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
The Afterlife of A Modest Proposal
Dr Ian Higgins (Australian National University)
Two hundred and eighty years after its first publication A Modest Proposal remains probably the most infamous and widely-read of all works in the pamphleteering genre in English. Class-room experience attests to the fact that this pamphlet can still arrest the attention of first-time readers, and even shock those jaded by long exposure to the horrors of gothic fiction. In this paper I will touch on A Modest Proposal as an exemplary and influential text in the history of satiric aesthetics. I will notice the afterlife of the pamphlet's satiric motif of a cannibal economy in some landmark works of late nineteenth-century imperial fiction. And I'll conclude with comments on one of A Modest Proposal's monitory aspects - the warning not to be like the Jews.
In the year 1729 one of Swift's satiric victims, the anticlerical Whig and deist Anthony Collins, published A Discourse Concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing. Collins placed Swift in a tradition of violent ironical invective that he traced back to the royalist newsbook writers of the civil wars and interregnum, to John Berkenhead, Bruno Ryves and Marchamont Nedham. Collins knew his polemical enemy. Here is an exhibit of the kind of royalist invective ubiquitous in the newsbooks. The example is from a royalist counterfeit of Marchamont Nedham's Mercurius Pragmaticus of 1647, the target is the Westminster Parliament who 'have for the space of full seaven yeeres ground the face of this poore ruined Kingdome; new-moulded … it with Pharisaisall Leaven, and now are baking it in the fiery hot Oven of Persecution, and Egyptian Slavery'. The newsbook writer declares:
"...I must...with my Satyrick instrument pull these illigitimate State-bastards Lymb by Lymb, till I have Anatamized and dissected and laid open all their Cosenage and villany, or with my keen-eg'd Muse rip up the very bowels of this Geneva-Witch, squeese out the very guts and garbidge of her iniqity..."
Swift performs similar satiric operations on behalf of a poor ruined Kingdom being prepared for consumption. His torture scenes also elide into autopsies of live victims. For example, in Swift's A Vindication of his Excellency the Lord Carteret from the Charge of Favouring none but Tories, High-Churchmen and Jacobites, the Whig Viscount Joshua Allen has fallen 'under the Resentment of an incensed political Surgeon, who is not in much Renown for his Mercy upon great Provocation: Who, without waiting for his Death, will flay, and dissect him alive; and to the View of Mankind, lay open all the disordered Cells of his Brain, the Venom of his Tongue, the Corruption of his Heart, and Spots and Flatuses of his Spleen..'.
The royalist newsbook writer's self-image as a satirist is striking: '..in my Satyrick rage (arm'd with a whip of Scorpions) I'de scratch their brawnie hides, till their proud infected blood appear'd to attone my rage..'. The royalist polemicist conflates a biblical reference to chastising with whips and scorpions in 1 Kings 12:11 and an allusion to the classical Fury Alecto ('behold Alecto stand,/A whip of scorpions in her hand' as Swift described her in 'Cassinus and Peter', lines 81-82). The fury with the whip is better known in literary history as one of Swift's self-images as a satirist. Armed with Alecto's 'whip of scorpions', Swift also spends some 'rage' on a parliament in his poem To a Lady:
Let me, though the smell be noisome,
Swift's invective satire may have genetic similarities with the royalist newsbook writers, as Collins thought, but there is in Swift that 'haze of extra hostility' and ''cruel' domain of fantasy', as Claude Rawson describes it, momentarily in excess of the moral satiric purpose or the particular purpose of political vengeance. Swift's 1724 mock-execution of William Wood: A Full and True Account of the solemn Procession to the Gallows, at the Execution of William Wood, Esquire, and Hard-ware-man is an instance of an aesthetics of murder. In this punning mock-execution, each profession in the Dublin community is imagined as adding their specialist touch to the death of a hard-ware-man. The wretched Wood becomes an occasion for a connoisseurship in cruelty; we are to admire the justness of each expert's particular touch up to Wood, rather than just the justice of his punishment. We read that Cooks will 'baste him', 'give him his Belly-full', 'give him a Lick in the Chops' and 'Sowce him'. Grocers will 'Pepper him' and Grooms will 'Curry his Hide'. Apothecaries will 'Pound' and 'beat him to Mummy. Dyers will 'beat him black and blue. Whores will 'Pox rot' and 'Clap him'. Barbers will 'make his Hair stand' on end. Butchers 'will have a Limb of him', 'blow him up' and put the 'Knife in him'. Anabaptists will 'dip the Rogue in the Pond', and finally the Hangman will 'throttle him'. A Modest Proposal of 1729, with its attention to the art of child cannibalism, the culinary dressing of the dishes, and the fine dressing possible from the skins of babies, is Swift's masterpiece in satiric aesthetics.
