Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels”

Who doesn’t know Gulliver’s Travels? Well, actually everyone. Gulliver’s Travels meets the criteria for Mark Twain’s definition of a classic: everybody knows it and nobody hasn’t read it. We encounter Gulliver at school or in the nursery, usually in some children’s adaptation and usually limited to the first two sections: the Lilliput and the Brobdignag. The third part is too boring for children and the fourth too bleak. We even don’t know the title, because the full title is, in the eighteenth-century manner, very long.

When the book was published, Alexander Pope et al., who took care of the publishing arrangements on behalf of Swift, guarding his anonymity, made some heavy cuts to protect him from the authorities. Swift was rather annoyed and he gave vent to it in the letter to Gulliver’s cousin Sympson, added to the second edition published in Dublin, where he, again surreptitiously, made sure that the deleted bits were restored. In the letter Gulliver complains about the unauthorized changes Sympson made on his behalf, You say you wanted to protect me by removing some of my words, but these were the words I said many years ago and five thousand leagues from Britains, surely the Yahoos which are now in power could not interpret them as pertaining to them? (Gulliver, after his stay on the island of virtuous horses Houyhnhnms, learnt to detest humankind, perceiving all of them as the kin to the dirty ape people who were slaves to the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver also doesn’t appreciate the obsequious passage in praise of Queen Anne, although he hastens to add he esteemed her more than any other human being. But he wouldn’t have praised her in front of his Houyhnhnm master, so Sympson by putting these words in his mouth on this particular occasion, made him say “the thing which is not” (the Houyhnhnm phrase for “lie”, because they are so virtuous they actually don’t have this word in their language).  Besides, she ruled mostly through her Prime Ministers.


Jonathan Swift – “A Tale of a Tub” (the end)

In conclusion, what is considered madness and what is heroism depends just on timing. For instance Marcus Curtius, who sacrificed himself when a mysterious crack opened up in the Forum Romanum by jumping into it, and thus appeasing the gods, was considered a hero, while Empedocles, who threw himself into Mount Etna, was considered a fool. A special parliamentary committee should be set up to search thoroughly all the asylums for their “students and professors”, as Swift ironically calls them, and give them state offices “…, civil, and military”. The elision refers to “ecclesiastical”, but Swift is probably too afraid to jibe at the Church too openly. The author says he is very keen on promoting this plan, because he himself has been an unworthy member of “this honourable society” (i.e. of lunatics).

What follows is a kind of literary excursion through Bedlam, in eighteenth-century style, when it was a custom to visit the asylums in order to look at the people afflicted with psychiatric disorders, the way people go to look at animals in the zoo. Look at this madman, foaming at the mouth and biting his grate – he would make a capital soldier. Another who is constantly talking nonsense should be immediately given a lawyer’s bag and a three pence for the coach hire from the Inns of Court to Westminster. The one who bars the windows of his cell at eight o’clock and is constantly afraid of the fire and shop=lifters, should be sent into the City to be a businessman. The one with a serious face, who asks you for a penny, promising a song and goes off with his penny into a corner, never singing a note, would make an admirable courtier (it was a custom of the imprisoned patients, just like of regular prisoners, to beg visitors for tips). The one eating his excrements would make a great physician. Yet another, who seems to be ridiculously proud and gives you his hand to kiss, but is apparently harmless is – and here Swift hides again behind elisions, probably again intending to make a joke at the expense of the Church. All in all, bringing all these people out of the asylum and putting them in the positions where their talents could shine, would be of great benefit not only to themselves, but to the general public.

Jonathan Swift – “A Tale of a Tub” (ctd.)

Summing up, all the people who think they have a new groundbreaking idea in politics, religion or philosophy, are affected by vapours, and once they have this idea, they find it easy to attract followers because the shortest definition of happiness is the “perpetual possession of being well deceived”. There is really no difference between the objects in our imagination and the objects in our memory, and the world would be so much sadder if our delusion or imagination did not embellish it. And it is much better if we don’t inquire into the deeper meaning of things. “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse”, he argues chillingly. Similarly, he dissected the body of a certain beau and on the inside he looked much worse than on the outside. Returning to madness: “some kinds of frenzy give double strength to the sinews”, and some to the brain. Active spirits, getting possession of some brains, are rather like ghosts in empty houses: some of them vanish, carrying a piece of the house with them, and some stay and fling everything out of windows. I’m not sure I understand this metaphor, but maybe it will be explained later.

Jonathan Swift – “A Tale of a Tub” (ctd.)

