Dean Swift Seminar 2009

Dean Swift's Modest Proposal at 280

Conducted on 17-18 October 2009 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

Swift on the art of getting older

Summary of address given by Professor Andrew Carpenter, St Patrick's Cathedral, 18 October

A significant milestone in the process of aging comes when one is granted a free travel pass. The pass states clearly that one is 66 years of age - a 'senior citizen'. The world now, suddenly, perceives one to be someone old enough to need free transport, special areas in buses and trains, cheap hotels and reduced entry rates to museums or theatres. And yet one does not feel any different inside oneself. In fact, one perceives oneself as being a reasonably fit and healthy middle-aged human being. But the world sees one as officially 'old'. It seems to me that these two ways of perceiving the old - from the outside and from the inside - are fundamentally different.

Throughout his writing life, Jonathan Swift aimed to shock his readers into self-knowledge by exploiting the different ways things look when perceived from different points of view. In various texts, the reader is seduced into thinking that what is being described is fairly normal - until he hears the view of some creature not able to judge it sympathetically, at which point he sees the full horror of the position he had thought was acceptable. The most famous examples of this come in Gulliver's Travels when we are appalled to discover how human activities and human society look to a giant, or a pygmy or a horse. Our views of ourselves change when we are shown ourselves through the perspective glass of another being.

Equally, in an early informal manuscript entitled 'When I come to be old', which he wrote for himself, Swift set out to describe the behaviour of old people as he saw it when he was, himself, a young man: he was trying to write something that he could read again as he got older and so remember how old people are really perceived by the young. If he looked at the document late in life, he hoped that he would be able to avoid the characteristics he had seen in the old people around him.

The manuscript was written when Swift was 32 years old. He had been living, for some years, in the household of the distinguished old statesman, Sir William Temple. As a young man himself, Swift had a young man's perspective on the older man and his mature companions. Here is the text:

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745): When I come to be old (1699)

Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they really desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleanliness, for fear of falling into Nastiness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthful follies and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tattling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advice, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me which of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favour with Ladies, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteries, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to set up for observing all these Rules ; for fear I should observe none.

The Latin means: "and hate and avoid those who are hunting for legacies".

The meaning is clear enough. Old people can appear, to the young, to be self-deluding, boring, contemptuous of change, covetous, dirty, intolerant, easily swayed, bossy, talkative and boastful (inventing glamorous pasts for themselves), unable to see when they are being duped, and opinionated.

Let me remind you of how far Swift pushes this device of playing one point of view off against another elsewhere in his work. His most famous fictional character, Captain Lemuel Gulliver, has a particularly high opinion of himself and his society and is blissfully unaware of the effect his boasting has on those around him. Gulliver's inability to see how absurd he looks to the creatures he encounters - giants and horses particularly - leads him to brag wildly about human achievements, to behave as if nothing else mattered except his own, vigorously-stated point of view. After he has been showing off for days to the giant king of Brobdingnag, the enormous king looks down on him in contempt and tells him that, from all that Gulliver has told him, he (the king) can only conclude that Gulliver and his fellow men are 'the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth'. What Swift is doing here is shocking the reader into seeing how gross and immoral much human behaviour is - and we see it only because he forces us to see the naive and boastful Gulliver through the perspective glass of a creature utterly different from himself.

Of course in a fiction such as Gulliver's Travels Swift (like all satirists) is exaggerating for dramatic effect. But the basic device he is using in Gulliver's Travels - forcing the reader to see how his own behaviour would look from another perspective - is the same as that he is using in 'When I come to be old'. Swift wants to remember, when he is an old man and is seeing the world through the eyes of an old man, how the behaviour of old men looks to a younger man.

And the effect of this document is to remind us of how vital it is to be aware, as we get older, what our behaviour looks like to those younger than ourselves.

Let me put all this into the positive rather than the negative mode... We can summarise Swift's advice to himself (and to us) as follows: as you grow older, remember to be honest about yourself, to be wise and balanced, to be tolerant; but above all, to be aware that others are seeing you and your behaviour quite differently from they way you perceive yourself. - and to amend your ways accordingly!

If you do this, Swift is suggesting, you will be able to grow old gracefully and those around you will delight in your company. It is, I think, very good advice from a very great writer.

Andrew Carpenter, 18/10/2009.

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(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2009; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.