The Modest Proposal leaves the human story a dark and senseless farce…



From The New Statesman:

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.” These lines from Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick of 1729 must be among the most startling in the history of literature. Swift aimed to prick an indifferent public into realising the extremity of poverty and suffering in Ireland, while mocking the “political arithmeticians” who treated this misery as a problem that could be solved by applying a mechanical calculus of costs and benefits. But no one – certainly not the suffering Irish people – escapes Swift’s ferocious scorn. At times, possessed by a cold and lucid rage, he seems to indict all of humankind.

Swift’s Modest Proposal has been read as a contribution to a genre that goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal, whose satires mocked the mores of his society using a variety of literary techniques extending from sarcasm to parody. There can be little doubt that Swift drew on this tradition. But we get closer to the heart of this strange work if we consider how the “deranged yet icily rational social pragmatist” – John Stubbs’s apt description of the persona that Swift adopts in the pamphlet – relates to Swift himself. What is shocking in the modest proposal is how the speaker can mount a defence of cannibalism on the basis of the most logical arguments. The pursuit of reason, Swift seems to be suggesting, can lead beyond the bounds of humanity and sanity.

The 18th century was full of political satirists such as Swift, who criticised prevailing policies in the interests of rational reform. But rather than pointing to any more reasonable way of conducting ourselves, the final effect of the Modest Proposal is to leave the human story a dark and senseless farce. Whatever else it may be, this is not mere satire. At bottom, Swift’s essay may have more in common with the absurdist comedies of Eugène Ionesco than with the familiar and somehow reassuring irony of the Roman poet. But this prompts the question: what kind of person could have produced such an extraordinary work?

“The irrational rationality of Jonathan Swift”, John Gray, The New Statesman