Jonathan Swift – “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

Yes, as one could guess it, the pretty chest contains Celia’s chamber pot. Opening the chest is compared to the opening of Pandora’s box, except that Strephon has no wish to look for Hope at its bottom. The poet exclaims “Oh never may such vile machine/Be once in Celia’s chamber seen!/Oh may she better learn to keep/’Those secrets of the hoary deep!'”, but where is the chamber pot supposed to be in an 18th-c. house with no modern plumbing then in her bedroom? The chest seems for me good enough to hide it. Does he expect her to go to the outhouse every time? Another extended simile compares Celia’s bodily functions with grilling mutton chops. Even though you may choose the best mutton and grill it over the cleanest fire, when a drop of grease falls into the fire, it turns into a stinking smoke which makes the meat smell bad. So is the case with Celia’s body, whose droppings pollute the air around her. Strephon exclaims in dismay “Oh Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” and flees. But from that moment on whenever he sees a woman, he remembers all the stinks in Celia’s room, or conversely, when he can smell something bad, he imagines a woman nearby. The speaker says he is sorry for him, because it’s not a reason to be disgusted by women. Venus herself, after all, rose from the stinking sea. So a reasonable man, like the speaker, stops his nose and admires Celia in her finery, considering her to be like a tulip growing from dung.


Jonathan Swift – “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

The section “Debating Women” containing the texts by and about women, begins with the poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” by Jonathan Swift. Celia has just left her room after five hours of getting ready, her maid Betty is occupied with something and Strephon, Celia’s admirer, seizes this opportunity to sneak into the room. What he finds there is not pretty at all. First he finds her night-dress with sweat stains in the armpits. Then her combs, all clogged with hair and the huge amounts of hair product 18th.-c. ladies used. Then all the cosmetics, deodorants and the particularly disgusting night gloves made out of the skin of Celia’s dead lapdog, to be used with puppy water, a cosmetic made of one of her lapdog’s puppies. Then various dirty clothes: night-caps, stockings, petticoats. Then the magnifying glass (reminiscent of the Brobdignag ladies) in which Celia squeezes her blackheads (at least I hope that’s what Swift is describing when he writes about “worms”. And how can Strephon know what it is for? Celia is not there performing this operation at the moment.)  But what is this beautiful chest in the corner and why does it smell so bad?

Jonathan Swift – “A Modest Proposal” (the end)

The sixth and final reason for introducing the author’s plan is that it is going to be a great inducement for marriage, as well as it is going to make mothers and husbands treat respectively their children and wives better. There are also many more advantages such as increasing the export of beef once the domestic meat consumption is sated with child meat and so on.

Summing up, the author says he can think of no objection to his plan other than it is going to decrease the population of Ireland. But that is its whole point and he doesn’t suggest it to any other country. Here Swift drops his mask of a “projector” and lets his anger show: he lists the whole list of other plans he suggested in his earlier pamphlets, such as limiting private spending to only home-made products in order to decrease trade deficit, raising taxes for absentee landlords and generally becoming better and more patriotic people. He has no hope of ever implementing any of them, and he thinks his last plan is the only one which has a chance of succeeding, because England can’t possibly object to it. The infant meat is too tender to be exported to England, even though he knows a country (of course he still means England) which would like to devour a whole nation. If you have any other ideas, I’m open to them, he says, but first tell me, how are you going to feed and clothe 100,000 people a year, and secondly, if you ask the parents of these children doomed to life of misery and starvation, wouldn’t they choose rather for them to be disposed of in the manner he suggested? At the end, he delivers one more poisoned dart, saying that he is completely objective in this matter, because he cannot gain anything by it: his youngest child is nine years old, and his wife is past child-bearing age.

Thus ends this text, which I think didn’t lose its acidity. In the early 1980s Peter O’Toole picked it for a performance at the opening gala for a Dublin theatre and the Irish radio cut off the transmission because they had received too many complaints from the listeners. (That’s why this YouTube recording is cut off.) It also ends the selection of Jonathan Swift’s writings in the NAEL. As a cynical teenager I used to adore him, but now after this big dose of Swift I think a little bit of him goes a long way. Am I getting too soft in my old age? Or maybe Swift is like horseradish, enjoyable in small doses, but not as the main dish. On the whole, I think he said it best in his epitaph, which, in Yeats’s beautiful translation, says that he left where “savage indignation there/cannot lacerate his breast”. He was a man extremely sensitive to the suffering and injustice around him, and he channelled it into his ice-cold satire which cuts to the bone.

Jonathan Swift – “A Modest Proposal” (ctd.)

The meat of children will be available throughout the year, but most plentifully around March, because as the unnamed French author (Rabelais, as the Helpful Footnote indicates) observed, children in Catholic countries are born in greatest numbers nine months after Lent, because the fish is “a prolific diet”. I’ve read that that’s because fish is salty and anything salty was considered aphrodisiac, but I’m not sure, Was salted fish really so prevalent in Ireland, the place where you can’t get any further than 100 km from the sea and there are lots of lakes and rivers? Also, if post-Lent baby boom were true, by my count it should occur in December/January. But the author doesn’t pay attention to these details and just announces triumphantly that that is one more advantage of his scheme, because it will help to get rid the country of papists, who are the primary breeders. One gentleman, with whom he shared his project, suggested even that adolescent boys and girls could be used instead of venison, which is growing scarce, but the author rejects it, because boys are too tough to eat and it is too wasteful to eat girls who can soon themselves become breeders. Besides, it would be too cruel and he emphasizes he wants to avoid unnecessary cruelty. But he quotes with approval the story of “Psalmanazar” (the then famous French charlatan, who claimed to be from Formosa [Taiwan]) that in his country the meat of a plump girl sentenced to death was sold at a very high price, and he says that he knows a couple of plump girls in Dublin who like only to spend the money they don’t have, and who, if disposed of in such a way, would bring much more profit to their country. As for the elderly and middle-aged people, the old die out fast enough, and so the younger people, being undernourished, so the author is not concerned about them.

