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Address By President Michael D. Higgins at the Annual Commemoration of Dean Jonathan Swift, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

October 21, 2012  Posted in: Addresses

Táim faoi chomaoin ag an Déan agus ag an gCaibidil as an gcuireadh a tugadh dom an t-aitheasc seo a thabhairt i gcomhthéacs chomóradh bliantúil phobal Déan Jonathan Swift na hArd-Eaglaise.
[I am grateful to the Dean and Chapter for the invitation to give this address in the context of the annual commemoration of the Cathedral community of Dean Jonathan Swift.]

Thank you Dean and Chapter for your invitation which I am glad to accept.

I am especially pleased to do so in the context also of the eleventh Symposium on Swift which appropriately, has gathered scholars from many countries to discuss international currents in Swift studies.

I am well aware that I follow a distinguished line of speakers at this annual service, speakers who have brought particular insights and perspectives on a man and a writer so completely identified with this hallowed spot, but also so prominently located in the pantheon in world literature.

Like others who have given this address, I too am conscious of the cautionary presence in his observation that “opium is not so stupefying to many persons as an afternoon sermon”!

However, I trust that the interest in and affection for Swift which brings so many thousands of visitors and pilgrims to this place, and which gathers us here this afternoon will mitigate that hazard, and then too is it not an appropriate time to reach back and allow the invocation of Dean Jonathan Swift to remind us of the importance, not only of critical thought in the wake of failed orthodoxies, but also the value of the dissident mind, in all its hurt, even if we choose to eschew some of the force of its vituperative expression that is there in the Dean’s example.

It is remarkable and thought provoking surely that a figure coming to prominence about three hundred years ago should continue to exercise such fascination and admiration.  This reflects, of course, his literary output which was both substantial and influential.  But it also reflects the romance and the contradictions of the man himself, in his personal life.

For example, his tenderness towards the women whom he immortalised in his writing, and the evidence of his affection towards them is perhaps contradicted in his general behaviour towards women.

His personal story too of ambitions thwarted and fulfilled is combined with his courageous championing of controversial and unpopular positions with all the risks that that ensued.  This made this pulpit and his Deanery into a platform to influence the thinking of an age.

While perhaps his most famous work Gulliver’s Travels, has been transformed into a staple of children’s literature, its treatment of the futility of war, its satirical and imaginative power, its recognition of the importance of ethics, and the ethical difference in the values and assumptions of communities, continues to impress, and inspire also, in any arena where there is a contest of ideas and ideologies.  And is there not in this great work, too, an attempt to envisage, describe and yearn for an ethical community?

There is no mistaking the force and intent of the disturbing challenge of A Modest Proposal, nor is there any scope for doubting the zeal, energy and industry of the author of more than Seventy Pamphlets that addressed, in a robust highly engaged fashion, the great issues of his day. What surely endures, above all else, is the courage manifested in breaking silence in the services of a great, even if incoherent, moral purpose.

The fascination with Swift lies too, I believe, as much in the life of the man, as in the significance of his literary output.

The contradictions and inconsistencies appeal in a particular way to the men and women of today, at a time when so many certainties have been shown to be illusory, or indeed when, that certainty which had been claimed for what is not only incapable of verification, or devoid of moral consideration, that which was simply accommodatingly exploitative, has been exposed.

Thanks to the scholarship over so many years of scholars, many of whom are present here this afternoon, we have a keen appreciation of how such tensions and contradictions informed the life of Swift and retained their force for our own times.

Celebrated as a radical and a champion of liberty, we know that Jonathan Swift’s radicalism was exercised in the interest of a Conservative and Tory view of society and the State.  While the public Swift was passionate and eloquent on the cause of the public interest, and the threats to it arising from the pursuit of private advantage, we know that much of his life, especially in his early years was devoted to the systematic pursuit of personal advancement.  The imperfection of the personal, however, hardly cancels this contribution or the grandeur, of the public mind of Swift and its expression.    Dean Jonathan Swift was one of those of whom Thomas Hardy would write so much later in ‘Barchester Towers’ as “had been hoping for preferment”.

While a passionate advocate of the constitutional liberty of the Irish Nation, Swift championed these rights on behalf of the landed members of the established Church, was intolerant of dissenters, and somewhat indifferent to the status of the majority of the Catholic population, whose plight he saw as largely a consequence of their denominational affiliation.

The tenderness expressed towards Stella and Vanessa contrasted with the severe and bitter treatment he afforded so often to his contemporaries.   The misanthropy, with which he was so often credited from such behaviour and his writings, contrasts with the profound philanthropy reflected in his founding and endowment of St. Patrick’s Hospital, a bold and generous act.

