Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Jonathon Swift's Writings

In the previous post I attempted to place Swift within the context of his times, especially as regards political events. I would now like to make some comment about some of his writings, and what they reveal about his personality.

Swift was disappointed that his political services to the Tory party were not rewarded with a Bishopric, supposedly because Queen Anne was shocked by the scatological nature of much of his work. It has to be said that Swift, although a most intelligent and learned man, as well as a brilliant writer, would not under any circumstances be allowed to serve as a clergyman nowadays, because he was, by any definition, seriously weird. George Orwell in his essay on Swift calls him a “Tory anarchist”, presumably impotent as far as normal sex is concerned, with an exaggerated horror of human dung. This last characteristic keeps emerging in “Gulliver’s Travels”, as will be mentioned later. It must be left to psychiatrists to speculate how far Swift’s peculiarities can be attributed to the fact that he was an orphan who never knew either of his parents. I want here to outline a few of Swift’s pamphlets as well as his solitary book. (It might be noted that all but one of them were published anonymously or under a pseudonym. The only one which earned any money directly was “Gulliver’s Travels”, which brought Swift £200: approximately ten years’ pay for the average English household at the time)

“A Tale of a Tub”, which is said to have particularly shocked Queen Anne, was written around 1696 but published in 1704. It is a religious allegory, taking the form of a story about a man who has bequeathed his three sons a coat each, on the condition that the garments are left forever unaltered. The coat, of course, represents the Gospel, and the three sons, whose names are Peter (the Roman Catholic church), Jack (the Calvinists) and Martin (the Church of England), inevitably ignore their father’s wishes and subject their coats to unsuitable fashionable changes. As we might have anticipated, Martin comes in for the least degree of criticism, whereas Peter and Jack are roundly mocked and abused.

“An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity” (1708) sees Swift at his most sarcastic and ironic. The result is not only very funny, but curiously contemporary in application. He begins by saying it is clear that nobody believes in Christianity any more, which has been “for some time laid aside by general consent, as utterly inconsistent with all our present schemes of wealth and power”. Political parties nowadays, he says, are motivated purely by personal ambitions rather than by principles. We once suffered from “foolish notions of justice, piety, love of country”, but modern education has ensured “not the least tincture left of those infusions, or strings of those weeds”, so it might be thought that there is now no need to abolish Christianity. But then again, if Christianity is abolished, what will there be for satirists and wits to make fun of? And even worse, he has been reliably informed that if Christianity was ever to be abolished, there might be a fall in share prices on the Stock Exchange! All this goes along with gratuitous asides attacking Jesuits, Quakers, freethinkers and others of his favourite targets

“A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country” was written in 1729, very late in Swift’s career. He was over sixty and was no doubt feeling depressed and bitter: his beloved Stella had just died, and his enemies the Whigs seemed permanently entrenched in power in London. He had been exiled in Ireland (“the rat-hole”, he called it) for the past 15 years, but this exile had made him aware of the poverty, misery and exploitation of the country and its peasant population. He had already denounced British policy towards Ireland in his “Drapier’s Letters”; when he had attacked a proposal from a businessman named Wood to issue copper coins for Ireland and thereby make a huge profit. (The scheme was nicknamed “Wood’s ha’pence”, and the patent for it had allegedly been obtained by bribing the mistress of King George I. Swift’s polemic was so vehement that the scheme was abandoned). The “Modest Proposal” is an angry piece, that goes beyond mere irony. In it Swift draws attention to the large number of children in Ireland whose poverty-stricken parents cannot afford to raise them. The solution, he suggests, is cannibalism! A year-old child, he has been informed, will provide very tasty food if sold to the gentry, their skin can make gloves, and his scheme will have the dual advantage of reducing the surplus population (especially of Catholics, who tend to have the most children) and earning their parents the money to pay the rent. This is Swift at his most savage.

Finally, what is there new that can be said about “Gulliver’s Travels”? It is another product of Swift’s later years (published 1726), and reveals many of his obsessions as well as the limitations of his mind. Everyone knows about Gulliver’s first voyage, to the midget kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefuscu (representing England and France). His second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag, the land of giants, his third to Laputa and four other islands, and his fourth to the land of the Houyhnhnms, intelligent horses, who are plagued by filthy, squalid, hairy humanoids called Yahoos. As a climax to this last voyage, Gulliver (i.e. Swift?) realises that he himself is a Yahoo, and is filled with such disgust for the human race that on his return home he cannot bear the company even of his wife and family.
A few general features can be noted. Swift’s horror of human dung is manifested several times. In Lilliput, Gulliver puts out a conflagration in the palace by urinating on it, thereby earning the undying hatred of the Empress. In Laputa he discusses how examination of a man’s excrement might reveal whether he is plotting insurrection, and on his last voyage the Yahoos smother him with their dung. His lack of political imagination is shown by the fact that he cannot imagine any governmental system other than absolute monarchy, entirely dependent on the character of the king and his advisors. In Lilliput and Laputa they are corrupt and stupid, in Brobdingnag and Blefuscu much better. The Houyhnhnms have no government: they live in a Platonic republic taken to its logical extreme, where conformity has become so general that everyone thinks exactly alike and no coercion is ever needed.
Swift cannot envisage any social movement. In Lilliput there is no education provided for the children of cottagers and labourers; “Their business being only to till and cultivate the earth, and therefore their education is of little consequence to the public”. The Houyhnhnms are thoroughbred horses; the lesser breeds of horse (“nags”) act as their servants, and accept their station in life without question. Swift’s upbringing as an orphan make his ideas on education strange. Both the Lilliputians and the Houyhnhnms raise their children on communal lines as outlined in Plato’s “Republic”: the Houyhnhnms show no affection for their colts, and the Lilliputians are forbidden by law to give presents to their children.
Swift is very pessimistic about humanity in general, and believes the human race is degenerating, both morally and physically. The magicians in Glubbdubdrib on Gulliver’s third voyage conjure up the Senate of ancient Rome so that he can compare it with a modern Parliament. “The first seemed to be an assembly of heroes and demigods, the other a knot of pedlars, pickpockets, highwaymen and bullies”. Particularly he hates England under its detested Whig government. After Gulliver has described the English governmental system to the King of Brobdingnag, the King replies, “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. On the island of Balnibarbi on the third voyage there is a strange discourse on how the most innocent of letters can be construed to indicate treasonable intentions, so that we almost seem to be in the midst of Stalin’s purge trials. This was probably provoked by the so-called “Atterbury Plot” of 1722, where a Tory bishop, whom Swift must have known personally, was forced to flee abroad under accusations of treason. In case anyone didn’t get the message, Swift refers to “the kingdom of Tribnia, by the native called Langden ….. where the bulk of the people consisted wholly of discoverers, witnesses, informers, accusers, prosecutors, evidences, swearers”, and the authorities first select their victims and then seize them and manufacture evidence against them. Swift’s readers would hardly need to be great brains to decipher in “Tribnia” and “Langden” anagrams of Britain and England!

Swift was certainly a genius, but he was a twisted and embittered man. What hope did he hold out for the future? None whatsoever, it would appear.

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