To walk from Dublin Castle to St Patrick’s Cathedral is a matter of five minutes. But in the decade when Jonathan Swift was dean of this cathedral, it was a journey to a different universe — a passage, not just from a secular space to a sacred space but from one kind of power to another. In the castle, there was the power of armies, of government, of taxation, ultimately of coercion. Here, in Swift’s domain there was a different kind of power, the power of language deployed by one of its greatest masters, the power of boundless imagination, above all the power of moral rage, the savage indignation that may have lacerated Swift’s heart but that, 350 years after his birth, can still blow open a passage into our own hearts.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to the way Swift deployed that power is the way the powers-that-be closed ranks against him when he was deprived of it in old age by his lapse into illness and dementia. No great literary figure has ever been more systematically traduced. Swift’s illness was put about as proof that he was, after all, a madman and a degenerate: as Samuel Johnson disgracefully crowed, “Swift expires a driv’ler and a show”. It was a way of proving that Swift disturbed us, not because we need to be disturbed, because he was himself a disturbed man. And ever since then the question that has surrounded one of the greatest of writers and one of the most challenging of moralists has been: what is wrong with Swift?
We now know, of course, that Swift suffered with Ménière’s disease, a deformity of the inner ear that gave him spells of dizziness and nausea. It was all too easily taken as evidence of his mental imbalance. But the real point is that to read Swift is to experience Ménière’s disease for ourselves. His vast comic invention, his dazzling ventriloquism, his peerless orchestration of multiple voices, none of them securely his own, his vertiginous shifts of perspective, make us dizzy. And his rage at human degradation does induce nausea. No one before or since has taken such a powerful verbal blow-torch to all forms of authority – religious, political, military, intellectual, scientific. Against this assault, there is just one effective defence – the idea that Swift was, after all, mad or degenerate or both. It is not war or exploitation or dire poverty that are insane. It is the man whose writing forces us to confront them.
What was really wrong with Swift is that he lacked the protective shell, the thick skin, that allows other people not to see what they are seeing, not to feel what they are feeling, not to know what they know. He saw the hunger and the poverty and the degradation that were all round him. He felt the rage at the self-delusion that allows us to justify and even celebrate violence and cruelty. He knew that so much of the pomp of power was a mere puppet show. What was wrong with Swift is that he was unable to play along with the illusions that keep stupid and callous systems afloat.
Swift is the founder of the great Anglo-Irish tradition of writing that is one of Ireland’s great gifts to the world. It was he who showed us how an Irish sensibility could inhabit the English language – the Irish sensibility took up residence there and has yet to be evicted. But Swift is also a great moralist, not because he teaches us simple lessons, but because to read him is to be forced to experience two things without which the moral imagination is impossible.
One of those things is perspective. Swift destabilises everything, makes everything relative and provisional. He literally shifts our perspective on things. Gulliver sees the world first from the perspective of a giant, then from that of a tiny homunculus. He is almighty, then a mere plaything. And this is part of Swift’s bigger design. Swift belonged to a culture that insisted that its way of viewing things was the only proper one. The outside world, especially the world of exotic foreigners was a place to be civilised, in other words to be brought within the bounds of the proper imperial perspective.
But Gulliver’s English imperial assumptions, the civilisation he boasts of, are stripped of all their pretensions when the king of Brobdingnag is disgusted by Europe’s violence and folly.
And this dizzying shifting of perspectives is ultimately an experience in humility. Swift was a proud, even an arrogant man, but as a moralist he teaches us to be humble, to always understand that we are very limited creatures who view the world through our own little peephole in the fabric of reality. There are other peepholes and some of them of them may just have a better view. Knowing this is essential to moral life on any scale – if we do not have a profound awareness of the limits of our own perspectives, we are tempted to think that we are right and the other is wrong. From there it is a short step to hatred and oppression.
The second moral journey that Swift takes us on is the trip to the edge of reason. Swift is not an enemy of rationality – he put a great deal of his energy into rational attempts to reform the Irish economy in the interests of its ordinary members. But what he shows us is that reason is no good without indignation. He takes us, in A Modest Proposal, into the terrain of the apparently reasonable man who has no idea of the horror of what he is suggesting. Rationality divorced from emotion, reason sundered from moral instinct, leads us into nightmares. Swift warns us of this in ways that echo through history and still live with us in our own daily lives. To take just one example, there is a concerted attempt to tell us that the fact that over 2,000 children woke up homeless in this city this morning is normal, an expected aspect of the rational working out of the market. Swift reminds us more powerfully than anyone else that what is normal may be intolerable and that we should not use rationality to make us tolerate it.
Swift is the only great writer who was also a large figure in the oral folklore of his own country for centuries after his death. While establishment culture took its revenge on him, ordinary Irish people remembered him very differently. As late as 1933, an informant in County Kerry said to a folklore collector of Swift that “People say he was honest, and a good friend to this country while he lived. He was witty and well-spoken, and his intellect and his learning and his cunning were better than that of anybody before him or since.”
Swift would certainly have agreed with that verdict. He would have expected nothing less than to have heard it endorsed from the pulpit of his cathedral 350 years after his birth. As he wrote himself while imagining his own death:
That Kingdom he hath left his debtor
I wish it soon may have a better.
But it is not just the kingdom of Ireland that is indebted to Swift – it is the great kingdom of the moral imagination. It will not soon have a better demonstrator of the humility and passion that we need if we are to survive as a civilised species on a sustainable planet. If, as his epitaph down there urges us, we try to imitate him, there is a decent chance that we might still be here to celebrate him in 350 years time.
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