Dean Swift: The Politics of Satire
The Tercentenary of A Tale of a Tub (1704)
Conducted on 16-17/10/2004 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair
Satire is a Virus: Generic Inhabitation and Transformation in Swift's Tale
Heather Young (Catholic University of America)
In the Preface to Tale of a Tub, Swift lays down a telling maxim regarding literary analysis: Whatever Reader desires to have a thorow comprehension of an Author's thoughts cannot take a better Method, than by putting himself into the Circumstances and Postures of Life, that the Writer was in, upon every important Passage as it flow'd from his Pen; For this will introduce a parity and strict correspondence of Ideas between the Reader and the author. (44)
While Swift suggests, on the surface, that readers must know the external circumstances of textual creation (in the case of the Tale, conceived in a bed, in a garret, while the author was hungry, poor and receiving enemas), a closer examination reveals that Swift requires much more than readerly empathy; readers must not only understand the circumstances and postures of a writer's life, they must "put themselves into" those circumstances - they must "become" the author to understand authorial intent. The problem, however, is that one cannot put one's self into an author's circumstances and postures of life - and therefore discover authorial intent - unless a consistent, stable author can be identified. Add to this the complication that Swift follows his own advice - to know what he's criticizing, he does not just imitate the voices or discourses he satirizes, he becomes the things he wishes to avoid. In this "becoming," Swift historically has led critics down disparate paths in the search for authorial intent. As disparate as these paths seem, however, they meet consistently around several key concepts: the act of inhabitation, the multiplication of voices and interpretive meanings, and the transformation of original intent - concepts that, I submit, find their balance in the metaphor of virus.1
The conundrum of discovering Swift's authorial intent has been the driving factor in much twentieth-century Swift scholarship. In 1935, David Nichol Smith had no doubt that Swift was the author of and main voice in his works; in fact, Swift is not just an author, but a director. "Swift asks us to look at ourselves under strange conditions," Nichol Smith argues about Gulliver's Travels, "He asks us to imagine a land where the horse is in power" (109). Fewer than 20 years later, knowing authorial intent became more complicated when the concept of the persona was developed by Maynard Mack, Ronald Paulson, Robert C. Elliott and others. As Dustin Griffin argues, "the satirist, not to be confused with the historical author, is a conventional figure who wears a mask appropriate to his rhetorical situation" (29), and only the opinions of the persona can be detected. By the late 20th century, the idea of authorial intent was exploded by deconstruction, Roland Barthes, and the death of the author. Critics such as Robert Phiddian have argued that Swift has not just one persona, but many personas whose voices are all equally valid, and whose authorial intent is impossible to determine.
However, all attempts to define - or defy - the author of Swift's satires do not take into account the fact that Swift practiced what he preached. While critics look for Swift the author in his texts, Swift inhabits other authors, becoming them and transforming their intent into his own. Modern critical perspectives have examined pieces of this puzzle, but they had not focused on the integration of these points until critics like Edward Said began to acknowledge the multiplicity of Swift's own perspectives on authorial intent. In his essay "Swift as Intellectual," Said is adamant that Swift's satiric program invariably is not about satiric imitation, which requires outside acknowledgement of a specific form, but about satiric inhabitation, which corrodes from within; in his impersonations, Said argues, "Swift's technique is to become the thing he attacks, which is normally not a message or a political doctrine, but a style or manner of discourse" (87). According to Said, Swift does not just imitate the form or person he attacks, he becomes it; he does not just identify with what he is criticizing, he inhabits it, turning himself into the very thing he works to destroy. This idea of inhabitation from within rejects the perception of an author who distances himself from his topics, as a director, a mask wearer, or even an absentee host. Inhabitation reaffirms Swift's own views, that one must become what one wishes to understand - even if that means becoming what one most despises.
