“You learnt everything, Ignatius, except how to be a human being.”
We all know the type - and if you don’t, you soon will. They exist, and if any are reading this now (statistically speaking, we have no readers, so this is unlikely) they are already running to the comments to begin a screed with their rallying cry: “Actually….”
Perhaps twitter and anonymous forums molded them into their current form, perhaps their mothers were right, and video games and Mountain Dew did deform their brains. Perhaps the world itself creates these flawed and self-righteous men through some mutation in the process that passes on cultural DNA. Yet, I posit that there is a prototype. That for all their infiltration of the technological world, for all their harping on it, I believe that the modern internet Troll is a creature from Before Online, and their type specimen is Ignatius J. Reilly of Confederacy of Dunces.
Ignatius is thirty years old and lives with his mother. She drives him around and allows him to run her life. One of the first things we see Ignatius doing is “...polishing a few carefully worded accusations designed to reduce his mother to repentance or, at least, confusion. He often had to keep her in her place.”
Her slight is “being late to pick up her son.” What her son is doing is checking out a Penny Arcade. Yes, Ignatius J. Reilly would love some video games. He’s more concerned about the state of the games than he is about the people making and maintaining them, as we immediately see in his inner monologue, in which he “...hoped that the baseball game was being carefully handled in shipment, that none of it’s little players was being chipped or maimed…” and recalls a sour stand-off with the Penny Arcade employees.
If this had been written in 2016, Ignatius would be furiously hounding the developers online before haranguing someone in a GameStop.
The modernity of Ignatius J. Reilly’s medieval worldview is staggering. It is an anachronism, something I would have thought possible only with the benefit of telecommunications technology. Everyone that encounters him is hit by the iceberg that is the exposed tip of his “rich inner life.” His self-importance is immense. He is the most important thing not only in his universe, but in The Universe.
Ignatius J. Reilly is “writing a lengthy indictment against our century,” and he's doing it without MySpace.
Nothing is his fault. When forced to seek employment, he writes a comment that might well be on a Something Awful forum or buried in a Facebook thread. “Employers sense in me a denial of their values. They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe.”
Not only is Ignatius not responsible for any failings, his failings are evidence of his superiority. His “rich inner life” intercepts and translates everything incoming so that Ignatius becomes the hero of his medieval story. He doesn’t need the internet to lie to and aggrandize for, he is an internet to himself.
Obviously he doesn’t get out much (who does, when they’re driven around by their mother?) but this is no failing, for even without an online support group, Ignatius knows that no one is worth associating with, either. He says as much, in a pair of quotes that wouldn’t be out of place if written by a Major League Gaming star during a The Dark Knight Returns review.
“...I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.”
EDGELORD ALERT. If he were a man of the 2000s, Ignatius J. Reilly would be reviewing Batman online. He likes Batman. As far as Ignatius J. Reilly is concerned, the only contemporary writings worth reading are “some selected comic books.” And Batman? Batman, that love of the internet?
“I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he’s found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.”
I rather suspect that one could navigate quite a few online forums with nothing but Ignatius J. Reilly quotes and fit right in.
Lives with his mother. Video games and unemployment. A lack of self-awareness. A love of comic books and Batman. We’ve only just begun.
What would a modern man-of-the-web be without calling people Nazis? Sure, it was probably a little more relevant in 1962, but Ignatius doesn’t fail us there, either. Not only does he call people Nazis, but, in a very “You’re tweeting for Trump” turn of events, he even manages to call someone a Nazi while seconds later dipping his toe in that particular pool. “Taken in by a Third Reich strumpet hiding her depraved face behind my very own book, the very basis of my worldview. Oh, Mother, if only you knew how cruelly I’ve been tricked by a conspiracy of sub-humans.”
We can add that new, Dark Enlightenment or Alt-Right disdain for the Enlightenment to Ignatius’s blog-worthy opinions. Except, it’s not new, since we’ve got a grandiose manchild scrawling that stuff in 1962. Ignatius P. Reilly doesn’t have a blog, he’s got Big Chief notebooks, but the result is the same. I pulled this from one of his notebooks, not a Men's Rights Activist page.
Ignatius is a writer, this is true. He doesn’t have twitter and YouTube comments to leave, he’s not watching the WJTV Facebook page to see what has offended him, but he does have letters.
The first letter he writes is at work, where he takes a particularly alt-right step he believes will improve the business of Levy Pants, saying: Levy Pants must become more militant and authoritarian in order to survive in the jungle of modern commercialism.
He starts with a racist comment, because YouTube hasn’t been invented yet. He laments his target’s “total lack of contact with reality” because psychological projection already HAD been invented at this point. He calls the man “retarded,” he gaslights him. This should have been sent to a female game developer who inserted possible gay love interests into an RPG.
