Stewed, roasted, baked or boiled
- The Intelligencer by Jonathan Swift and Thomas Sheridan, edited by James Woolley
Oxford, 363 pp, £50.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 19 812670 0
- Jonathan Swift: A Literary Life by Joseph McMinn
Macmillan, 172 pp, £35.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 333 48584 X
The Intelligencer was a periodical mainly but not exclusively of Irish interest. It ran to 19 more or less weekly numbers between May and December 1728, with a longish interruption in the summer, and a single further number in May 1729. It was written by Jonathan Swift and his friend Thomas Sheridan, a clergyman, schoolteacher and man of letters, and grandfather of the playwright. It includes at least two of Swift’s important works, his critique of the Beggar’s Opera in No 3, and a reprint of the ‘Short View of the State of Ireland’ in No 15, perhaps the single most eloquent of his Irish writings, and close in time and subject-matter to A Modest Proposal, a more famous work (though not for its eloquence, or not in the same sense).
It belongs to the period of Swift’s most intensive involvement in Irish affairs, three years after his pamphleteering in the Drapier’s Letters defeated the project of ‘Wood’s halfpence’, two years after Gulliver’s Travels (which has an important Irish dimension), and a year before Swift’s famous cannibal allegory, A Modest Proposal. Swift probably contributed about ten numbers and Sheridan nine, with one number of uncertain authorship. Most of Swift’s contributions are included in the standard edition of his prose writings, but we now have the full run in a distinguished edition by James Woolley. It is now possible, without visiting rare book libraries, to read the essays of both men in their original context, with their relation to one another in clear view. Sheridan’s (hopelessly inferior) essays help to throw light on Swift’s writings on Irish and other themes, to illustrate English or Anglo-Irish ways of speaking about Ireland, and to draw attention to some wider features of the discourse of colonial subjection. One in particular has large implications.
It has been recognised for some time that No 18 by Sheridan (late November 1728) ‘foreshadows the Modest Proposal by quoting ominously from Fynes Moryson’s 17th-century account of the English oppression of Ireland: it led to the eating of babies.’ Moryson was an English official who helped to suppress Tyrone’s rebellion and whose Itinerary (1617) was an account of his life and travels, which Swift may or may not have read. But he would certainly have read his own collaborator’s account, and the particular issue in which it occurs, moreover, opens with a proposal for public celebration of Swift’s birthday on 30 November, in gratitude for his services to Ireland. (According to newspapers, ‘the Birthday of that memorable Patriot M.B. Drapier, the great Deliverer of this Kingdom’, was indeed marked with bells from St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift was dean, and with illuminations, bonfires and ‘Healths ... drunk by the Populace’.)
Sheridan then launches into his cannibal story, as one ‘untoucht upon before’ – not strictly true – ‘by those who Writ against Wood’s Half-pence, which I have read in an English Historian of great probity, and Truth’. ‘Fines Morrison ... was Secretary of State to the Lord Monjoy, our chief Governour, in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth,’ says Sheridan, so he ‘had the best oportunity, of knowing the State of this Nation at that time’. An Irish rebellion led by ringleaders of English extraction, a pattern which seems to have remained consistent in Irish history to the time of Parnell and of Yeats (or at least a perceived pattern, since Sheridan, following Spenser, was wrong about the English origin of some of the leaders), had to be quelled. It was resolved in England to flood Ireland with base coin, subduing the rebels by ruining the economy – a trial run, Sheridan implies, for the more recent project of Wood’s halfpence, which Swift, writing as the Drapier, had defeated. The kingdom was ‘reduced to Famine, in so much, that all the publick Roads were strowed with Dead Carcases of miserable Wretches, whose Mouths were Green (as the Author expresses it) with their last meal of Grass’.
