The first time I saw a hot dog cart in the French Quarter, I embraced my English nerdiness and exclaimed to everyone, "Oooo Oooo. Confederacy of Dunces! Ignatius! Let's get one!" Though my request was returned with quick disregard, this moment sums up my experience bookpacking with A Confederacy of Dunces. Simple, yet sublime, connections between my reality and the novel's fantasy.
The author, John Kennedy Toole, fills the novel with constant references to real streets and areas of New Orleans, so when I first read the book in Southern California, I couldn't quite envision the world Ignatius, the main character, moved through. The places were insignificant to me, and names such as Canal St. and the Quarter were just empty signifiers. However, this all changed when I arrived in the city and began to see the same streets that Toole refers to in Ignatius's story. As I became more familiar with the structure of New Orleans (the street organization, the public transportation, the culture of different parts of the city), I began to piece together Ignatius's world. Things that seemed insignificant during the first read became immensely meaningful. I saw the hipster/la-di-da culture of the artists on Pirate's Alley, the hustle and bustle on Canal Street, the party life on Bourbon, and the plethora of people in costumes. And as I began to see the Ignatius's world, I began to empathize with his world view. While reading his controversial comments in So Cal, I thought Ignatius was simply a pretentious complainer; it was quite amusing. However, upon experiencing particular parts of New Orleans's culture, I was able to understand and sometimes even sympathize with Ignatius's thoughts. Here are some of the places I connected with Ignatius's account:
"I guessed that the residents of the area were still in bed recovering from whatever indecent acts they had been performing the night before. Many no doubt required medical attention: a stitch or two here and there in a torn orifice or a broken genital. I could only imagine how many haggard and depraved eyes were regarding me hungrily from behind the closed shutters" (230).
Technically, it is unclear whether or not Ignatius is specifically referring to Bourbon Street here, but the combination of balconies and flying cans fits the bill pretty well. Throughout the novel, it is described as quite the rager with a high stripper population, but those characteristics didn't stand out to me too much. I was actually unfamiliar with Bourbon St's reputation prior to seeing the place, and I imagined a world similar to the Las Vegas strip. Upon arrival, I soon came to the conclusion that Toole accurately characterized the street as a haven for debauchery. A festoon of dance clubs, bars, and anything else related to liquor, Bourbon is definitely one of those places where inside secrets/stories are created. Upon walking within one block of the street, the scent of trash and overnight puke overtake the senses. T-shirts donning sexual innuendos and Mardi Gras beads with phallic emblems can be found at every convenience store. The graphic content of the street was quite unsettling, and I did not feel comfortable taking pictures of the artifacts for this blog.
I honestly felt a similar disdain and discomfort as Ignatius while walking down the street. Booze and drunkenness do not draw my interest, and from the moment of first scent I wanted nothing to do with the street.
Because New Orleans has so much alcohol and cigarettes and other "vices" readily available, the city must have a large impact on the development of teenagers' opinions regarding these entities. I feel like the lifestyle would lead people down one of two paths: a lover of these things or a hater of these things. Ignatius's disdain towards alcohol must come from a constant exposure and a corresponding repulsion to the intense party scene of places like Bourbon. And after walking down the street a couple of times, I can say that I share Ignatius's opinion of this place.
"He had read in the morning paper that a ladies' art guild was having a hanging of its paintings in Pirate's Alley. Imagining that the paintings would be offensive enough to interest him for a while, he pushed his wagon up onto the flagstones of the alley toward the variety of artwork dangling from the iron pickets of the fence behind the cathedral…[He] viewed the oil paintings and pastels and watercolors strung there. Although the style of each varied in crudity, the subjects of the paintings were relatively similar" (243).
There is an interesting "artsy" culture in New Orleans. Now, I am not referring to the "starving street artists" who look like their livelihood depends on how many paintings they can sell in a day. Instead, I am referring to a group of people who come to the streets, looking very clean cut and hip. They paint and draw and write and play music in the streets, yet their outward appearances give the impression that their livelihood is independent of how much artwork they can sell. This second breed of artists are the people who work at the corner of Pirate's Alley and Royal Street. Just like the women in the novel, artists hang their work on the cathedral's fence, and each artist's work is distinct from the others.
New Orleans is a historically artistic city, filled with wonderful music and literature and art. But these hipster artists and the city seem to be disconnected. Although the ambiance of this part of NOLA is not as bougie as the women's club in Ignatius's story, these hipster artists differ from the demographic of the other street activities. Coming from LA, I thought this part of the Quarter was pretty cool. In fact, some of our teammates even got personal street poems (How bougie/artsy is that??). I thought it was all very fun and very cool that this place had such fine artistic roots. But I can easily see how someone like Ignatius would criticize these people. They must be people like Edna, frustrated by the routine of their upper-middle class lives and are seeking a romantic awakening through art. And for Ignatius, living in the shotguns of Magazine St. As a lower class citizen, it would be quite easy to be disgusted with these "artists" who are disconnected with the reality of city living. Ignatius does not like the bougie, and I empathize with him.
Ignatius represents a wonderful and different perspective on New Orleans culture. A Confederacy of Dunces illustrates this city’s diversity of culture more than any other book we’ve bookpacked with. Even though Ignatius is contentious, he is insightful. He is a free thinker, and the remarks he makes are mostly objectively true. In fact, Ignatius is very observant. Because he is not bound by any sort of New Orleans groupthink, his insights are actually perceptive, and he exposes nuances of the city that may be passively overlooked. By walking through the same streets and parts of town as Ignatius, I can no longer deem his outlandish claims as outlandish. Instead, the novel forces me to really look into what goes on in the city and analyze the routine within its rambunctiousness.