A devoted and committed churchman, he was often suspected of being a non-believer.  And, of course, his presence in history will be forever intertwined with this Cathedral Church, yet he wrote that he was “horribly melancholy while they were installing me as Dean”.   For others too, his installation in 1713 was a matter for concern as they posted on the Cathedral gate a prayer:

‘Look down St. Patrick, look we pray
On thine own Clock and Steeple
Convert thy Dean, on this great day
Or else God help the People.’

Creidim go bhfuil gnéithe áirithe d’obair agus de shaol Swift ar cúis mheallacachta dúinn fós iad sa lá atá inniu ann.
[There are, I believe, particular aspects of the work and life of Swift which cause him to be of continuing fascination in our time.]

Shaped, as all are, by the events of his childhood and upbringing, Swift reflected all of the strengths and complexities of an Anglo-Irish identity.

Just as in our time, identity requires to be generously respected as complex, Swift contributed powerfully to the search for meaning and integrity, as he saw it, in the construction of such an Irish identity as might honour appropriately an Irishness that used independence in a moral way, even while he stayed aloof from some of the major exclusions affecting some minorities, and in an economic sense, a majority too, of poor Catholics.

It is also for his self awareness, perhaps, that Swift finds a ready place in contemporary society and contemporary literature.  He was acutely aware as to how he was perceived by his associates and his contemporaries.  He was self conscious regarding his appearance, his physical frailty, his capacity to alienate and disturb others, his vulnerable dependence on patrons and associates, his weakness for polemics and dangerous controversy and, in later years, the scale and impact of his progressive physical and mental decline.  This latter a scourge we must always remember of so many fine minds, and for some, the terrible price, of an elusive truth, pursued too far, and into the darkness.

His disappointments were not only personal.  They had a material consequence.  His falling out of favour with Queen Anne through his writings meant that what his friends had hoped for him ‘a lean Bishopric or a fat deanery’ was not to materialize.

This realistic vulnerability acknowledged in himself was accompanied by a deep pessimism about human behaviour.  He was not such an idealist about social reform or popular progress as would lift him beyond constructive pessimism.  He believed that people behaved as they did in order to achieve reward and to avoid punishment. Higher motives were questionable, and largely absent, because, in Swift’s eyes, of the power of sin.

Society needed a strong State and the State needed a strong Church to regulate or indeed control human behaviour, both through external constraints, and the inculcation of appropriate internal restraint.  The price paid, by such a great intellect, for such a view was immense even if it did yield the materials of letters and later scholarship.

Beneath that Augustinian pessimism, Swift’s determination to be active and to seek to defend, improve, and provoke, and to do so as a public figure is impressive, deploying as he did the full power of language, something that is as rare in our times as it is necessary, in contemporary culture and society.

Swift had no doubt about the power of language appropriately deployed.  He relished his capacity to ensure that “each line shall stab, shall blast, like daggers and like fire”.

He deployed that power with energy but also with the force and illumination of a powerful creative imagination.

He experimented with new literary forms, deploying satire with great effect.

He achieved this, in the view of Edward Said, through his capacity to inhabit the views and perspectives of those he opposed.  His capacity to deploy and extend the arguments and perspectives which he opposed enabled him to undermine and defeat them by exposing their internal logic and revealing their potential for abuse.  Through such satiric aesthetics he pointed the way for others who would in later centuries use the power of language, and ridicule, to counter oppressive domination.

Swift, however, had too good an insight into human nature to believe that this power was more than a limited instrument.  While satire, and the deployment of irony, could mobilise and inspire, he was realistic about its limited capacity to convert.

He wrote that “satire is a sort of glass wherein the holders do generally discern everybody’s face but their own”. 

Can there be any doubt but that irony and satire remain powerful if neglected instruments in public discourse in contemporary society – after all there is so much material which invites just such treatment?

In our own time we have seen how the power of satire can indeed be applied in the pursuit of liberty and the overthrow of tyrants and oppressors.  The voice of Swift can be heard echoing in the midst of those efforts, and at the source of so many creative challenges. Yet Swift concluded in his writings and it is in the evidence of his life, that more than irony was required. The price of omitting the next step towards more engaged structures was to be high.

The power of words was the power he used, a power recognized in Swift’s writings by later public men such as Vaclav Havel and Michael Foot.

In reflecting on the appeal of Swift in our time it is perhaps appropriate to note that one of the more significant examples of Swift’s engagement in public controversy was in relation to the currency and monetary policy which he saw as being imposed on Ireland and while he observed that he would avoid engaging with men of the law as readily as he would avoid disputing with a highway man with a pistol, or a troop of dragoons who came to plunder his house.  He did not shirk from this issue.

One wonders, maybe yearns, for such a pamphlet as he would write now on the dominant controversies of contemporary Europe, Ireland and the world, or the priority taken by issues of currency, over either the common decencies of citizenship or the greater vision of a Europe not only at peace but secure and prosperous for all its people.

