Denis Donoghue (Professor of Modern English and American Literature, at University College, Dublin) patiently makes it clear that "Swift Our Contemporary is merely a fraction of Jonathan Swift 1667-1745." The "sense of life" that "is operative in his work" is hard to locate "in contemporary attitudes." In Swift's perspective, at the top there was "the God enunciated by the Anglican religion and sustained by Tory politics," the equivalent of which was "an appeal to the landed class, rather than to the moneyed men, the City." When reading Swift with the vatically terrifying close of Pope's Dunciad in mind, one continually glimpses the pressure of the coming turn in literary fashion. The constraint that Swift was forever trying to impose upon himself was but a microcosm of the constraint that (in his hatred of "Enthusiasm" and all its squirming brood) he would if possible have imposed upon the rebellious course of history (the literary analogue of which could perhaps be summed up in the turn from "wit" to "imagination" as key term). In keeping with his inhibitory attitude, which in his poetry came to a focus in the strict formalism of rhymed (tetrameter or pentameter) couplets, "Swift made up for constraint by training himself to live with it; as he would deal with misery by reducing his desires." He was in principle under the wholly un-Amurrican sign of one who would try to cut down his expenses rather than increase his increase his income.
The delightful aspect of the present book, as literary criticism, resides in Donoghue's constant return, by various routes, to a discussion of what blows are struck, or blocked, or dodged, or followed up, and how, in Swift's endless stratagems to make the world "poor but honest." The result is an expert presentation of the profuse inventiveness that enlivens Swift's stylistic tactics. For instance, in contrast with much contemporary writing which tries to get "power" by the wearisome overdoing of a few four-letter words, think of the passage where, satirically adumbrating the key analogies of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, Swift calls "Religion a Cloak, Honesty a Pair of Shoes, worn out in the Dirt, Self-Love a Surtout, Vanity a Shirt, and Conscience a Pair of Breeches, which, tho' a Cover for Lewdness as well as Nastiness, is easily slipt down for the Service of both."
"To begin with," Donoghue "would propose Swift as a master of the Negative.
If Swift were God, he would declare himself through the Decalogue, the series of Thou-Shalt-Nots; and persist thereafter in silence. As it is, he builds his great work from the resources of negation, featuring as his characteristic gestures the imagery of veto, voiding, riddance, cleansing, deletion, and the like.
In keeping with his somewhat metonymic trick of translating "spiritual conditions" into terms of physical analogues, he "gets rid of sin and evil by treating them as excrement," a stylistic resource that could become a kind of psychologic subterfuge, permitting by negation "an acceptance of what is repressed" (Donoghue is here quoting Freud). But the aptitude for such ingenuities also has its risks:
Unofficially, then, Swift could admit into his consciousness anything and everything that insisted on coming his way; while officially he would rid himself of it, or some of it, as the Yahoos employed their excrement, by discharging it on their enemies. As long as this magic worked, he could live, if not happily at least productively. The horror of his last years is that his mind was unable totally to rid itself of excremental experience.
Perhaps, despite himself, and despite his hatred of all human pride, part of his trouble had its roots in a devious course whereby Pride had crept up on him unnoticed. For Donoghue goes on to say, "In those years, he thought of himself, 'my blood soured, my spirits sunk, fighting with Beasts like St. Paul, not at Ephesus, but in Ireland.'" Perhaps Swift was yielding here to what Donoghue, in another connection, calls "threat by imagery."
Be that as it may, these are the trying days when one must leave it for the salesmen of business and run-down religion to "accentuate the positive." The welter of our technologic powers, coupled with their burdensome "sideeffects," calls for a corresponding profusion of negativity, at least as regards the criminally or stupidly wastefid ways of living that are absolutely necessary, if our current modes of production and distribution are to be kept going.
