A Spot of Firm Government

Terry Eagleton

  • God, Gulliver and Genocide: Barbarism and the European Imagination 1492-1945 by Claude Rawson
    Oxford, 401 pp, £25.00, June 2001, ISBN 0 19 818425 5

It is remarkable how many literary studies of so-called barbarians have appeared over the past couple of decades. Representations of Gypsies, cannibals, Aboriginals, wolfboys, noble savages: these, along with reflections on monsters, Mormons, cross-dressers and hairy Irish ape-men, have all flowed from Post-Modernism’s enduring love-affair with otherness. One wonders what the Tuareg would think, if they ever got wind of it, about being classified with werewolves and fallen women. A flourishing industry in the study of travel writing can be traced to much the same sources. Criticism is becoming a minor offshoot of science fiction, even if it presents the exotic and outlandish only to upbraid such notions as imperialist. ‘We are obsessed with “barbarians”,’ Claude Rawson remarks in this erudite, passionate book; but by ‘we’ he seems to be thinking of literary critics, not grapepickers or hairdressers.

The good news is that the Home Counties view of literature has now been decisively despatched. The native of the Southern hemisphere no longer appears in Anglo-Saxon culture only through the sights of a rifle or at the end of a sherry decanter. E.M. Forster had it both ways, allowing his bogusly emancipated reader to feel superiorly satirical about the redneck English while suddenly unmasking foreignness as a genuine threat, and so sending up liberals like himself into the bargain. But the days when any half-decent verse or prose emanating from the former Empire could be recruited as ‘Commonwealth literature’, ascribed a sort of country rather than town membership of the literary club, have vanished for ever. In cultural studies if in precious few other places, what was once rejected has become the cornerstone, and centuries of insult and odious patronage are accordingly being made up for.

The bad news is that otherness is not the most fertile of intellectual furrows. Indeed, once you have observed that the other is typically portrayed as lazy, dirty, stupid, crafty, womanly, passive, rebellious, sexually rapacious, childlike, enigmatic and a number of other mutually contradictory epithets, it is hard to know what to do next apart from reaching for yet another textual illustration of the fact. The theme is as theoretically thin as it is politically pressing. Nothing is now more stereotyped in literary studies than the critique of stereotypes.

In any case, stereotypes are not always illusions. Many of them, to be sure, are both baseless and pernicious; but though it is not true, for example, that the Irish are lazy, it is true that the Irish immigrants who flooded from their small farms to the industrial cities of Victorian Britain in the wake of the Great Famine were accustomed to a less crippling work-discipline than their British counterparts, which could look to the latter much like indolence. Life as a small tenant farmer involved sporadic bursts of labour but a fair bit of leisure, too, and the Irish were fond of their fairs and feast-days. You could turn the muscles involved in planting potatoes to digging canals, but there seemed no point in overdoing it. How well you could live on an Irish farm was determined largely by its size, not by how hard you worked. And the puritan work-ethic of the British had few takers among pre-industrial Irish Catholics.

Not all stereotypes are pejorative or patronising. The Irish have been depicted by the British as feckless, bellicose and illogical, much given to guileful charm, rhetorical blather and deceitful deference; but they have also been seen as sensitive, congenial and gregarious, which is one reason they made such a signal contribution to the 18th-century cult of benevolence. When the English middle classes of the day desired a mode of sensibility less martial and frigid than that of their autistic rulers, it was often enough to the Celtic fringes that they turned, from which some semblance of pre-modern Gemeinschaft might still just about be salvaged. Richard Steele, Oliver Goldsmith, Laurence Sterne, Francis Hutcheson and Edmund Burke all made vital Irish contributions to this nouvelle vague of meekness, tendresse, womanliness, the glowing, melting sentiments, while David Hume, Adam Smith, Henry Mackenzie and James Macpherson weighed in from North of the border. The Irish were never just gorillas with gelignite. Those Irish historians who play down the anti-Irishness of the British for their own political ends are right to that extent.

It would be surprising if people who have shared roughly the same cultural and material circumstances over long periods of time did not manifest some psychological traits in common. It would certainly be surprising to a materialist, which most scorners of stereotypes claim to be. Though stereotypes are sometimes purely fictional, they are not always so. The upper-class English are indeed for the most part more emotionally reserved than working-class Greeks or Italians, a fact which has more to do with their prep schools than their genes. Critics of stereotyping insist that the human subject is socially constructed, and end up endorsing the liberal banality that we’re all individuals. They tend to believe, rightly, that men in general have some less than healthy attitudes to women, but not that Americans are on the whole more upbeat and affirmative than the English. Cultural traits exist, but not national characteristics.

Just as one of the customs most native to Ireland was getting out of the place, so nothing is more indigenously American these days than otherness. Openness to the other is a rebuke to the parochialism of a nation which finds it hard to distinguish between Brighton and Bogotá; but it is also a piece of parochialism in itself, rooted by and large in the intractable ethnic problems of the US. These home-grown concerns are then projected onto the rest of the globe rather like a cultural version of nuclear missile bases, so that post-colonial others find themselves obediently adopting the agenda of a largely American-bred cult of otherness. Critics in, say, Sligo or Sri Lanka are to be found busily at work on the ‘other’, partly because it is an important question in its own right, but also because this is the programme peddled for its own private reasons, as it were, by the nation which sets the academic pace in these affairs. When American critics come to write about Ireland or Egypt, what tends to catch their eye are questions of margins and minorities which loom large on the intellectual menu of their own culture, rather than, say, educational policy or religious architecture, which are less glamorous concerns in their own backyard.

