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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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