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The Genius of Creative Destruction

Cover illustration for Gulliver’s Travels by Grandville, 1838

Early in the twentieth century, a collector of folklore spoke to a farmer in County Cavan, near to where Jonathan Swift had written much of Gulliver’s Travels almost two hundred years earlier. The farmer told the folklorist that there were still people called Bradley living in the area and that they were remarkably small. Their equally tiny ancestors, he said, had worked as laborers for the more prosperous landowners, the Brookes, who were in turn neighbors of Swift’s friend Thomas Sheridan. Sheridan’s laborers were unusually large men. Swift, the farmer claimed, had watched the two sets of workers laboring together and “was so amused at the contrast, and at seeing the giant Sheridans lift up the dwarf Bradleys in their hands and place them like dolls on the haycocks that he joked and laughed with Mr. Brookes at what he had seen that day in the hayfield.”

The farmer’s delightful tale, with the implication that these local dwarfs and giants became the natives of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, is a typical just-so story. It seeks to explain a great literary invention by tracing it back to a biographical incident. Few scholars would take it seriously as evidence of anything other than Swift’s remarkable presence in the Irish popular imagination, even though a version of it also appears in an early biography written by Sheridan’s son. Yet critics themselves have, for centuries, belabored Swift with just-so stories. They differ from the farmer’s lovely yarn principally in being Freudian rather than folkloric and bleak rather than warm. But their status as evidence is hardly more secure.

Swift is almost unique among great prose writers in that, as well as being admired by the literate, he was also loved by the illiterate. There is a Swift contained and explored in thousands of books; there is another Swift remembered and celebrated in Irish oral traditions that were alive up to the 1930s. The Swift of this oral tradition is not a high Tory with a bitter disposition and a streak of misanthropy. He is funny, quick-witted, humane, and human. He is often heard, as in the farmer’s story, joking and laughing. As late as 1933, an informant in County Kerry told a folklore collector of Swift that “people say he was honest, and a good friend to this country while he lived. He was witty and well-spoken, and his intellect and his learning and his cunning were better than that of anybody before him or since.”

In the large body of stories about him in the collections of the Irish Folklore Commission, Swift is almost always “the Dean”—he was dean of Saint Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin from 1713 until his death in 1745—or, in popular pronunciation, “the Dane.” The name shows immediate awareness that he was a high functionary of the established, Protestant, Church of Ireland—an institution unpopular with the oppressed Catholic majority. Yet he transcends these sectarian divisions. He was revered by middle-class Protestants, who named inns and ships after him and built bonfires to celebrate his birthday. Catholics, meanwhile, attached to “the Dean” many of the common trickster stories that circulated around Europe. Swift and his servant, usually called Jack, form a comic double act.

The Dean of this popular imagination is a connoisseur of human foibles. In one story, he is walking through a field when he sees a boy slouched lazily against a fence. Swift asks him for directions but the boy is so lazy that he merely points his leg in the right direction. Swift is so amused that he offers the boy a shilling if he can do anything lazier than he has just done. The boy says, “Put the shilling in my pocket,” and the Dean laughs with pleasure. When Swift asks which way the wind is blowing and the boy answers “Sou’ southwest,” he offers him another shilling if he can elaborate on this laconic reply. The boy drawls “Sou’ southwest, sir.” The Dean again laughs heartily and hires the laziest boy in Ireland as his servant.

The story is striking for its image of Swift’s pure comic delight—and for the way it, and most of the other oral yarns, contrast with the literary record. In the folktales, Swift and his servants compete in trickery almost as equals and the Dean is amused by roguery. In literary biography as early as Samuel Johnson’s Life of Swift, written in 1780, Swift’s maltreatment of servants forms part of the case for the prosecution: “To his domesticks he was naturally rough…a master that few could bear…. Tyrannick peevishness is perpetual.” Here is considerable irony: the descendants of the servant class remembered the Dean as a lovable master; those rich enough to employ servants themselves recorded him as an unbearable tyrant.

This clash between the folkloric and the literary memories encapsulates a larger division: Swift as peevish misanthrope or laughing friend to humanity. How might such a contradiction, emblematic of so many others, be resolved? We can look to documentary evidence. It suggests that on the one hand, Swift (not unreasonably given the prevailing squalor of eighteenth-century urban life) was fastidious and afraid of dirt—making him a demanding master indeed. It also shows that he was kind (he paid very good wages) and affectionate. As well as the famous monuments to himself and his devoted companion “Stella” (Esther Johnson) in St. Patrick’s, there is, more remarkably, a plaque that Swift erected to his servant Alexander McGee. Interestingly, in the text that Swift wrote for it, he referred to himself as McGee’s “grateful friend and master,” but “friend” was deleted as too scandalous a term: senior clergymen could not be friends with their servants. Even then, Swift’s gesture of affection was quickly interpreted by literary commentators as satiric misanthropy—by memorializing a mere servant Swift was surely engaging in a bitter burlesque. He cannot be allowed to be merely a man mourning a friend.

