Idiots and Idiocy in Against the Day

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This nascent exploration of Pynchon's frequent use of idiots and idiocy in Against the Day was inspired by Anne Battesti who presented some ideas and insights into the novel during the table ronde at the June 1, 2007 conference in Tours, France — "Reading Thomas Pynchon's Latest Novel, Against the Day".

idio-: Greek: idios = own, personal, private, distinct (Oxford English Dictionary)

idiot: Greek: idiotes = a person not holding public office

From Rational Foundations of Democratic Politics [1]:

The etymology of idiot is that of private person, someone who does not participate in public affairs; gradually the word also acquired the connotation of someone who is incapable of participating in public affairs, and that was the meaning that passed through Latin into many modern European languages. Though the evolution of language as everything else involves many accidents, there is enough correlation between the two meanings to make us pause. Erasing perhaps the temporary blip of Enlightenment thought, we could become, if we are not already, idiots in both senses, and of course we wouldn't know it.

From Wikipedia:

Idiot is a word derived from the Greek ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs ("person lacking professional skill," "a private citizen," "individual"), from ἴδιος, idios ("private," "one's own"). In Latin the word idiota ("ordinary person, layman") preceded the Late Latin meaning "uneducated or ignorant person." Its modern meaning and form dates back to Middle English around the year 1300, from the Old French idiote ("uneducated or ignorant person"). The related word idiocy dates to 1487 and may have been analogously modeled on the words prophet and prophecy. The word has cognates in many other languages.
Read the rest of the entry...

Images of Idiocy

From a review of Images of Idiocy: The Idiot Figure in Modern Fiction and Film by Martin Halliwell:

'Evicted, marginalized and forgotten by mainstream considerations and classifications, the figure of idiocy introduces subtle subversions in our relation to knowledge. The dilemma posed by the debilitated subject involves national identity, masochism, and sexual politics, as well as the relation of poetic utterance to the stammer in which it originates. Dr. Halliwell's work offers a distinguished lexicon of the visual text by which to probe the crucial limits of cognition, the areas of our shared being where language fails and falters.' Avital Ronell, Chair, Department of German, and Professor of German, English, and Comparative Literature, New York University
'Martin Halliwell's engaging study of the idiot in literature and film moves with great assurance from the enlightenment "wild child" and the innocent romantic idiot to the ambiguous postmodern "spazzing" of Lars von Trier; from Conrad and Hitchcock to Dostoevsky and Kurosawa. Attentive to the varying historical and discursive contexts inhabited by the figure of the idiot, the book offers in particular, a suggestive account of the role of the linguistic outsider in twentieth-century cinema and culture.' Timothy Armstrong, Reader in Modern English and American Literature, Royal Holloway, University of London
'Halliwell's attention context is exemplary, showing how the 'cultural representation of idiocy' has reflected intellectual fashions and medical developments from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, and from R.D. Laing to Oliver Sacks.' TLS

If you can't find this book at your local bookseller, you can purchase from Amazon USA or Amazon UK

The New Idiot

From a blog discussing the Deleuze & Guattari work, What is Philosophy?":

This weeks’ discussion began with a consideration of the example which opens this chapter on ‘conceptual personae’ –the ‘idiot’. Deleuze & Guattari identify two manifestations of the conceptual persona of the ‘idiot’, which they term the ‘old’ and ‘new ‘idiot’. The old ‘idiot’ is the Cartesian one (associated with Descartes Meditations) – ‘it is the Idiot who says “I” and sets up the cogito…who wants to think, and who thinks for himself, by the ‘natural light’. The new ‘idiot’ emerges when ‘Descartes goes mad in Russia’, (Dostoyevsky’s Idiot).
‘The Old idiot wanted truth, but the new idiot wants to turn the absurd into the highest power of thought – in other words, to create.’ (What is Philosophy?, p. 62)
There was a brief discussion of how appropriate Dostoyevsky’s later work was to this understanding of the new ‘idiot’. The problem of Nietzsche and Nihilism was discussed.

Read on...

