David Profumo

From Pinocchio to ‘Pataphysics

The Encyclopaedia of Stupidity


Reaktion Books 206pp £19.95 order from our bookshop

AS ITS CURIOUS author is keenly aware, this book is neither encyclopaedic nor entirely devoted to stupidity: it belongs to a tradition of learned wit that began in classical times, resurfaced with the Encomium Moriae of Erasmus, and proceeded – through the Scriblerians – to feed the finest epoch of sarcasm in the English language. This satirical exploration of the lineaments of human folly is a fascinating and slightly deranged work that would have had Pope and Swift sucking happily from their punch bowls.

The result of more than a decade of eclectic research, The Encyclopadia of Stupidity is neither comprehensive nor methodical: it takes the form of a series of interdependent essays that is partly anthological in nature. Our author – a Dutchman – begins by admitting that hs project might have qualified as its own first entry, and once we’re on that kind of wavelength we can follow him along the tortuous path of his latter-day Dunciad. He begins with an allegorical journey to the Academy of Stupidity (how Bron, our late, sainted Editor would have adored this concept!), which celebrates legendary townships (Gotham, Schilda), has a bestiarium stupidum (geese, pigs), a fine library (Uber die Dummheit, plus a compendious volume of cliché marked ‘Press and Broadcasting’), and a cabinet of curiosities containing such objects as a leaden hat and a Nuremberg funnel for pouring information into the heads of recalcitrant pupils.

The essential thesis here (though naturally the very notion of having one seems a contradiction in terms) is that stupidity is not just an absence of something – education, a chromosome – but an energising principle of the entire human condition. ‘Culture is the result of a series of more or less unsuccessful attempts to come to terms with stupidity’, claims van Boxsel, and as he makes his way along this tangled path – with many a detour through intellectual quagmire and thicket – he adduces a vast array of cultural signifiers, from Slavoj Zizek to Mister Magoo.

Morology, the study of the laws of stupidity, can only define its subject by negatives. But one of its fields of special interest is the phenomenon of stupidity combined with intelhgence. This can lead to developments such as the air bag (which causes drivers to go 20 per cent faster) or the increased paper consumption in offices since the introduction of computers. As the annual Darwin Awards testifj: this interface can prove fatal: recent winners include the bungee jumper who, when measuring a canyon, forgot that his rope was going to stretch, and the leader of an LA sect who tried to imitate Christ by walking on water, slipped on the bathtub soap, and died. The discipline also identifies a ‘realm of beneficial blunders’ by which the world progresses precisely because of its folly – a mechanism he terms ‘Epimethean causality’. Since their very thought-patterns themselves prevent people from recognising their own stupidity, it not only becomes the basis of their identity but also doom any philosophical investigation of the subject. One analogy is the old metaphysical paradox in which the Devil challenged the Almighty to create a rock so heavy He could not lift it – an idea which eventually led to the eleventh-century anti-dialectical movement, as readers of the LR will scarcely need reminding.

Along the way there are many wonders and oddities of the type Bacon called ‘broken knowledge’ (I was taken with the detail that Jewish builders used to set one brick deliberately askew, acknowledging the imperfectibility of their work), and many of the folk tales are arresting, including that of how Till Eulenspiegel outwitted the Landgrave of Hesse, which easily outstrips ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. There are allusions to Bugs Bunny, Aristophanes, an Asimov story, and Kant on hurnmingbirds. We are treated to a dissertation upon the ah-ah at Versailles, and the ha-ha at Luton Hoo. Crucial questions are raised: Do fairy stories about giants get written by people with sore backs? What is the specific gravity of a kiss? There is an almost convincing explanation of why the fable of Pinocchio is the ideal vindication of constitutional monarchy, but it has to be said that once the book begins to deal with Rousseau and politics it seems to lose its way up a hedgerow, down a flagon of scrumpy, and fall asleep babbling in a barn.

How very, stupid of it.

Luckily, it revives to suitably surreal form for a late chapter on ‘Pataphysics, the study of imaginary solutions devised by the great Alfred Jarry, who used it to calculate the surface of God, and to create a decerebration machine that was capable of imitating dementia praecox but also doubled up as a printer. His disciple, the peerless Raymond Queneau, once published a ‘pataphysical paper entitled ‘Some Summary Remarks on the Aerodynamic Properties of Sums’, in which he quite correctly pointed out that wind speed needs to be taken into account by mathematicians, in case some of their numbers get blown over.

This encyclopaedia breaks off with suitably Swiftian abruptness, the shape vindicating its subject. But apparently our scholar’s work continues, and a further volume has been published in Holland that addresses issues such as ‘HOG many sheepdog particles does it take to make a sheepdog?’ I can hardly wait.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter