Swift's Satire of Dissent in A Tale of the Tub

Elio Di Piazza

Enculturation, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997

About the Author
Table of Contents

My contribution to the discussion on Swift will focus on the links connecting the discursive and figurative stratagems adopted in the eighth section of A Tale of a Tub to the English society at the opening of the XVIII century. The study of the social relevance of rhetorical devices stressed the idea that the figures of thought and of word can no longer be viewed as empty games of the human mind; instead, these figures reveal the nature of material contradictions and of social conflict. Any figure, whether produced under a logographic or a psychogogic pressure, has its own social value, which is determined by the struggle occurring on the socio-economic level in a particular historical conjuncture. My paper synthesizes a longer work on Swift's rhetorical figures, in which I tried to answer some of the stimulating petitions contained in Eagleton's Criticism and Ideology and in Jameson's The Political Unconscious; they define Swift's Tale as a political allegory. As Jameson explains: "With political allegory . . . we have moved to the very borders of our horizon, in which what we formerly regarded as individual texts are grasped as 'utterances' in an essentially collective or class discourse" (Jameson 80). Swift's rhetorical figures, when not taken for themselves, help to build a bridge joining the ideological formation to the social structure of the early XVIII century society; they become "utterances" of the social controversy which characterizes the Augustan age. The episode of the Aeolists in the Tale discloses its central position in the whole argumentative mechanism, becoming thus the main instrument to win the discursive battle opposing two different social groups, the gentry and the merchant class.

For the Aeolists, in the beginning there was the wind; everything, corporeal and immaterial, originated from it and resolved into it. That was a doctrinal complex, a teleological conception, not at all peculiar as the age of the Enlightenment was only at its beginning. As a matter of fact, in his stubborn opposition to the sectarian Puritanism that continued to attract substantial sectors of the urban bourgeoisie in spite of (and after) the results of the civil war and of the 1688 social and political compromise, Swift threw himself in a merciless fight against that doctrinal complex. It was a system of ideological representations which, chiefly in its philosophical and religious aspect, seemed to prevail in the Aeolistic universe and among the dissenters (the blabbering hordes attacked by Swift). In order to increase the effectiveness of his argumentative maneuver, the writer made Aeolism a symbol of the fanatic folly of dissenters. Consequently, the funny and unlikely priests inflated with wind provided Swift with an excellent starting point to thrust at the enthusiasm and the zeal which blinded Calvin's followers.

The Aeolists' episode constituted the thematic and structural pivot of an anti-modern and reactionary discourse grounded on the confutation of 'Dissent'. The narrative space occupied by the Aeolists stretched beyond the boundaries of the world of likelihood. Aeolists and dissenters didn't inhabit the world "as it is"; they lived in the capricious regions created by dire necessity and inexorable fate. They were enemies of the will and of the epistemological supremacy of tradition, and spread inconclusive theories on religious subjects, such as "providence" or "predestination." The writer's attack was prevalently addressed to Calvinism, to the fanatic vehemence with which Jack tried to bring back to the original form the suit inherited from his father; a vehemence which was fed by the vapors of madness and by the ideological winds that devastated Jack's reason and pushed the heretic to tear his own suit to shreds. The Aeolistic sect, like many other (and not fictional) dissenting sects of the time, put a strong emphasis on the importance of the Holy Spirit. The Aeolists, to be more specific, postulated the homology between that spirit and the wind, and between the latter and the vapors of madness. The universe of Dissent was animated and ridden with that afflatus; hence, for the Aeolists in the beginning there was the wind. Against the foolish fancy of these rebels of the spirit, the young Irish writer turned the clipping weapons of satire.

A Tale of a Tub appeared anonymously in 1704 together with The Battle of the Books and The Mechanical Operations of the Spirit; its composition goes back to the years the writer spent at Moor Park. At that time Sir William Temple's influence on the young Swift was particularly strong; on the other hand, it must not be forgotten that Temple was the author of that impish pamphlet "Of Popular Discontent" (1690) directed at encouraging a reactionary bend as the XVII century was at its close: a century, as many historians now recognize, ". . . of English factionalism and disorder." But, it is certainly diminishing to trace the ideological system of A Tale of a Tub and the anti-modern positions embraced by Swift merely back to the influence of the old aristocrat. The most relevant source of the Swiftian traditionalism has its origin in the transformations that took place on the concrete domain of the social formation and in the repercussions that this formation had on the system of scientific, religious and political representation. The anti-scientific traditionalism, of which Swift is often charged, was part of the cultural heritage the writer brought with him from Ireland. As he was a student at Trinity College, the Dublin Philosophical Society appointed William Molyneux as its president; Molyneux was an expert in the Ars Meccaniche (math, engineering, hydrostatics, etc.) and was also the translator of Descartes' Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, a milestone for the new rationalists. Swift openly rejected the rationalism which inspired that philosophical and scientific society.