Oh, Ignatius, you make this too easy. Now, if only he had some other “too much online” qualities to him, like, I dunno, being a furry?
(There is a scene where Ignatius masturbates while imagining his dog. I do not wish to include it for the sake of your sanity. If you are most curious, it is near the beginning of the book.)
What about literally using the most totally “literally” sentence in 1960s literature? To his mother, for entering his room?
“Watch out where you’re stepping, please!” Ignatius thundered. “My God, never has anyone been so totally and so literally stormed and besieged!”
Overwrought anonymous death threats for intellectual quarrels? Ignatius has written that letter to his professor.
“Your total ignorance of that which you profess to teach merits the death penalty… Although your days are numbered, you will not die as a martyr - for you further no holy causes - but as the total ass which you really are.
The excluded bit is full of obscure medieval references, a disdain for sports and socializing, and calling said professor a “pseudo-pedant,” if you’re trying to find some good stuff to post on a video game forum tonight.
A bootlicker’s love of fascism? Clearly Ignatius exists past the point where America was great, because he’d like to Make America Great Again. First, he wants to establish a Divine Right Party to nominate a candidate for president by divine right, and says things like:
“A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry…”
But don’t think that Ignatius would enjoy regular religion, no, he has called the priest in his parish a heretic. He despises the Catholic Church for not being medieval enough.
Toward the end of the book he devises a plan to destroy the world’s militaries by converting the generals to homosexuality, a plan that was either devised in 4chan or the Pentagon.
Threatening legal retribution over bullshit? Ignatius has you covered.
“A thousand dollars? He will not get a cent. We shall have him prosecuted immediately. Contact our attorneys, Mother.”
“You may expect to receive some rather staggering medical bills each month. My corps of attorneys will contact you in the morning… They are all brilliant attorneys, pillars of the community, aristocratic Creole scholars…”
When caught in his forgery at Levy Pants, Ignatius falls back on the classic Troller’s Credo, as though he invented it himself:
“Abelman, unfortunately, was apparently a rather petty person, a man too small to accept a little criticism, a hypersensitive molecule of a human…”
Does he overestimate his physical prowess? Look, if the MMA had existed back then, Ignatius J. Reilly would be yelling advice at the fighters on twitter.
“They had overestimated him in sending out an old, well-used Cadillac ambulance. He would easily have been able to smash all of those windows.”
I feel that all this establishes our protagonist as the Ur-Troll. He is the Internet Fedora Man in a different funny hat with no internet. But there is something else that I feel we must delve into to cement this hypothesis. We must take a look at Ignatius' feelings about popular entertainment. O'Toole gives us plenty of chances to do this, since he is apparently a time-traveler, warning us of the dark lurking netizens of our interconnected future.
First, his attitudes toward television. He watches the same program daily, habitually, though he hates it. We did not have “hate-watching” back then, but Ignatius hate-watched some television. I cannot discern with any certainty what the program is, but it involves children dancing, and he hates it with the overwrought fires that only a rage addict can.
How does he hate it? He feels that it is corrupting the youth of the nation, that the Founding Fathers would excoriate the "debauchery," that the dancing children are “horrors,” and, tellingly, “prostitutes.”
Also, Ignatius is a bit of a movie-goer. He is not, in any form, a movie “fan,” and while the book tells us little about what sort of cinema does, in fact, entertain him, O’Toole does let it drop that Ignatius enjoyed some Batman serials in his childhood, which would have been the infamous 1943 Batman series. O’Toole tells us that the movie after which Ignatius was conceived was 1932’s Red Dust, so viewing Batman: The Electrical Brain and Batman: Lured by Radium would have been pretty sweet for a kid of Ignatius J. Reilly’s age.
But at the movies - oh, at the movies, Ignatius is a terror. He is a YouTube comments section animated 42 years before YouTube existed.
Watching Billy Rose’s Jumbo, Ignatius screams at the screen - in a theater full of children, of course, a classic YouTube asshole comment: “What degenerate produced this abortion?” Ignatius often refers to things as “abortions,” and is obsessed with “degenerates,” those two words alone could gain him a following on Twitter.
He wishes for Doris Day’s death, wishes for it to be captured on screen. “Just look at those smiling morons! If only all the wires would snap!”
Ignatius is the Ur-Troll, which brings us to the final illustrative point. Of course he is weirdly misogynistic. I don’t mean that it’s weird that he IS misogynistic, I mean that the form his misogyny takes is oddly specific. It is especially odd for the 1960s, for it is the form that misogyny takes online. Online on an internet that did not exist in 1963.
We might well have put this comment about Doris Day underneath a Breitbart article.
