From the archive: Frank Kermode on Jonathan Swift

Compared with Swift’s ferocious wit, Private Eye is primitive stuff.

In 1731, the Irish-born satirist, pamphleteer and clergyman Jonathan Swift finished his Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, writing to his friend, the Scriblerian poet John Gay, “I have been several months writing near five hundred lines on a pleasant subject, only to tell what my friends and enemies will say on me after I am dead.” Gay died in 1732; Swift two years later.

In one of his many Books in General essays for the NSFrank Kermode confronts the notion that Swift’s challenging rhetorical imagination was a product of growing insanity, particularly in the final part of Gulliver’s Travels (that of the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms). To confuse his dementophobia with his unsettling imagination, would be to underestimate the satirist’s strengths.

Today is the anniversary of Swift’s birth in Dublin. The city retained a psychiatric institution, founded in his name (a public toilet too), symbolic of his difficult relationship with Ireland. He attempted to provoke an insurrection against English rule with his Drapier’s Letters, but ultimately failed to change the mindset of his Anglo-Irish peers. He seems, in elegising himself, to have known pretty well how the conversation would run on:

“He knew an hundred pleasant Stories,
With all the Turns of Whigs and Tories:
Was chearful to his dying Day,
And Friends would let him have his Way.

“He gave the little Wealth he had,
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satiric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much

Jonathan the First by Frank Kermode

Swift, I suppose, is one of the few authors about whom professional and common readers continue to concur. In his own day Addison called him ‘the greatest Wit of the Nation’, and this judgment still holds for most people, including Mr Muggeridge, who used Swift recently in these pages as a touchstone for the ‘New Satire’. He decided that the marked superiority of Jonathan the First over the young men of Beyond the Fringe derived from his advantageous view of mankind as a race of odious little vermin, and from his living in an age when it was still not ridiculous to have beliefs. Nobody, he added, ever called Swift ‘sick’ (true, but they call him ‘mad’). Mr Muggeridge's Swift is not unfamiliar, but he is largely mythical; and if we are really having a revival of wit and satire we probably ought to try and get a more realistic view of the classic figure.

It is thus a piece of good fortune that Irving Ehrenpreis's big critical biography of Swift has just got under way. The present volume is the first of a projected three, and covers the ground from Swift's birth up to the death of Sir William Temple in 1699, when Swift was 32. It has therefore to deal with some old puzzles — Swift's ancestry, his kidnapping as a child, his academic record. Some pseudo-puzzles (such as the hypothesis that Swift was a natural son of Temple's) are properly ignored. Many myths about Swift's life are due simply to misunderstanding of his work. The relationship with Temple was difficult enough in reality for the young author; he was very dependent but also very devoted, and he was deeply affected by Temple's remarkable intellect. On such matters, and on Swift's final disappointment, Ehrenpreis is sensible and sensitive. So also on his subject's sex-life, which attracts so much curiosity; at this stage anyway it seems that apart from avoiding both marriage and fornication Swift was normal. The major writing of this early period is A Tale of a Tub, that monstrous work of genius; it will probably always be a prime instance of the great book which can never be made accessible, but Ehrenpreis writes of it with skill and clarity. Stella makes only a brief appearance, Vanessa is as yet unheard of. The years of Swift's political influence and his Scriblerus friendships, the retreat to Ireland, are still to come.

Such books as this one and Kathleen Williams's admirable Jonathan Swift will surely disperse some of the common errors about the satirist, though the wilder biographers and Aldous Huxley's potent and misleading essay have a strong hold. The truth is that with the exception of Jonson (in a few places) and Pope, no English satirist has ever operated at the imaginative and intellectual level of Swift; and this makes great demands on the sanity and mental agility of his readers. What he believed in is, of course, relevant, because the effect of what he does depends a good deal on ironical deviation from a norm of common sense (which is by no means constant from age to age or man to man). This deviation is under very complicated rhetorical control, and we can be tricked by it, like the bishop who suspected that not everything in Gulliver's Travels was true: the more so because later writers offer nothing so exercising as these ironies.

