on Earth to be lived out in the perfection of our imaginations like so many fond memories of unrealized love.


When Claire and I saw each other the next fall, she had graduated and I screwed things up royally (as I frequently do when a girl likes me). But I still have the copy of Dunces that she gave me. It might be the only book in my collection that I’ve never loaned out to anyone else.

And I probably never will.

No comments:

Post a Comment