The Reluctant Rebel
“Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel”
A book by John Stubbs
If Gulliver could travel through time, instead of sailing around the world, imagine how familiar the Yahoos of Washington would look to him now. What would he say about the roaring Lilliputians and the swollen Brobdingnagians stomping around the capital?
Jonathan Swift, we need you more than ever. This week marks the 350th birthday of the brilliant Irish writer, born Nov. 30, 1667. That we know of Swift at all is one of the sweetest fortunes of literary history. His father died of syphilis before Jonathan was born. A wet nurse whisked him to England for three years. He depended on the generosity of an uncle. He was almost killed by a mail bomb. But despite those precarious turns, Swift became a poet, a priest, a political operator and, of course, the greatest satirist in the English language.
The longevity of Swift’s work is a testament to its potency because no genre fades as quickly: Satires are the cut flowers of literature. Time wilts their wit, fading their bright colors like old political cartoons that poke fun at fat cats we no longer recognize. (Voltaire adored Samuel Butler’s 1663 mock heroic poem “Hudibras,” but try reading it now without footnotes.)
Click here to read long excerpts from “The Reluctant Rebel” at Google Books.
As contemporary allusions are worn away by the acid rain of history, the profound insights of a great work of satire grow more prominent. Today, scholars relish the anti-Whig references in “Gulliver’s Travels,” but the rest of us can still enjoy its wicked critique of hubris, vanity and illogic. George Orwell, himself a genius at political satire, noted that Swift “possessed a terrible intensity of vision, capable of picking out a single hidden truth and then magnifying it and distorting it.”
Now, though, the pre-satirized absurdities of the Trump era call into question the potency of this genre. What comic genius can compete with the news? Most days, the White House sounds kookier than tea at the Mad Hatter’s table. One minute Reince Priebus is groveling, “Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda.” The next, Betsy DeVos is suggesting that schools might need guns to protect students from grizzly bears.
This is climate change nobody should believe in, and it’s made us all weirdly self-conscious about satire. On Facebook, one constantly sees real stories prefaced with the advisory: “Not from The Onion!” Otherwise, who would accept headlines about a former ghost-hunter considered to be a federal district court judge, or the secretary of the Treasury neglecting to disclose $100 million in personal assets? With the Grabber-in-Chief constantly stroking himself, the Oval Office outstrips the imaginations of even our cleverest writers. This year, both Salman Rushdie and Harold Jacobson aimed for the heart of the bloated beast—and missed badly.
W.B. Yeats knew what he was talking about when he said of Swift, “Imitate him if you dare.”
Consider the remarkable persistence of “A Modest Proposal,” published anonymously in 1729. Swift’s ironic phrase is such a hardy part of our language that it’s easy to forget how unlikely it is that we’d still be referring to a 3,000-word political pamphlet almost 300 years later. Originally titled “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public,” the essay burns with rage at a privileged class willing to ignore and rationalize human suffering. Although the plight of starving Irishmen may be unimaginable to us today, the centuries have done nothing to mute Swift’s savage indignation. He still sounds as timely as last night’s “Daily Show.”
If you haven’t read “A Modest Proposal” since high school, look it up again and be astounded. Speaking in the voice of a perfectly reasonable bureaucrat, Swift begins by describing the piteous state of beggars and their children “all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms.” In response to this “deplorable state,” he announces a solution, “having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich”:
Why not harvest these Irish babies?
“A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”
Much of Swift’s essay is taken up with various statistics and logistical explanations, a hellacious spreadsheet of infant flesh to lay out the case for utilizing 100,000 children nursed to approximately 28 pounds each. In those well-modulated sentences, Swift washes individuals and their pain away. As John Stubbs writes in his recent biography, Swift possessed an “unequalled capacity to endow a ludicrous line of argument with an air of steadfast reason.” The bloody solution of “A Modest Proposal” is easy to laugh off as a bit of grotesque hyperbole, but the real horror of the essay remains its bland, bureaucratic tone—the same sterile language of accounting that justified American slavery, the Holocaust or any scheme that slices human lives into the columns of a ledger.
Even now, our political leaders are scheming to strip millions of Americans of health insurance so that the resultant federal savings can be lavished on the richest citizens. That may not be a recipe for roasting babies au gratin, but it makes a tasty birthday cake.
If politicians haven’t changed their menu much in 300 years, the rest of us still face the same risk of indigestion. Remember that “Gulliver’s Travels” ends with the intrepid narrator isolated and disgusted. Orwell assumed that Gulliver reflected his creator’s morose character and claimed that Swift suffered from a “general hatred of humanity” stoked by a perverse obsession with mankind’s sins and weaknesses. Stubbs argues that the image of Swift as a “misanthropic monster” is not entirely fair, but Gulliver’s fate is instructive, nonetheless.
Now that we’re all strident critics trading the day’s outrages across Twitter and the dining room table, how are we to avoid being sickened by our own bitter indignation? The bile in a satirist’s mind must be balanced with hope, or the whole enterprise is doomed. Surely, Swift wouldn’t have bothered to poke fun at cruelty, incompetence and hypocrisy unless he believed, on some level, that such scalding exposure could awaken a better nature.
On his 350th birthday, it’s good to remember that despair is the satirist’s temptation and the citizen’s poison.
Ron Charles is editor of The Washington Post Book World.
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