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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