tirsdag den 22. januar 2019

A Modest Proposal - Jonathan Swift (1729)

A Modest Proposal
Maybe you know what it means when somebody has A Modest Proposal. I did not, until very recently, mostly because I am not a native speaker, but now I am in on the joke. A Modest Proposal is used to make a straight-faced suggestion of something completely absurd and outrageous. It all harks back to Jonathan Swifts essay “A Modest Proposal” from 1729.

In this essay Swift, completely straight-faced proposes to solve to problem of poverty, idleness and the hordes of papists in Ireland by selling infants to gentlemen in Ireland and Britain for eating. He presents a perfectly sensible case complete with the economics, the practical details, the problems it would solve and the general benefits to the scheme. Well, except the delicate detail that eating children is just about the most horrendous idea imaginable.

I suppose in all its absurdity it is supposed to be funny, but you have to have an inclination for very, very black humor to enjoy this. Raising children like livestock and cooking them when they are a year old for their tender meat is an absolutely revolting idea and it was just too black for me.

The context of this essay, however, is interesting. Ireland and the Irish were essentially lawless to the British in the eighteenth century. There were no limits to how you were allowed, and maybe even encouraged to, abuse the local population, which was in turn looked upon as a lesser sort of human beings, Papists, poor and good for nothings. As an Irishman Swift was likely upset by the arrogant attitude of the British and while “A Modest Proposal” goes further than even the vilest British bigot, it is written in the same tone as other very demeaning schemes to abuse the Irish, which very outrageous enough in themselves.

Sometimes you need an exaggeration to see the problem.

A second apparent context is the rationalism that was becoming popular at this time and towards which Swift was very sceptic. This is quite apparent in “Gulliver’s Travels” where the scientists or “projectors”, as he calls them, are ridiculed as useless geeks. Swifts saw common sense as being opposed to rationalism (although in truth the two are very connected) and wrote this essay as a rationalistic argument that makes no sense at all.

“A Modest Proposal” is a very short booklet. The only way it could be pumped up to 30 pages was by inserting lots of pictures with no relation to the story and print it in a font larger than those used in my son’s easy-reading books. So, I breezed through the text here in the weekend and I am ready with my second entry of 2019.


lørdag den 19. januar 2019

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift (1726)

Gulliver's Travels
I must have been only a child when I first encountered the story of Gulliver and his travels. The memory of a movie with a giant on a beach with hundreds of tiny people tying him up is very vivid. This is a story many, if not most, people are very familiar with, but the part we recall is usually only the visit to Lilliput. The story is much longer than that. After Lilliput Gulliver went to the giants in Brobdingnag, the to a series of lands inhabited by crazy scientist types and necromancers and finally to the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos in Houyhnhnm-land.

The narrator, one Lemuel Gulliver is a surgeon (a bone-mender) who takes jobs on ships that keep shipwrecking him alone in the most bizarre lands. First stop is Lilliput, where he is a giant among tiny people. There people are also of small minds and outsize ambitions and although he repeatedly helps them out and befriends them, he eventually has to escape as they, in all friendliness, seek to main and kill him.

Next, he ends up with the giants in Brobdingnag. Tables turned, Gulliver is now the tiny person among monstrously large people with large minds. These have no plans to hurt Gulliver, but the sheer size of everything makes even a bee a deadly foe. When he leaves this country, it is merely by accident, being picked up by an oversize bird.

In the third book the marooned Gulliver is picked up onto a flying island. This is a country ruled by scientists with their concerns on math and the heavens rather than common sense. There is definitely a sense that Swift did not care for the academics of his age and these people are laughable in the extreme. Down on the ground he visits a university where “projectors” are wasting time and money on useless projects. This trip also takes him to a place where people get very old and stupid and another, ruled by necromancers, where he has long discussions with long dead people.

Finally, in the last chapter Gulliver visits that land of the talking horses where humans are reduced brutes called Yahoos.

Jonathan Swift, the famed Irish writer, clergyman and many other things, was a satirist and Gulliver’s Travels was intended as a satire on the British government in particular and British/European mores in general. As such the book describes a trend from mild and entertaining, even bawdy, to increasingly mean and bitter satire. In the last chapter Swift is foaming with anger and bitterness and while the idea of clever and civilized horses is amusing there is not much to laugh at in that chapter.

Fortunately, we get that in the first chapters. There are plenty of amusing scenes, from Gulliver quenching a fire in the royal palace by pissing on it to the scientists working on abolishing spoken language since all words can be replaced by things. If you just carry enough things with you, you can make a full conversation without uttering a word. An idea shot down by women who insist on the right to chatter… It is this levity and the bizarre scenery Swift paints that makes for an amusing read even today, where the satire itself has mostly lost its relevance.

I understand why later versions, especially on the screen, has focused on the first chapter in Lilliput. It may be the section with most relevance today. However, there are lots to get from the other chapters as well and I would particularly like to see a movie rendition of the visit to the flying island.

Of course, I will recommend this book, but I knew that even before reading it. It is a classic after all.