October 3, 2008

Chesterton's Dickens and Swift's Drapier's Letters

Chesterton's Dickens and Swift's Drapier's Letters

It's sometimes interesting to consider books in tandem, even if the overlap between them is merely tangential. This is the only reference to Swift in Chesterton's remarkable study of Dickens (you'll have to wait for it a little, since what precedes it is crusial to Chesterton's argument and mine--nicely expressed too, which is always a bonus):

The optimist is a better reformer than the pessimist; and the man who believes life to be excellent is the man who alters it most. It seems a paradox, yet the reason of it is very plain. The pessimist can be enraged at evil. But only the optimist can be surprised at it. But only the optimist can be surprised at it. From the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise. He must have the faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment. It is not enough that he should think injustice distressing; he must
think injustice absurd, an anomaly in existence, a matter less for tears than for a shattering laughter. On the other hand, the pessimists at the end of the century could hardly curse even the blackest thing; for they could hardly see it against its black and eternal background. Nothing was bad, because everything was bad. Life in prison was infamous--like life anywhere else. The fires of persecution were vile--like the stars. We perpetually find this paradox of a contented discontent. Dr. Johnson takes too sad a view of humanity, but he is also too satisfied a Conservative. Rousseau takes too rosy a view of humanity, but he causes a revolution.
Swift is angry, but a Tory. Shelley is happy, and a rebel. Dickens, the optimist, satirizes the Fleet, and the Fleet is gone. Gissing, the pessimist, satirizes Suburbia, and Suburbia remains. (p. 13, Charles Dickens)

On Swift, Chesterton was, regrettably, a little tone deaf. There's an absurdity in the characterization of Swift here that Chesterton would have been the first to laugh at if it had been pointed out to him. Anger is a passing mood, even in people who are considerably disposed to it; people are never angry in the same sense as they have fingers and toes. Certainly if they lost their fingers and toes as they lose their tempers, they'd be hard pressed to make up the deficiency. But only on the most superficial reading is anyone likely to find Swift unusually disposed to anger. No single passage out of Swift gives anything like his full emotional range--this passage for instance (concluding the 'Letter to Lord Chancellor MIddleton' from The Drapier's Letters) has relatively little of his characteristic humour:

I sent these papers to an eminent lawyer (and yet a man of virtue and learning into the bargain) who, after many alterations returned them back, with assuring me, that they are perfectly innocent; without the least mixture of treason, rebellion, sedition, malice, disaffection, reflection, or wicked insinuation whatsoever.

If the bellman of each parish, as he goes his circuit, would cry out, every night, "Past twelve o'clock; Beware of Wood's halfpence;" it would probably cut off the occasion for publishing any more pamphlets; provided that in country towns it were done upon market days. For my own part, as soon as it shall be determined, that it is not against law, I will begin the experiment in the liberty of St. Patrick's; and hope my example may be followed in the whole city But if authority shall think
fit to forbid all writings, or discourses upon this subject, except such as are in favour of Mr. Wood, I will obey as it becomes me; only when I am in danger of bursting, I will go and whisper among the reeds, not any reflection upon the wisdom of my countrymen; but only these few words, BEWARE OF WOOD'S HALFPENCE.
(Letter to Lord Chancellor Middleton, Drapier's Letters.)

But this passage is not at all untypical of Swift's mood, especially when he wrote to persuade: direct, with a persistent lilt, the words lightly outlined by a shimmer of sadness. Of acourse there's rage prodding beneath the antic humour in much of his writing, but it's worth bearing in mind he had to watch the daily spectacle of the nation where he passed most of his life being brutalized and starved deliberately, with calculation, the upper crust of that nation (who mostly resided abroad) collaborating in that oppressive effort. Sure it would try your patience.

As for Swift being Tory, he switched allegiance from the Whigs early in his life for two principal reasons: he was a devout minister and at least the avant garde of the Whigs were openly atheistic; and the Whigs were a party devoted to war. He was uneasy identifying with any party, and certainly enraged Tories as much as he did Whigs, and for the same reason: neither party at its core was either thoughtful or humane, and he was more than happy to rag at them both continuously over that. He certainly always aimed at changing the status quo ante, and if the wider reforms he sought persistently remained illusive, some of the finest passagaes in Chesterton's Charles Dickens show precisely how partial Dickens' success as a reformer was as wellj, meaning how much is left to us still to do. While Swift is certainly not alone in the concerns he championed, and would never for a moment have claimed he was, it's notable how many of the reforms that have been shakily established over the centuries, and how many we still hope (many of us) to establish, read as if they were cribbed from Swift's Irish and English Tracts. And Swift did lead one successful small revolution at least, whose record has come down to us in The Drapier's Letters (quoted above): the campaign against the imposition from England upon Ireland of William Wood's halfpence and farthings. Either Swift was an exception to Chesterton's astute prescription for (partially) successful reformers, or Swift was far from permanently encased in a carapace of rage, and whatever his temporal dissatisfactions, had made his own peace with life as it's normally lived.

I think it would be more true to say that Chesterton's an exception, the sole one I know of in fact, to the general rule that Swift's most savage critics tend to see, and faithfully describe in their monstrous characterizations of him, not Swift but what he showes them in the sort of glass he typically employs. Not really an exception either, since Chesterton's far from savage in his criticism of Swift, only profoundly mistaken, and he never attempted a full length study or even an article on Swift, and may have read, and innocently absorbed, more of others' corrupt judgments of Swift than of Swift himself.

But if the impulse to reform is always born of embattled love for the world just as it is, humanity even as we find it, what then? Does Swift's impassioned medley of hilarity, invective, irony rough and smooth, eloquence sharp and gentle, the steadfast gaze of his fierce mild eyes amount to an ignorant denunciation we can safeably shrug aside or an urgent warning we ignore at our peril? Are humanity's many defenders really protecting us from Swift's unwarranted abuse, or encouraging us to prefer any shipwreck no matter how absolute, rather than the slightest rebuke to our self-esteem?