Before Said however, John Traugott suggests this concept in his essay "Tale of a Tub." arguing against the notion of a consistent persona in Tale of a Tub - or, finally, in any of Swift's work. Although he acknowledges the array of voices Swift chooses for his arguments - a harlequin, a Grub Street hack, a resident of Bedlam, a philosopher - he suggests that these personalities ultimately are neither definable nor defendable as personas, masks, or any other form of distancing device. Swift's parody works, according to Traugott, not because he has a good ear for imitation, but because he is "speaking in tongues," and "as he adopts the extravagances of his enemies, his invention takes fire, and he becomes his enemy, working out his own sceptical ideas in the enemy's guise" (89). This guise is not just a mask, persona, or imitation, however - all these techniques provide outer rather than inner knowledge of the enemy. Traugott argues that Swift's parody goes beyond the surface and becomes, not an imitation, but an inhabitation, not a critical impersonation, but a "sympathetic transformation," until "the most radical discoveries of the realities of human life come not as satiric parodies of perverse figures, but when the author is speaking in the idiom and guise of those figures" (80). Because Swift inhabits his character so completely, Traugott contends, "distinctions between [himself] and his speaker collapse" (77), and the idiom and guise that were meant to ridicule become reality. In becoming his enemy, in taking parody into inhabitation, Swift destabilizes the potential for any single authorial intent. As Traugott suggests, "Here is the crux of the notorious problem - whether we are to believe the speaking voice, or invert it, or twist it north-northwest, or throw up our hands" (93). Swift would probably prefer that we do all of those things.
Robert Phiddian continues to develop the idea of Swift's multiplication of authorial intent, indeed the constant deferment of any stable intent, in his deconstructionist study, Swift's Parody. Like Traugott, Phiddian recognizes that Swift's "true" voice in Tale of a Tub - or the definitive voice of any satirist - cannot be found in parody, because the author does not comment on things from without, but attacks "the terms of their own construction" (2) from within. Phiddian asserts that Swiftian parody in Tale of a Tub destabilizes authorial intention by replacing the satiric voice with a parodic one. This parodic voice invades and inhabits its cultural, literary, and historical pre-texts, but comments on rather than condemns them. In doing so, parody does not "criticize error from a distance," but "engage[es] in the textual madness" (20) According to Phiddian, this inhabitation explodes any notion of univocal meaning because it "interacts with other texts and discourses but does not claim a unique and meaningful integrity of its own" (197) . This interaction allows for multiple interpretations and the interplay of multiple voices, all of which have equal validity. "It is not finally possible," Phiddian suggests, "to prove that [Swift's] whole self supports any particular judgment or pattern of judgments" (2), because his parody ultimately supports what it criticizes. Inhabitation precludes judgment, because "the thing that is not" is also the thing that is.
Like Traugott and Phiddian, Claude Rawson recognizes that Swift's parody is not simply about criticizing an earlier text, author, or culture. In Rawson's case, however, the parody does not work backward, criticizing texts that have already been, but forward, parodying texts that have yet to be. In his review "Behind the Tub," Rawson argues, like Phiddian, that Swift is "an author who saw himself caught in a clash of cultures" (3). Unlike Phiddian, however, who defines Swift's parody as acknowledgment of multiple meanings within cultural or literary discourse, Rawson suggests that Swift's parodic critique of modernity actually anticipates that which he abhors. This parody unwittingly transforms the texts he wishes to destroy into models for use by future generations. In his essay "The Character of Swift's Satire," Rawson acknowledges that the mind of the Tale's narrator "anticipates a powerful mode of the modern imagination, those heroes of the wandering mind in Sterne or Beckett, whose … mentalities are restlessly indecorous, digressive, disordered" (19), as if Swift was inhabiting the future rather than the past, creating modern literature through an act of repudiation. According to Rawson, Swift has an "intuitive understanding of [fractured] modern sensibility" and its subsequent literary production. Therefore Swift does not just destabilize the monological interpretation of literature by turning an example of execrable writing into a masterpiece, he actually creates the conditions for which this bad writing becomes not only accepted, but lauded.
Inhabitation, multiplication, and transformation. While the theories of Said, Traugott, Phiddian, and Rawson are strikingly similar, their disparate approaches have rarely, if ever, been reconciled, because they have consistently been seen as discrete theories rather than as parts of a larger system. I submit, however, that Swift's inhabitation of texts, his destabilization of authorial intent through the multiplicity of his own voices, and his transformation of genre through this inhabitation are not distinct activities, but parts of a process, a process that can best be encompassed by the metaphor of virus. This metaphor - of a being that invades an original host, inhabits it while multiplying itself a millionfold and simultaneously transforming its host - unites these disparate approaches, showing that their differences are only superficial. Said's argument regarding impersonation intertwines with Traugott's notion of speaking in tongues; each of these shape Phiddian's discussion of parody and multiplicity, and Rawson's suggestions regarding Swift's transformational parody become the final part of the process. While each interpretation is distinct, the characteristics of inhabitation, multiplication, and transformation intertwine as components that are reconciled in the viral metaphor.