Sheridan’s idea is to maximise the pathos, and he simplifies the situation, both in respect to Fynes Moryson and by comparison with any use Swift came to make of the cannibal story. For this passage, which precedes the cannibal revelation, insinuates an impression of the Irish as cattle, who eat grass. It is not innocent. Even those English writers who wrote compassionately about the Irish had a strong tendency to think of them as subhuman or bestial. Moryson’s own text gives a harshly specific account of outlandish consumptions which goes some way beyond Sheridan’s suggestion of vaguely bovine victims passively grazing to death: ‘no spectacle was more frequent in the Ditches of Townes, and especiallie in wasted Countries, then to see multitudes of these poore people dead with their mouthes all coloured greene by eating nettles, docks, and all things they could rend up above ground’. The feverish energies seem a lot more like the Yahoos eating roots and tearing their food with their teeth than like crushed defenceless paupers, their mouths green ‘with their last meal of Grass’. Sheridan’s pastoralised version also omits the non-vegetarian elements in the diet of the starving Irish – ‘unsavourie birds of prey ... Horseflesh, and other things unfit for mans feeding’, to which the Yahoos feeding on the ‘corrupted Flesh of Animals’ are closer in general tendency than anything Sheridan is willing to quote. Moryson was expressing not only pity but a form of disgust. His words are well within the traditional territory of ethnic slurs based on savage eating habits and outlandish foods: territory as old as ethnic divisions, whose memorable fictional manifestations include the Yahoos and, over a century later, the Unclean Eaters (mangeurs de choses immondes) of Flaubert’s historical novel of the Punic Mercenary War, Salammbo.
Flaubert’s example is of interest, because this pathetic and disgusting tribe, one of the few invented details in the closely researched local colour which Flaubert used for his North African setting, is both a named people among others, though not like the others historically attested, and through its unusual and unlocalised name, a vaguely universal type of humanoid untouchable, in something like the way in which the Yahoos both evoke the Irish (the resemblances between them and the Irish as portrayed in Swift’s non-fictional writings at the time are a commonplace of Swift studies) and stood officially for the detritus of a human race stripped of polite or rational accretions. The ethnic slur of unclean eating is, in both cases, at once tribe-specific and an expression of distaste for the whole human species, an outlook Swift and Flaubert had in common in ways and to a degree probably not matched by other writers.
Fynes Moryson, a century before Swift, was registering harshly mixed sentiments about the Irish, which he, like Swift, inherited from the general tenor of English commentary on Ireland, exemplified by Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland, whose title prefigures that of Swift’s own ‘Short View’. These are difficult and problematic feelings, not usually amalgamated with Sheridan’s sentimental simplicity or fully and openly acknowledged. Pity for oppressed races is seldom free of contempt on the oppressor’s side. If Moryson’s contempt was at best subtextual, Swiffs was overtly aggressive, and he didn’t need Moryson to teach him anything in that line. The savage Yahoos not only resemble Swift’s descriptions of the savage Irish in non-fictional contexts, but Swift elsewhere (both before and alter the Intelligencer) reported on Irish eating habits in the highly charged blend of pity and disgust which is part of a received discourse, usually more concerned with cultural point-making than dietetic discriminations.
Moryson’s remark about mouths green with grass-chewing has another highly charged subtext, embodying an old contradiction. It anticipated Swift’s mock-rhetoric in A Modest Proposal, in which the Irish are spoken of both as herds of cattle and as cannibals, and activates a famous unresolved equation in the literature of cultural or ethnic defamation. Part of the trick is to describe the victim as bestial, and then to instance cannibalism as a sign of this, even though the example of animal behaviour initially registered might not even be carnivorous, let alone cannibal. Secondly, the insinuation of cannibalism as subhuman or bestial, in a familiar rhetorical slippage, runs against an opposite perception, often used in denunciations of humans as a species: that it is humans who, in the entire animal kingdom, are alone inclined to cannibal acts. Dog don’t eat dog. The famous tag that man is a wolf to man, found in Erasmus, Rabelais and others, usually means, not that man eats man as wolf eats wolf, but that man eats man as wolf eats other animals. That wolves don’t eat each other seems to be the view of modern zoologists, as is the old perception that humans are the main eaters of their own kind, so that, running against the rhetoric which says cannibals are bestial, is an opposite tradition, that humans are worse than beasts, who don’t eat their own kind. Its most powerful early expression is Juvenal’s 15th Satire.
