Monthly Archives: June 2009

Meaningful Praise and A Lesson Learned

I just received feedback on one of my chapters from Toole’s close friend Dave Kubach. Toole met Kubach in Puerto Rico—and it was on Kubach’s typewriter that Toole began composing A Confederacy of Dunces. I sent him the chapter on Toole’s first year in Puerto Rico. Needless to say, Kubach’s opinion of my work was very important to me. Only he could verify the accuracy of my portrayal.

I was pleased when he wrote, “I’m happy you gave ample evidence of [Toole’s] fundamental decency of character….There is little in your chapter I would quarrel with.” And I was overjoyed when he finished his letter with:

“Your use of his letters home to chart his development as a comic writer is a really useful contribution to understanding how Confederacy of Dunces got written, a valuable move away from the general fascination with the details of biography. Quoting substantially from his letters home also gives us a useful sense of the texture of John’s life in Puerto Rico.”

But Kubach also doubted one section of my chapter, with which I admittedly struggled. He wrote, “I’m not sure John was so much the detached observer of Company A you make him out to be.” In the chapter on 1961 I characterize Toole as “operating on the social margins of Company A, waiting for an opportune moment at any party to inject his trademark wit.” In some ways this description was a compromise between the conflicting character assessments several other members of Company A offered of Toole. But in the end I think it was something more than a mere compromise.

Allow me to digress. I was at a party yesterday with my wife’s family and I found myself listening to several conversations. Periodically I would interject a witty comment, never seeking center stage. I was acting my usual self during a social gathering. But as I became more self-aware of my behavior within the context of the party, the words that I wrote about Toole seemed applicable to me. I too was “waiting for an opportune moment to inject my wit.”

And so it occurred to me that when I wrote about “Toole within the social context of Company A,” I may have let my own personality shape my description. If so, it was not intentional, nor was I cognizant of my actions. But it makes me wonder, does the biographer, in the act of attempting to write objectively about his subject, fight against writing his autobiography? Or, in the subject he chooses, does he in some way actually write his autobiography without knowing it? Scholars might be abhorred at such a proposal. But do we not find traces of the biographer in every biography?

I suppose the best biographies are those that keep this violation to an untraceable minimum. But I also venture to guess that any biographer would admit, perhaps in the rarest of moments, his subject eventually becomes interwoven with his own life, and thereby (either consciously or subconsciously) becomes part of his autobiographical narrative. And thus, such an exchange becomes tempting grounds for subjective assessment. It is a fine line to walk, especially with a subject who is not alive to right the wrongs of a biographer.

For me, this lesson was an important one in the subtleties of the potential pitfalls in any biography. Thank you Mr. Kubach.

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A Conversation with JKT’s Cousin

The other day I interviewed JKT’s cousin (on his father’s side). Never sustaining a consistent familial relationship with the Toole side of the family, JKT reconnected with his cousin at several points in his life. The information he shared with me offered intriguing insight into the final moments of Toole’s life, details that contradict some commonly held beliefs about his last days. I will not go into the details of the conversation here. After all, I must keep something for publication.

However, I will say that his cousin, unlike most people I have interviewed for this book, did not focus on Toole’s wit or humor. As a biographer, I tend to look for consistency in recollections. Expectedly, I have found Toole’s wit and humor, as evident in his novel, the qualities of his personality that his friends find most memorable. But my conversation with Toole’s cousin highlighted a different aspect of Toole. And expectedly so. Their exchange was based on brief, but important interludes in Toole’s life. It seems Toole contacted his cousin when he sought a confidant who could relate to the challenges of life in the Toole household.

My conversation with JKT’s cousin reminds me of the complexity of that elusive thing we call personality. Each one of us refines and displays behavioral characteristics, which eventually become iconic of our person. Even with our closest friends and family, social dynamic may determine our behavior. But at times, we may seek counsel with friends or family members on the margins of our circle–the friend of a friend, or a distant cousin. Do we gravitate to such individuals because we can momentarily discard the mask in which we live and find a more authentic discourse? And after doing so, do we maintain that authenticity? Or having refreshed ourselves, do we once again don the mask, because it is where we are most comfortable?

In the face of such questions, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman echo in my ear:

“Why drag about this corpse of your memory lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?” Emerson asks.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Whitman proclaims.

And so, I recognize that every contradiction needn’t be resolved, for the complexity and the idiosyncrasies of the individual, as Emerson and Whitman argue, is a condition to celebrate.

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Suicide as Psychache

Past conversations of Toole’s suicide have been dominated by conjectures of the psychological stressors in his life that he could not resolve. Of course, Thelma Toole (his mother) blamed Robert Gottlieb, the editor at Simon and Schuster. For her, the trauma of a two year correspondence resulting in nothing drove him to madness. Nevils and Hardy (authors of Ignatius Rising) suggest Toole suffered from both a conflicted sexual identity and an overbearing mother, which eventually resulted in his escaping through self-destruction.

