If Giorgio Vasari is the godfather of art history, James Brown is the godfather of soul, and Marlon Brando is the godfather, then Jonathan Swift is surely the godfather of satire. That is not to say that satire did not exist before Swift came along — it was an art form in ancient Rome, in the hands of dramatists like Quintillian and Juvenal — but the modern concept of satire, the version we embrace to this day, started with Swift.
The author is best known, of course, for "Gulliver’s Travels," but his oeuvre is enormous. We might recall from our school days his essay, “A Modest Proposal,” which in the driest of tones politely suggested eating anyone who was “funking up our groove,” as James Brown might have put it. A new, truly mammoth biography of Swift is forthcoming (W.W. Norton, Feb. 28, 2017) by multi-award-winning biographer John Stubbs. Weighing in at 752 pages and a generous 310,000 words (that’s the length of three “normal” books), it looks set to become the definitive Swiftography.
And in times like these, we need one. Swift has never been fresher. The cathartic experience of laughing at a spoof of something real and serious, something outrageous but delivered straight-faced, deadpan — I’m looking at you, "Daily Show" and "Saturday Night Live" — is a precious release, when reality is getting you down.
For satire to work well, it has to come from darkness but skitter through that darkness with the lightest of touches. “A Modest Proposal” is couched as a pamphlet published with sincerity and goodwill that happens to suggest that the Irish propensity to over-procreate, combined with a famine in Ireland, provide the obstacle and its solution all in one go. Irish families, with too many mouths to feed, should feed on those too many mouths, selling them as food to the wealthy. Yes, if you google “eating babies,” you’ll find the Wikipedia page for “A Modest Proposal.” Now that you’re recoiling in disgust (which is just what Swift wanted you to do), if you actually go back and read the essay, you’ll find yourself giggling, despite your superego telling you not to.
This is, of course, precisely tuned to the recent election campaign. The only question was, who got the joke? The whole Trump campaign sounded like a Jonathan Swift essay. A polite suggestion that Mexican-Americans should vote for someone promising to wall off their country, that Muslims should vote for someone aiming to bar entry of all Muslims to the United States, that lower-income families should vote for someone who plans to strip away any chance they have at healthcare, that women should vote for someone who seems to think that women are lumps of warm flesh to be grabbed at will. And yet …
Satire can be defined as “a form of humor in which absurdities, vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are presented and ridiculed, with the intent of shaming the target into self-improvement.” Never mind that those ridiculed almost never recognize the need to change and react because of it — the subject rarely gets the joke. The person delivering the message is almost always doing so with a straight face, taking the high road and holding up a mirror to show just how ridiculous the situation is, using the situation itself as a weapon against it, the mirrored shield petrifying Medusa. "The Daily Show" is perhaps the clearest example of this. Host Trevor Noah often simply repeats what the object of the joke has said. In this new context, its ridiculousness is highlighted.
Academics like to break down satire into three categories, each named after an ancient Roman practitioner of the art. Horatian satire, named after Horace, is low-key, mild and designed not to really get anyone’s knickers in a twist. Perhaps Jerry Seinfeld’s standup comedy is a good example. No one’s blood is boiling at his shows, he just points out the quirks of everyday life (e.g., “What’s with the cab drivers and the B.O.?”)
Juvenalian satire, named after Juvenal, is much more aggressive, abrasive, intended to get the hackles of its victim nicely raised, targeting social evils. By holding up a mirror to his targets, he sought to make them appear as monstrous as he believed them to be. Certain "Saturday Night Live" sketches are in the Juvenalian tradition, like the presidential debate sketches featuring Alec Baldwin as Trump.
Finally, there is Menippean satire, of which Swift’s novels are a fine example. These are the most ancient form (named after Menippus, a Greek from the 3rd century BC) and are normally longer works of prose that tackle an idea or ideology, rather than a single person. A contemporary example of this might be the film (and book) "Thank You for Smoking," which satirizes the entire tobacco industry, the tobacco lobby and cigarette marketing culture, as opposed to a single person.
John Stubbs explains that Swift “wasn’t at all what we’d call a liberal. He had very decided views on what people should believe and how they should behave.” But neither did he suffer fools, as he “detested the abuse of political power, or indeed any excessive use of force by the stronger party.” Swift’s chapter in "Gulliver’s Travels" in which Gulliver confronts the giant Brobdingnagians shows his rage against, as Stubbs put it in an interview with Salon, “doltish insensibility to those weaker than ourselves.” If this rings a bell with contemporary politics, it should.
Stubbs adds, “[Swift’s] writings crackle with something very much like the anger against a corrupt establishment that seems to have carried Donald Trump to the White House.”
But that same anger, Swift would likely argue, was misdirected and put the wrong candidate in charge. “Simultaneously Swift incessantly expresses his disgust at how morally outraged and exploited people invariably fall for the cheap promises of politicians.” There’s not that much of a gap between “A Modest Proposal” recommending that the poor solve their problems by selling their babies for meat, and the modest proposal that the U.S. keep those “bad hombres” out by building a wall across Mexico that the Mexicans will somehow pay for. The difference is in the intent of the delivery — Trump is serious and his supporters think it’s actually a good idea, whereas Swift writes in such a way that we recognize it as satire, we know that he, the author, does not actually endorse the crazy idea, and readers of his words are likewise in on the joke.
Swift also weighs in on how big fish seem to get away with big illegalities, while the little folk, the ones who can least afford it, are punished. “Laws are like cobwebs,” he wrote, “which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” Although he couldn’t have meant it, his choice of symbolic insect, a WASP, is particularly apt. The hard-luck minorities are always punished, but those white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, as in the Oregon militia fiasco, somehow slip through.
If he were alive today, Jonathan Swift would likely feature as a grumpy pundit on CNN, slinging pithy wisecracks and moonlighting as a writer on "Saturday Night Live." He would rip shit up on Twitter, slicing those who should be cut down to size and holding up a mirror to the show the emperors that they are wearing nothing at all. If we get really lucky and technology throws us a bone, his DNA might be cloned so we could install him as the next host of "The Daily Show." Until then, John Stubbs’ monumental biography shows us the man in detail, and one comes away with a sense that his was a personality for all times, and a voice of reason through the studied cadence of satirical irrationality, who would make satisfying mincemeat of the madness that pervaded 2016.