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Les voyages de Gulliver

 | 
François Boulaire
, 
Daniel Carey

Lashing the Vice: Jonathan Swift, Satire, and Nature’s Designs

Jefferson Holdridge

Texte intégral

  • 1 Edward W. Said, “Swift’s Tory Anarchy”, in The World, the Text, and the Critic, London, Vintage, 1 (...)

… satire for Swift was the mode of his sovereignty and transgression.1

  • 2 The discussion of the origins of satire follows the treatment of contemporary views (it might chro (...)

1As any attempt to encompass Swift’s satirical genius requires an enabling structure, this essay has three parts. The first section, “Moral or Non-Moral Satire?”, discusses the reasons for critical disagreement over the moral aims of Swift’s invective, suggesting that Swift’s moral ambiguity provides the tragic force of his satirical perspective. The second, “Origins of Satire”, discusses primarily Greek, Roman and Irish satire as early representatives of the tradition, while examining Swift’s individual relationship to his satiric inheritance.2 The select history of satire illustrates how, like Aristophanes, Swift parodies the abuses of rationalism, yet remains aware, as the poet Derek Mahon notes, that

  • 3 Derek Mahon, “Introduction” to Jonathan Swift: Poems Selected by Derek Mahon, London, Faber, 2001, (...)

any lapse from a briskly rational standard … and Pandora’s box might turn into a temple of winds.3

  • 4 Edward W. Said, “Swift as Intellectual”, in The World, the Text, and the Critic…, p. 74.

2It also illustrates how Swift’s satire, like Juvenal’s, passes at crucial moments into a realistic, tragic mode. The political and social context for “the highly polished fury”4 of his satire is found in his similarly dispossessed Gaelic predecessors and contemporaries. The closing discussion of the last voyage of Gulliver’s Travels examines the relationship between our instinctual and rational natures, testing the depth of our moral and rational capacities. Scholars have never had enormous difficulty ascertaining what or whom Swift is satirizing, nor even why he is doing so; the question has always remained, what is the aim of his satire?

Moral or Non-Moral Satire?

3In The Battle of the Books (1704), a defense of ancient authors in the then ongoing battle between ancient and modern literature, Jonathan Swift makes a famous comment that

  • 5 Jonathan Swift, A Full and True Account of the Battel, Fought last FRIDAY, Between the Antient and (...)

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world.5

4Many of his pronouncements on satire’s moral instruction agree that the satirist should force readers to recognize their own satirized reflection. Yet in A Tale of a Tub (1704), an examination of the schisms in the Christian church and the corruption of God’s will, Swift takes another equally famous but much more ambiguous position on the anatomical interests of satire:

  • 6 Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub. Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind, in A Tale of a (...)

Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse. Yesterday I ordered the carcass of a beau to be stripped in my presence, when we were all amazed to find so many unsuspected faults under one suit of clothes.6

5Between these two statements – one proposing satire as a corrective mirror, the other presenting it as a cruel unveiler of inevitable, perhaps irremediable human limitations – lies the gist of Swift’s satire, as well as the critical contradictions regarding his intent.

6In the continuation of the above passage from A Tale of a Tub, Swift goes on to mock the possibilities of moral instruction, to satirize the satirist, and equivocally to extol the virtues of Epicureanism, of being happily deluded by the senses:

  • 7 Ibid.

Then I laid open his heart, and his spleen; but I plainly perceived at every operation that the farther we proceeded, we found the defects increase upon us in number and bulk; from all which, I justly formed this conclusion to myself. That whatever philosopher or projector can find out an art to solder and patch up the flaws and imperfections of nature will deserve much better of mankind, and teach us a more useful science than that so much in present esteem, of widening and exposing them (like him who held anatomy to be the ultimate end of physic). And he whose fortunes and dispositions have placed him in a convenient station to enjoy the fruits of this noble art; he that can with Epicurus content his ideas with the film and images that fly off upon his senses from the superficies of things; such a man, truly wise, creams off Nature, leaving the sour and dregs for philosophy and reason to lap up. This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves.7

  • 8 Claude Rawson, “Order and Cruelty”, in Jonathan Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays, Claude Raw (...)

7In this excerpt from the Tale, Swift effectively divides the world into two points of view and demands that the reader choose between them. Those who are “well-deceived” choose credulity and the surface in order to be happy, the opposite choose curiosity, officious reason, which anatomizes and unveils the ugliness beneath, and so risk unhappiness. As many critics have noted, Swift’s satire employs the latter type of dissecting reason, but not without an awareness of its hazards, making his satire devastatingly equivocal. The only order that survives Swift’s satire may be linguistic. This is small comfort however, for as Claude Rawson writes, “the survival of linguistic order [exists] within a certain mental anarchy.”8

  • 9 Thomas Doherty, On Modern Authority, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1987, p. 247.