So, summing up, in the author’s eyes his plan has only advantages, which he enumerates. Firstly, as he has already mentioned, decreasing the number of papists who are making Ireland unsafe, conspiring how to bring back the Pretender, while Protestants leave the country because they’d rather leave it to Catholics than “pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.” Swift, as a clergyman of the Church of Ireland was the representative of the episcopalian clergy, which represented only a small minority: the majority of the Irish were Catholic, and in the Protestant minority about half of them were Dissenters. I’m sorry to observe that in this one instance Swift’s usual intelligence didn’t help him to notice the injustice of the scheme where everybody had to pay taxes to support the Church they didn’t belong to. The second advantage is, the poor people finally would have some property at the stage when everything they owned has already been confiscated for debts. Thirdly, the GNP is going to rise because it’s not going to be encumbered by the cost of supporting these superfluous children, and their being sold for meat will generate additional income, which will be a boost to domestic economy. Fourthly, on the individual level, their mothers will earn money for selling their children and won’t have to spend any on supporting them past their first year. And fifthly, what a great benefit it will be to taverns, which can invent new dishes!

Jonathan Swift – “A Modest Proposal”

Today I started reading what is possibly Swift’s most famous political text. In this text, Swift assumes the persona of a benevolent projector, coming up with a scheme to solve poverty in Ireland. He begins by observing that women beggars, followed by a number of children, are a common sight in Dublin. These children are the drain on the country’s resources, because they require food and clothes, and their mothers can’t work while they take care of them. A child up to one year of age doesn’t require much apart from breast milk, but then the costs start to mount. You can’t put these children to any work, because Ireland’s economy is in shambles: “we neither build houses… nor cultivate land”, and you can’t even expect a child to become a decent pickpocket until it is six years old. They also can’t be sold (I assume he refers to some kind of illegal trade) until they are twelve years old, and the price will not cover the expense of raising them for so long. The solution the writer proposes will solve the issue once and for all, not just with beggars but also poorer working parents, and it will also end abortions and infanticides. The writer calculates that out of 200,000 married couples in Ireland only 30,000 are able to support their children, and he is afraid even that is too optimistic an estimate. Deducing 50,000 for miscarriages and children who die in infancy, Ireland is left with 120,000 children a year with which it doesn’t know what to do. The writer’s solution, inspired by a talk with an American acquaintance (he probably means a Native American), is to offer 100,000 children for sale as meat. The remaining 20,000 will be left for breeding purposes, with one-fourth of them being male, because these children are mostly illegitimate anyway, so “one male will be sufficient to serve four females” (here he makes a small error in his computation, because it would be actually three). A child can be enough for one dinner with guests, or even for several meals just for one family. The meat may be a bit expensive and so the author assumes it will be mostly sold to landlords, who “have already devoured most of the parents”.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” (the end)

Gulliver admits he also has some doubts about the purpose of the whole colonial enterprise, which seems to be just to exploit other nations. He adds (of course Swift means it ironically) that Britain is the best when it comes to ruling the colonies and sends only its best men there. But since the countries Gulliver visited don’t seem to want to be vanquished, and have no precious natural resources, it’s best to leave them alone. But if anyone asks, Gulliver is ready to affirm under an oath that he was the first European to visit them. In the last paragraphs Gulliver describes his life now: he spends it on contemplaiton at home. Recently he started to allow his wife to dine with him, provided that she sits on the other end of a long table, speaks only when she is spoken to, and then only briefly, while Gulliver still has to stop his nose. But he hopes with time and training he may even be ready to suffer a neighbour to come to him. On the whole, he doesn’t even mind that the Yahoos are so nasty, naming here a long list of various criminals, but what really gets him when he sees such a deformed creature puffed up with pride. The Houyhnhnms, the most perfect of creatures, are never proud because for them to be proud of their virtues would be as silly as for us to be proud of having two legs and two arms. For that reason Gulliver asks any Yahoo who is at least a little bit proud not to appear in his sight.

And thus end “Gulliver’s Travels”. I remember it was a stomach punch for me when I read it as a teenager, and it had a similar effect on many readers, so much so that people in the 19th century believed that Swift was mad when he was writing it. Now I am a bit older, read a bit of criticism which taught me not to identify the narrator with the author and also not to take at face value everything Gulliver says. Some of his behaviour, like him considering himself to be a kind of honorary Houyhnhnm, is more understandable in the context of the previous parts: when he returned from the Lilliput, he thought everyone was huge, and when he returned from the Brobdignag, he thought everyone was tiny, so I think it’s logical that the Houyhnhnm land, where he stayed (if I remeber correctly) the longest, should have a similar effect on him.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 4 (ctd.)

in the last chapter of his book Gulliver devotes a lot of space to convince his readers that everything he wrote is strictly and factually true, and thus he can’t see how anybody could be offended. He claims his only purpose was to instruct his countrymen. He also addresses the question whether he should submit an official report to the government, because any land discovered by an Englishman should become a part of the British Empire. Conquering the Lilliput is not worth the effort, and fighting the Brobdignag and the Laputans, who can squash anything with their Flying Island, too dangerous. The Houyhnhnm, who don’t know what war is, might be considered an easy target, but Gulliver believes that with their unity and bravery, twenty thousand kicking Houyhnhnms would be a terrible opponent for any army. Instead, he’d rather they sent some of their representatives to teach the British their various virtues.