Monday, March 21, 2011

Guttersnipe Reviews: Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

Gulliver’s Travels

It staggers me that a man could see this much of human nature, admit he saw it, write it down, publish it, and be allowed to die of old age. How did he ever get away with it? Our 21st century satirists seem cowardly in comparison. Who would dare suggest now, as Swift does, that we solve the bickering of Congressmen by sawing their brains apart and swapping halves with brains across the aisle? Attractive idea!

For Swift, fantasy is a scalpel disguised as a diversion. Constructing elaborate fantasies allows him to confront the human truths we hide in plain sight. He seldom allows us to forget that our bodies, like our institutions, are a filthy stinking mess. Would a popular writer of the 21st century be allowed to be so scatalogical? How many readers today, who proudly consider themselves tolerant and open-minded, would put up with descriptions like that of the dog’s death on page 170?

The introduction and notes, by Robert Demaria Jr, are unusually helpful and graceful. There are often beautiful definitions from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 and thus one’s reading is littered with small satisfactions, like discovering that “new fangled” is a very old word.

It’s bizarre that we somehow managed to turn the first part of this book into a charming children’s story. Maybe we just don’t know what else to do with it – just as a tank is parked in a town square so that children can play on it.

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