Swift's work inspired later masterpieces of macabre humour. In the nineteenth century Thomas De Quincey's essays or lectures in satiric aesthetics, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, owe much to Swift and were enabled by his example, though De Quincey confesses that 'Dean Swift's proposal' is 'really bolder and more coarsely practical' than his own 'lecture on the aesthetics of murder'.
In the twentieth century Evelyn Waugh's black humour owes much to Swiftian satiric aesthetics. The high body count in Waugh's satirical novels includes, of course, the cannibal episodes in Black Mischief, one of which involves an Englishman. At one point in the novel there is an exchange of sexual endearments between the Englishman Basil Seal and his girlfriend Prudence Courteney, the child of the British Diplomatic representative in this barbaric African state. 'You're a grand girl, Prudence, and I'd like to eat you', says Basil. 'So you shall, my sweet … anything you want' is the imprudent reply. The cannibal trope is literalized at the end of the novel when Basil does unwittingly eat her, in a cannibal hot pot at a black African funeral feast. Black Mischief was condemned as obscene and blasphemous in the Roman Catholic weekly The Tablet. The editor, Ernest Oldmeadow, particularly censured the gratuitous cruelty of Prudence's death at the end of the novel (she is cooked in a pot: stewed to pulp in pepper and aromatic roots). Waugh's defence in an Open Letter to His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster (May 1933) assumes that the objection is not to the cruel death but to the recipe. Waugh treats the Archbishop to a delicious culinary update of the famous sentences in A Modest Proposal where a child is said to be a delicious food 'whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled; and ... will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust', and is best dressed 'hot from the Knife, as we do roasting Pigs'. Waugh wrote:
"...The Tablet quotes the fact that she was stewed with pepper, as being in some way a particularly lubricious process. But this is a peculiar prejudice of the Editor's, attributable perhaps, like much of his criticism, to defective digestion. It cannot matter whether she was roasted, grilled, braised or pickled, cut into sandwiches or devoured hot on toast as a savoury..."
Waugh may also be recalling and reworking a satiric passage about modern authors and their critics in Section VII of A Tale of a Tub where refined modern authors are said to be analogous to 'Men of a judicious Taste' whose diet consists 'in Soups and Ollio's, Fricassées and Ragousts.' However, refined modern authors do have their critics: 'there is a sort of morose, detracting, ill-bred People' who complain about the 'Corruption and Degeneracy of Taste' and the 'depraved and debauched Appetite' and allege that modern authors lack 'a Stomach and Digestion for more substantial Victuals'. Waugh acknowledged Swift as his 'Master' and indeed once signed a publisher's contract to write a life of Swift. Swift himself may have been recalling the phrases about 'Taste' in A Tale of a Tub when he wrote the famous sentence in A Modest Proposal.
The sources, contexts and reception of A Modest Proposal and its particular place in topical political and economic debates have been described in the rich body of scholarship this work has generated. Swift is a central figure in scholarly work exploring the literary-political history of consumption in eighteenth-century Ireland. The particular idea of a cannibal economy producing babies for food was not 'wholly new', as the Modest Proposer claims. It was old, barbaric and South American. Accounts of Peru had been a rich mine in which Swift's imagination had worked before he came to write A Modest Proposal. Details about Peru and alleged Peruvian practices had been incorporated into the details of the remote countries Lemuel Gulliver visits in Parts I and II of Gulliver's Travels. Swift returned to the Peruvian mine in A Modest Proposal. As Daniel Eilon, Dirk Passmann, and Tiffany Potter indicated, and as Ian Campbell Ross has demonstrated in detail, Swift drew on an Inca's account of Peruvian child cannibalism and culinary refinement, dubbing this American barbarism into the language of contemporary political arithmetic so it would go down well as a modern project when served up to Ireland and its legislators in 1729. While a trajectory has been traced from A Modest Proposal through to later literary works and cultural debates on such topics as the treatment of the poor, the idea of child murder, and cannibalism, it seems to have been under-noticed that the Modest Proposer's specific project of a cannibal economy provided a skeleton for later writers of imperial fiction to rattle at and horrify readers. Swift's rhetoric certainly had an anti-imperial fictional afterlife. In his Irish tracts Swift depicts an exploitative landlord class as 'Blood-suckers', drawing out 'the very Vitals of their Mother Kingdom', squeezing out 'the very Blood' of the tenants, and 'unpeopling their Kingdom'. In A Modest Proposal, parasitic oppressors feed on the children of the native population. This Swiftian satiric imaginary took on new generic forms in the imperial fiction of Bram Stoker and H.G. Wells, among others, in the late nineteenth century.
