I’m the hero of my own movie or television show. Each one of us is the protagonist of the novel of his own life.
In the narrative of my life, you might be the antagonist. Or maybe you’re the comic buffoon. Or the love interest. Or maybe you don’t exist in the narrative which plays out in my head.
From a very early age, I consciously chose characters who embodied the strengths I wanted to see in myself. More than anything, these were the things I wanted other people to see in me.
I wanted to be Capt. James T. Kirk, commander of the starship Enterprise. I wanted to be the hero who was admired for my many achievements. I wanted to be a leader among men. I wanted women to admire me. I wanted to be loved and adored.
In the last few days, I’ve been re-reading John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-winning novel of southern literature, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” As I’m approaching the end of the book, I had a distressing thought.
What if I’m more like the tragicomic antihero of this book than I’ll ever be like Capt. Kirk? What if I’m a lazy and delusional man whose own failings make his life miserable?
If you’ve read the novel, you know how revolting this question might be for me.
I can’t begin to list all of Ignatius J. Reilly’s flaws here. He’s an overeducated man — with a master’s in medieval history — who has been too lazy and maladapted to his world to use his intelligence and education. A lot of his intellectual and philosophical beliefs are pure nonsense. Much of what he believes is offensive to decent and reasonable people.
He’s a buffoon, but he doesn’t allow himself to see this. He sees himself as a victim of a society which is too intimidated of his greatness to accept him. He lies to himself and he lies to everybody else in his life.
As I’ve read the book this time, it’s been clear to me that he’s a narcissist as well. (I didn’t know enough about psychology to spot that when I read it before.)
Ignatius J. Reilly embodies much of what I would most be afraid to become. If I really were anything like him, I would become delusional, too. I would lie to myself about the reasons for where I am in life. And that’s what started the uncomfortable questions for me today.
Let me be clear about one thing. My life doesn’t mirror the specifics of Reilly’s twisted life and beliefs. He doesn’t love anybody or anything. All he cares about is himself. He’s a liar who’s willing to cause untold problems for other people just because some insane action might be good for himself in the moment.
I’m not saying that I’m like that. I truly don’t see myself as anything like those specifics.
But I see some echoes that are comparable. I’m not nearly as successful as I thought I’d be or as I wanted to be. I don’t have the big achievements that I expected to have. I feel as though I’m stuck in a world where I don’t fit — where I’m not appreciated, for reasons that I don’t understand.
Maybe the most uncomfortable comparison, though, is the simple fact that Reilly doesn’t fix the many problems in his life. He just bounces from one unhappy episode to the next.
Instead of finding a teaching position at a college — something for which he’s clearly qualified — Reilly finally agrees to take a clerical job at a pants factory. He does a lousy job but covers up his deficiencies. After eventually getting fired from that job — for attempting to lead the factory workers on a violent demand for higher wages — he ends up as a very unsuccessful hotdog vendor on the streets of New Orleans.
Although I had a lot of success earlier in life — in both newspapers and political consulting — the last 10 years of my life have been almost as pathetic as Reilly’s life. Why? I can’t tell you the reasons. Or maybe I know and I’m lying to myself. Maybe I’m just as delusional as Ignatius is.
The book is ridiculous literary fun. If you haven’t read it, I do recommend it for many people. Although I read the paper copy before, I’m listening to a delightfully good audiobook version this time. The narrator does an incredible job of bringing the various New Orleans dialects to life. (Check out the link for more.)
I’m not really Ignatius J. Reilly. I’m not. Honest. But I’m not Capt. James T. Kirk, either. And as I think about these two characters as opposite ends of a spectrum, I have this horrible feeling of terror that I’ve allowed myself to drift a lot more toward the Ignatius end of the spectrum — and I seem to have given up on my lofty desire to become Jim Kirk.
In my own mind, I’m still the star of this movie. The people around me are the ones who get in my way. Bad luck and an alien world full of imbeciles have made it difficult for me to be who I want to become.
I have excuses. I have reasons. I have plans to turn everything around and become successful and happy again. Maybe even loved. I really do.
But as I keep watching the delusional Ignatius getting in his own way — lying and bumbling through his failures — I fear there’s at least a tiny bit of him in me.
Although he makes a great antihero in a dark comedy, it’s terrifying to consider that maybe I’m further off-course in life than I’ve allowed myself to admit.