Sunday, June 04, 2006

Doctor Lector I presume?

This is yet another piece which is unlikely to ever grace the Net. Did a review for Biblio of Gulliver’s travels and other writings (Edited by Clement Hawes). Swift is my favourite "Modern":

The ten-pound note of the Irish Republic features an image of Dean Swift, set against the backdrop of the Irish Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Áras an Uachtaráin in Phoenix Park, Dublin. Very few writers achieve the distinction of having their faces embossed on the national currency.

The Irish Central Bank didn’t, for instance, see fit to put Joyce, Beckett, Behan, Shaw, Synge, or Lady Gregory on its notes. (Yeats is there on the five-pound. If my memory serves me right, WBY designed the currency issued by the newly-minted Republic in the 1920s. Putting his mug-shot into circulation may have literally been his quid pro quo for performing that onerous task).

(NOTE: Actually Yeats designed the coinage for the Republic - my memory was marginally off)

Swift was perhaps accorded this unusual honour because of his historic influence on Irish coinage. In 1722, an English miner named William Wood bought a royal patent for the milling of 108,000 pounds sterling worth of Irish copper half-pennies. Swift made an almighty fuss about the debased metal of the “Wood Halfpenny” in a series of letters to the Irish people signed “Marcus Brutus Drapier”.

The pseudonymous dean of St. Patrick’s advocated that the Irish refuse to accept the new coin. His baleful influence was sufficient to render the new coins unsuccessful – these were legal tender but they did not circulate. Wood’s patent was finally revoked by the Crown along with the payment of a generous severance “pension”. The coins were sent off to the American colonies and numismatics experts now salivate over these “American Hibernians”. The irony is that Wood’s coinage was not debased. He wasn’t cheating. The pension made him rich, however, so I guess everyone was happy.

Everyone, except Swift, that is. In the 78 years of his existence, nothing and nobody ever made the dean happy, if one can dare to make such a sweeping generalisation on the basis of his writing. In all the ages of mankind, there can have been few people as angry, as bitter, and as determinedly misanthropic as the dean.

There have also been few writers who have made such an art-form out of bitterness. And, there has never been anyone who combined an imagination quite as weird and unpleasant with such a felicity for logical, verbal exposition of that imagination.

As a man of letters, Swift rocks. His combination of versatility and virtuosity is amazing. You cannot conceptualise the allegory without reference to “A Tale of a Tub” and to Gulliver. Nor can you conceive of modern science-fiction fantasy with all its colours and flavours without reference once again to Gulliver. He was an astoundingly entertaining correspondent and a very funny poet. And, any modern polemicist would swap her canines to be able to inject Swift’s effortless venom into her essays.

The other thing about Swift is accessibility. Despite the barrier of 300 years worth of changes in idiom, despite inevitable loss of context, Swift is still easier to read than most modern writers. When he wants to, as in Gulliver and Tub, he tells a rattling good yarn. His essays and certainly his poems can make you crack up in laughter through the sheer elegance of phrasing.

This edition certainly helps with the contextualisation because it adds the obligatory footnotes that for example, identify the throwaway reference to events in the early 18th century. Another interesting section is the 18th century perspective, which deals with Defoe’s inspiration, with William Dampier’s voyages and with the prejudices against “Papists” and the strange political anatomy of Ireland at a point of time when the Irish Parliament was bribed to vote itself out of existence.

Naturally the meat of the collection has to be the master’s own work. Apart from the complete Gulliver, it has a good representative selection of essays, letters and poems as well. The only thing that’s missing is “Tub” and that’s easily available on e-book. In addition to annotated text, the edition contains many contemporary illustrations as well.

In the end-section of criticism, there are four essays on different aspects of Swift by the editor himself, by Said, and by Carole Fabricant and Robert Mahony. While the essays are fine in themselves, they are all from the same discipline of modern literary criticism. Swift deserved a wider academic focus simply because of the breadth of subjects he wrote about and also, because of the kind of person he was. I’ll return to this subject later.

Knowing the context and thinking a little about it, Swift’s iconic position in modern Ireland seems quite anomalous. He was not only a member by birth of a hated and oppressive religious minority – the protestant Anglican occupiers of catholic Ireland during the first century of the invasion. Swift was a clergyman who preached that Anglican theology to earn his bread-and-butter.