There is nothing like this in, say, Juvenal, with his compound of gloomy ferocity and republican nostalgia, nor in the Elizabethan satirists roughly reprehending women, doctors, lawyers, fashions, the gay life. And you hardly look for it in vaudeville or pasquinade, Beyond the Fringe or Private Eye, which are by comparison primitive. The rhetorical range is so limited that an establishment audience can feel socially superior, knowing itself to be out of range. This explains Mr Muggeridge's observation that nobody minds being assaulted by the Fringe men; for all their cleverness they lack the means really to get at anybody. What they do is not so much satire as primitive satura (‘a disjointed series of action-songs and musical sketches’). When Jonathan the First was in agony about senility, or about the fate of the superfluous Irish, he thought up the Struldbruggs or wrote A Modest Proposal; but Jonathan the Second, when moved by life in a geriatric ward, writes reportage of unmixed sobriety, not seeing this as a matter for irony because he does not see irony as a serious intellectual instrument. As to the ‘sick’ humorists, they also belong to a phase of satire far less highly organized than Swift’s; Jonson puts them in his plays, and they are the ‘mad conceited men’ of minor Elizabethan verse. The Duke in As You Like It tells Jaques that in professing to ‘cleanse the foul body of the infected world’ he is merely disgorging his own ‘embossed sores’.

Swift would have liked the Fringe; he spent hundreds of hours writing ‘bagatelles’ himself, and might have taken particularly to the sermon, the most Swiftian piece in the show, with its absurd text, the whining low-church manner, the attempt to be colloquially up to date, the omission of all reference to the deity, and the ill-chosen illustration of the man vomiting on the mountain. A good bagatelle; but when Swift got to work on preachers he wrote not bagatelles but The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, where the Puritan enthusiast is literally full of wind, and whines because the movement of the spirit, carrying the pox, has broken down his nose — the whole joke carried out by rhetorical and linguistic virtuosity so extreme as to attract the charges of madness and pathological obscenity.

That Swift should be thought of in this way, or as a ‘life-hater’, is only another instance of the truth of his saying, ‘When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the Dunces are all in a confederacy against him.’ His own fear of madness, often cited in evidence, seems to have been no more than an unlucky consequence of his misunderstanding the symptoms of labyrinthitis. The gross verses of which so much is made amount to a few pages out of the three Oxford volumes; and they go beyond bounds because, in the writer's opinion, enthusiastically worshipful attitudes to women may be corrected by these means. The only Irish pamphlet that is at all funny is An Examination of Certain Abuses, and this has a characteristic scatological element; but the dirt has a point:

Every Person who walks the Streets [of Dublin] must needs observe the immense number of human Excrements at the Doors and Steps of waste Houses, and at the Sides of every dead Wall; for which the disaffected Party have assigned a very false and malicious Cause. They would have it, that these Heaps were laid there privately by British Fundaments, to make the World believe, that our Irish Vulgar do daily eat and drink; and consequently, that the Clamour of Poverty among us, must be false, proceeding only from Jacobites and Papists.

Here the actual dirt is merely incidental to an argument only apparently puerile, and to a double attack on Irish physical and English political dirt. The contempt for Jacobites and Papists hinted at is one which Swift shared; here is a minor instance of the fluctuation of tone to be got from an author with steady beliefs and an oblique habit of mind.

For Mr Muggeridge is right about Swift's having beliefs, though wrong about his quest for ‘an elusive perfection’. He believed that Christianity was mysterious and should remain so; that High Church Anglicanism best represented it; that men had an obligation to behave as reasonably as their nature allowed (which is not very reasonably, since the love of life and the means of propagation are natural but unreasonable); that good government, like religion, was a matter of the rational employment of human self-interest. He thought that the specialized use of intellect in the modern sciences was an abuse, leading to the neglect of human self-cultivation and the substitution of a crazy vogue for measurement and dissection (an opinion which derives some colour from the activities of the Royal Society and those of his Dublin teachers). Just as Deistic intellectualism and Puritan enthusiasm endangered religion, so learning divorced from its proper object would extinguish civility, even if its exponent was Bentley. He thought of men as fallen, and likely to fall further if they did not defend the walls of civility against the armies of Dulness. He believed (and this is a doctrine valuable to satire) that moral was reflected in linguistic decay; hence his fanatical interest in the inanities of polite conversation and in slang, which reminds one of Jonson's characters being made to vomit their neologisms on the stage. These were not Utopian opinions. Swift was practical enough; he sought peace, political stability, personal liberty in a world which threatened them constantly, not because it was absurd but because it was natural. You chose a civil life rather than a nasty, brutish and short one. The differences between his high satire and our own are, then, not to be explained by his idealism or the specially hideous state of our world, but more simply, by his serious use of a lost skill. Swift rarely said anything straight. It is surely remarkable that when he saw the safety of Ireland as depending upon immediate and direct action he wrote the Drapier Letters: the famous, revered Dean puts on the mask of a linen draper who stands to lose by the debased coinage, and compares the value of the new halfpennies with that of ‘three Pins out of my Sleeve’.