But in regards to pondering Toole’s suicide, I have found this question of “why” to be an unsatisfying pursuit. In the end, a single condition, such as a conflicted sexual identity, seems an inadequate reason for suicide. Not to say that such a condition might not contribute to such an act, but labeling a root cause of such a complex act reeks of oversimplification.

I understand the impulse. When someone dies we want verifiable facts, whether it is a biological or psychological condition; we believe the facts will help us cope. But in terms of suicide, these facts rarely achieve a fulfilling answer to the question of “why?” Of course, Toole’s last words might help us better understand, but Thelma destroyed the suicide note that Ken wrote just before he attached the hose to his exhaust pipe; his last words are forever lost.

To better understand the last moments in Toole’s life and his final decision to take his life, I find the writings of Edwin Shneidman most helpful. He is the founder of suicidology and he coined the term psychache. In his book Suicide as Psychache: A Clinical Approach to Self Destructive Behavior he offers this explanation:

All our past efforts to relate or to correlate suicide with simplistic nonpsychological variables such as sex, age, race, socioeconomic level, case history items (no matter how dire), psychiatric categories (including depression), and so forth were (and are) doomed to miss the mark precisely because they ignore the one variable that centrally relates to suicide, namely intolerable psychological pain; in a word, psychache.

I can already hear the critical reader muttering, “aren’t we just playing semantics here.” Perhaps. But in this case the semantics mean something. To evoke the term “ache” suggests a physical-like pain. This carries a more substantial societal meaning than conditions deemed “emotional.”

Imagine after a battle a soldier’s arm begins to hurt, yet there is no apparent physical injury. The physical pain becomes so overwhelming it consumes his every waking moment. He cannot think, he cannot sleep, he cannot breath without an all-consuming pain penetrating through his arm. And let us also assume doctors have no drugs that relieve him of this pain. Eventually, he might consider and perhaps desire an amputation. His actions to relieve his pain would be drastic, but understandable. The reason for the amputation is not the battle, but rather the insufferable pain. And ending his arm’s “existence” is not escapism, but a desperate measure to end his suffering.

So why should we not use the same sympathy and understanding when we discuss suicide, in this case, Toole’s suicide?

As I consider Toole’s tragic end, I find more meaning in understanding his final decision as a way to relieve his overwhelming psychological pain—not the end result of a diagnosable condition. Discussions of the trauma of artistic rejection or conflicted sexual identity in relation to his suicide are disingenuous until we address this notion of psychache. Indeed, the greatest tragedy of the story is not how he committed suicide, but rather that he felt there was no way to cope with the pain that consumed him. His end was awful, but his suffering leading up to that final moment must have been equally so.

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Toole and Pragmatism

At the time of his death John Kennedy Toole had a small book on his bookshelf titled Pragmatism and American Culture. Most likely this book came from his days at Columbia University, where Pragmatism had substantial roots with William James offering his eight-lecture series on the topic at Columbia University in 1907. Over the past few days I have been reading these lectures of Williams James as a preface to reading Pragmatism and American Culture and an exercise in pondering the educational foundations of Toole.

In the lectures, William James takes to task the two oppositional schools (rationalism and empiricism) that vehemently damned the Pragmatic method. He argues that all of the abstract or factual minutiae of philosophy must find a pragmatic connection to the actual or real individual experience in order for it to have value. Ultimately, William James claims a descent from the ivory tower to consider the lives of the average person a necessary task for any true philosopher. It was a sentiment that may have resounded with Toole who, after a few months of PhD studies at Columbia began to question the pragmatic value of his studies. It seemed so disconnected from the experience of life that was so colorful in both reality and fiction writing.

Pragmatism may have influenced his writing of A Confederacy of Dunces as well. While readers tend to focus on Ignatius (how could you not?), I have always agreed with Walker Percy in that Burma Jones is Toole’s greatest literary character. And perhaps it is because Jones is a pragmatist. Consider the following passage from lecture four “The One and the Many.” In discussing the simultaneity of both unity and multiplicity in the world James writes:

“…the pragmatic value of the world’s unity is that all these definite networks actually and practically exist. Some are more enveloping and extensive, some less so; they are superposed upon each other; and between them all they let no individual elementary part of the universe escape. Enormous as is the amount of disconnexion [sic] among things (for these systematic influences and conjunctions follow rigidly exclusive paths), everything that exists in influenced in some way by something else, if you can only pick the way out rightly.”

Throughout Confederacy, Ignatius seeks to control these parts. He strives to be the center of Fortuna’s wheel; he seeks to unify parts of this New Orleans world—through his attempts to mobilize rebellious mobs. For certain readers he becomes the driving force turning the fates of every character. But if William James were reading Confederacy I suspect he would find Burma Jones a superior philosophical character to Ignatius. Jones, through his slightly abstracted distance from the world (which his sunglasses and smokescreens signify) he is able to see the simultaneous disconnection and interconnectedness of the New Orleans world. He does not end up the victor in the novel because of fate, but rather because he picked “the way out rightly” with the subtlety of a pragmatist.

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