There are different kinds of stupid as surely as there are different kinds of smart. I had a chance over the weekend to reflect on how clever the person must have been who invented the contraption into which the bank teller dumps your piggy bank before handing you the equivalent in more portable paper. But I only had cause to think about this because I was picking pieces of broken pickle jar out of enough pennies and nickels scattered around the bedroom floor to buy a very nice dinner for two. That’s just one kind of stupid I am: the kind that thinks I can be exempted from certain laws of physics simply by ignoring them—for instance, by tipping a dresser with a pickle jar full of coins on top to get at something that had fallen behind the dresser.
Even more irritating was that all those pennies and nickels were part of a particularly ill-conceived savings plan I came up with years ago and followed through with only long enough to guarantee myself the very mess it took me half an hour to clean up. Correctly reasoning that I would be too embarrassed, in all but the direst of emergencies, to plunder my own savings for any coin smaller than a dime, I actually started buying rolls of pennies and nickels and breaking them open into the pickle jar. I figured that after a few months, I’d have a pretty hefty sum of otherwise unspendable money to either cash in toward something worth cashing in toward, or blow in an orgy of pennywhistles and MoonPies. I only stuck with this stupid plan for about six months, but for some dumb reason I’ve been lugging the coins around ever since.
I think it’s good to have a few eccentrically stupid schemes and poorly laid plans in your life, just to keep things interesting, and as long as they don’t hurt anybody. It’s healthy to bring tribulation upon yourself through your own stupidity from time to time. I’m just glad I didn’t bring mine down on, like, my foot.
The innate stupidity of Homo sapiens—alone among the animals for his tendency to act against his own best interests, both individually and collectively—accounts for nearly everything we do. Once you start looking at the world through the “eye of stupidity,” explains literary historian Matthijs van Boxsel in The Encyclopædia of Stupidity, you see that stupidity is both the glue that holds society together and the engine that makes it go. Far from representing exceptions, those egregiously stupid things you’ve done in your life are actually discursive of a fundamentally stupid human condition; your seemingly smarter moments are merely aberrations, wrinkles in the adhesive layer of stupidity that keeps you attached to society. “Stupidity,” writes van Boxsel, “manifests itself in each walk of life, in every human being, at all times. As a result, any study of stupidity automatically assumes encyclopædic dimensions.”
Van Boxsel writes about stupidity with surpassing intelligence, although he’d probably be the first to deny it. Even attempting such a compendium, he admits, is such a stupid undertaking that the obvious move would have been to make the enterprise the first entry in the Encyclopædia. Later on, he redresses this omission: “The Encyclopædia of Stupidity is broad enough to make room for all writings on stupidity, including itself. Inspired by Elsevier’s Bird Guide of 1965, which is perversely covered in imitation snakeskin, I have had several copies of the encyclopædia bound in ass’s hide, to emphasize the stupidity of the whole project.”
Van Boxsel savors stupidity—the more elaborate in its contrivance, the better—wherever he finds it. And he finds it in places most people couldn’t be bothered to look. Monuments, for example, interest him as evidence that stupidity and illusion are features of the same face. Triumphal arches in particular, like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, strike him as absurd attempts to place unspeakable horrors in a meaningful context after the event or events they supposedly memorialize. Hence, the Arc de Triomphe frames only its own hollowness, “a monument to the folly of all the cunning tricks that hold the nation together.” Further examined through the eye of stupidity, though, what triumphal arches really stand for is the human capacity to take courage from illusion. “This trifling difference,” writes van Boxsel, “makes a world of difference. Depending on your point of view, the arch is a monument to the futility of hope, or a triumphal gate for the vanity that keeps hope alive.”
Speaking of Paris, there’s also a whole chapter devoted to the “ah-ah,” a kind of ditch dug into the gardens at Versailles to serve as a boundary while creating the illusion of unbounded space, which also symbolizes the unbounded power of the sovereign. Ah-ahs cannot be detected from a certain distance, so the observer is supposed to gain a sense of freedom from the impression that the garden in which he stands extends limitlessly in every direction. For van Boxsel, however, ah-ahs have the opposite effect: They merely emphasize the ridiculousness of the garden and turn the world into “a prison without walls” by making it seem as though the unnatural symmetry and stultifying order go on forever.
And don’t even get him started on democracy, which he says “exists by the grace of idiocy,” and which is actually healthier the more idiots are involved. The restless spirit of Ambrose Bierce lingers here, lounging with an impish grin in the mischievous wordplay of postmodern paradox.
The Encyclopædia of Stupidity is a tragically funny and strangely liberating book. To be stupid is to be as human as human gets, says van Boxsel, and that’s the way it has to be. We’re like the scorpion in the Aesop fable who stings the frog ferrying him across the river, killing them both. We just can’t help ourselves.