Monday, March 11, 2013

`It Has a Lash'

My youngest son found a postcard in a library book showing a drawing of two manacled hands and the words “Children Bought And Sold Here.” I promised him we’d hang it on the front door and thought immediately of Jonathan Swift. For some writers our ardor cools. For others, Swift among them, it only grows. I never tire even of his most familiar texts, Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub. Until his final years he was the sanest of men, though difficult and unclubable, and he reminds us that mental health has a social dimension. His charm was intellectual. A biographer who understands this is Victoria Glendinning in Jonathan Swift (1998): 

“It is a truism that those who make us laugh most are frequently prey to melancholy. Turning everything to wit or humour is a strategy for survival and a redeeming route to acceptance and popularity. Swift’s wit is often shocking. It has a lash. He challenges the hypocrisies and received opinions which enable people to rub along together.” 

In her first chapter, “Beginning,” Glendinning notes that in her biography she will report on the prominent public men and women, politicians, clerics and others, who figured in Swift’s life. She adds: 

“But he and they are to be  seen and heard in  the context of a great company of other faces and voices, familiar to him but  mere voices off in these pages – agents, archbishops, artists, beggar-women, bishops, booksellers, carriers, courtiers, curates, deans, doctors, enemies, factors, friends, fixers, functionaries, grooms, ladies-in-waiting, landlords, middlemen, peers, poets, printers, rectors, relatives, scholars, servants, soldiers, speculators, spies, statesmen, tenants, tradesmen, vicars, dogs and horses (Swift liked lists)…” 

I do too, in part because they are amusing, and Glendinning’s is a hoot. Close readers of Swift will find much to laugh at in her catalog. Something in the Irish sensibility – in Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien, etc. – finds comedy in any human striving after exhaustive inclusiveness. We see it too in another list written by another admirer of Swift, F.H. Buckley, in The Morality of Laughter (University of Michigan Press, 2003): 

“The risibility of machine economics illustrates the political neutrality of laughter. This is a useful lesson, for laughter often seems directed at the modern liberal, so much so that, with Quintilian, the conservative might almost say Satura tota nostra est: satire is all our own. The most acidic satires have come from the pens of deeply conservative writers: Juvenal, Butler, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Chesterton, Belloc, Wyndham Lewis, Roy Campbell, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Mordecai Richler, Florence King, Tom Wolfe, Joseph Epstein, John Cleese, P.J. O’Rourke, James Hynes, Michael Kelley, and Mark Steyn. A Walter Olson or Dave Barry simply reports upon a piece of fatuous liberalism and exclaims `I’m not making this up!’ The link to conservatism comes from comic norms on which laughter depends. The conservative accepts the norms, while the life-style liberal rejects them and the laughter that goes with them.”

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