Much of this fascination with otherness involves the liberal assumption that there are no real aliens, just ways of seeing others as aliens. For conservatives, aliens are other people; for liberals, they are the fruit of false consciousness; for radicals, they are ourselves. There is indeed a monstrosity, an enigma resistant to understanding; it’s just that it is a lot closer to home than the Dinka or Transylvanian aristocrats. The Yahoos, as Gulliver begins chillingly to realise, are as close to the bone as you can get. What we share with the allegedly impenetrable other is just this overlapping of strangenesses; and it is this, rather than some mutual mirror-imaging of egos, which has to become the basis of a genuine encounter. Always seeing the other as others is partly a way of avoiding this unnerving recognition, just as attending consistently to the margins is usually a way of implying that there are no conflicts or subversions to be found at the centre. In this assumption, Post-Modernists are rather more sanguine than the World Bank.

Claude Rawson, one imagines, would not in the least appreciate being mentioned in the same breath as Post-Modern otherness, even though his new book is all about genocide, barbarism, cannibalism, colonial conquest and mass extermination. For Rawson is essentially a conservative scholar, one of the finest 18th-century specialists, who unusually in such a traditionally stodgy area is also a critic of striking flair and delicacy. It is Swift, the Yahoos and the Anglo-Irish, stoutly traditional literary topics which have led him to stray into the ethnic margins and domains of otherness, not some more modish preoccupation with vampires or Vlad the Impaler. On the other hand, usually enough for someone working in such a traditionally stodgy area, he is testily hostile to literary theory and sports an English suburban distaste for political radicalism.

Rawson is thus keen not to be mistaken for Gayatri Spivak. With the air of a man fending off a fearful otherness with which he is covertly complicit, he writes scornfully of ‘the indignant diatribes of self-righteous post-colonial censors’, perhaps a necessary disowning of the voguish for a book which includes a chapter devoted to the protuberant buttocks and plump, pendulous or sagging breasts to be found in representations of female savages. Despite these dyspeptic disavowals, however, one can’t avoid the impression that the transition from Warwick to Yale which Rawson underwent some years ago has left its mark on his intellectual interests. As probably the most accomplished Swift specialist in the business, he has now become rather more interested in the Anglo-Irish context as a whole, on which his book has an absorbing chapter; and Americans are generally more fascinated by Ireland than the English are, or indeed than the Irish are.

These interests may have been latent all along; but it can’t be easy being a meticulously scholarly, politically right-of-centre critic whose current preoccupations happen by a remarkable stroke of ill luck to coincide with those of the post-colonial theoretical trendies one abhors. It’s rather as though Roger Scruton were to find himself seized by a passionate zest for the minor details of the Marxist-feminist critique of housework.

God, Gulliver and Genocide is about ambiguity of motives – about those unstable mixtures of racism and anti-racism, collusion and rebellion, aversion and attraction, which, the book claims, defeat simplistic post-colonial polarities. It is about the half-joking yet half-serious desire to exterminate others, as well as about the way that authors like Swift and Montaigne are outraged by colonial brutality while being deep-dyed authoritarians themselves. Montaigne respected cultural difference except when he ran into a Huguenot, and denounced tribal cannibalism while turning a blind eye to the circulation of Huguenot body-parts on his own doorstep. Swift detested the Catholic Yahoos he obliquely championed. Both men recognise that the harmless native is neither harmless nor all that different from themselves; portraying him as gentle is usually a device to offset the viciousness of the colonialists rather than a judgment on how the natives actually are. Swift’s Yahoos are both colonised wretches and humanity as a whole, which allows him to suggest that the imperialist is no better than the natives while continuing to promote a demeaning stereotype of them. Conrad pulls off much the same double-think in Heart of Darkness. If the Yahoos are all of us, then nobody deserves to lord it over anyone else; but if they are the lower orders, then they are brutish and belligerent enough to require a spot of firm government. Both authors also see that the colonialist partakes of the savagery he imputes to the barbarians, indeed outstrips them in it.

Swift’s superior Houyhnhnms placidly debate whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the face of the earth, which for Rawson prefigures in disconcerting detail much of what the Nazis actually did. He also thinks that Swift shows ‘every sign of endorsing (or at least not disowning) the Houyhnhnm scheme’, a statement which I should warn him is likely to get him into the newspapers. When I myself was as stern as this about Swift in a review of a rather scrappy biography some time ago, the enraged biographer took out a full page in the Spectator to belabour my piece. Or so I am told; I don’t read the Spectator. It is still not acceptable, especially in certain genteel Anglo-Irish circles, to point out what a deeply unpleasant bigot this stupendous satirist was. Only Yahoos do that.