It is that power of language and literature to inspire and challenge which, I believe, is the most powerful aspect of Swift’s legacy for us today.  It matters little that the issues which inspired Swift and the causes which he championed in his day are at a distance from our own experiences, challenges and sympathies.

It is Dean Jonathan Swift’s passion, his method, and the exemplary power of his imagination which rings true across the centuries.

Each generation, up to our own, has sought to appropriate Swift’s creative effort and apply it to its own reality, not mattering to take into consideration that Swift himself would in his intentionality have been bemused, if not outraged, by some of the causes to which that legacy was put.

Swift himself said that “what I did for this country was from perfect hatred of tyranny and oppression”.   Our understanding of the definition of this country and our experience of tyranny and oppression may be far removed from Swift’s own experience, but it is the engagement, the determination and the power of language which inspire.  With Hazlitt we can “feel little disturbance at his political sentiments, which died with him considering how much else he has left behind him of a more solid and imperishable nature”.

And surely it is to that part of the imagination, that seems a moral purpose, to the engagement of intellect, to the power of language and the impact of ideas that each generation must look for the resolution of its crises.  Of course we must have the instruments of good analysis, and the sustained application of well-honed expertise;  Of course we must have institutions which are well designed and fit for purpose;  Of course we must have laws and regulations which are effective in providing confidence about conduct, both public and private.

But it is by the quality of the vision, however, that we are tested; the assumptions truthfully stated, the end purpose to which an invitation is made, and we make allowance for such range as a frustrated moral indignation provokes.

Without the engagement and passion of people, without the raised voice of the intellectual and the poet, without the willingness to engage in public discourse at the price of personal risk, without the willingness of the powerful and the well connected to feel such a thorn and the scruple as will impel them to disturb the composure of their class and peers and go on to champion the cause of the marginalised and the excluded, we will not have a society which is worthy of the support and allegiance of all of the citizens.

From my recent visit to Latin America I have a renewed sense not only of the importance of such vision but also of the fruits of courage and creative imagination, in sustaining people in times of trial and, especially in times of defeat, and when despair in the face of tyranny might have been so tempting but was rejected.   The willingness and the capacity to speak out in words and in such forms that touch the imagination and fire the spirit is vital not only in keeping the spark of freedom burning but in appointing the possibilities of a transforming humanity to emerge.

So it does matter for us to know and to celebrate the story of Swift’s public engagement with his times, and to recall how in the words of Pope “the rights a court attacked, a poet saved”.

Abstracted from the detail of the events and causes of his day, it is the spirit of Swift of whom it was said “Fair liberty was all his cry” that we celebrate today.

And I conclude with an obvious suggestion.  It is that we must always bear in mind that none of those we admire in history are flawless.  As Dylan Thomas has the Reverend Ely Jenkins  in ‘Under Milk Wood’ say

“We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood
And Thou I know will be the first
To see our best side not our worst”. 

Only the manner, and the time of the revealing, of those flaws are variable but it is all the more right to celebrate those with courage in their vulnerability, and to respect their legacy all the more in the light of our appreciation of the flaws within ours and their humanity.

We know enough about Swift to recognise the man of flesh could be a trial when provoked, and a provocation too.  But the man and the enduring of his works is truly to be celebrated.

Bhí Swift múnlaithe ag imeachtaí a óige agus ag a thógáil, mar a bhímid go léir, agus léirigh sé láidreachtaí agus castacht na féiniúlachta Angla-Éireannaí go hiomlán.  Agus muid bailithe san áit seo, áit a thaitin chomh mór sin leis de réir a chéile, cé is móite den mhíshuaimhneas a bhí ann i dtús ama, agus áit a ndearna sé freastal chomh dílis sin air, is maith a dhéanfaimís aird a thabhairt ar a theachtaireacht san fheartlaoi a chum sé, agus a thugann ár ndúshlán aithris a dhéanamh air, má tá sé de dhánacht ionainn, agus freastal ar shaoirse an duine.
Agus onóir á tabhairt dá ghuth, tugaimid onóir do ghuthanna uile na scríbhneoirí, na bhfilí agus na ndrámadóirí sin a chothaíonn agus a spreagann an spiorad daonna, fiú agus iad ina n-aonar agus faoi bhrú.
[Gathered in this place which, transcending his initial trepidation, he came to love so well, and served so faithfully, we do well to heed his message to us in the words of the epitaph which he composed, and which challenges to imitate him if we dare in serving human liberty.
In honouring the voice, works and life of Jonathan Swift let us honour the voice of all the writers and the poets and the dramatists who, often alone and under pressure, still keep the courage to nurture and inspire the human spirit.]

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