8The question of what survives Swift’s knife divides critical opinion. Critics such as Thomas Doherty and Terry Castle believe that Swift’s satire is total, that he is immersed in destruction. Doherty writes of the Tale, “Swift believed that a multiplicity of readings are sanctioned by the words of the text, independently of a supposedly pre-linguistic order, authorial intention or psychology”,9 while Castle describes the Tale as part of Swift’s fear of the text:

  • 10 Terry Castle, “Why the Houyhnhnms Don’t Write: Swift, Satire and the Fear of the Text”, Essays in (...)

every writing is a site for corruption, no matter what authority – natural, divine, or archetypal – we may wishfully invest in it. Because they constitute an earthly text, the Scriptures themselves pathetically and paradoxically make up part of the fallen world of writing … the possibility is implicit everywhere in his satire.10

  • 11 Marcus Walsh, “Text,’ Text’ and Swift’s Tale of the Tub ”, in Jonathan Swift: A Collection…, p. 97

9Other critics such as Marcus Walsh believe that Swift’s satire does retain a moral authority, or at least a moral tendency while “reflect[ing] upon the problematic status of the written word”.11 Central to understanding this critical divergence (if not solving it) is the question of satire itself, its theory and history.

  • 12 Wyndham Lewis, “The Greatest Satire is Non-moral”, in Modern Essays in Criticism: Satire, Ronald P (...)

10Responding to Wyndham Lewis’s suggestion that the greatest satire is non-moral,12 Michael Seidel examines the primitive roots of satire in Satiric Inheritance; he acknowledges that

  • 13 Michael Seidel, Satiric Inheritance: Rabelais to Sterne, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 19 (...)

satiric activity compromises society’s renewing and “cleansing” dispensations – orders that allow for (indeed, insist upon) gestures of polite civilizing that cover over dirty notions. Satiric activity is paradoxical by its very nature. In bringing violations to the surface, the satirist creates that primal scene Lewis calls an orgy of externals.13

11By so doing, satire, for Seidel, plays a subversive yet almost sacred role:

  • 14 Michael Seidel, Satiric Inheritance …, p. 19.

In the penetrations of satire all actions are never too far from the original violations they harbor: ambition is patricide; schism is fratricide; the denial of posterity is infanticide; inheritance is usurpation.14

  • 15 Ibid., p. 21.
  • 16 Cited in Claude Rawson, “Order and Cruelty”…, p. 30.

12He allows satire a nominally moral and cathartic tendency when he concludes that satire “blows history’s cover” because if “history is the encoding of violence, then satire is the decoding of violence.”15 The images of the flayed woman and stripped beau take on new meaning when examined in light of satire as a decoder of violence rather than a mere participant in it. The cruel domain of fantasy, lying outside or beyond ordinary moral motivations as Artaud suggests,16 returns satire to its primitive roots (if not to its belief in magic), and puts a different type of mirror before us.

  • 17 Robert Elliott, The Power of Satire: Magic Ritual, Art, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 196 (...)

13It is a mirror in which we recognize our complicity as readers of the scene, in which, like Gulliver, we are all Yahoos; however, we should also recognize the moral force that harnesses the description. Swift’s subtle and satirical use of personae supports such a moral interpretation of his satire. The very understatedness of the literary hack’s narrative of A Tale of a Tub permits this reading even greater room for development. For here satire is revealed in the handling of the tale, and in the teller of the tale, as well as in the tale itself. We should not descend to the “objectivity” of the literary hack, a pseudo-scientific mode of thought of which Swift was always critical, and should resist becoming as completely misanthropic as the initially optimistic Gulliver finally becomes. We must remember to “assume the human burden of discriminating” between humans in the “abstract” (much too capable of hypocrisy and cruelty) and in the particular (still capable of reason and kindness).17

  • 18 For a discussion of satire and realism, see John Lawlor, “Radical Satire and the Realistic Novel”, (...)
  • 19 Quoted in John Lawlor, “Radical Satire…”, p. 23.

14Swift is one of the great exponents of satire precisely because he so effectively straddles these two positions of correcting and anatomizing satire. He is neither in the grand tradition of moral invective nor merely a practitioner of primitive satire’s habit of mockingly uncovering the social taboo and the primal scene. He endeavors to make us aware of both the moral implications of our actions and the implicit limitations of our nature. The end result is that we have left the world of corrective satire and moved to that type of tragedy which Hamlet’s misanthropy represents; only then may we realistically see ourselves caught between our emotional and rational natures.18 As Swift wrote to Pope, man is not animal rationale [a rational animal] but rationis capax [an animal capable of rationality].19 In his Thoughts on Religion, Swift makes a revealing comment on the struggle between reason and instinct, which places him in the long line of satire than runs from Greek pessimism to Beckettian despair:

  • 20 Quoted in Herbert Davis, The Satire of Jonathan Swift, New York, Macmillan, 1947, p. 100.

Although reason were intended by providence to govern our passions, yet it seems that, in two points of greatest moment to the being and continuance of the world, God hath intended our passions to prevail over reason.
The first is, the propagation of our species, since no wise man ever married from the dictates of reason. The other is, the love of life, which, from the dictates of reason every man would despise, and wish it at an end, or that it never had a beginning.20

15Swift thereby establishes his place within the satirical tradition.