Donoghue gives us telling glimpses of respects in which Swift's battles against the world-without are dangerously paralleled by battles-within ("deep in the dreadful unconscious"). But he seems almost as reluctant as Swift himself would have been, to venture upon speculations as to just what, or what all, such a fate-laden ambiguity might eventually involve, so far as personal motives are concerned. Thus, on the subject of "perspective," he considers at some length the effect of microscope and telescope "upon the English literary imagination." With regard to what Gulliver refers to as a "pocket-perspective," Donoghue says: "Looking through one end, Gulliver saw the Brobdingnagians; through the other, the Lilliputians." But though he proves his point (and all the more so when he quotes ungentlemanly verses on "Celia's magnifying Glass" and its gross reflections when she is squeezing blackheads, specifically called "Worms"), I doubt whether we should stop at this point. For there were fabulous tales of giants and pygmies long before the telescope was invented. To me they suggest an origin in such disproportions as a child must feel in contrast with "Brobdingnagian" adults, or on the other hand with "Lilliputian" insects and small animals. Neither microscope nor telescope quite shows us a Yahoo at one end and a Houyhnhnm at the other, though I could understand such a virtuous horse as an idealized mother-symbol. Incidentally, Donoghue himself remarks that "the Brobdingnagians are to Gulliver in their country as Gulliver is to a weasel in England." And elsewhere he says, "The King of Brobdingnag makes fun of' human grandeur,' which 'could be mimicked by such diminutive Insects as Gulliver." Such observations would also fit well with Freud's notions about dream-surrogates for children.
Donoghue might justly say that the attempt to track down such possibilities would, at best, belong in another book. What interests Donoghue is the expressed, not the hidden Swift, and particularly his literary tactics. The first chapter, "One Lash the More," is concerned among other things with the distinction between such a figure as Gulliver and the kind of character we expect of such works as the Jamesian novel. In the second, on "Perspective," while stressing the stylistic resourcefulness of perspective, pressure, irony, discontinuity, parody, comparison, contrast, and burlesque, Donoghue also makes it clear how such devices tie in with Swift's beliefs and limitations. The third chapter, on "Body, Soul, Spirit," discusses his tricks of reduction, as when taking literally what is offered metaphorically. Thus, if the Aeolists say that "the Original Cause of all things" is Wind, Swift proceeds accordingly, by equating eloquence, belching, religious enthusiasm, breaking wind, and inspiration. Similarly, there are endless possibilities of parody, "given that 'spirit' can be construed as ghost, vapour, soul, breath, air, wind, distilled liquor, and many fugitive things." And again, where the ostensible aim of Inspirational artifices in religion is "to scale the height of spirit," Swift proceeds to imply that their real aim is "to achieve an orgasm." Donoghue also notes how, in order to score, the possibility of Swift's "vexing the world often led him beyond the strict boundary of belief or disbelief."
Then comes a long chapter on "Words" that demonstrates how exacting the tie-up can be between a sense of stylistic propriety and the sense of commitment to a certain position in religion and politics. One could never find a more puzzling tangle of pride and revulsion against pride. There is something both grand and Fearsome in Donoghue's remarks on Swift's attitude; "A man is known by the company he keeps and, with equal justice, by the propriety of his style. Swift once told Lord Orrery that he refused to sign a Report until 'the words Mobb and behave were alter'd to Rabble and behaved themselves.'" But when one critic objected to Swift's style as "somewhat hard and dry," Donoghue reminds us that "to Swift 'hard' and 'dry' are terms of praise."
The next chapter, "The Lame Beggar gives us what we had been waiting for all this time: a discussion of Gulliver's Travels, plus relevant references to other works and authors. It's a marvelous field to work in and Donoghue does delightfully by it, though perhaps no one will ever get to the bottom of this book (by an author who, as Donoghue points out, was almost brutal in the perhaps fear-ridden attempt to keep from going below the surface).
The last chapter, "The Sin of Wit," treats of Swift's poetry. Precisely here, where love should enter, it does. Yet how perversely, as Swift's belief in the body gets entangled with imagery of the body's ills and secretions. Reading Donoghue on Swift in love I am reminded: I knew a woman who knew another woman; and this second woman told me what the first woman had told her about a certain man; namely: "I loved him unbearably. I idealized him. And the only way I could keep from him was by always making myself think of him as in the act of defecation." Her strenuous imaginings worked. Thereby, having successfully repressed her adulterous love, she remained a loyal wife, up to the time when her husband divorced her, and married his private secretary.
Similarly, several of Swift's poems are eager to plague themselves by visions of a lovely woman sitting on the can, or otherwise burdened with body-bathos. It may have some devious bearing upon the gnarled satirist's enigmatic relations to his Stella.