On the other hand, the force of the adversary and the intent of the author not to directly manifest his own opinions often account for the satirical attack and tie together objective and subjective conditions. We should, then, stress the relevance of two events whose importance has often been underestimated: the promulgation of the Toleration Act in 1689, and five years later the constitution of the Bank of England. These facts are essential moments of the objective reality which Swift covertly addressed and may account for his formal and ideological choices. The satirical discourse, then, has to be referred to the middle class' solid economic position and speculative achievements.

The critics frequently dealt with the role rhetoric plays in Swift's Tale. But only after the studies of Martin Price and John Bullitt in 1953 has a strong emphasis been put on the rhetorical structure of the text. A decade later Edward Rosenheim reconstructed the satirical procedures of Swiftian ecriture and the working of the rhetorical figures in the story. John Rembert and, in Italy, Attilio Brilli, are among the few who filled that structure and that imagery with an historical and social content. Analyzed within the conflict with the historical time, Swift's satire often proves conservative, as Attilio Brilli convincingly writes in his successful attempt to connect rhetoric to history. On the whole, these studies follow two different directions, according to the different ways of appraising the weight rhetoric has in Swift's narration. One group of scholars stresses his reception of the degenerate Aristotelian tradition derived from the Renaissance (we might think of the retrieval of the Ciceronian canon in Peacham's The Garden of Eloquence and in Wilson's Art of Rhetorique). A second group of scholars, on the other hand, maintains that the rigorous control of form and the attentive and magisterial recourse to the satirical figures are constitutive of a new rhetorical norm deeply planted into the Augustan age and deeply indebted to the classical tradition. No doubt Swift harshly attacked rhetoric, known as a series of sclerotic formulas and conventions in which the prescriptive Ars Oratoria was held. But it is specifically through these attacks that Swift meant to recover the original function of rhetoric: the function, that is, to persuade and to guarantee, at the same time, the supremacy of the contesting party. The neo-classical Ars Declamatoria (Ars Dicendi), presaging the anti-rhetorical wave that would violently burst in the Age of Enlightenment, highlighted the functional character of the discourse, and aimed at the efficacy of form. The knowledge of the rules that govern the discourse, first of all the epideictic discourse, was in the literary curriculum of Kilkenny boarding-school and of Trinity College. This awareness did not prevent, but on the contrary favoured, the renunciation of the canonical rules and, at the same time, the search for a new linguistic project adequate to (and validated by) persuasion: As Martin Price writes:

The central tradition in which Swift grew was an antirhetorical one. Its distrust of rhetoric was, of course, a distrust of one kind of rhetoric, and its distrust of the old gave motive and form to a new rhetoric which emerged in full maturity secure and unquestioned, in the Augustan age.

Swift's attacks, constructed with a wise use of the new canon, were not direct attacks, since they were not launched from a position identifiable as an opposing stand point. Instead, they were disguised as theses enclosed in the author's philosophical perspective. The prevailing occurrence of the metalogical figures of speech (first of all, irony) in the rhetorical texture of the Aeolists' episode was meant to ease the adversary's defeat. The writer married the reasons of Dissent, only to disclose their perversion at the closure of a deceptive and circuitous narrative journey; he distorted the arguments of the story turning them into their opposite. The main tools to operate this distortion were the figures, whose explosive value had been fed by Swift's furor satyricus: the Aeolist (positive-fictitious hero) confuted the dissenter (negative-real hero) in a desecrating orgy culminating in laughter. However, the Swiftian humor did not finish with the laughter and did not lay over the argumentative plan; I disagree with Rosenheim when he advances the idea that Swift's comic temper in A Tale of a Tub constitutes an independent value and has a uniquely aesthetic end. As far as Swift is concerned we cannot speak of a closed comical universe, but only of what stands outside that universe, namely the English society on the eve of the eighteenth century. As Zimmerman writes in his Swift's Narrative Satire (1983), to rightly evaluate Swift's satirical figures we should take into consideration what stands outside the satirical object itself.

