Biting satire

Jonathan Swift (1675–1739)

Jonathan Swift: A Modest Proposal
and Other Satirical Works
Edited by Candace Ward
Dover Thrift Editions 1996

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

With this paragraph, around a quarter of the way through a 1729 text, Swift (originally writing anonymously) detonates the bomb that is at the core of A Modest PROPOSAL For preventing the CHILDREN of POOR PEOPLE From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the PUBLICK.

But this, of course, is Swift, and we must never take his writings at their word. When he discusses the main advantages of such a policy for Ireland (such as fewer Catholics, the introduction of a new dish for gentlemen with refined tastes, an added draw for taverns, an income for the ‘breeders’ and an economic policy to encourage marriage) his purpose is to criticise social attitudes, but as with all satire, outward appearances are outrageous–but also deceptive.

Swift was Anglo-Irish Anglican clergyman, and his position was to be a signpost always to a via media (as characterises the Church of England itself, being somewhere in the middle of a Christian continuum stretching from Dissenter to Roman Catholic). By taking arguments to extremes, as with A Modest Proposal, he exposed what he saw as inherent ridiculousness, but with such po-faced earnestness that it was sometimes hard to know when he was being serious without close reading of the text.

In this slim volume are also included four other works. The Battle of the Books is the longest, and was essentially a discourse on the three strands of Christianity in the west, with the individuals Peter, Martin and Jack standing for Catholicism, Anglicanism and Nonconformism. (As a digression, I wonder if this piece indirectly influenced R M Ballantyne’s famous novel The Coral Island, the leads of which were Peterkin, Jack Martin and Ralph, and which itself directly inspired William Golding’s characters Piggy, Jack and Ralph in The Lord of the Flies.)

Also here is the very short A Meditation upon a Broomstick, a mock allegory of the human condition perpetrated as a joke upon a Lady Berkeley. This is followed by A Discourse concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit: in this Swift equates spirit with ‘enthusiasm’, literally the state of being possessed by a god. The manifestation of enthusiasm Swift calls ‘ejaculating the spirit, or transporting it beyond the sphere of matter’; to the three expressions of this manifestation–divine prophecy or inspiration, devilish possession, and the product of the imagination or strong emotions–Swift adds ‘the mechanical operation of the spirit’, which he at first compares to the ass on which Mohammed is said to have travelled to Paradise. (He also has witty words to say about epistolatory conventions, but there is no space, dear reader, to expand on this.)

That only leaves the last of these papers published before 1729, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity in England, which, however dry the subject appears to be from the title, is as knockabout a farce attacking all and sundry as any in this collection. Swift’s own footnotes, along with the editor’s, are included here, as well as a brief biography by way of introduction.

Even allowing for a three-century gap these pieces have a surprisingly relevant contemporary bite, especially in view of recent political events: the shocking satire of A Modest Proposal throws a light on the downsides of utilitarianism, the dangers of cynical commercialism and the human capacity for self-delusion.

Lemuel Gulliver, aged 58

A review posted as part of Reading Ireland Month, or Begorrathon19

19 thoughts on “Biting satire

  1. earthbalm

    Very interesting Chris. I have not read any Swift, not even the obvious. Your review may well prompt me to do so, but I have a very long to-read list, compiled mostly as a result of your reviews. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah, I’m not taking responsibility for your long reading list, Dale!

      Human nature hasn’t really changed in the last three hundred years, so Swift has plenty of modern equivalents writing in the press and social media. While he is rather loquacious compared to satirists of the present day (maybe Will Self comes close?) he would probably have recognised much the same attitudes he eviscerated in today’s politicians and celebrities.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Swift is an amazing writer whose pessimistic view on the nature of man is very close to mine. If he could take a look at the world as it is today, he couldn’t’ but congratulate himself for not having been deceived by the optimism of his age, which boasted the greatest power man was endowed with: reason and he would surely comment : ” You see? I was right! ” ”Men are just Yahoos and when Yahoos are in charge…..”.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think all us humanistic thinkers are pessimists these days, Stefy, and not just you. When the news brings us daily some new atrocity, scandal or example of corruption can we be otherwise?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. piotrek

    I’ve only read the obvious Swift, and in an abridged version, but this is so wonderful I had to immediately order a copy. It’s always a bit of a surprise to me, when I learn that people from long ago were actually pretty smart and sophisticated 😉

    I love this kind of satire and I use it myself, it’s so amusing when the audience takes it at face value… happens way too often.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the taking of satirical writing at face value mostly comes from people who are piss-poor at using and understanding metaphors and metaphoric language. When in the past I occasionally used similes or metaphors to characterise a school student’s attitude, behaviour or statement I was frequently accused of a personal insult because they took the comparison literally; so a statement such as “Writing your name on the desk is like a dog marking its territory by weeing on a lamppost… ” might elicit the accusation “Sir, you were calling me a dog!”

      Liked by 3 people

      1. inkbiotic

        I had a similar conversation with my art tutor at university. Actually there were two tutors, one young guy who was a believer in postmodernism, and an older woman who was less in thrall. I was arguing with the young guy about what art was, if it could be a pile of bricks or an empty room (I know, it’s a pretty cliched question, I was young).
        The young tutor said, ‘Art is whatever the artist draws attention to.’
        ‘So if I offered you a cigarette now, that would be art?’ I replied.
        ‘I don’t think we want your cigarettes in HERE!’ shouted the older tutor indignantly. And my point was lost.

        I really could have done with some Swiftian satire to have got me through. he sounds ace.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Too often I forget the biting wit of classic voices. One of these days I’m going to pick up one of the Robert Benchley collections from Bo’s shelf and give the humorous essay a go. A lovely post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jean! At the present moment, when the fate of true democracy hangs in the balance, it feels as if the only way to fight back against totalitarianism, while we can, is with satire.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. 😁 ‘Piss-poor’ is, I think, a peculiarly British expression, with ‘piss’ being an intensifier of ‘poor’, here merely meaning weak or lacking. As far as I can work out from online suggestions, it achieved currency in the aftermath of the Second World War, though its origins may be earlier.

      These days, with politics in a dire state, satire (Swiftian or otherwise) is definitely not dead!


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