Swift is increasingly being seen as a central figure in the genealogy of Anglo-Irish gothic. One of the many effects of Bram Stoker's 'Protestant Irish Gothic' or 'imperial gothic' novel Dracula of 1897 is to make English readers see themselves in the monstrous Dracula. Early in the novel, the Englishman Jonathan Harker is in Dracula's castle. He looks into a mirror, but does not see the reflection of Dracula who is there in the room standing over his shoulder. Instead of Dracula's reflection the Englishman sees only himself. Dracula later puts on Harker's clothes and passes easily as the Englishman among the locals as he takes their children. It appears to the local population that it is the Englishman who is taking their babies for consumption. Dracula is the blood-sucking landlord who regards the babies of the native population as his and for his vampiric kind to devour. To use the Modest Proposer's legal phrase, they have been 'made liable to Distress'. Incarcerated in Dracula's castle, Harker indeed sees a 'distressed' mother outside demanding her child back. The mother accuses the Englishman in the castle of taking her child. She is devoured by Dracula's creatures, the wolves, in a passage that is activating the proverbial and literary associations of wolves with cannibalism and political oppression. Harker does not pity her, commenting that she was better dead, since her child had already become food for Dracula's minions. Dracula also uses gypsies to minister to his needs. The Romany people are locals, of course, but part of the point is that in contemporary degeneration theory gypsies were regarded as atavistic and suspected of being cannibals. The Count's castle is the centre of a cannibal economy in the surrounding countryside. Dracula planning an invasion and colonization of England, arriving and settling in England, and setting up, as is said, a systemic and methodical blood-sucking regime in which vampiric women feed on children, is, in part, a gothic version of Swift's polemical views of the English settler, landlord class.
To turn to another famous imperial invasion novel of 1897 where I think there are echoes of A Modest Proposal, H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. Wells initially conceived of The War of the Worlds, the tale of Martian invasion of southern England, as an allegory about the extermination of the aboriginal Tasmanians by Europeans - a singular example of almost total genocide. The imperial and specifically British colonial analogy for Wells's scientific catastrophe fiction is made explicit in the opening chapter of the novel. The Martian colonization is compared to the destruction of 'the Tasmanians' who 'were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years'. In the chapter of the novel entitled 'The Exodus from London' the dispossessed and fleeing native English are imaged as murderously fighting among themselves as their capital city is being taken by the invaders. There is a close up of a Jewish man grasping for his coins and then being horrifically killed. The Martians are from the red planet, of course, but Wells does emphasize their identification with the colour red, which was the colour code of the British empire on imperial maps of the world of the time. In a familiar trope of imperial fiction the inhuman savagery of these highly evolved but also degenerate imperial colonizers is signified by the fact that they are analogous to cannibals, and indeed to vampires. They are blood suckers and they are colonists. They begin to settle in England and begin to reproduce themselves. The full horror then becomes apparent to the dispossessed English natives under occupation. This is not just a war of extermination. There is that Swiftian extra. The Martians are said to be projecting, what is from the human perspective, a cannibal economic system. (The Martians, in that they resemble Wells's idea of the 'Man of the Year Million', are to be recognized as highly-evolved humans). The Martians will systematically catch, cage and then select humans, then breed children, fattening them for food. Refinements on their scheme can be anticipated, youths will be trained to hunt down other humans, for example. Wells said that he had put himself on a 'cleansing course' of reading Swift in the 1890s. A Modest Proposal, Swift's lethal satire on the Irish poor and their oppressors, haunts later works of imperial fiction which have critical things to say about imperial invaders and their victims, as in these two classic cases.
I wish to conclude this very brief witness of the afterlife of aspects of Swift's work with the Dean's admonition to the Irish, in that list of other expedients near the end of the pamphlet, to quit 'our Animosities, and Factions; nor act any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very Moment their City was taken'. Swift alludes to Josephus's The Jewish War, which describes the Jews fighting among themselves and murdering each other during successive sieges, and particularly in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70. Josephus's Jewish War also contains a graphic account of a mother killing her infant child, dressing it as a dish of food, and eating it with all the circumstances of the 'Inhumane Cookery'. It has been proposed as one of Swift's sources for the cannibalism in A Modest Proposal. In A Modest Proposal Swift parallels the Irish facing external threat from England with the Jews facing destruction under the Romans. (England is insinuated to be a barbaric nation, uncivilized enough to be willing to consume the Irish even without salt).