A rough analogue to the modern Irish attitude vis-a-vis Swift would be to imagine a BJP government releasing stamps to commemorate an Imam from the era of Aurangzeb.

It is true that Swift’s co-religionists disgusted him and he made no secret of that fact. The concept of a king also offended him and so, he was a republican, in an era when that was extremely politically incorrect as well.

But then, he found the Catholics of his adopted land just as disgusting as his brethren across the Irish Channel. “A Modest Proposal” for solving the problem of high Catholic birthrates by selling babies to the Protestant occupiers as fare for their Sunday lunch is amongst the most frightening essays ever written.

The cool, clinical advocacy of fattening babies by giving “ample suck” so that they can be basted, roasted and jointed to taste, reads like a verbal rendering of one of Hieronymus Bosch’s nastiest triptychs by a 18th century ancestor of Dr Lector’s. Of course, it was satirical – it was a literal exposition of England’s metaphorical gustation of Ireland. But it could only have been articulated in such fashion by somebody who hated the English, the Irish and children, with almost equal passion.

Despite his evenhanded hatred of both races, Swift was on the side of the Irish in the Anglo-Irish disputes because he also had a passion for evenhanded justice. He hated the tightening repression he witnessed in Catholic Ireland and he found the lack of an organ of political representation very offensive. But he didn’t have to like the Irish or indeed, the human race, to demand justice for all.

By the latter stages of Gulliver’s Travels, the hatred for the human race crystallises in the sojourn in the land of the Houyhnmhnms. Swift’s alienation from his fellow beings is mirrored by Gulliver’s incapacity to readjust to human company after his return to Yahoo-infested England.

By the mid 1730s, the misanthropy had calcified into something that smells like genuine psychosis. His essays from that period are over the top – not incoherent babbling, but crisp, acid-trip lunacy; the initial premises may come from outer space but each one is smoothly and logically developed into a glittering little jewel of an essay or a poem.

In the last decade of his life, the dean suffered from what was perhaps the worst disease that could afflict such a man. He developed aphasia, an inability to understand words caused by damage to specific areas of the brain. The early stages of the condition in the 1730s may add to the feel of a great mind finally breaking loose from the restraints of the left brain and free-wheeling into spaces where normal people cannot follow.

It would have been extremely entertaining and perhaps, enlightening, if a modern clinical psychiatrist had been asked to evaluate Swift’s mental condition. He wrote enough and enough is known about his life to come up with an educated perspective. How close to the edge was he really? Would medication have stabilised him or “Prozac-ed” him out of action?

Another perspective one would have liked is that of the economic historian. Swift was wrong about Wood’s halfpennies. But he hit the nail on the head when he inveighed against laws that prevented the growth of Irish trade and against the discrimination which destroyed the catholic land-owning class. He also had scathing things to say about the South Sea and Mississippi Bubbles, where he was personally burned.

The protestant-catholic sectarian perspective has been done to death over a period of centuries though Swift was one of the earliest commentators. The economic angle of the Anglo-Irish relationship has been explored in depth only from the potato famine era of the 1840s. Swift wrote with insight and sensitivity about economic conditions fully 150 years before that catastrophe.

Swift was one of the founding fathers of modernism but he wasn’t a modernist. No modern philosopher would have the stomach to produce “A Modest Proposal”. Anybody who wrote a similar “dead babies” essay set in say, Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Israel, etc, would set off a hullabaloo that dwarfed the Jyllands Posten ‘toons and Salman Rushdie’s verses.

Certainly 21st century human beings are individually and collectively capable of perpetrating horrors as bad or worse. But the politically correct 21st century mind simply isn’t capable of articulating this level of verbal viciousness anymore. What a pity!


Blogger Jabberwock said...

*clap clap clap* Need to rush out and get my hands on "A Modest Proposal" now...

8:39 AM  
Blogger DiJo said...

too good man. loved it.Indiaholic

1:28 AM  
Blogger Arun said...

I stumbled upon this blog from India Uncut and am happy to see people writing so well about the "Ascendancy".

Another nice book is Luck & the baby recipes though, but lots about rural/modern Ireland and the similarities to India in some regards are very striking.

Well done


8:38 AM  

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