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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Quote of the Day | December 9, 2008: Jonathan Swift's Savage Indignation

Jacques Barzun on noted satirist Jonathan Swift, in From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present:

First one must clear the air of the conventional catchwords, namely that he was a misanthrope and a misogynist obsessed with scatology, and moreover a bigoted politician who never got over his failure to be made a bishop and died mad. Far from being a hater of mankind, Swift deserves to be called a philanthropist of the most practical kind. Throughout his life he went out of his way to help those who approached him for help -- men and women, young or old, with or without talent. When in Dublin he put his whole heart-and-mind into defending the Irish people against England's economic oppression. His relations with "Stella," the woman he cared for from his earliest youth, were tender and protective; he had taught her when she was a child and both were part of Sir William Temple's household. Swift appreciated his patron coolly, but warmed to the personality of Lady Temple, known to fame as Dorothy Osborne, the sprightly letter writer. The misanthrope, niggardly with his affections and good actions, acts otherwise.

But what of Swift's epitaph, written by himself, which speaks of the "savage indignation" that he no longer will have to feel in the hereafter? The word savage is true but the key word is indignation -- the feeling of outrage on seeing injustice. It can be a cheap feeling, indulged right and left to seem virtuous. It is warranted only when the case is clear and the object of one's sympathy deserving. The object for Swift is the individual human being. "All my love is toward individuals -- John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth." But men acting as groups -- "all nations, professions, and communities," he "hates and detests." And he adds, "not in Timon's manner," meaning not taking to the woods as a hermit. Man the animal and his mass behavior is what calls forth Gulliver's recurrent epithet of "odious." The tribal name Yahoo, which he invented, wonderfully expresses human brutishness.

This careful compound of love and hate is not peculiar to Swift. What have religious prophets, poets, philosophers, thoughtful men and women done through the ages but express love toward the lovable and dismay and horror at what history records of Man collectively? Swift had more than the usual reasons for his strictures: he passed his whole childhood in wartime. On an imaginative mind (as I can testify) the impression is indelible. Then in adulthood Swift lived in a period, first of continuous disarray in government, and next of unabashed political corruption. Close to the powerful, he was privy to the jealousies, betrayals, and injustices of day-to-day politics. He could feel nothing but disgust. To be a lover of humanity en masse requires a sedentary life at a great distance and an exclusive devotion to abstract ideas. The hearty Defoe himself, at the end of Crusoe's adventures, has telling scenes of what happens when a few sailors land on the island. It is paradise lost.

Tags: Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, Jonathan Swift, Barzun's

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