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The Blistering Satire Of Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” and blistering satire on human nature. He’s relevant again. We’ll bring back Jonathan Swift.

Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, pictured in a 1710 portrait. (Charles Jervas / Creative Commons)

Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, pictured in a 1710 portrait. (Charles Jervas / Creative Commons)

Jonathan Swift could wield satire like maybe no one else in the history of the English language.  He put Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians in “Gulliver’s Travels” and sent up the mean, absurd smallness of so much human nature.  He put the bones of children in stewpots in “A Modest Proposal” and skewered human immorality.  That essay, nearly 300 years old, still hurts to read today.  Still cuts.  “I hate and detest the animal called man,” Swift wrote.  And what made him?  This hour On Point:  a new biography shares the life and times and view of Jonathan Swift.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Leo Damrosch, professor of literature at Harvard University. Author of the new book, “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World.” Also author of “Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius” and “Tocqueville’s Discovery of America.”

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times: A Giant Among Men — “Although basically a traditionalist, he was in many ways ahead of his time. Thus he was all for the learning and writing of women (who were then forbidden the university); he was active in promoting the cause of Ireland, though he hated it; and he advocated religious tolerance despite his own firm Anglicanism. The contemporary medical stance to the contrary, he was a hearty practitioner of physical exercise, often traveling on foot or horseback rather than by the customary coach or sedan chair. He opposed slavery, which was generally — even by Daniel Defoe — approved of.”

The Guardian: “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” by Leo Damrosch – review — “All Swift’s satires were written in some invented first person – the clever economist with ‘A Modest Proposal’ to make the Irish eat their babies, the up‑to-date hack who narrates ‘A Tale of a Tub,’ gullible Gulliver, tumbling from pride to self-disgust; all were published anonymously. Swift is not “there” in any of them. All the more reason for trying to find the author, whom none of us can quite detach from Gulliver in his final dark enlightenment, realising that he is but a Yahoo: sly, vicious and lecherous.”

Washington Post: Swift’s brilliance shines through his life’s mysteries in new biography — “Much of Damrosch’s book is devoted to Swift’s political affiliations. He started out as a Whig, but switched to the Tories after that party’s leader, Robert Harley, seeking a propagandist and pamphleteer for his cause, flattered him with compliments and personal attention. Soon the upstart Swift was hobnobbing with England’s ruling class — until the Whigs, under Robert Walpole, regained power. While these post-Restoration political shifts and betrayals were of seismic importance in British history, 21st-century American readers are likely to find them tedious.”

Read An Excerpt Of “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” by Leo Damrosch

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  • Coastghost

    It would take a journalist to write that Swift is “relevant again”: when since his career ended has Swift ceased to be relevant?
    Granted, he and his works have since enjoyed bad press: Thackeray (English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century, 1853) notoriously misread both the Fourth Voyage of Gulliver and Swift himself, contributing to the confusion of Gulliver’s misanthropy with what came to be attributed for a time to Swift himself. Granted, too, Swift was enough of a satirist to see that his works were subject to misreading, or at least to an initial misreading. Thackeray’s misreading seems far too studied to be simply casual, though: so how would Professor Damrosch account for Thackeray’s stubborn misreading? Had perspectives on anthropology changed so radically in Great Britain over that bare century? (And/Or: can any substantive changes in perspective on anthropology across that century be attributed to Swift’s satires, esp. Gulliver’s Travels, esp. the Fourth Voyage?)

    • geraldfnord

      (Very good punch-line, that.)
      (Did Swift approve of the Hanover Rat?)

      • Coastghost

        Thanks for the nod.
        Don’t know what Swift made of George I, but he became no fan of Walpole’s.

  • Joe KomaGawa

    Didn’t I learn in Greek Literature class that the rise of the satirist marks a turning point for the society, ie a finishing off of the loftiest contributions of culture and literature? Is this true in the course of British literature at the time of Swift?

    • Coastghost

      Not a lesson you would have drawn from Latin literature: the acknowledged father of the specifically Roman genre of satire, Lucilius, flourished in the second century BC, close to the very headwaters of Latin literary achievement.

  • Joe KomaGawa

    I agree with the Guardian’s last comment. the most enjoyable satirists I read in Buzzfeed or the Wire or elsewhere, the author eventually turns the magnifying glass upon himself, better at the end of his essay, in an act of humility.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    What would Swift make of the current clodhoppers (Obama, Reid, McConnell, Boehner) and the rest of the yobs with power/connections/money converting America into raw sewage?