Origins of Satire

  • 21 Quoted in Robert Elliott, The Power…, pp. 3-4. Much of this discussion is indebted to Elliott’s an (...)

16According to tradition, Archilochus, a Greek satirist of the seventh century BC, was the first “who”, in the words of Ben Jonson, “dipt a bitter Muse in snake venom and stained gentle Helicon with blood.”21 As Robert Elliott comments in The Power of Satire:

  • 22 Robert Elliott, The Power…, p. 4.

Our language preserves the memory of a once-powerful belief: Archilochus’ verses had demonic power; his satire killed. Indeed, all satire “kills”, symbolically at any rate, and Archilochus is the archetypal figure in the tradition.22

  • 23 Take for example Pope’s famous lines:
    Yes I am proud; I must be proud to see
    Men not afraid of God, (...)

17This fatal aspect is common to the early magical uses of satire in Arabia, Ireland, and Southern Italy; its symbolic role represents satire’s ability to diminish the power of one’s enemies. Pope and Swift both celebrated the critical force of their satire along these lines.23 Yet there is another aspect to satire, equally substantial and widespread – sexuality. From the early Phallic Songs, described by Aristotle, to the Old Comedy of Greece and Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, the purpose of such an element was two-fold:

  • 24 Robert Elliott, The Power…, p. 5.

the invocation of good influences through the magical potency of the phallus, the expulsion of evil influences through the magical potency of abuse.24

18As Jonson suggested, satire is like snakebite (or we might add, sexual desire), the venom becomes the antidote.

19Swift’s depiction of religion as merely an extension of sexual desire in The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, his poems of sexual filth which seek to unveil the quotidian reality of romantic ideals (“The Lady’s Dressing Room”, “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” and “Strephon and Chloe”), and particularly the scene in Gulliver’s Travels in which the naked Gulliver is accosted by a young lascivious female Yahoo and realizes he himself is a Yahoo as well, all attest to how potent an instrument sexuality is for Swift. Like Aristophanes and Juvenal, Swift

  • 25 Ibid., p. 109.

uses satire (in its sophisticated form a highly intellectual mode, claiming to depend strictly on the sanctions of reason) to undermine the cause of rationalism.25

  • 26 Ibid.

20As Elliott nicely puts it in the following line: “The three great satirists are all rationally anti-intellectual.”26 Satire’s strange combination of intellectual devices and anti-intellectual aims has its historical roots.

  • 27 Ibid., p. 102.
  • 28 Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, II, 2, line 3. Quoted in John M. Bullitt, Jonathan Swift…, p. 22.
  • 29 Quoted in Robert Elliott, The Power…, p. 117.

21The Latin term for satire (satura, meaning mixture or medley) was seldom used in Roman literature. The word had only limited significance, lacking a “verbal and adjectival use (as in our satirize, satirical)”.27 Gradually, the Romans looked to the figure of the Greek satyr in order to extend the meaning of their ridiculing medley, which accounts for the derivation of the English word satire from the Latin satura, while satirize and satirical come from the Greek word for satyr. The idea of medley is reflected in the loosely episodic narrative structures of so much satire, especially Swift’s. The mixture of man and beast that defines a satyr leads to Swift’s brilliant meditations on the relationship of instinct and reason, which to Augustans constituted the basis of our dual nature, our “middle state”28 between God and beast. The two most famous Roman exemplars of satire, Horace and Juvenal, are similar to Pope and Swift respectively. According to Dryden, Roman satire has two types: comical and tragical, represented by Horace and Juvenal. To Dryden it is the tragic element which gives Juvenal’s satire “sublimity” and makes it superior to the “low familiar way” of Horace.29 Elliott concludes appropriately of Juvenal, and it must equally apply to Swift, that

  • 30 Ibid., p. 115.

Juvenal’s allegiance … is to a more “primitive” satiric mode than that of Horace – to a mode the spirit and tone of which go back, in some respects to the bitter wrath of Archilochus.30

22Such black rage is what gives tragic asperity to the satirical end of Gulliver’s Travels.

23This is neither to underestimate the comic aspect of Swift’s satire, evident in similarities to other Roman and indeed to contemporary French satirists, nor its intellectual drift. As Northrop Frye has shown, Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, like Petronius in The Satyricon and Apuleius in The Golden Ass or Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel and Voltaire in Candide, for that matter,

  • 31 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957, pp. (...)

all use a loose-jointed narrative form [that] relies on the free play of intellectual fancy and the kind of humorous observation that produces caricature … At its most concentrated, [this form] of satire presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.31

24Understanding the logic of such an intellectually driven though seemingly haphazard narrative depends on our perceiving the satire as an intellectual, humorous odyssey rather than as a novel. Character or individual psychology is less important than the imaginative encounters through which Swift and similar writers parody the forces of state, religion, etc. When at the end of The Golden Ass, the narrator Lucius becomes an Ass (descending ignominiously into his animal nature) before converting to the cult of Isis, and when Gulliver at the close of Travels wants to become a horse rather than a Yahoo-man before surrendering fully to deep-set misanthropy, one should be concerned less with character than with the unfolding of the overall satire. The combination of intellect and humor means that each satirist has two aims, serious and comic: the metamorphosis of animal into man, or man into animal, is ridiculous but also sublime – a merciless sublime.