Another example of “vapours” are people who propose new philosophical systems instead of the common sense. Here the author cites Diogenes, Paracelsus and Descartes, among others, because they were all materialistic philosophers and as such, in his view, next door to atheism. They belong in an asylum and the only reason they can find followers is because they touch a certain string, which harmonizes with the frequency of some people’s hearts. It’s a sign of their sagacity, because, says the author quoting Cicero, it’s good to be in a place where anyone can seem wise. Finally there is religious enthusiasm, which is again caused by the same vapours, and the author argues that there is really no difference between Alexander the Great, Descartes and Jack of Leyden (John of Leyden, a 16th c. Anabaptist leader). The argument I am now going to make, he says, is going to be the most complicated I’ve ever made and it’s going to stretch make faculties to the extreme. “There is in mankind a certain…” and here the manuscript is damaged, as Swift in his capacity as the editor claims. I have to say that in this text Swift pretends to be just its editor, and the real author is the persona he invented of a pedantic writer. The “missing” lines are probably just an argument Swift devised which he considered to outrageous to be printed without putting him in trouble.

Jonathan Swift – “A Tale of a Tub” (fragments)

A Tale of a Tub is a long text of religious controversy under the guise of an allegorical tale about the adventures of three brothers Peter, Martin and Jack, standing respectively for Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism (and also Anglicanism) and Calvinism. But the real gist of the story are the faux-learned digression, of which the one about the origins of madness is selected for the NAEL. The author argues that “vapours” which cause madness are at the root of every great accomplishment: in war, art, philosophy etc. Vapors may be produced by various causes, just like fumes can come both from incense and latrines in our world, but the result is the same – clouds. And like the result of the clouds is rain which produces different results on different soils, so the vapours produce different results depending on which soil they fall down. For instance one great king (Swift identifies him in the footnote as the French king Henry IV) summoned a great army and everybody was wondering for what purpose, but it turned out it was just for the purpose of bringing a woman he was in love with back from the Netherlands. (Henry IV did marry off a fifteen-year-old [ew] Charlotte Marguerite de Montmorency to Prince de Conde, just to make her his mistress, but the Prince was having none of it and ran away with her to Brussels). Ravaillac, the man whom Swift ironically calls the state-surgeon, did notice it and tried to help Henry by cutting him open, but unfortunately during this “surgery” the patient died. Another example is Louis XIV. (Again, Swift coyly identifies him only as somebody he’s read about “in a very ancient author”, but I don’t quite see the point of it, if he identifies him in the footnote, and he was not afraid of Louis XIV anyway, was he?) Louis for thirty years waged bloody wars against everyone until his vapours left his brain and accumulated in a tumor in his anus. Louis did undergo a painful operation for an anal fistula in 1686, but this didn’t stop him from participating in many other wars later. Maybe it’s because once his vapours were released from the fistula, they left room for the new ones to arise and settle in his brain?

Jonathan Swift – “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” (the end)

Now comes perhaps the least interesting part of the eulogy when the nameless speaker explains how Swift always hated Whigs and how they persecuted him, sending him to Ireland, the land of slaves and fens. But despite his hatred for Ireland and the Irish he defended them with his pen and had to suffer through numerous trials led by wicked judges, but Heaven and the grateful people always defended him. Cut off from his real friends Pope, Gay, and Bolingbroke, he had a select circle of friends in Dublin, but always despised the local nobility. If he ever made fun of people, it was always of their vices, not naming any names, and he never attacked ugliness, unless it wanted to pass for beauty, dullness, unless it wanted to pass for wit, or ignorance, unless it wanted to pass for wisdom. (Would Swift’s tenets fit today’s comedy scene? I will have to think about it.) The poem ends with my favourite lines, referring to the fact that Swift bequeathed in his will some money to found a hospital for the insane.

“He gave the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad;
And show’d by one satiric touch,
No nation wanted it so much.”
Always a satirist until the end.

Jonathan Swift – “Verses upon the Death of Dr. Swift” (ctd.)

Swift continues to imagine the sorry state of English writing after his demise by having the bookseller recommend to his customer the works of Thomas Woolston, a controversial theologian who claimed that the New Testament should be read only as an allegory and that the miracles never happened. Swift as usual exaggerates, describing Woolston as if he had been the toast of the town, while in reality he was tried for blasphemy, heavily fined and died in prison, not being able to find money to pay his fines. (When the government wanted to cut down the number of dioceses in the Church of Ireland, Swift wrote “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity”, as if this meant state-imposed atheism.) Finally Swift writes the eulogy he wishes he had, putting it in the mouth of a random man talking with his club friends at a tavern called the Rose. The man says he’s no critic of literature but he can say Swift’s works sold. He describes Swift as an independent man, who loved liberty and never grovelled to anyone. He emphasizes of what Swift was justly proud, that both Irish and English government offered 300 pounds each (a huge amount of money then, about $60,000) for information about the identity of Swift’s satirical texts and nobody gave him away. He also alludes to the unsuccessful efforts Swift made to reconcile the two leading Tory politicians, Harley and Bolingbroke.