(I’m crossposting the following entry from my own site because it occurred to me, as I was writing, that this was probably the best place to interest people in a conversation about the relevance of Augustan satire to Our Own Modern Learning, particularly blog culture. I was a little surprised recently to find my students respond so well to A Tale of a Tub, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes to me that they would “get it.”)
I had such a delightful time teaching A Tale of a Tub (1710) last week that I thought I’d share a bit of it here. No writer of the eighteenth century reminds me more than Swift does of how similar early print culture and early blog culture are, particularly in how they both give readers the sense of an indefatigable proliferation of letters that feed on themselves—criticism that is always already metacriticism—and writers the notion that they must distinguish themselves in a sea of words in which everything has already been said, but more often than not, not very well or sufficiently, requiring incisive rehashing, dissection, name-calling, and extensive accounts of how This Contribution tops the cumulative effect of All Other Contributions to the discussion. We talked about how such cultures of constant commentary necessitate innovative ways of breaking free of the tides of critical discourse—and thus are new forms of satire born. I’m pretty sure Swift has always been funny, but perhaps moreso now than at any other time since he first appeared on the scene. This time around, he had me in stitches from the “advertisement” on page one:
Treatises writ by the same Author, most of them mentioned in the following Discourses; which will be speedily published.
A Character of the present Set of Wits in this Island.
A Panegyrical Essay upon the Number THREE.
A Dissertation upon the principal productions of Grub-street.
Lectures upon the Dissection of Human Nature.
A Panegyrick upon the World.
An Analytical Discourse upon Zeal, Histori-theo-physi-logically considered.
A general History of Ears.
A modest Defence of the Proceedings of the Rabble in all Ages.
A Description of the Kingdom of Absurdities.
A Voyage into England, by a Person of Quality in Terra Australis incognita, translated from the Original.
A Critical Essay upon the Art of Canting, Philosophically, Physically, and Musically considered.
Beyond the mere mention of the forthcoming “general History of Ears,” perhaps my favorite part was his explication, in “Section III: A Digression Concerning Critics,” of that creature perennially slicing like a ninja, cutting like a razorblade through the world of popular culture and criticism, the “true critic”:
And these are the critics from whom the commonwealth of learning has in all ages received such immense benefits, that the gratitude of their admirers placed their origin in heaven, among those of Hercules, Theseus, Perseus, and other great deservers of mankind. But heroic virtue itself hath not been exempt from the obloquy of evil tongues. For it hath been objected that those ancient heroes, famous for their combating so many giants, and dragons, and robbers, were in their own persons a greater nuisance to mankind than any of those monsters they subdued; and therefore, to render their obligations more complete, when all other vermin were destroyed, should in conscience have concluded with the same justice upon themselves, as Hercules most generously did, and hath upon that score procured for himself more temples and votaries than the best of his fellows. For these reasons I suppose it is why some have conceived it would be very expedient for the public good of learning that every true critic, as soon as he had finished his task assigned, should immediately deliver himself up to ratsbane or hemp, or from some convenient altitude, and that no man’s pretensions to so illustrious a character should by any means be received before that operation was performed.
Now, from this heavenly descent of criticism, and the close analogy it bears to heroic virtue, it is easy to assign the proper employment of a true, ancient, genuine critic: which is, to travel through this vast world of writings; to peruse and hunt those monstrous faults bred within them; to drag out the lurking errors, like Cacus from his den; to multiply them like Hydra’s heads; and rake them together like Augeas’s dung; or else to drive away a sort of dangerous fowl who have a perverse inclination to plunder the best branches of the tree of knowledge, like those Stymphalian birds that ate up the fruit.
These reasonings will furnish us with an adequate definition of a true critic: that he is a discoverer and collector of writers’ faults; which may be further put beyond dispute by the following demonstration:— That whoever will examine the writings in all kinds wherewith this ancient sect hath honoured the world, shall immediately find from the whole thread and tenor of them that the ideas of the authors have been altogether conversant and taken up with the faults, and blemishes, and oversights, and mistakes of other writers, and let the subject treated on be whatever it will, their imaginations are so entirely possessed and replete with the defects of other pens, that the very quintessence of what is bad does of necessity distil into their own, by which means the whole appears to be nothing else but an abstract of the criticisms themselves have made.
I love this passage because it reminds us that Swift, as often as he is himself accused of misanthropy and peevishness, understands the stakes of sucking the pleasure out of literary culture. The frenzy into which certain purveyors of popular criticism work themselves in the hunt for filth, stupidity, and sundry evidence of Other People’s General Inferiority is absurd, yes, and amusingly so in the right light, but it is also quite sad, like watching an obsessive-compulsive scrub his own hands raw. Good satire in the age of such incessant vigilance is not just about making another point, or exposing another fault—it’s about getting a laugh that is not simply mean-spirited, conjuring the spontaneous joy that the written word is still capable of producing.