25The Greek and Roman origins of Swift’s satire are not the only ones, of course. The Irish origins, some of the most ancient of all satire, are also important, although it is as much a matter of tone – the general fury of his satire – as it is conscious inheritance that aligns Swift with his Gaelic predecessors. Consequently, analysis of Swift’s Gaelic background often relies on juxtaposition in order to prove the Gaelic (or Irish) parallels with his macabre point of view and grotesque depictions of sexuality. Vivian Mercier writes with particular insight in The Irish Comic Tradition regarding the macabre and grotesque in Irish literature:

  • 32 Vivien Mercier, The Irish Comic Tradition, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962, pp. 48-49.

Whereas macabre humour in the last analysis is inseparable from terror and serves as a defence mechanism against the fear of death, grotesque humour is equally inseparable from awe and serves as a defence mechanism against holy dread with which we face the mysteries of reproduction. Oversimplying, I might say that these two types of humour help us to accept death and to belittle life.32

26The psychoanalytical significance of this passage finds resonance in Swift’s holy dread and fascination with the body and its functions. Yet, there are more practical analogies to be drawn between Swift’s writing and his Irish satiric inheritance.

27Similarities between Swift and the Gaelic literary and cultural tradition are as simple as that between the Lilliputians and Irish Leprechauns, or the idea that Swift’s Travels follow a distinguished line of Immram (or voyage) tales which were undertaken to discover a land of promise. Swift’s poem “The Description of an Irish Feast” is also known to come from Irish sources. In Irish Classics, Declan Kiberd observes that an early work, “The Story of an Injured Lady Written by Herself”, is “an allegorical account of the wrongs endured by Ireland” which as an

  • 33 Declan Kiberd, “Jonathan Swift: A Colonial Outsider?”, in Irish Classics, Cambridge (Mass.), Harva (...)

anti-aisling plays with the personification of Ireland as victimized woman so prevalent from the days of the filí [Irish for “poets”].33

28Andrew Carpenter believes that in the Irish satirical tradition the vision of the law is doubled:

  • 34 Andrew Carpenter, “Double Vision in Anglo-Irish Literature”, in Place, Personality and the Irish W (...)

The law acknowledges that it is merely one way of looking at life and seems to accept that the other perspective is de facto to remain in existence.34

29This double quality is also evident in Swift’s highly ironical Irish pamphlets against unjust English rule, and in Gulliver’s Travels where lawyers are described as

  • 35 Paul Turner (ed), Gulliver’s Travels, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 241. Further refer (...)

a Society of Men … bred up from their Youth in the Art of proving by Words multiplied for their Purpose, that White is Black and Black is White, according as they are paid.35

30On a more subconscious level, Swift’s sexual disgust also bears resemblances to the stone image of Sheela-na-gig, a form of medieval Irish statuary of a grinning or grimacing female who is opening her abnormally large vagina. Again, Mercier’s insights allow us to link Swift not only to a medieval Irish context but to the later work of Yeats, as well as to Joyce and Beckett:

  • 36 Vivien Mercier, The Irish Comic Tradition…, p. 36.

The Sheela-na-gig symbolically reveals to us a universal truth of which the Irish, as perhaps the most archaic and conservative people in Western Europe, have never lost sight. Sex implies death, for if there were no death there would be no need for reproduction. Besides, man has always found woman terrifying as well as alluring. The psychoanalysts say that this is because the female sex organ suggests castration to him, as well as that first cruel expulsion from a nine-month paradise.36

  • 37 Declan Kiberd, “Home and Away: Gulliver’s Travels”, in Irish Classics…, p. 105.

31Kiberd notes that like many Irish writers Swift “feared the unconscious but couldn’t help peering into it”.37 These critical comments endeavor to posit Swift as a particularly Irish satirical genius. Yet as Mercier reminds us, the most fundamental satiric inheritance is that which is most difficult to chart:

  • 38 Vivien Mercier, The Irish Comic Tradition…, p. 192.

It is rather the immoderate fury of his personal satire, the utter disproportion of cause and effect, which reminds us of the Gaelic satirists.38

32In order to capture the nature and purpose of such “immoderate fury” as we see in the work of the Irish language poet Aodhagán ó Rathaille, we should turn to the last voyage in Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver’s Travels and Nature’s Designs

  • 39 I am beholden to Samuel H. Monk’s “The Pride of Gulliver”, in Gulliver’s Travels, A Norton Critica (...)