Page References in Against the Day

p. 61:
Everybody has to troop back down the mountain with their spiritual tails dragging, except for one or two incurably grinning idiots who see it as a chance to start a new life, fresh, without encumbrances, to be reborn, in fact.

p. 131:
"Bloody idiots!" screamed Dr. Blope, who belonged to that British school, arisen in the wake of the Michelson-Morley Experiment, of belief in some se- cret Agency in Nature which was conspiring to prevent all measurement of the Earth's velocity through the Æther.

p. 156:
The young idiot, literal as well as obedient, never looked inside.

p. 173:
The Ponghill residence became a house divided. "It's moral idiocy, Ma, examine his skull, the lobes for social feeling just aren't there."

p. 200:
"Family idiot," he introduced himself, "taggin along case anybody needs some emergency droolin done, or whatever."

p. 221:
"Silence, driveling ones [Nigel and Neville]," snarled the girl. "Imagine how idiotic they'd be if they could talk."

p. 259:
assorted cases of moral idiocy

p. 309:
"Damned idiot, o' course it's my back.

p. 370:
"Took you at first for another damned English idiot like the crowd you came in here with," said Wolfe Tone O'Rooney.

p. 387:
"Pendejo!" screamed the parrot. (Spanish: pendejo = idiot)

p. 490:
"As gently as I can, Latewood . . . You. Sodding. Idiot. She, prefers, her, own, sex."

p. 493:
"You burn incense at the wrong altar," she whispered, aware of the effect her voice, when whispering, had on him. "Idiots, all of you."

p. 495:
Lew Basnight was about, but the doings of the Icosadyad made him unpredictable as a social companion, leaving little but lengthy, idiot-infested summer soirées.

p. 497:
Meanwhile Yashmeen was finding Girton increasingly tiresome, the epidemic idiocy, the impossible dress regulations...

p. 515:
"Ah. Appears to be a torpedo, actually, and headed straight for midships too." "I can see that, you idiot, I know what a torpedo looks like—" at which point the interesting exchange is abruptly curtailed.

p. 529:
"You are safe with me, lieutenant," Fatou assured him. "Any government that hired me to spy would have to be hopeless idiots. . . ."

p. 588:
"Not 'chichi,' idiot," said Gottlob. "He refers to our 'Göttingen Kovalevskaia,' who has just now, however improbably, found this degenerate swamp of ours

p. 613:
"Please do," after hesitating just long enough for Lew to understand that he had been appraised for harmless idiocy and pronounced genuine.

p. 615:
One day, the day he would be some time coming to terms with his idiocy in not seeing the obvious approach of, Kit was summoned to the local branch of the Bank of Prussia in the Weenderstraße

p. 618:
"I knew yon were an idiot."

"My curse. Maybe we could swap?"

p. 641:
"Oh they're easy to spot—red-nose drunk all the time, jabbering, dirt-ignorant, idiot politics—"

p. 680:
"The feckless idiot who once drove us mad is exactly the same as he was—how much can these people change, after all?"

p. 685:
[...] they were exchanging signals, not exactly warnings but cues of hand and eye, the way actors in a vaudeville skit might—they were impersonating British idiots.

p. 729:
The blonde woman put forth her hand and introduced herself as Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin. "And these are—I don't know, some collection of idiots I've fallen in with."

p. 764:
His attempts at disguise would not, Kit feared, suggest the Buriat pilgrim so much as the British idiot.

p. 819:
"There are English people who'd be impressed by that," Yash supposed, "while others might attribute it to hereditary idiocy."

p. 823:
"As many have demonstrated, notably I suppose Baden-Powell, one cannot overestimate the value of appearing to dwell in a state of idiocy.

p. 823-824:
"As many have demonstrated, notably I suppose Baden-Powell, one cannot overestimate the value of appearing to dwell in a state of idiocy. In fact Jacintha did you know that there is now an entire branch of spy-craft known as Applied Idiotics—yes, including my own school, a sort of training facility run by the Secret Service, near Chipping Sodbury actually, the Modern Imperial Institute for Intensive Instruction In Idiotics—or M.6I., as it's commonly known."
"How ever so much more exciting Bevis, than the dull little girls' academy I must attend, so relentlessly normal, don't you know."
"But I say Jacintha at M.6I. no aspect of school life was exempt really, even the food was idiotic—in hall for example the chip-shop approach was actually extended to deep-frying such queer items as chocolate bonbons and fairy cakes—" "What, no fish Bevis."
"Dear me no Jacintha, that would be 'brain food,' wouldn't it—and the school uniform featured these ever so excruciatingly tight pointed hats, which one must wear even—indeed, especially—while one slept, and unspeakably awful neckties of the sort that, out in the civilian world, frankly, only, well, idiots would ever be found wearing . . . one's physical training began each dawn with a set of exercises in eye-crossing, lip relaxation, irregular gaits of as many varieties as there are dance-steps. . . ."
"That many? Really?" Jacintha flourishing her lashes. "Let me show you." He motioned to the band. "I say, do you chaps know 'The Idiotic'?"
"Sure!" replied the accordionist, "we play 'Idiotic'! You give us money!" The little orchestra struck up the lively two-step currently sweeping civi- lized Europe, and Bevis, seizing Jacintha, began to stagger quite uncoördi-natedly about the pocket-size saloon, while the game lass did her best to follow his lead, both of them singing,

Out on the floor, used
To be such a bore,
Till we discov-ered
What thrills were in store, with
That step ex-otic, known as
'The Idiotic' . . .
Head like a pin? drool down your chin?
Could qualify-you
To give it a spin, tho'
It sounds neurotic,
It's just 'The Idiotic'!
Take all those
Waltzes and polkas,
Stuff 'em all-down-a-hole, 'coz
There's a scat-terbrained rhyth-m to-day . . .
It's the new 'Idiot-ic,'
And it's kinda hypnotic,
In its own imbecil-ical way!
Try, it once-and-you'll-find
You've, gone out-of-your-mind
For—the craze of the mo-ment,
That's one-of-a-kind,
And it's just-so narcot-ic, that
I ven-ture to say . . . you'll
Be doing 'The
Id-iotic,' till they
Gotta-come take you a-way!

p. 824:
Now, Bevis's having been tipped for Idiotics instruction had been no random decision. No, no—indeed, crypto genius and all, in other areas of life idiocy came as naturally to him as a gift for leg-spin delivery might to another youth.

p. 825:
Meanwhile, out on deck, Lady Quethlock was engaged in conversation with two other spies pretending to be idiots.

p. 826:
Cyprian, with no more than a vague code about honoring the idiocy of others, blinked rapidly but went along with the change in plan.

p. 858:
She chose that moment to shift in her sleep, turning so that he was now gazing at her, you'd say, admirable ass, and though what he ought to be doing now was taking a walk over to that Piazza or something, instead, true to his idiot nature, he'd unbuttoned his trousers and begun stroking his penis, unable not to gaze at the pale buttocks and dark cleft, the black spill of hair and naked neck, just a step or two away.

p. 898:
"Must be my puritanical American upbringing," she said. "Sodomizing idiots has never been my cup of tea."

p. 1029:
"Eehhnnyyhh, what idiot put a clause like that in there?" sneered Darby.
"You did," chuckled Lindsay.

p. 1074-1075:
At Ellis Island, Reef, thinking both his English and Italian could get him in trouble whichever he spoke, remained indecisively mute long enough to have a large letter I, for Idiot, chalked on his back. Then a few minutes later, somebody in a customs service uniform—Reef never got a good look at his face—came running in out of the great seethe and echo of voices with a wet sponge and erased it again, saving Reef, as he soon discovered, from being sent back to Europe, being that an Idiot at the time was considered likely to become a Public Charge and cost U.S. taxpayers money.
"Wait," Reef said, "who are you?"
"They call me 'The Obliterator.' "
Reef came to think of it as a kindness on the part of some crypto-Anarchist who'd drifted into government work but could still recognize and help out a fellow outlaw. Not that Idiocy couldn't have been a useful cover, or was even that far wrong.


  1. Breton, Albert, Rational Foundations of Democratic Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 41
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