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Jonanthan Swift - Satiric Excess

Thackeray famously said that Swift’s was a ‘yahoo language’, furious raging and obscene. The inclination for violence in Swift’s work is pervasive, from the scatological poems to the proposal of cannibalism, to works like Tale of a Tub where the anarchy and nonsense of narration seems to capture the ‘Unreason’ of the age. 

Leavis’s view of a ‘literary satan’ in Frost’s words, seems to be at odds with the Augustan advice to avoid extremes, with ‘truth to nature’ and Pope’s ‘whatever is is right’. In this sense, Swift’s work can be seen as a satire against Augustanism, as Dyson argued. In part IV for example he can be seen to be demonstrating the impossibility of the Augustan view as he takes the isthmus position of man literally and pushes the two extremes of reason and emotion into Plato and Hobbes account of the human. This can be seen as behind his aim of showing man to be only capable of reason, part of what Holt sees as his attacking of the sentimental optimism of the age, declaring himself the enemy of enlightenment. 

However this view of Augustanism as an age of reason can be seen as simplistic. As Gay has argued to ignore the scepticism of Hume and the vitality of Diderot is to ‘strip the enlightenment of its wealth and then complain about its poverty’. Swift’s inclination for violence can be seen as part of the view inherited from Dryden which resolves the paradox of satire, seeing it as both a cure for Vices of humanity and a ‘butchering’ as neat as to cut off the head and leave the body standing. 

This paradoxical position forms a large part of the energy which drives both Gulliver's Travels and the Modest Proposal, as Swift deals with the duality by containing the violence in a form which emphasis its own controlling function. As Adams has argued GT is a polished performance, the fury in it is set ‘like broken glass in concrete’. MP’s simultaneous violence and order is however perhaps even more shocking, in the desperate remedy proposed in a modest self-abnegating but also self-congratulatory voice. This is part of what Dyson sees as a technique of betrayal. The polite tone of Gulliver and the proposer mean that we find ourselves agreeing to atrocities, and this tone is only a larger part of the betrayal of genre, in the misdirection involved in modelling GT on a travel book, which is paralleled by the article form MP takes. 

This is obviously part of the shock tactics of moral satire which as Dyson says depends on extremes, presenting humans as monsters to show how far they are from being saints. Leavis’s comment that the ‘terminology ceases to sound like satiric exaggeration and appals with a sense of actuality’ in MP is part of the technique of lateralisation in both texts, the use of size in Part I and II for example functioning as an indication of moral difference, or the actuality of the Yahoo as the excremental animal. 

However, arguing that the view of Houyhnhnms as ideal is simplistic, Dyson points out that their lives are presented as impoverished, incapable of human bestiality but also incapable of human glory. This is reminiscent of Diderot; it is the passions which allow the soul to rise to great things. Similarly Holt points to the myopia of the horses, which leads to an incapacity of seeing good, for example Gulliver's blindness to the good in the men who rescue him. This, Traugott says, shows that even good yahoos are yahoos, and it is this which Bloom argues indicates that Swift finally turns his satiric gaze on Gulliver himself. Holt sees this as part of Swift’s philanthropic misanthropy which accepts a humanity which is only capable of reason. As Swift put it ‘expect no more from man than such an animal is capable of.’ 

In MP the corrective element at times seems to break through the seemingly impenetrable surface, as when the narrator speaks of landlords metaphorically ‘consuming’ people, however this is erased in the lines which follow, a process which continues throughout as Leavis says the negatives rob the supposed positives of the power of assertion. A similar case to Blooms has been made regarding MP, as critics have pointed out that in the final sentence the proposer’s culpability is shown. 

Both mouth pieces are as Williams argues, flexible but solid enough to be "real" at a specific moment. Gulliver is revealed as a liar when he uses Sinon’s oath yet even this is Bloom argues a way to show that Swift is not abandoning humans as hopeless – to tell a noble lie is to prove Gulliver cares about the opinions of society and this is not a misanthrope’s position. This can be seen as similar to the proposer’s clarification of his position, his defence of himself in telling the reader that he has no children from whom he can gain a penny. 

In this context both Gulliver and the proposer can be seen as Swifts way of showing the ‘visionary absurdity of attempting to mend the world’ as Rawson put it, an absurdity which he perhaps saw as his own. Gulliver's complaint is ‘the satirist ultimate gesture of impotent rage’ like the the proposers exaggerated calm, both are in William’s argument recognisable as ‘guidance’ which mediates between the excessive violence and the Augustan sense of the necessity of control as wit. 

However, this strategy of mediation, as well as the view which sees Swift’s excess as fundamentally corrective can be problematic because as Rawson has argued ‘there is no strong competing voice’ in both texts. Swift might be distancing himself in indicating the culpability of the narrators however it is difficult to ‘shrug off’ what the whole insists to be true. Gulliver is mocked but his voice, telling his story of self-inflicted isolation -which has been seen by some such as Carnochan as corresponding to a genuine longing in Swift - is the voice left in our ears. 

The intensity of GT, particularly the end, can lead to a view which too facilely identifies Gulliver and Swift. On the other hand however, it is difficult to place Swift’s satire, with its excessive violence and what Murry saw as ‘gratuitous degradation’ of the human as simply corrective. Dyson points to this in the metamorphosis of irony, as the satire ‘takes a leap’ and becomes an exploration of the worlds unmendability, something which can also be seen in MP where the proposer informs us he had once offered ‘idle visionary ideas’ which went unnoticed. 

The folly of trying to mend the world in both texts can be seen as behind the pleasure in destructive wit yet the excess and violence also holds a positive beyond the single goal of self assertion Leavis identified. As Dyson says the very fact that Swift wrote GT implies that he does not consider his readers to be yahoos. Irony is ‘a civilised game’ and as such it allows for violence within the containment and boundaries of a form which is also a weapon. 

written: 2007