Why does this metaphor work so well? Here's how a regular virus works: it enters the body in one of several ways: through the air, through direct bodily contact, or through the exchange of fluids. The virus then invades living cells and grows inside them, multiplying itself thousands of times over. According to Steven Shavrio, a virus is "a copy for which there is no original"(40), because every copy contains the original, which assimilates the host's DNA into its own. After this multiplication has transformed the original cell's DNA, the virus moves on to infect other cells. In doing so, the virus transforms its host, which either begins to display symptoms as it attacks the virus, or begins to adapt or achieve equilibrium with the virus. This viral metaphor has translated well into postmodern theories of language. William Burroughs argued in 1972 that "the word was a virus that had achieved equilibrium with its host" (50) and critics like Shaviro have suggested that language is viral because its sole purpose is to replicate itself by transmitting information through a human host. In this case, all authorial intent becomes, not a communicative process, but a transmission of viral information; the "author" is just a host and his "intent" is an unconscious recognition of viral replication.
Long before Burroughs argued that "Language is a virus," however, Swift was exploring these concepts in Tale of a Tub and other works. For Swift, though, the virus isn't language - it is Swift himself. In his parodies, Swift and his satires become viral, "infecting" the literary hosts they most resemble, quietly - or not so quietly - fracturing original authorial intent into a multiplicity of readings. By inhabiting bad literature, Swift intends the reader to acknowledge just how bad it really is; however, this inhabitation is often so well done (consider Meditations on a Broomstick) that the parody actually ends up affirming the intent of the original author. In the Tale, for example, bad literature is shown as something to avoid, but the Tale is also bad literature done to the heights of badness. As Traugott argues, "Parody imperceptibly seems to pass into positive statement of what really goes on in the world, and goes on world without end" (89). As a virus, Swift inhabits the texts he wishes to destroy, creating a multiplicity of interpretations as he replicates his ideas within a textual host, and eventually transforms it, challenging people to recognize the symptoms of bad literature, and also creating those symptoms. As such, his parody becomes a positive example for future generations of Hacks like Sterne, Richardson, Beckett, and Joyce.
When Swift notes in the Apology to the Tale, "some passages … are what they call parodies, where the author personates the style and manner of other writers" (7), the idea of parody as viral inhabitation is almost too obvious. One doesn't need to have an edition of Dryden's Virgil open to realize that Swift's parody is more Dryden than Dryden in his self-effacing, yet arrogant, defense of his life in the Introduction. He's more Locke than Locke in his parody of what Phiddian calls Locke's "gentlemanly tropes of amateurishness and humility" (123) in the Epistle Dedicatory. Showing the range of his voice, Swift also out-Hacks the Grub Street hacks in his numerous parodies of modern literature, both in the Tale proper and in his digressions. Less obvious is the fact that this inhabitation is not just about parody, but about, as Traugott notes, becoming his enemy. The rest of my analysis will focus on Dryden's translation of Virgil because, as Rawson notes, for Swift, Dryden was an "ignoble instance of creeping modernity, confessional, veristic, in-your-face" (3). The "convoluted self-absorption" of Dryden's Prefaces, Postscripts, and criticism set dangerously pretentious precedents for modern writers.
At first glance, however, Swift's parody is not about criticism - he is merely getting to know his host; the virus is beginning its inhabitation. When Dryden writes in his Postscript about the translation of the Aenead, "I am struggling with wants, oppress'd with sickness, curb'd in my genius, liable to be misconstrued in all I write" (Vergil, Postscript), Swift could finish the sentence: "and if I can bring it [my whole work] to perfection before I die, shall reckon I have well employed the poor remains of an unfortunate life" (70). Swift has achieved a sympathetic transformation - he is not parodying Dryden here, he is Dryden. The base text of the Postscript to Virgil has been inhabited, but not infected. Authorial intent is still intact.