33The intellectual context of Gulliver’s Travels is complicated, but some of the arguments behind Swift’s fury are the following: (1) To argue against the abstract, theoretical tendencies of Rationalism, especially Cartesianism, and its rejection of the experience and wisdom of the past. He doubted the capacity of human reason to attain metaphysical and theological truth. (2) To contest the attitudes of experimental and theoretical science, created by Bacon and Galileo, and proved by Newton. By sanctioning the idea of progress, science had deluded humankind with promises of an ever-improving future and the mastery of nature. To Swift these promises seemed illusory, as we see in Part III of Gulliver’s Travels. Finally the growth of science had unwittingly led to the secularization of human values, and the consequent abolition of all religious mysteries. (3) To oppose the new conception of man, which was the result of both rationalism and science. It taught the essential goodness of human nature, compelling the savage reply of Gulliver’s Travels. (4) To question the increasing power of centralized government and the corruption of English colonialism.39

34In a letter to Pope, Swift furnishes the essentials of his case:

  • 40 Quoted in Samuel H. Monk, “The Pride of Gulliver”…, p. 316.

I tell you after all I do not hate Mankind, it is vous autres who hate them, because you would have them reasonable Animals, and are angry at being disappointed: I have always rejected that Definition, and made another of my own.40

35Swift’s definition of humanity has a political context, for as Samuel Holt Monk writes,

  • 41 Ibid., pp. 316-17.

in the phrase vous autres, Swift includes all the secular scientific, deistic, optimistic – in a word, liberal – thinkers of the Enlightenment; and he turns in anger from them.41

36Edward Said provides us with a method of accommodating Swift’s famous defense of Ireland in such an image of anti-liberalism. Using Antonio Gramsci’s categories of organic and traditional intellectuals (roughly those connected to class change and those who appear unconscious or hostile to it), Said notes how Swift combines the two categories:

  • 42 Edward W. Said, “Swift as Intellectual”…, p. 83.

From a class standpoint, then, Swift was a traditional intellectual – a cleric – but what makes him unique is that unlike almost any other major writer in the whole of English literature (except possibly for Steele) he was also an extraordinarily important organic intellectual because of his closeness to real political power.42

37Behind this complex political position is a sovereign intellectual satire of humanity which seeks to uncover the most primitive transgressions of power, cruelty, and lust. If his satire is excessive, we must remember that

  • 43 Edward W. Said, “Swift’s Tory Anarchy”…, p. 70.

satire was the name of his excess and, as his legacy to Ireland proves, the objective structure of his negative duration in history.43

  • 44 Previous critical orthodoxy may be epitomized by Louis A. Landa’s insights: “If men are generally (...)

38Said’s version of “secular” criticism needs some qualification, however, as Swift’s satire not only emphasizes our fundamental incapacities, but following an earlier mode of critical inquiry, his satire can be said to expose the limits of reason and the need for redemption.44 In the present reading, such religious hopes as Swift’s Christian pessimism expressed have politically transformative possibilities.

39Near the beginning of Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels Lemuel Gulliver comes across a satiric image of humankind in the form of the Yahoos, representatives of our animal nature, one which brings us to satire’s most basic roots, the unveiling of origins. It is not surprising that genitalia should in many ways be central to a description which owes much to the Roman and Irish tradition:

Their Heads and Breast were covered with a thick Hair, some frizzled and others lank; they had Beards like Goats, and a long Ridge of Hair down their Backs, and the fore Parts of their Legs and Feet; but the rest of their Bodies were bare, so that I might see their Skins, which were of a brown Buff Colour. They had no Tails, nor any Hair at all on their Buttocks, except about the Anus; which I presume Nature had placed there to defend them as they sat on the Ground; for this Posture they used, as well as lying down, and often stood on their hind Feet. They climbed high Trees, as nimbly as a Squirrel, for they had strong extended Claws before and behind, terminating in sharp Points, and hooked. They would often spring, and bound, and leap with prodigious Agility. The Females were not so large as the Males; they had long lank Hair on their Heads, and only a Sort of Down on the rest of their Bodies, except about the Anus, and Pudenda. (215)

40Shortly after this description, the Yahoos defecate on Gulliver. This immersion in the filth of human nature is followed by Gulliver’s first encounter with the Houyhnhnms, equine representatives of intuitive reason. The effect of this meeting sets the stage for the upside-down confrontation which is to take place between our animal and rational characteristics:

Upon the whole the Behaviour of these Animals was so orderly and rational, so acute and judicious, that I at last concluded, they must needs be Magicians, who had thus metamorphosed themselves upon some Design. (218)

  • 45 R.S. Crane, “The Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos, and the History of Ideas”, in Gulliver’s Travels, A Norto (...)
  • 46 The New Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary, New York, American International Press, 1991.

41Parodying works of logic that had contrasted human reason with the irrationality of brute horses,45 Swift with considerable dexterity unveils the opposing designs which God and Nature have on our moral and physical being. The Latin etymology of pudenda (“that of which one ought to be ashamed”46) is central to his exposure of human disgrace. It is a betrayal that reduces Gulliver, still a Lover of Mankind when he lands on the island, to a complete misanthrope by the time he is forced to set sail.

  • 47 Denis Donoghue, Jonathan Swift: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 19 (...)