"Ignatius inspected her teeth for cavities and fillings. She extended one leg. Ignatius rapidly surveyed its contours for structural defects…. He studied her grip on the trapeze in the hope that the camera would record her fatal plunge to the sawdust far below."
At a later movie, That Touch of Mink, starring (again) Dorris Day and this time, Cary Grant, Ignatius has a predictable response to watching two classically gorgeous faces involved in romantic love. “Oh my God. Who can imagine how wrinkled and loathsome those two really are? I think I’m getting nauseated. Can’t someone in the projection booth turn off the electricity? Please!”
This is right after he screams a classic YouTube comment. “How dare she pretend to be a virgin. Look at her degenerate face. Rape her!”
This is a 1963 theater, not a 2015 YouTube comment section. But is the next quote about A Touch of Mink, or the new Ghostbusters?
“I have not laughed once. My eyes can hardly believe this highly discolored garbage. That woman must be lashed until she drops. She is undermining our civilization. She is a Chinese communist agent sent over to destroy us.”
Ignatius also extends the hidden iceberg that is his Rich Inner Life to women in public engaging in creative ventures. Upon encountering a woman’s painting group, he insults their work, calling it “an abortion,” before launching into the best possible mansplaination extended toward someone offended by mansplaining that I have ever seen committed to page. “Apparently you are afraid of someone who has some contact with reality, who can truthfully describe to you the offenses which you have committed…”
The woman answers “Please leave,” which I am told is 1960’s speak for “BLOCKED.”
Of course, he could just let his misogynistic commentary be confined to shouted messages in the theater, the comments section of the day, and of course, his Big Chief notebook blog, but Ignatius must do more. He must seek out and ruin the lives of the women who offend him by upsetting his rich inner life. He has his coworker Gloria fired for a reason that literally begins “ACTUALLY…” “Actually, it was the awful sound of Gloria’s stake-like heels that led me to do what I did. Another day of that clatter would have sealed my valve for good. Then, too, there was all of that mascara and lipstick and other vulgarities which I would rather not catalogue.”
But the best slice of life Ignatius has to offer my theory is his interaction with Myrna Minkoff, who he met at college, and still maintains an unhealthy obsession with via the written word. Unlike most women who have an internet stalker, Myrna seems to also have an unhealthy concern for her tormentor, so, perhaps this is not the best data point. It is also why I’ve saved it for last. Myrna is not our concern, however. Ignatius is.
When writing in his journals, Ignatius thinks about Myrna. He considers sending her “a slashing, vicious attack upon her being and worldview.” What he considers “trading insults” is him insulting her, and her writing back with odd, misplaced concern, and as soon as her replies sprout barbs, Ignatius schemes to “get her,” taking note of how often she writes, how soon she replies, claiming she’s “threatening suicide unless I swear that my heart is hers alone.” At the end of the book, when she is coming to rescue him from being committed, he begins to swear vengeance on every perceived wrong, ending with “...Myrna Minkoff. The consumer products, and especially Myrna Minkoff… Whatever happened, he must attend to her even if the revenge took years and he had to stalk her through decades from one coffee shop to another, from one folksinging orgy to another, from subway train to pad to cotton field to demonstration. Ignatius invoked an elaborate Elizabethan curse upon Myrna, and, rolling over, frantically abused the glove once more.”
Because yes, Kennedy O’Toole came up with a new euphamism for masterbation, and Ignatius J. Reilly jerks off to his hate-crush.
Now, there are many questions to attend to. Is Ignatius a type specimen, noted for being discovered early and having all the appropriate traits? Has the character of Ignatius worked it’s way into the popular culture so thoroughly since publication in 1980, despite being a regionally popular novel? Confederacy of Dunces was set in 1962, written in 1963, and not published until 1981. I find it doubtful that a plethora of young men decided upon Ignatius J. Reilly as a role model in the intervening 35 years. In fact, I think we may well discard that idea. The question is - are trolls impersonating Ignatius, or is it something deeper? Or, is it, perhaps, that we all know an Ignatius J. Reilly?
I point to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Not as a particularly Ignatius-like character (there are resemblances, but that’s not the point) but what Matt Groening said about creating the character:
“I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, 'I know who you based that comic book guy on. It's that comic-book guy right down the block.' And I have to tell them, 'No, it's every comic book store guy in America.”
I know that these guys aren’t all like Ignatius. Some are dangerous, deranged. Others have no noble cause, no Rich Inner Life that is unwittingly disturbed by the gender of superheroes. Some are celebrities, not poor losers at home with mom.
But there is a type, and Ignatius is it.
(Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article referred to "Ignatius P. Reilly" instead of the proper "Ignatius J." A kind reader delivered the perfect 'well, actually' to remind me of this)