However, as Dryden continues his sincere argument in the Postscript, and Swft continues his parodic one in the Tale, the virus that is Swift begins to multiply. Dryden notes, "my judges, if they are not very equitable, [are] already prejudic'd against me, by the lying character what has been given them of my morals" (Vergil, Postscript). Now Swift, still sympathetic: "From an understanding and a conscience, thread-bare and ragged with perpetual turning; from a head broken in a hundred places, by the malignants of the opposite factions."(70) Swift continues the parody, but at this point inhabitation becomes multiplication, and identification with the enemy has become the key to transformation. Swift again: "From a body spent with poxes ill cured, by trusting to Bawds and surgeons, who (as it afterwards appears) were profess'd Enemies to me and the government, and revenged their party's quarrel upon my nose and shins" (70).
Dryden's original intent, both to justify his endeavour and to provide a humility trope, has become infected with Swift's own intent and voice, and a singular meaning becomes harder to perceive. In becoming his enemy - and by doing so, suggesting that Dryden actually has the morals his judges accuse him of - Swift is doing what Phiddian suggests: attacking the terms of Dryden's construction from within. This does less to destroy out-right Dryden than to destabilize his authorial intent. Swift's parody robs Dryden of any authority at all: as the translator of a work, a literary critic, or even a defender of his own life. In this viral inhabitation, Dryden's authorial intent becomes Swift's, and in so doing a multiplicity of voices is heard: Dryden the sincere, Dryden the self-absorbed confessor, Swift the rector, Swift the disgruntled poet, Swift the vindictive younger relative, Swift the cultural critic, and more. The trope of genteel humility has been exploded through viral inhabitation and transformed into its opposite - an exposure of the true immorality that usually resides behind this trope. Dryden's Postscript becomes the woman flayed, and he would not believe how Swift has altered his appearance for the worse.
This flaying, however, does more than open up interpretations of meaning. The viral transformation creates symptoms of infection, the recognition of what bad literature actually is, but these symptoms are the also the signs of something much worse to follow - the disease of modern literature. Dryden's self-involved "confessional gusto"(214), as Rawson calls it, enters the DNA of bad literature through Swift's parody and transmits itself into the future through infection of works that have yet to exist. This transformation is the final link in the viral process: Swift's inhabitation of Dryden, his flaying of interpretations, and his replication of multiple authorial intentions destabilize any single critical interpretation. This ultimately gives rise to authors that Swift would never sanction - Richardson, Sterne, Smollett, Beckett, Joyce, and countless others. Swift's insistence on becoming what he despised, on inhabitation rather than condemnation, ironically makes Dryden's "creeping modernity" and "convoluted self-absorption" available to readers who would have never read his translation of the Aeneid, let alone its postscript. When Swift notes in the Apology that "the book seems calculated to live at least as long as our language, and our tast admit no great alteration" (3) he was probably not anticipating that not only would his book be around as long as the language, but that the works he was trying to destroy would be preserved within it, and that our taste, far from admitting alteration, would ultimately celebrate much of the literature he anticipated with horror.
Works Cited:Burroughs, William S. Interview by Robert Palmer. Rolling Stone (11 May): 48-53, 1972.
Griffin, Dustin. Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
Nichol Smith, D. "Jonathan Swift: Some Observations." In A Casebook on Gulliver Among the Houyhnhms. Ed. Milton P. Foster. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970.
Phiddian, Robert. Swift's Parody. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Rawson, Claude. "Behind the Tub," Times Literary Supplement. 5293 (Sept 10): 3-5, 2004.
Said, Edward. The World, The Text, and The Critic. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Shaviro, Steven. "Two Lessons From Burroughs." In Posthuman Bodies. Ed. Judith Hallerstam and Ira Livingston. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Swift, Jonathan. Tale of a Tub. Ed. A. C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.
Traugott, John "Tale of a Tub." In Focus: Swift. Ed. C. J. Rawson. London: Sphere, 1971.
Vergil. Æneid, translated by John Dryden. Vol. XIII. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. 10 October 2003; cf www.bartleby.com/13/.
(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2004; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.