42Like the rationalists and scientists (whom as a surgeon he represents), Gulliver does not realize during his time on the island and after he has returned to England that he is still a tangle of passion and intellect. He has forgotten the traditional Augustan belief in the Great Chain of Being, which placed man in a troubled middle state between angels and beasts. The overly rational Houyhnhnms are struck by Gulliver’s capacity to reason, however limited. This sets him apart from the Yahoos. Yet they also notice that he is physically weaker than the Yahoos. Consequently, they see him as both a weak Houyhnhnm and weak Yahoo. The combination should make Gulliver uniquely sympathetic to victims of passion or reason; yet it does not, for like the Houyhnhnms, he is a cold slave master of both the Yahoos and his feelings. On the other hand, though the Houyhnhnms are sympathetic to the flaws of the Yahoo, because it is in their nature, they blame Gulliver for such defects of Nature because he has the spark of reason. Gulliver should realize that there is something greater in being blessed with both strong emotions and a guiding, if uncertain, reason. Yet, being a rationalist he is entirely enamored with the Houyhnhnms. Denis Donoghue believes that at least in Gulliver’s early days Swift would have also liked to live among the Houyhnhnms, untroubled by passion or love, without strong familial feeling, with no sadness at death, merely living the life of reason.47 Though this early attraction has some lasting truth for Swift, problems in the Houyhnhnm regime become apparent. As Swift himself said in Thoughts on Various Subjects:

  • 48 Quoted in Samuel H. Monk, “The Pride of Gulliver”, p. 327.

The Stoical Scheme of supplying our Wants, by lopping off our Desires, is like cutting off our Feet when we want Shoes.48

43The point of the last voyage is that one must learn to live with desire, try to perfect it, while not being content with Yahoodom; yet Gulliver cannot even stand the look of it, when it is presented to him in the raw state of the Yahoo:

My Horror and Astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abominable Animal, a perfect human Figure; the Face of it indeed was flat and broad, the Nose depressed, the Lips large, and the Mouth wide. (222)

44The colonial consequences of such a description are obvious and topical. In the following sentence Gulliver records a helpful if not enlightened difference between the Yahoos and the people of “savage nations”, endeavoring to distinguish between them. We have been told that red-haired (can we read Irish?) Yahoos have an even more pronounced animal character. If Swift is the master of disgust then the Yahoos are the objects of that mastery; however, an immediate dismissal of the Yahoos as sentient beings is not appropriate. If he held the Irish natives in contempt he nevertheless continued to show concern (however paternalistic) for Irish freedom. His famous lines against England’s unwanted introduction of Wood’s debased coinage into Ireland contain the connecting clause between the enslavement of Ireland and the enslaved Yahoos:

  • 49 Jonathan Swift, “To the Whole People of Ireland”, in Swift’s Irish Pamphlets: An Introductory Sele (...)

For in Reason, all Government without the Consent of the Governed, is the very Definition of Slavery.49

45Against the background of Swift’s fight for political liberty, Gulliver’s colonial disgust for the Yahoos continues to grow until he too, like the Houyhnhnms, takes Yahoos’ hides for his own uses (shoes, traps, his canoe etc.). This is the type of barbarity which Swift so effectively satirizes in A Modest Proposal (1729) when the philanthropist proposes that Irish children, miserable, poor and ignorant, should be raised for slaughter. The moderate, even gentle tone of this text shows the prevailing values to be inhumane. Any moderate reader must be horrified. The initial pogroms and enslavement of the Yahoos by the Houyhnhnms, as they are remembered in the rational tone of Houyhnhnm legend, should provoke a similar horror.

46Beneath the political criticism of these texts lies the need to possess the body that is at the base of sexuality. This is drawn explicitly in the description of female Yahoos and in Gulliver’s encounter with a young female, an encounter which finally convinces him of his similarities with other Yahoos. In both descriptions we see many similarities with Mercier’s account of the Sheela-na-gig. First there is an image of the mating habits of the Female Yahoo: …

a Female Yahoo would often stand behind a Bank or a Bush, to gaze on the young Males passing by, and then appear, and hide, using many antick Gestures and Grimaces; at which time it was observed, that she had a most offensive Smell; and when any of the Males advanced, would slowly retire, looking often back, and with a counterfeit Shew of Fear, run off into some convenient Place where she knew the Male would follow her. (256)

47Not only does this mocking image of the courting game prepare us for Gulliver’s unsettling later encounter but it also introduces us to Swift’s worldly wit as well as his satire. Along with the jokes that Swift may have meant for his circle, sexuality proves that we are human-Yahoos, as Gulliver discovers. After the young female “inflamed by Desire” has embraced the naked Gulliver in a “most fulsome manner”, he states that

now I could no longer deny, that I was a real Yahoo, in every Limb and Feature, since the Females had a natural Propensity to me as one of their own Species. (259)

  • 50 See Victoria Glendinning, “Filth”, in Jonathan Swift, London, Pimlico, 1999, pp. 245-61.

