The Magazine

Dean of Contradictions

The savage, satiric, sympathetic Swift.

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By JAMES BOWMAN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I’m not sure that this will strike everyone as enough of an exception from the “attitude toward gender” of his times, especially in view of the fact that Swift never married. Or did he? To the question of whether he secretly wed either of the two women with whom he had intimate, even passionate, relationships—Esther Johnson (known to him as “Stella”) and Esther Vanhomrigh (known to him as “Vanessa”)—Damrosch takes a necessarily cautious, agnostic approach, though he repeats the apocryphal story of Stella’s begging Swift on her deathbed for a public acknowledgment of their union and Swift’s refusing. It may be true that “keeping his intimate relationships mysterious was an essential strategy of self-protection,” but it’s not exactly up to our high standards as a progressive “attitude toward gender.”

One of the problems with reimagining Swift as “our contemporary”—as the late Jan Kott tried to do with Shakespeare—is that it makes him much harder to read. We are constantly having to abandon our delight in what he wrote in order to get our minds around what he really must have meant by it, especially when he is at his most misanthropic or moralistic. One example comes in Damrosch’s discussion of Swift’s pseudonymous A Project for the Advancement of Religion, and the Reformation of Manners (1709). In it he proposes rigid enforcement of morality on the part of those in government offices, even though he recognizes that this will produce hypocrisy, which at least “wears the livery of religion .  .  . acknowledgeth her authority, and is cautious of giving scandal.” Most shockingly, Swift wrote: “I believe it is with religion as it is with love, which by much dissembling at last grows real.” 

“Can Swift possibly have meant all this?” asks Damrosch. “Some distinguished Swiftians have thought he did. But it’s hard to believe that the author of the Argument to Abolish Christianity [1708], with its mordant critique of ‘nominal Christianity,’ could call for obligatory hypocrisy in a police state founded on censorship and spying.”

Yet Swift often wrote in favor of an outward conformity to established practices, especially those of the established church of which he was a clergy-man, in spite of inward doubts and even contrary convictions. As the king of Brobdingnag says to Gulliver: 

He knew no reason why those, who entertain [religious or political] opinions prejudicial to the public, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And as it was tyranny in any government to require the first, so it was weakness not to enforce the second: for a man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about for cordials.

Damrosch concludes that A Project for the Advancement of Religion was a satire on the recent revival of Puritanism among the Whigs (who were his political enemies), but that it was so cleverly camouflaged they could not take exception to it, since it pretended to adopt the views of Queen Anne, lately fallen under their influence. This may be so—though such subtlety must always find its limit at the point where the satire becomes indistinguishable from the thing satirized. That Swift was always bumping up against that limit can hardly be an accident, and it must surely be the final word on all questions of his sincerity, or lack thereof, in what he wrote—questions which even the most ingenious biographer should relegate to the closet of his secrets.

Without the anxiety of having to prove Swift the kind of man who today’s politically decent people would would choose to know, he emerges as the sort of amusing companion his contemporaries found him to be, a man his cousin Deane Swift described as one who “equally loved to speak, and loved to hearken,” a man who could write in a letter of consolation to a woman who had lost a child, just as he himself was feeling anguished at the imminent death of Stella, that “Life is a tragedy, wherein we sit as spectators awhile, and then act our own part in it.” 

That sort of humanity is different from Damrosch’s view that “Swift still matters, three and a half centuries after his birth, because he was a great writer and a great man.” This irritating modern habit of writing about “why X matters” is one indication that we are now expected to look for excuses, in the onward march of progress, to discard such figures from the past who need the help of their biographers to tell us why they continue to hang on to some shred of relevance.

James Bowman, the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.