Thursday, April 10, 2014

`Because Our Ailments Are the Same'

Since 2008, Cambridge University Press has published five volumes of its projected seventeen-volume Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift. Thus far we have English Political Writings 1711–1714; A Tale of a Tub and Other Works; Gulliver's Travels; Parodies, Hoaxes, Mock Treatises; and, most recently, Journal to Stella, which I’m now reading. It’s a book almost impossible to read for the first time, and virtually designed for rereading. It collects the letters Swift wrote between 1710 and 1713 to Esther Johnson, whom he called Stella. Swift, a man whose sensibility was a booby-trap, may have been secretly married to her. In his notes to Exiles, his only play, Joyce wrote: “The two greatest Irishmen of modern times—Swift and Parnell—broke their lives over women.” Joyce’s mouthpiece in Finnegans Wake, Shem, is modeled, in part, on Swift. Anthony Burgess is a reliable guide to such matters: 

“Jonathan Swift had an obscure relationship with two girls--Esther Johnson and Esther Vanhomrigh, better known as Stella and Vanessa. A father in God (Swift was, of course, the Dean of St. Patrick's in Dublin) evinced a somewhat unfatherly interest in two of his spiritual daughters, and these two young women are conjoined in Finnegans Wake in the personality of HCE's daughter Isobel.” 

It’s another Irishman, Beckett, not Joyce, I hear most clearly in Swift’s prose – the same precision or mock-precision, clarity or mock-clarity. In Letter XV of Journal to Stella, dated Feb. 1, 1711, Swift writes: “I was this morning with poor Lady Kerry, who is much worse in her head than I. She sends me bottles of her bitter, and we are so fond of one another, because our ailments are the same.” 

There’s a familiar Beckett theme – fondness or love rooted in – what? Shared illness, incapacity, pain. After World War II, Beckett wrote one of his best stories, “Premier amour,” which he later translated as “First Love.” (Apropos of nothing, Turgenev, Nabokov and Welty also wrote stories with that title.) Here is Beckett’s Swiftian recitation of bodily disgust: 

To be nothing but pain, how that would simplify matters! Omnidolent! Impious dream. I’ll tell them to you some day none the less, if I think of it, if I can, my strange pains, in detail, distinguishing between the different kinds, for the sake of clarity, those of the mind, those of the heart or emotional conative, those of the soul (none prettier than these) and finally those of the frame proper, first the inner or latent, then those affecting the surface, beginning with the hair and scalp and moving methodically down, without haste, all the way down to the feet beloved of the corn, the cramp, the kibe, the bunion, the hammer toe, the nail ingrown, the fallen arch, the common blain, the club foot, duck foot, goose foot, pigeon foot, flat foot, trench foot and other curiosities.” 

And this: 

“Perhaps I loved her with a platonic love? But somehow I think not. Would I have been tracing her name in old cowshit if my love had been pure and disinterested? And with my devil’s finger into the bargain, which I then sucked. Come now! My thoughts were all of Lulu, if that doesn’t give you some idea nothing will.” 

And best of all: 

“What goes by the name of love is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland, such is my considered opinion, this evening.”

No comments: