Tuesday, January 29, 2008

An Anatomy of a Satire By Swift

To read Swift is to enter his space. You do so at your peril. I speak metaphorically of course but there is no other way to describe the experience of breathing an atmosphere of unpredictably calibrated uneasiness--sort of like finding yourself alone in a cage with a large, lean, unidentifiable though possibly feline and almost certainly feral, beast.

Swift takes advantage of the fact that in whatever setting we find ourselves in, we always want to know where we are and what's expected of us. If there are jokes afoot, for example, we want to be on the laughing side. So he encourages us to think we know where we are at the same time hinting rather broadly that if that's what we think we are in for a painful surprise. But we don't take the hint because we don't understand the rules of Swift's game--never give the sucker and even break. And sure enough, we get sandbagged when we least expect it. And then we go through the same process all over again. And the purpose of all this skulduggery? We'll get to that, but first I want to look at the famous or infamous sentence (it IS a famous sentence)that whacks us in the face every time we read it: "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse." This sentence is a trap: by reading it you tacitly accept the speaker's tone of objective, impersonal, scientific curiosity. In other words, you've just been sandbagged. (Of course I am making some assumptions of my own: first, that you are not the sort of person that Swift here is ironically making you out to be, a man or a woman who can calmly look on as another person--possibly a living person-- is being scientifically and publicly disassembled.)

How has Swift brought us to this point of refined felicity--or cruelty?

At first the choice offered is a simple one: a life passed in the "common forms, without any thought of subduing multitudes" to one's own power or reasons or visions; versus the lust for power that overtakes a man when his "fancy gets astride of his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense is kicked out of doors." The onset of madness is here presented as a political allegory with the fancy and the imagination seizing power from reason, the senses, commmon understanding and common sense. That, says Swift is the hard part; once a man has succeeded in deluding himself, it becomes easier to delude others,"a strong delusion always operating from without as vigorously as from within." The political metaphor is dropped, almost immediately, as we are hurried along toward the idea that Swift has been aiming at all along: a definition of happiness as "a perpetual possession of being well deceived." Then the argument--or the illusion of argument--proceeds along the lines of the familiar appearance-reality distinction, somewhat as follows: the pleasures and entertainments that we prefer are those that "dupe and play the wag with the senses." That is why we prefer fiction to truth. For imagination can create much more beautiful and wonderful things than Nature can afford to supply: "How sad and insipid do all objects accost us that are not conveyed in the vehicle of delusion! How shrunk is everything as it appears in the glass of Nature [as if we were looking through the wrong end of a telescope]" That is why we love theatrical displays and performances. Indeed, if it weren't for glitz, glamor and "the assistance of artificial mediums, false lights, refracted angles, varnish and tinsel" it would become painfully obvious that we are all in the same boat, that no one is having any more fun than anyone else, and life is (at best) all manner of boring. Of course we don't want to believe that our lives are devoid of any distinction whatsoever and therefore essentially meaningless, which is why we REALLY OUGHT to hate those who try to tell us the truth and deprive us of our illusions--instead of telling them what great philosophers they are. Which is completely irrational and doesn't make any sense at all.

So, now I'm going to try, one more time [says Swift, as my paraphrase continues] to prove to you for your own good that credulity is a more peaceful possession of the mind than curiosity, and that we would all be much better off if we would simply accept the common, conventional order of things, and not try to dig too deeply below the surface. Take the surface commmonly known as 'skin.' It's a surface like any other, separating the inside from the outside. What happens when, in the interest of science and the advancement learning, we remove it? Well, I'll tell you. Last week I saw a woman being skinned and you have no idea how it altered her appearance for the worse. It was disgusting. See what I mean? You can think of this a sort of metaphor for philosophical and scientific inquiry in general. What these people, these so-called philosophers and scientists, OUGHT to be doing instead of poking around in the innards of human nature and the political order, is finding ways to patch up and cover over, cosmetically, the imperfections they've discovered--instead of publishing them for all the world to see. If we were truly wise we'd stay where we belong, on the surface of life and nature, in the world of appearances and delusions, skimming off the cream of life, so to speak, and leaving the rest for those pretended philosophers to lap up. And THIS, folks is what I mean by the sublime and refined point of felicity called the possession of being well-deceived, the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves.

Now, speaking in my own voice, I want to say that that last sentence cannot be paraphrased because it defines a dilemma that reason has created but cannot resolve. And Swift knew it. The life of reason is no fun. The truths about human nature and human life are so terrible--as Shakespeare shows us for instance in OTHELLO and KING LEAR--as to be almost unbearable, but what's the choice? Well, you can choose not to know and remain in the comfortable world of appearance and delusion--and be robbed blind by those who know and understand the ways of the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment