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AS FLUFFY AS LEAD

The Encyclopedia of Stupidity by Matthijs van Boxsel
[Reaktion Books, London, 2003. £19.95]

This book is a handsome production verging on the sumptuous, with good paper, wide margins, plenty of interesting monochrome illustrations, and an attractive dust-wrapper; it is a completely realised and confident production as a book.

It may be asked, though, does the world need an Encyclopedia of Stupidity
when The Third Policeman is still available? That is a question it turns out we need not address, as the author is quickly at pains to point out that this book belies its title.

True to his word, it also lacks the alphabetic layout which is so handy for quick reads in the bog. Another likely ploy for ordering the book would be to progress by a series of digressions, like a yacht tacking against the wind, to reach one’s intended destination ­ the Tristram Shandy model. In the Dutchman van Boxsel’s translated case, the discursiveness is naturally of a non English variety, if discursive it is. (I would recommend someone like Greil Marcus for heroically discursive texts, but he’s not English. Nor is Flann O’Brien. But I digress.)

It seems there is a lack coherent organisation as much as playful discursiveness, and to be of more than passing use the book does need some form of structure. Moreover, it lacks an index. Well then, does an Encyclopedia need an index? Possibly — my 1928 Brittannica has an index and very useful it is too. Besides, this isn’t an Encyclopedia. I’m not sure if it’s about stupidity.

What then as to content? Sadly, this is where it comes unstuck. Although van Boxsel begins by personalising his topic and his ‘quest’, the book is basically a collection of essays on a wide ranging variety of topics, described in the introduction as ‘variations on a recurring theme’, all intended to point up the nature of ‘stupidity’.

In his pursuit of this very slippery topic, van B turns to highbrow explication of motifs such as goats chewing sea holly (from Pliny) and proceeds through ceaseless contradiction ­ ‘the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God’; visiting Tommy Cooper, hoary old stories, the villagers of Gotham, the Emperor’s new clothes, the woodcutter out on a limb, more great classical and enlightenment allegories, and on and on he goes, in a style as fluffy as solidified lead.

I must confess I was no sooner past the first few dry pages than I was turning with relief to the Darwin Awards section, something I was already familiar with. This book and website I can wholeheartedly recommend as very funny and a meditation on stupidity at its peak.

That the idea of the ha-ha and the ah-ah and real and imaginary space in the English and French Garden and landscape, which in turns serves as metaphor for mental space in the English and French head is probably pivotal in the collection gives a flavour of where Boxsel is at. Disconcertingly for me, these differing arrangements of the mental furniture of nations (the ha-ha / ah-ha variants) are noted from a Dutch point of view, and as we shall see in a moment, appear to loom large in van Boxsel’s world.

Unfortunately, his views on this topic are not seductive. When he seizes on Ha Ha Road in Greenwich, I want more about road names on nearby Blackheath ­ where a temporary abberation of some supervailing power has left us with Hare & Billet Road.

What I get is van Boxsel as he depones on the ‘metaphysics of the zigzag’ and whether or not he is tongue-in-cheek is difficult to discern.

He proceeds too through numerous aphorisms ‘stupidity only works when it goes unrecognized’ and reversals ‘the judge judged’ (although van Boxsel suggests his interest is rather in ‘aberrations at work in normalcy itself’ the distinction is rather a fine one) which are very similar in idea. The argument however, relentlessly failing to build itself into a whole, loops round again and again: ‘anyone who is stupid cannot know what stupidity is … Anyone not stupid does not know what it is to be stupid.’
This contradictoriness is the mainspring of Boxsel’s style, and soon ceases to shed fresh light.

Hobbes, Rousseau, Monarchy (at length), and the King as democracy’s centre of folly ­ here hang the Emperor’s new clothes ­ are all prayed in aid, alongside Tommy Cooper and ‘Auntie’s Bloomers’, and lengthy reports of Stephen Pile’s Book of Heroic Failures
. Clearly anything can be viewed in van Boxsels’s mirror, all tending to the idea that ‘you cannot step outside the castle of knowledge, in order to establish that it is hanging in the air without going mad.’

Possibly it is eclecticism, perhaps it is desperation. Interpolated a few pages further on we find news of an invented (?) protagonist called Fallor, which might easily have made a separate small dull book.

The section of delightful little anecdotes about Nasreddin the holy fool and leader of the Dervishes in the thirteenth Century really lights up the text. There is something zenlike about this ‘fool’s’ perversely insightful exploits. Here van Boxsel drops the cumbersome philosophical trappings of what he calls ‘morosophy’ and the stories shine through as his style becomes distinctly readable. These passages look as if they would make an excellent standalone publication.

There are also very interesting passages about the meaning of viewpoint in the Rubens apotheosis ceiling at the Banqueting Hall in London, but their connection with ‘stupidity’ is exceedingly laboured as a shoehorn is used to bring in Milton, anamorphosis and quadratura, resulting in a few pages which are bravura, baffling or both.

Finally, there is the regular place here for ‘pataphysics ­ the framework wherein all happenings are equally idiotic. Jarry’s Dr Faustroll brings us back to more or less where we started, as his assistant Bosse-de-Nage:

keeps interrupting his master’s explanations with the tautological monosyllable, “haha”.’
If pronounced quickly, Haha illustrates the idea of unity; pronounced slowly, it illustrates the ideas of duality, echo, distance, symmetry, size and duration and the principle of good and evil.

Haha, that’s what it means. The overall feel is of a book too late. This sort of vaguely connected material is now much easier to navigate on the web, where one can immerse oneself in hypertext, and indulge in one’s own cross-threading. And such a sure-fire subject producing such a dull book ­ that is
stupid.

        © Robert Joyce 2003