Josephus's works were translated into English by Roger L'Estrange. It was the destitute Jacobite's last major publishing project. The very popular abridgement: The Wars of the Jews: In two Books. With the most Deplorable History of the Siege and Destruction of the City of Jerusalem...Epitomiz'd from the Works of Flavius Josephus, translated into English by Sir Roger L'Estrange, is relevant to the polemical point Swift is making by his allusion to the Irish as Jews in A Modest Proposal. The 'Preface' to The Wars of the Jews, and elements of the translation, emphasized for early eighteenth-century readers the monitory application of this account of the calamities of Jewry: to avoid the sins of the Jews.
Swift does not sympathize with the factious Irish; he is stigmatizing them in likening them to the Jews, as he does elsewhere in his Irish tracts. Swift is satirically refunctioning the idea, found in Sir John Temple's The Irish Rebellion (1646), of the Anglican Irish as the chosen people of God, as he also does explicitly in A Short View of the State of Ireland (1728) where the Irish are the Israelites suffering under the Hanoverian pharaoh. (In that work the Irish are idle, but are also victims of an oppressive regime and discriminatory laws). In A Modest Proposal the punitive judgement on the Jews in Jeremiah 19: 9, that they shall consume their own children, is meted to the Irish.
Swift's hostility to the Jews throughout his works derives from his confessional politics, rather than from what we would now call race-thinking. The Jews enter Swift's satiric frame when he is attacking Anti-Trinitarian Protestants and Whig attempts to remove the Sacramental Test in favour of Dissenters. (Although, that said, there are insinuations in Swift's Tory polemic about the secret influence of Jewish financiers such as the army contractor Sir Solomon de Medina). Anti-Trinitarian Protestant polemicists had favourable things to say about monotheistic faiths such as Judaism and Islam. The Irish Deist John Toland's philo-semitic Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland...Containing also, a Defence of the Jews against all Vulgar Prejudices in all Countries of 1714 is an instance. Toland's work may have prompted the publication of the Irish High Churchman Charles Leslie's hefty A Short and Easie Method with the Jews in 1715.
Swift himself had noted the elective affinity of Anti-Trinitarians with the Jews, exposing how the anticlerical Whig deist Anthony Collins had turned Jewish authors and Josephus into honorary free-thinkers. Swift's hostile refunctioning of Collins on Josephus in Mr Collins's Discourse of Free-Thinking, Put into plain English, by way of Abstract for the Use of the Poor(1713) opens as follows: 'Josephus was a great Free-Thinker: I wish he had chosen a better Subject to write on, than those ignorant, barbarous, ridiculous Scoundrels the Jews, whom God (if we may believe the Priests) thought fit to chuse for his own People'.
Swift's satire, 'On The Words "Brother Protestants and Fellow Christians" so Familiarly Used by the Advocates for the Repeal of the Test Act in Ireland, 1733', makes the venomous equivalence of Dissenting Protestants, Jews, and rats:
And thus fanatic saints, though neither in
Swift's satire 'On Dr Rundle, Bishop of Derry' (written after Rundle's appointment to the Irish bishopric by the English Whig government in 1735) is illustrative of his elision of Anti-Trinitarian and Jew. According to Swift's sardonic poem, Rundle could be both an Anti-Trinitarian and a Jew, but at least that means he believes in a God, as for the other Irish Whig bishops, it is apparent that they do not believe in the Trinity or in a God:
Make Rundle bishop; fie, for shame!
A Modest Proposal's warning not to be like the Jews, and the stigmatizing of the Irish as Jews, are consonant with Swift's religious politics, but that warning is the sentence in Swift's work that has an ominous afterlife in the later English literary history of imperialism. For that warning, refracted by the race thinking of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, becomes more strident and virulent. And it would be a comparison and contrast of the British empire with Jewry, and especially with the Phoenicians (the ancient, semitic, Hebrew-speaking, seafaring people who were regularly paralleled with the contemporary Jewish bourgeoisie and supposed Jewish plutocracy, and who were a code for Jewry in imperial discourse) which would shape the literary form of some high-profile works of imperial fiction and poetics. Including, I would argue (but not here!), such classics of their genres as: Henry Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, Bram Stoker's Dracula, H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Rudyard Kipling's 'Recessional', and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
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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 2005; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.