  • Joe KomaGawa

    It is said that George Orwell, in his essay, Shooting the Elephant, most admired Swift among a few others, but disagreed on almost all moral positions. I wonder if Swift is too subtle and acidic for the general democratic citizen of the internet to appreciate. thus I would not recommend him as a model for modern communication.

    • skelly74

      Today we have satirical performers such as Daniel Tosh who captures and exposes the follies and foibles of the “crowd” to a very appreciative audience. Acidic? Yes. Tasteless? Yes. But Tosh is basically commenting, satirically, on what he finds posted on the internet.

  • Ed75

    Today we have abortion, and no one wants to hear descriptions of abortion.

    • Dee Dee B

      . and what does abortion have to do with skinning cooking and EATING a child?

      • Ed75

        (Well, you have to tell me.) The reporting on Kermit Gosnell could have been a biting satire in this vein, but it was a real story.

    • Coastghost

      For a vivid and thoroughly morbidly humorous tale of no little satiric merit, consult “Oil of Dog” by the fine American satirist Ambrose Bierce.

      • Jasoturner

        Thank you for the reference. Morbid indeed, but quite amusing nonetheless.

      • Ed75

        Thanks. Ambrose wrote that devil’s dictionary and then … went to Mexico … no one knows what happened to him.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Wall Street: rapaciously eating its seed corn – the lives, dreams, efforts, and assets of working humans around the world.

  • Caitlin

    I first read Gulliver’s Travels while backpacking around Europe in my early-twenties. I remember being so struck by how universal and timeless Swift’s insights were. Though I was traveling via Eurail in 2006, I felt deeply connected to the experiences he describes in the book, and Swift was my travel companion as I took in new cultures and places.

  • Brock Putnam

    In reference to your guest’s discussion of Jonathan Swift, he stated the author of Robinson Crusoe was William DeFoe. DANIEL DeFoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, not William.

  • Ed75

    We need a similar satire to support the pro-life movement. Voltaire though was an atheist, an enemy of the Church.

  • Coastghost

    Swift’s career and outlook arguably are closer to those of his almost-exact Neapolitan contemporary Giambattista Vico, esp. in terms of their common career frustrations and their common opposition to Cartesian rationalism.

  • Ed75

    I find Colbert to be quite harsh.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Most aristocrats were imbeciles. Words to live by.

    The Windsors: clear and cogent examples of the proposal put above.

  • Joseph F. Whelan

    Great discussion, Tom. Along with Leo’s biography, I hope to reread A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels, soon.

  • hennorama

    This is the sort of Swift Justice that we need more of, rather than the sort that was proposed in the first hour of On Point.

    • Dee Dee B

      meaning what exactly?

      • hennorama

        Dee Dee B — TY for your question.

        In the Packed Prisons And The Call For Sentencing Reform forum, poster [Fiscally_Responsible] wrote, regarding two specific criminals, that “A firing squad would be quick and effective, as would be a hangman’s noose.”

  • Duras

    I teach “A Modest Proposal” to freshman college students. There are always a handful of students with furrowed brows.

  • Steven Hahn

    What was Swift’s affliction which caused nausea, vertigo and ringing in the ears?

    • Coastghost

      Meniere’s disease or Meniere’s syndrome (apologies for my inability to type with acutes and graves) is the diagnosis commonly proffered, though some audiologists differ.

  • Dee Dee B

    Sounds like Swift possessed he Moral integrity that the founding slavers lacked..

  • Fred Balfour

    For current satire, what would Swift have done with comparing 1983 Operation Urgent Fury when the Regan admin attacked Grenada. From Wikipedia: “British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher personally opposed the U.S. invasion… When she telephoned Reagan twenty minutes later, he assured Thatcher that an invasion was not contemplated. Reagan later said, “She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn’t tell her that it had already begun.”

    Wikipedia Again: The U.S. sent 7,300 military people and gave out over 5,000 medals for valor and merit.

    Mr. Swift, WE NEED YOU!

  • geraldfnord

    My father had it, I might be getting it…so I hope I might be forgiven for finding that funny…I think the Dean could have got a sermon out of it, something about our fallen nature preventing our clearly seeing our fallen nature.

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