Ireland was the great test of this habit of obliquity; when we think of Swift's ‘savage indignation’ we should remember not Celia's dressing-room or the Yahoos but Ireland in his time, reduced by neglect and exploitation to ‘universal poverty and desolation’. The whole terrible story is told in a new book by Oliver Ferguson. Swift became the Irish patriot not because he was ‘dropped’ in Ireland and spent many years there, rather unwillingly, but because he ‘served human liberty’. The Irish drove him almost to despair by their fecklessness in misery; he needed all his efforts to ‘subdue his Indignation’ and preserve that ironic obliquity. Yet in A Modest Proposal, perhaps the highest point of English satire, he speaks still as the honest, well-meaning, corrupt bourgeois, disinterestedly proposing the slaughter of Irish children for food as a final instance of the true saying that ‘people are the riches of a nation’. The force of this pamphlet no doubt derives from the loving persistence with which Swift elaborates the hateful argument; it may sound a little mad, if you can mistake a severe imaginative exercise for mania. This mistake has made the last book of Gulliver's Travels the most misunderstood of the English classics. People who think Swift was steadily getting madder as he wrote are surprised to discover that Book IV was not written last; but they continue to get it wrong because they identify Swift with Gulliver, which is like saying Swift wanted to cook the Irish children. He was not, as he himself said, trying to ‘disclaim the human name and face’ in favour of ‘the horse's countenance divine’. What he does is to present a diagrammatic ‘rational animal’ — a race of talking horses who go naked, use no money, never lie, do not mourn the dead, use sex only for propagation, and so on. Beside them he places a man with ‘a small pittance of reason’, who foolishly aspires to the passionless society in which he finds himself, pondering his own similarity to the Yahoos, who are human animals without reason or civility. Gulliver's mistake, clearly indicated by the sorrel nag and Don Pedro, is to undervalue the merits of his own society by this impossible comparison. As in Book II, Swift loses no chance of satire at the expense of human institutions and pretensions; but basically the scale of the book is human, and a longing for civilized human society informs it, rather than a barren lust of rational perfection.

The above piece was uncovered during ongoing research for The New Statesman Century, available August, 2013.

An illustration (circa 1730) from Gulliver's Travels. Image: Getty.

Frank Kermode (1919-2010) was a literary critic who wrote essays and reviews for the New Statesman in the 1970s and 80s.

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What is "narrow banking" - and could it put finance right?

Other People’s Money and Between Debt and the Devil approach finance from different angles, but arrive at a single policy.

How much finance do we really need? The unprecedented explosion in the size of the UK’s financial industry and levels of debt in the economy over the past three and a half decades have long posed that question. The 2008 crash made it all the more urgent. Yet mainstream economics has proved unable to come up with a compelling framework with which to explain the appropriate role of finance in our economy. Until now, that is. These two books go an impressively long way towards filling the gap.

John Kay and Adair Turner are two of Britain’s most profound and articulate economic thinkers. With that, however, the similarities end. Turner is the consummate insider. A former director of the Confederation of British Industry, ex-chairman of the Financial Services Authority and a member of the House of Lords, he has for years been the pointman of the powers that be on any thorny economic policy problem requiring the forensic application of vast brainpower, clear exposition and political nous.

Kay, for his part, is a professional outsider. A uniquely versatile entrepreneur in both business and ideas, he has disrupted virtually every big economic policy debate in Britain for the past four decades, founding think tanks and companies along the way. He is also – as he demonstrates in his celebrated weekly column in the Financial Times, and as Other People’s Money confirms – an unparalleled communicator of economics to a non-specialist audience.

Consequently, the simultaneous publication of Other People’s Money and Between Debt and the Devil is a double blessing. Both books are scintillating individual contributions to the debate not just on the future of finance but how we should run our economy. But I would strongly recommend anyone interested in these topics to read both – because Kay’s and Turner’s contrasting backgrounds and temperaments bring two very different perspectives to the table.

Kay takes a microeconomist’s approach. He tackles the phenomenon of financialisation by focusing relentlessly on what people who work in financial institutions actually do – and whether it meets the needs of consumers. His conclusion is that, to an alarmingly large extent, it does not.

The problem is not finance per se. The core functions of finance are not only valuable, Kay argues, but essential in a modern economy: to facilitate payments; to match those who have savings with those who need capital for productive investment; and to enable households to manage their financial affairs and to insure themselves against risk.