The linguistic translative device is clearly working as the Aeolists' unusual ceremony is disclosed to the reader. Now, the process of translation from one sentence to another is supported by the interlacing of two metaphors whose value was deciphered by the author himself. According to what Swift wrote in a footnote, the Aeolistic priests used to prepare themselves for preaching in a rather unusual way: "At certain Seasons of the Year, you might behold the Priests among them in vast Numbers, with their Mouths gaping wide against a Storm;" the mystery of "Mouths" and "Storm" was revealed in the footnote: "This is meant of those Seditious Preachers, who blow up the Seeds of Rebellion. . . ." The meaning of the two metaphors is clear in the equivalence "Mouths = Seditious Preachers" and "Storm = Rebellion." The two tropes carry us from the fictitious space of the narration to concrete reality, from the Aeolists' world to that of the Puritan preachers who incited the English people against the Anglican church: by attacking the fictitious Aeolists that spit storms on the believers, the writer aimed at striking the real Puritans who fomented rebellion against the Anglican hierarchies. The Aeolistic preaching is presented as an eruption of windy-words from the preacher's mouth. The worshippers of Aeolus, inflated with wind, hasten to church to be refreshed by a shower of windy-words. Wind, words and culture became the same thing: the more the priests were filled with wind, the wiser they were, as it is implicit in their motto "Learning puffeth Men up." Knowledge dilated the Aeolists, impregnating them with wind, as the verb "puff up" seems to imply. From that moment Swift placed his trust on the famous syllogism to demonstrate, in the usual ironical way, the logical invincibility of the relation between wind, words and culture; I quote: "Words are but Wind; and Learning is nothing but Words; Ergo, Learning is nothing but Wind."

Substantial traces of neo-classical rhetoric can be found in the particular relation between the figurative system and the linguistic signs. The descriptive needs often paired with the communicative demands in an attempt to persuade the reader. The Swiftian rhetoric didn't lose sight of the partisan thesis and aimed at the coherence of the verbal surface and the ideological project. Recently, the American scholar Peter Schakel stressed the immaterial nature of the Swiftian word:

The Swiftian device of making 'substantives' physically rather than semantically substantial ridicules the way words and the minds that were made to receive them have degenerated. And while words descend from the pulpit with unsemantic gravity, they are 'wafted' through the theater on the debased wings of a spurious wit.

One could object to Schakel's assertion that the "physical" and "semantic" weight of the Swiftian word perfectly coincided, as Swift himself wrote in the introduction to the story: ". . . Words . . . are also Bodies of much Weight and Gravity." The particular aim of the episode, the linguistic devices it contained, produced an extremely rich and varied idiom, full of archaisms, neologisms, puns, proverbs, foreign terms and, naturally, a wide repertoire of verbal "nonsenses." The richness of the language combined with the multiplicity of the figures of thought and, obviously enough, with those of word. Building the paradox of the "belch," for example, was possible only after having pre-arranged relations of synonymy binding together "wind," "breath," "life" and "spiritus": "What are all these but several appellations for Wind?" Swift writes: "Which is the ruling element in every Compound, and into which they all resolve upon their corruption? Farther, what is Life itself, but as it is commonly call'd, the Breath of our Nostrils?" At the end of this preparatory linguistic distortion, after assigning the words new and sometimes untried meanings, the writer could proceed to the paradoxical description: "the Wise Aeolists, affirm the Gift of Belching, to be the noblest Act of a rational creature." Moved by a partisan intent, the meaning of the Swiftian word would change, under the pressure of an ideological claim, to its reverse. The numerous variations undergone by the word "wind" were, therefore, exemplary of the different ends that from time to time Swift meant to pursue: so, by the word "Aeolus" he reasserted the authority of tradition, by "spirit" he denied the value of Calvinistic enthusiasm, by "effluvium" he made fun of the new science, by "tempest" he certified the effectiveness of poetry and, finally, by "belch" he declared the corruptibility of matter.

In conclusion we might say that, if the satirical argumentation required the most attentive and thorough employment of the logical and metalogical figures, the ideological partisanship imposed the most rigid control of the "elocutional apparatus." The clarity of the Swiftian idiom in the eighth section of the "Tale" was then strengthened by the apparent contradiction between the communicative intent and the words used to fulfill that intent. The laus of the Aeolistic world concealed the vituperatio of the philosophical universe of the "modern" dissenters. The overturning produced by the figures of thought and of word, their unmistakable comic value, relieved Swift from the risks of a frontal confrontation with a strong middle class. The ironical artifice, then, turns into a strategic tool to win the philosophical battle engaged by Swift against middle-class Puritanism.

Works Cited

Brilli, Attilio. Retorica della satira. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1973.

Bullitt, John. Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1953.

Eagleton, Terry. Criticism and Ideology. London: Verso, 1975.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. London & New York: Routledge, 1981.

Price, Martin. Swift's Rhetorical Art Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1953.

Rembert, John A.W. Swift and the Dialectical Tradition. Hong Kong: Macmillan, 1988.

Rosenheim, Edward. Swift and the Satirist Art. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1963.

Schakel, Peter J. Critical Approach to Teaching Swift. New York: AMS Press, 1992.

Zimmerman, Everett. Swift's Narrative Satire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1983.

Copyright © Enculturation 1997

Home | Contents 1:1 | Editors | Issues
About | Submissions | Subscribe | Copyright | Review | Links