What, then, do Swift’s imaginative works tell us? He seems, in his own poems, much more like the Dean of folklore than the Swift of the early biographies. In “My Lady’s Lamentation and Complaint Against the Dean,” he has one society hostess disturbed to find her eminent guest overly familiar with her servants: “Find out, if you can,/Who’s master, who’s man;/ Who makes the best figure,/The Dean or the digger;/And which is best/At cracking a jest.” In this self-portrait, Swift is remarkably like the figure of the folktales who engages in duels of wit with his own servants.

More importantly, Swift makes comic art out of this very relationship. The funniest of the mock-treatises collected in the latest volume of Cambridge’s splendid new edition of his works is “Directions to Servants.” It is a parody of contemporary manuals on the management of domestic staff. Typically, it instructs the servants in every form of sloth, surliness, mendacity, and unhygienic practice. It can be read, on one dull level, as a mere attack on bad servants. What gives it comic life, however, is the way Swift, like his folkloric alter ego, takes a childlike delight in the tricksters who outwit their masters:

While Grace is saying after Meat, do you and your brethren take the Chairs from behind the Company, so that when they go to sit down again, they may fall backwards, which will make them all merry; but be you so discreet as to hold your Laughter till you get to the Kitchen, and then divert your Fellow-servants.

Socially and intellectually, Swift may be with the unfortunate guests. But his comic imagination is always in the kitchen, laughing with the insolent servants.

More than any other writer, Swift has suffered from the biographical fallacy that someone whose work is so often grotesque must have harbored, beneath his witty and brilliant Ego, a rather foul Id. His words are occasionally spattered with excrement, from Strephon’s horrified discovery about his beloved in the mock-pastoral poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”) to Gulliver being literally shat upon by Yahoos. Therefore Swift must have thought about little else but dung: George Orwell tells us that he “thought about [human dung] incessantly, as is evident throughout his works.” Gulliver urinates on the fire in the palace in Lilliput, therefore, to Henry Miller, “the name Swift was like a clear, hard pissing against the tin-plate lid of the world.”

The self-described “savage indignation” with which he viewed war, poverty, oppression, and folly is evidence not of an entirely sane response to the era of the interminable War of the Spanish Succession, the South Sea Bubble, and famine in Ireland, but of his own nihilism. Orwell, again, declares Swift a man animated only by “disgust, rancor and pessimism,” deformed by his “inability to believe that life…could be made worth living.”

He subjects women to the same satirical gaze he trains on men; therefore he must have, as his generally sympathetic biographer Victoria Glendinning puts it, a “screwed-up attitude to women.” His skeptical view of sex, insistence on the reality of the body, and unconventional relationship with two younger women, “Stella” and “Vanessa” (Esther Vanhomrigh), mean that he must have been incapable of having sex. Orwell declares him “presumably impotent,” and his leading biographer Irvin Ehrenpreis defines him as asexual. No one quite claims that because, in “A Modest Proposal,” Swift has his “author” suggest the eating of babies, he himself must have harbored cannibalistic fantasies, but pretty much everything else in his work is read as the manifestation of a sick mind.

This pathological approach amounts in reality to nothing more than a collection of just-so stories. It treats a comic writer, whose stock-in-trade is exaggeration, wild invention, and anarchic juxtapositions of the high-minded and the filthy, as if he were a psychological realist. It conveniently forgets that Swift is very, very funny and that the best humor is never far from its roots in the outrageous, the scatological, and the obscene. It largely ignores the context of the work. The excremental strain in Swift is just that—one seam among many others. It is hardly all that surprising in a writer who lived at a time when the chances of having a chamber pot emptied on your head as you walked through the streets were pretty good. The petty, rancorous pessimism that Orwell detects is hard to see in the man who devoted so much of his life—at high personal risk—to arguments and projects for the practical improvement of Irish economic life. The Swift who, in his thin disguise as the Drapier, ran a brilliantly effective political campaign against English financial control over Ireland disappears from view.

Swift’s alleged obsession with the unfortunate realities of the human body is much more obviously a counterpoint to falsity and decorousness in both manners and art. It is also a philosophical position. Swift is an anti-Cartesian: against the dualism of mind and body, he reminds us that we are inescapably (and none too prettily) embodied. As he puts it in the mock-scientific “Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit”:

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