Rawson, however, who has a chapter impudently entitled ‘Killing the Poor: An Anglo-Irish Theme?’, is clearly undaunted by the Ascendancy literary mafia. Swift’s A Modest Proposal, with its suggestion that the famished Irish should cook and eat their own children, is in his view less a satirical smack at the English than another of his intemperate digs at so-called Irish self-destructiveness. The whole pamphlet, read by some as magnificent anti-colonial polemic, is for Rawson ‘an exasperated version of the cannibal slur’ on the Irish, a canard which its imagery mischievously revives. Nor is Swift the only Anglo-Irishman to dream of wiping out the underclass. Oscar Wilde poured scorn on sentimental do-gooders who ‘try to solve the problem of poverty … by keeping the poor alive’, while Bernard Shaw declared that he hated the poor and looked forward eagerly to their extermination. All this, as they say earnestly, is only a joke; but it is part of this book’s purpose to inquire why we find phrases like ‘They ought to shoot the lot of them’ mildly funny.

Shaw, who as Rawson points out has a good deal of sympathy for Saint Joan’s inquisitors, writes in his preface to Major Barbara that it would be more sensible to put the poor in ‘the lethal chamber’ rather than in jail, and advocated killing every adult who earned less than £365 a year. Wilde rather less flamboyantly proposed what Rawson calls an ‘aesthetic cleansing’ of the poor, as Swift had urged that beggars should wear badges. Wilde and Shaw are being outrageous, of course, as the Irish in Britain are expected to be; but this does not mean that they are not being sincerely aggressive as well, and in Shaw’s case autocratic. There is a pathologically hygienic quality to his Fabianism, an anally retentive horror of loose ends, which led him to some sinister political allegiances.

It’s true that there is nothing peculiarly Anglo-Irish about this flip heartlessness. One could find quite as many home-grown examples. Even so, the book could have made more of what Roy Foster has called the distinctive ‘savagery of mind’ of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, its semi-crazed pugnaciousness and crudity of spirit. Behind the vindictive rage of a Swift lies the unstable blend of arrogance and insecurity of a second-class governing class, one which, as Rawson comments of Swift, ‘disliked the metropolitan masters not for their treatment of the native subjects but for an alleged betrayal of the colons themselves’. It is the ressentiment of the Ulster Unionists today. Boisterous, swashbuckling and uncouth, the more rapscallion wing of the landowning Ascendancy displayed a casual violence and cavalier disdain which can both be felt behind the more sadistic utterances of a Swift or Shaw, as well as in the canaille-hating superciliousness of a Yeats. In the case of the Anglo-Irish, then, the psychic ambiguities of racism and anti-racism, alienation and affinity, which Rawson traces from the conquest of the Americas to the end of the Second World War, take on a more concretely political form, one appropriate to a nation which the British Government treated sometimes like Kent and sometimes like Kamchatka.

There is, however, a more creditable reason for this Anglo-Irish savagery, which Rawson seems not to register. Much of the hardboiled irreverence of Wilde and Shaw is a covert smack at English moralism and sentimentalism, which the Irish have always found irresistibly amusing. Both men, confronted with the more edifying, lip-quivering discourse of the Victorian bourgeoisie, felt the outsider’s compulsive urge to put their foot through it. This was partly because the Irish have been on the whole less sentimental than the English, having had less to be sentimental about. You do not go all gooey over children or animals when you see them primarily as labour-power, or over the family when most of its members have to emigrate. Love in such conditions is more a matter of dowries and land inheritance than of perfumed notepaper and candlelit dinners. Wilde and Shaw, as blow-ins in the English metropolis, were shrewd enough to see that sentimentalism is the lachrymose visage which power turns mournfully to the world. It is not at all surprising that hard-bitten politicians sob in public from time to time – not only because it might prove a vote-winner, but because sentimentalism is the kind of broad-brush caricature of feeling which strangers to emotional subtlety are able to pull off. It is the thick-skinned view of feeling, as the bohemian is the burgher’s view of the artist.

Rawson misses this streak of colonial perversity, evident in Shaw’s bumptious paradoxes and Wilde’s witty inversions, which inspires the outsider to violate linguistic decorum, turn a truth on its head or rip a moral tag inside out. Both men, like the authorial persona of A Modest Proposal, betray an animus which is perversely deepened by being so clinically formulated. There may also be in their calculatedly murderous comments the hint of an Irish culture which was never perhaps much more violent than that of its metropolitan proprietors, but where violence, partly because most of it was political, was more acceptable and everyday. It was a culture of verbal belligerence, too: somewhere behind Swift’s virulent invective lurks the ancient lineage of Irish cursing, when the local bard could wither your loins with a well-aimed imprecation.

Rawson’s new book, despite some repetition and an excessive relish for the word ‘erupt’ in all of its grammatical forms, is learned, wide-ranging and acute. Because so much of the discussion is drawn from recondite works about images of the Hottentot or Nazi medical experiments, the kind of close literary readings which Rawson can do best are disappointingly squeezed out. But God, Gulliver and Genocide is bound to be greeted with acclaim, not least for all those protuberant buttocks, by just the sort of readership that its author most disapproves of.