Idiocy is as complex as genius. In fact, we like to think them indistinguishable, joined by the ruthless common denominator of an innocence which makes both conditions holy. The lives of geniuses are bestsellers because everyone wants to see themselves in there, which nourishes our profound self-interest and even more profound masochism. Read about the gloomy Wagner household for example, or the ‘genius’ of John Forbes Nash, the paranoid RAND op with ‘a beautiful mind’ who never had a friend and proved via game theory that no one else did, either. When we speak of idiots, we speak of genius. We also speak of ourselves, a perennial favorite subject—oscillating idiotically between the living and the dead, between two happy perfections, enviously, stupidly, brilliantly.
Ermanno Cavazzoni, agent of OpLePo, the Italian Oulipo division, has thoughtfully composed a Brief Lives of Idiots for the edification of the mediocre class. Spoofing Lives of the Saints, as well as Vasari and Who’s Who, this hilarious 1994 tome has been rendered into English—the lingua franca of Idiots—at a very opportune time in history. One set of idiots has recently been replaced with another (we call this an ‘election’ in the American Republic, the divine raising of the Elect over the masses, apparently by our own consent). The panorama of idiotic conspiracies like Russiagate, QAnon, and the endless War on Terror has become an idiot-producing machine par excellence, elevating all kinds of fools to areas of tremendous influence. However, Cavazzoni harkens back to an earlier time when the solely-produced complot or the proud self-generated scientific rationale stood alone, willfully and cretinously with clenched fist, in an awesome rejection of a world it strains to explain. The idiot gives up on thought early, due to fatigue, eccentricity or angelic revelation; his mode is total action, always in the immediate. Yet the question why even try has never been satisfactorily answered and we all still do… So perhaps the idiot is correct. ‘We make reality’, as Karl Rove said. But Reality has other ideas. Reality produces idiots.
There is certainly something aristocratic and noble about the idiot’s stark refusal. The cheap ideologies of the information czars and the intelligence networks could never bear such solitude. The State’s delusions, sly and premeditated in the cunning services of power, are the work of professional bourgeois idiots who drape their decades-long failures and woeful mistakes in managerialism and thinktanks. A very different species, Cavazzoni’s idiots are terrified of the speed of the world’s revolutions, agonized by Satan’s control of automobiles and the malignant powers of slang, dazed by the efficacy of fake noses and the god-visions of giddy children. They are possessed by inanimate objects; they see devious patterns in traffic. Too avant garde for their own health, their observations-cum-manias always ignore one crucial element which would save them from doom and perhaps even enshrine them in the alternate halls of Genius.
Depending on your level of Philistinism, you might include John Cage or Isaac Newton on the idiot list (Columbus is a shoo-in: the foremost attribute of an idiot is that he does not know where he is). Or perhaps the hapless tetrarch Louis Paul Jerry Bremer III, who believed he could transform Iraq into the suburbs of Iowa. Cavazzoni steers clear of these kinds of men, though he does give us Cesare Lombroso, whose racial-physical theories of degeneracy and crime were once considered the very pinnacle of scientific clarity. As Cavazzoni relates, Lombroso deeply admired Tolstoy and petitioned to see the old man—who refused, because he thought Lombroso was an idiot. Idiocy moves from the layman to the professional, and sometimes only accident prevents it from becoming a centuries-long foundation (Omar Khayyam must have thought the Ptolemaic ‘West’ was full of idiots). Lombroso’s theories still skulk around, disguised as Bell Curves and admired by idiots like Bill Clinton and the late Professor Arthur Jenson. The field of scientific racism alone is a bonanza of world-class morons.
Cavazzoni’s fools are far more delirious. He writes a People’s History of Idiots, rather than a book of cruel middle managers and befuddled academics. Our idiocy also involves the literal application of ill-understood facts, but in a way particular to our own level. How much do I understand gravity? Not at all, actually. I assume it works, which is why I am not afraid of it (granted, this can be a fatal assumption). Stupendous idiots think too much, which is like thinking too little, and then they act upon this thinking-too-much-as-little. The contradictions of the universe perplex them, much like the less illustrious idiot who can’t understand why his rich boss fires him right after giving him a $25 Christmas gift card. Forrest Gump looks like the perfect idiot, but in America this piece of fictitious sadistic garbage became a national icon. With luck on his side, Gump channels the history of idiots through innocence and apolitical egoism with an expressionless stare turned neither inward nor outward. His idiocy is backed by guns and the history of the democratic state.
The common idiot is loathed because he brings to light the idiocies that make civilizations: received information and a fanatical obeisance to Proof, as long as influence and power rests on data and certitude. As a living parody, the idiot is doomed to become a sacrifice. Only a fool is king for a day, the subject of one shining moment before his weird apparition sees revenge by the population and the forces of power now no longer amused. Max Stirner does not appear in the Brief Lives because he knew too much and laughed at himself, while remaining unsure enough to believe in his own critique (Engels respectfully attended his funeral). Idiots are seldom unsure, or they are too sure of uncertainty: Werner Heisenberg, the father of Uncertainty, worked unsurely for the Nazis, the grandi idioti of the twentieth century. But these men were famous and the real marker of the lumpen idiot is the kind of notoriety which sticks to supermarket rags.
Idiots are manufactured and not born. This begs the question, then what hath made them? Alfred Jarry proved empirically that traffic signs cause the very accidents they are designed to prevent. So it is that the people’s idiots are beguiled by everyday life in conditions that have been created by more powerful idiots or outright tyrants. The idiot is infuriated by random elements and is in thrall to forms of social etiquette that confine observation to the direct, immutable systems of the order of the day. Suicide and attempted suicide, the audacious exit from these daily constraints, is given a major place in Cavazzoni’s roster. Lists of successes and failures of the art of self-extinction interrupt the individual portraits of idiots like concessions stands in a museum or the commissary in prison. People try to kill themselves and kill passersby instead, a collateral damage of idiots that is ghoulishly comical and more numerically probable than it should be. But suicide is not funny and it is hardly the sole property of idiots; in most cases, the greatest idiots outlive the wise and kind. The idiot is primarily marked by a lack of a sense of humor; though his actions are hilarious, he thinks them a grave and salvific quest. I use the male pronoun here, against trend but in favor of truth, as the idiots of this book are like idiots everywhere: masculine almost to a man.
A deliberate provocation to idiots and idiot-makers, Brief Lives is expertly translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards, who is clearly no idiot. Ermanno Cavazzoni deserves a wider readership in the Anglosphere, but Anglospheric idiots will no doubt try their hardest to prevent it. Fellini dug Cavazzoni enough to adapt his Voice of the Moon into what would be his final film in 1990.
In addition to this beautiful Wakefield Press edition, I also heartily recommend Cavazzoni’s The Nocturnal Library, in an equally fine translation by Allan Cameron, published by the indispensible Vagabond Voices. The titular library is full of the works of the world’s most powerful idiots, prowled by a bookish man with a toothache and insomnia who dreams and occasionally wakes. Perhaps one day this century will come to be known as Cavazzonian—an honor Signor Cavazzoni would certainly refuse. Only an idiot dreams of an epoch of idiots under in his own name.