48The relation of self to other, English to Irish, Houyhnhnm to Yahoo, is found in its most basic guise in the relation of man to woman. Hence the central, consciousness-changing role these scenes play in the last voyage. To confront the feminine is to confront the human, for if the feminine, so connected to beauty and all that represents, can also be associated with dirt and decay, the merely human must suffer more. As previously stated, many of Swift’s poems on ideal versus real visions of women purposefully dwell on the sordid in order to force the reader to face the facts about life and love.50 If such poems aim to cure us of false idealism about women, romance, and beauty, then the close of Gulliver’s Travels uses similar tactics to make us confront false idealism about politics, theology, humanity at large. Penelope Wilson argues that in some previous criticism there is a “move to write out the issue of gender”. For such critics, according to Wilson,

  • 51 Penelope Wilson, “Feminism and the Augustans: Some Readings and Problems”, in Jonathan Swift: A Co (...)

the poem is not really about “women”: on the contrary, it is about man’s “decent and spiritual side”.51

49Such an interpretation blends with the readings which leave the Houyhnhnms the exemplars of reason, erasing Yahoos, women and instinct. Our middle state requires us to live with both sides of our natures, without either succumbing to the worst prerogatives of the flesh or forgetting the virtues of a reasonable nature. In “Stella’s Birth-day, March 13, 1726/7”, a rare, non-satirical work that displays Swift’s very real affection for a particular woman, the poet gives a refreshing glimpse of his ideas of transcendental virtue and love, for against all “Proselytes for Vice”:

  • 52 Jonathan Swift: Poems Selected by Derek Mahon…, p. 49. Similarly, in his fable of the modern spide (...)

Virtue styled its own reward … shoot[s] a radiant Dart, To shine through Life’s declining Part.52

50With this balance between reason and instinct in mind, Gulliver’s misanthropy becomes even more dubious. As many critics have insisted, Gulliver’s dismissal of Don Pedro’s kindness proves his misapprehension of human conduct. Even after the Portuguese Captain rescues him, Gulliver sees him as just another Yahoo, making the same mistake as the Houyhnhnms had made. He judges the individual by a damning general rule, an error which even in his most sweeping satire Swift was loath to commit. With regard to the relationship of man and woman, reason and instinct, self and other, it is Don Pedro who reminds Gulliver of his family obligations. To familiarize himself with his own kind, the Englishman must confront his disgust on a deeply uncanny level – disgust at procreation with his wife. Gulliver states:

when I began to consider, that by copulating with one of the Yahoo-Species, I had become a Parent of more; it struck me with the utmost Shame, Confusion and Horror. (281)

  • 53 “He lash’d the Vice but spar’d the Name”; Jonathan Swift, “Verses on the Death of Dr Swift”, Jonat (...)

51The question left with the reader is whether the satire is moral or non-moral. Is the humor becoming ever more raucous and amoral or, moving from satire into tragedy, are we merely forced to reckon with profoundly moral questions without any easy answers? Taking our cue from the latter interpretation, we may notice how Gulliver struggles between an inhuman love of Houyhnhnms – he buys and enjoys the company of some horses, avoiding human contact (even the groom is acceptable only because he smells of horses) – and the opposing desire to return to his own kind. The latter effort strikes the most tragic note, for in his effort to habituate himself to the human likeness of Yahoos he resolves “to behold my Figure often in a Glass, and thus if possible habituate my self by Time to tolerate the Sight of a human Creature” (287). If he fears the “Teeth” and “Claws” of other humans, he must become accustomed to his reflection in satire’s glass. He must learn to lash the vice, but spare the name.53

Notes

1 Edward W. Said, “Swift’s Tory Anarchy”, in The World, the Text, and the Critic, London, Vintage, 1983, p. 70.

2 The discussion of the origins of satire follows the treatment of contemporary views (it might chronologically have come first) because the ambiguous morality of Swift’s satire forces us to reexamine satire in the light of its original religious (moral) and magical (amoral) uses. Such light, in turn, helps us to understand the seemingly strange purposes of Swift’s Christian pessimism.

3 Derek Mahon, “Introduction” to Jonathan Swift: Poems Selected by Derek Mahon, London, Faber, 2001, p. X.

4 Edward W. Said, “Swift as Intellectual”, in The World, the Text, and the Critic…, p. 74.

5 Jonathan Swift, A Full and True Account of the Battel, Fought last FRIDAY, Between the Antient and the Modern BOOKS in St JAMES’s LIBRARY, in A Tale of a Tub and Other Works, Angus Ross and David Woolley (eds), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 104.

6 Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub. Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind, in A Tale of a Tub and Other Works…, p. 84.

7 Ibid.

8 Claude Rawson, “Order and Cruelty”, in Jonathan Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays, Claude Rawson (ed.), Englewood Cliffs (N.J.), Prentice Hall, 1995, p. 37.

9 Thomas Doherty, On Modern Authority, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1987, p. 247.

10 Terry Castle, “Why the Houyhnhnms Don’t Write: Swift, Satire and the Fear of the Text”, Essays in Literature, 7, 1980, p. 37.

11 Marcus Walsh, “Text,’ Text’ and Swift’s Tale of the Tub ”, in Jonathan Swift: A Collection…, p. 97.

12 Wyndham Lewis, “The Greatest Satire is Non-moral”, in Modern Essays in Criticism: Satire, Ronald Paulson (ed.), Englewood Cliffs (N.J.), Prentice Hall, 1971, pp. 66-79.

13 Michael Seidel, Satiric Inheritance: Rabelais to Sterne, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 17.

14 Michael Seidel, Satiric Inheritance …, p. 19.

15 Ibid., p. 21.

16 Cited in Claude Rawson, “Order and Cruelty”…, p. 30.

17 Robert Elliott, The Power of Satire: Magic Ritual, Art, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1960, p. 219.

18 For a discussion of satire and realism, see John Lawlor, “Radical Satire and the Realistic Novel”, in Jonathan Swift: A Collection…, p. 27.

19 Quoted in John Lawlor, “Radical Satire…”, p. 23.

20 Quoted in Herbert Davis, The Satire of Jonathan Swift, New York, Macmillan, 1947, p. 100.

21 Quoted in Robert Elliott, The Power…, pp. 3-4. Much of this discussion is indebted to Elliott’s and Seidel’s thorough investigations.

22 Robert Elliott, The Power…, p. 4.

23 Take for example Pope’s famous lines:
Yes I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God, afraid of me:
Safe from the bar, the pulpit, and the throne,
Yet touched and shamed by ridicule alone.
Epilogue to the Satires, lines 208-11. Quoted in John M. Bullitt, Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire: A Study of Satiric Technique, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1966, p. 22.

24 Robert Elliott, The Power…, p. 5.

25 Ibid., p. 109.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., p. 102.

28 Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, II, 2, line 3. Quoted in John M. Bullitt, Jonathan Swift…, p. 22.

29 Quoted in Robert Elliott, The Power…, p. 117.

30 Ibid., p. 115.

31 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957, pp. 309-10.

32 Vivien Mercier, The Irish Comic Tradition, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962, pp. 48-49.

33 Declan Kiberd, “Jonathan Swift: A Colonial Outsider?”, in Irish Classics, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 74.

34 Andrew Carpenter, “Double Vision in Anglo-Irish Literature”, in Place, Personality and the Irish Writer, Andrew Carpenter (ed.), Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1977, pp. 182-83.

35 Paul Turner (ed), Gulliver’s Travels, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 241. Further references are given in the text.

36 Vivien Mercier, The Irish Comic Tradition…, p. 36.

37 Declan Kiberd, “Home and Away: Gulliver’s Travels”, in Irish Classics…, p. 105.

38 Vivien Mercier, The Irish Comic Tradition…, p. 192.

39 I am beholden to Samuel H. Monk’s “The Pride of Gulliver”, in Gulliver’s Travels, A Norton Critical Edition, Robert A. Greenberg (ed.), New York, Norton, 1970, p. 215.

40 Quoted in Samuel H. Monk, “The Pride of Gulliver”…, p. 316.

41 Ibid., pp. 316-17.

42 Edward W. Said, “Swift as Intellectual”…, p. 83.

43 Edward W. Said, “Swift’s Tory Anarchy”…, p. 70.

44 Previous critical orthodoxy may be epitomized by Louis A. Landa’s insights: “If men are generally virtuous, what is the need of the doctrine of Redemption? … Swift sensed the danger to orthodox Christianity from an ethical system or any view of human nature stressing man’s goodness or strongly asserting man’s capacity for virtue … his man is a creature of the passions, of pride and self-love, a frail and sinful being in need of redemption.” Louis A. Landa, “Jonathan Swift”, in Gulliver’s Travels, A Norton Critical Edition…, p. 296.

45 R.S. Crane, “The Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos, and the History of Ideas”, in Gulliver’s Travels, A Norton Critical Edition…, p. 405. Crane specifically mentions the writings of the Neoplatonist Porphyry as an example of the logical opposition between rational man and irrational horse.

46 The New Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary, New York, American International Press, 1991.

47 Denis Donoghue, Jonathan Swift: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 14. He does perceptively note a change in attitude later in the text when Swift’s irony increases.

48 Quoted in Samuel H. Monk, “The Pride of Gulliver”, p. 327.

49 Jonathan Swift, “To the Whole People of Ireland”, in Swift’s Irish Pamphlets: An Introductory Selection, Joseph McMinn (ed.), Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1991, p. 80.

50 See Victoria Glendinning, “Filth”, in Jonathan Swift, London, Pimlico, 1999, pp. 245-61.

51 Penelope Wilson, “Feminism and the Augustans: Some Readings and Problems”, in Jonathan Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays, Claude Rawson (ed.), Englewood Cliffs (N.J.), Prentice Hall, p. 172.

52 Jonathan Swift: Poems Selected by Derek Mahon…, p. 49. Similarly, in his fable of the modern spider and the ancient bee Swift coined the phrase “sweetness and light” which Matthew Arnold used as the measure of culture. Jonathan Swift, A Full and True Account…, p. 113.

53 “He lash’d the Vice but spar’d the Name”; Jonathan Swift, “Verses on the Death of Dr Swift”, Jonathan Swift: Poems Selected by Derek Mahon…, p. 88.

Auteur

University College, Dublin

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