The problem is that practically everything that accounts for the phenomenal growth of finance over the past 35 years has little to do with these core functions. The gargantuan dimensions of modern finance are mostly the result of financial institutions trading with one another – not of their providing a broader range or more useful services to the businesses or individuals who invest or deposit their money with them.

The origin of this pointless (from the view of the consumer) hypertrophy, Kay argues, is a deep-rooted confusion in Anglo-Saxon financial culture between the central concepts of insurance and wagering. Insurance involves the mutualisation of risks and is a socially useful service that society should happily pay financiers to deliver. Wagering, on the other hand, is not a socially useful activity, but a zero-sum game that adds no economic value. Insurance is a core function of finance. Wagering is not. Yet policymakers have allowed a vast industry of wagering to thrive under the misconception that it represents useful insurance.

The key to salvaging the situation, Kay says, is to apply the universal logic of economic regulation: “Finance is a business like any other, and should be judged by reference to the same principles – the same tools of analysis, the same metrics of value – that we apply to other industries, such as railways, or retailing, or electricity supply.” That is a compellingly simple principle and indeed, in Kay’s expert hands it yields a raft of convincing suggestions. Yet, strangely enough, one of the central purposes of Adair Turner’s book is to argue that it is invalid.

“Money,” Turner states early on in Between Debt and the Devil, “is different from other commodities, goods, or services, and neither the economic nor the political arguments in favour of free markets apply to money.” He reaches this startlingly contrasting conclusion because he approaches finance from the opposite direction to Kay.

Seen from the microeconomic perspective that Kay takes, money appears as a thing – a commodity like any other – that is passed from savers to banks to borrowers. Seen from the macroeconomic perspective of the economy as a whole, however, it is shown rather to be a system of credits and debts created and managed by banks. And as at present constituted, Turner argues, this system is intrinsically unstable.

Money creation in modern banking systems depends on the accumulation of debt: it is through the act of making loans that banks create the money we use. There is no doubt that this is a remarkable set-up, and one that historically has greatly facilitated entrepreneurship, invention and trade. In its modern incarnation, however, it also suffers from two flaws.

The first is that there is no natural limit to the quantity of credit and debt that it generates. It is not the case, as the models in economics textbooks claim, that households and businesses need to save up money before banks can lend it on to borrowers. Banks can make loans and thereby create money without any prior act of saving taking place. The idea that the growth of finance is constrained by the rate at which people save is therefore a comforting illusion.

Not the only one, either. Ask most people what banks do, and they will probably tell you that they take in the savings of individuals and lend them out to businesses. Yet, as Turner explains, lending to non-financial companies accounted for a meagre 14 per cent of UK banks’ loan books in 2012. Critics of the banks might think they have an explanation: banks just lend to hapless households to fund “debt-fuelled consumption”. Yet consumer credit made up an even smaller 7 per cent of banks’ loans. What accounts for the other four-fifths of banks’ loans – what banks really do – is mortgages. The overwhelming bulk of British banks’ retail business is lending us money to buy each other’s houses. The outcome is unhealthy. Creating ever more debt to finance real estate does not make the economy any more productive. What it mostly does is pump up house prices. In short, in the current banking system we end up with “too much of the wrong kind of debt”.

This is a diagnosis a degree more pessi­mistic than Kay’s. It is not just that financialisation has erected a tottering skyscraper of “socially useless” gambling on the healthy core business of banking: the foundations are rotten as well.

Which perspective is right, Kay’s or Turner’s? If only banking were shorn of its rent-seeking activities and treated like a normal industry, would all be well? Or are even the core functions of finance intrinsically flawed? In fact, you don’t have to choose. Both approaches yield analyses rich with valuable insights. Perhaps more surprisingly, the approaches converge on an identical, central policy recommendation: banking needs deep structural reform.

Writing ever-fatter rulebooks will not work; what is needed is a different institutional structure. Banks should be restricted to providing current accounts and processing payments. Savings, investments and mortgage finance should be assigned to specialised institutions. The catch-all term for this solution is “narrow banking”. Turner sees it as an unlikely ideal; Kay argues convincingly that it is perfectly workable.

When two such independently minded thinkers, approaching from two such disparate angles, argue as convincingly as Kay and Turner do in this marvellous pair of books that a single policy is the royal road to putting finance right, it is time for policymakers to listen – and act.

Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Vintage)

Other People's Money by John Kay is out now from Profile Books (368pp, £16.99)

Between Debt and the Devil by Adair Turner is published by Princeton University Press (320pp, £19.95)

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State