February 5th, 2012


You want potatos with that?

Yes, here's another of those Dover Thrift Edition books … once again doing triple duty for me, being a fast read when I was trying to get to my 72-book reading target last year, being a throw-in to get an on-line order up over $25 for free shipping, and filling in another gap in my Liberal Arts education. Now, I'm pretty sure that the title piece of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works was in one of our text books (the Norton Anthology?), but it was one of those things that in highschool and college I likely read with only enough attention to shoot for a C on the next quiz, so coming back to it at this point at least informs me on it at a more substantial level.

Another book that I was reading recently was addressing the concept that before radio/television/internet the written word was a major entertainment field, and writers like Swift had a social role perhaps like that of a Steven Colbert … commenting (or more likely mocking) on the issues and figures of the day. This becomes a problem in coming to this material some 300 years later, not only is the style of the writing alien, but the context is hard to appreciate, even with extensive footnotes. The first piece in this, “The Battle of the Books”, pits different sections of a library (the “moderns” vs. the “ancients”) against each other, but with almost every book, every reference, every description, aimed at figures of the day. Presumably, the reader in 1697 would “get the joke” but it's hard to make any sense of it on that level today. Imagine somebody in 2300ce watching a late-70s Saturday Night Live skit and trying to make sense of the cultural references in it.

This is the longest of the five pieces collected here (along with “A Meditation upon a Broomstick”, “A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit”, which has interesting foreshadowings of several of Gurdjieff's themes, and “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity in England”) but it is the last which is the most famous (if not to say notorious), the title work “A Modest Proposal”. This, of course, is Swift's satirical suggestion “for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burthen to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public” by way of having their offspring be made a food source. Yes, eating babies.

Most of this is structured much along the lines of a business prospectus, with all the various costs and returns set out with various benefits to society (not least of which, this being Ireland, “it would greatly lessen the number of papists”), including providing a way for the poor “to pay their landlord's rent, their own corn and cattle being already seized”. A lot of this is not for the squeamish, as he goes into a fair amount of detail on the role of butchers, taverns, banquets, exports, etc. in the trade of Irish babies. Obviously, this is presented (albeit straight-faced) so over-the-top that it is evident that the author is addressing the oppression of the people rather than making an actual “proposal”, but it is still a shocking piece. Here the subject matter is sufficiently universal that it is as disturbing now as it no doubt was back then.

Again, this is a slim (60-page) volume, with a cover price of $2.00 so you're quite unlikely to find it in a brick-and-mortar book store ... however, if you're interested in checking out the 17th Century's version of The Daily Show, you might want to add a copy of A Modest Proposal to your next on-line order.

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