This version of the topos man-is-worse-than-beasts seems to merge with a more general complaint about man’s inhumanity to man. When Erasmus, in his discussion of the adage Dulce hellum inexpertis (‘war is sweet to those who have not tried it’), applied it to warfare, and to the modern horrors of gunpowder war especially, he seems to have deliberately revised Juvenal in intimating that the deeper and more appalling human atrocity was not cannibalism (those, so to speak, were the good old days), but the new evils of hellish artillery (gunpowder was commonly spoken of as the invention of the devil). A similar point is made in a passage of Boileau’s eighth Satire, specifically imitating Juvenal’s 15th, but replacing cannibalism by gunpowder war. Montaigne applied the topos in a better-known way, equally aware of Juvenal, whom he cites on a related matter in his essay ‘Des Cannibales’, but going on to articulate the famous paradox that Europeans with their wars and civil wars are more savage than the savages and more cannibal than cannibals. Montaigne is not the first to say this, even in the discourse of Amerindian conquest, where you find it in Las Casas and others. The cultural tu quoque which equates the tyrant or conqueror with the cannibal barbarian is found in a rudimentary form in Homer’s ‘people-devouring king’ (demoboros basileus), more fully in Plato, and later still in the dialogue between early Christians and their persecutors, where it partly revolved around the issue of Eucharistic practices. When Montaigne described the belligerents in the French religious wars as more cannibal than cannibals, implying that they ate their own kinsmen alive, an issue arises over the degree of literalism he intended this suggestion to bear.
Swift’s idea of the Irish as bestial, or subhuman, is reflected in the Modest Proposal’s vocabulary of breeders, saleable commodities, carcasses, and ‘a Child, just dropt from its Dam’. The built-in cannibal imputation was assisted by an ancient notion, found in the Greek geographer Strabo and in English writers, that the Irish were literally anthropophagous. They were said to be descended from the Scythians, whose cannibal habits are reported as early as Herodotus, and who are deemed by a tendentious etymology to be the ancestors of the modern Scoti or Irish.
The savage or cannibal Irish are featured in English writers like Spenser and Camden, and there are significant parallels between English descriptions of the Irish and European descriptions of Africans and Amerindians, a standard colonial discourse. It gets straight into the Yahoos of Gulliver’s Travels, whose physical characteristics are also expressly said to be those ‘common to all savage Nations’ (i.e. flat face, depressed nose, large lips, wide mouth etc), traceable more or less indiscriminately to Amerindian, African and Asian stereotypes, as described in numerous travel narratives.
The Yahoos eat disgusting foods, but are not actually said to be cannibal. Gulliver, helped by the Sorrel Nag in Houyhnhnmland (Houyhnhnms are to Yahoos as humans to beasts), makes things of Yahoo skin, as humans do with the skins of beasts, engendering a crypto-cannibal frisson. This comes into its own in A Modest Proposal, where it is suggested that if the proposal of eating the babies were adopted, then such by-products as ‘admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen’ would become available. In Gulliver’s Travels, the allegory of using Yahoo skins is presented as a matter of what men do to beasts, while in the Modest Proposal it is what humans do to humans (what Herodotus said the Scythians did, and, as a matter of interest, the Nazis came to do in an industrial sort of way).
At this point, one misconception should be cleared up. A Modest Proposal, contrary to uninformed perceptions, is not predominantly concerned with what the English do or might do to the Irish, but with what the Irish do or might do to themselves. The allegory asks to be translated into various ironies about the self-destructive political, social and economic behaviour of the Irish, but the core of the imagery goes back to the old imputation of Irish cannibalism. Fynes Moryson, of whom Swift was at the very least recently made aware or reminded, had painfully opened up a literal dimension to this, just as the cannibal acts under siege in the French religious wars opened up a literal potential in Montaigne’s argument that Europeans are more cannibal than the cannibals. How Swift and Montaigne responded to this potential is of great interest.
Immediately after his reference to the green-mouthed corpses, Sheridan says Moryson reports ‘a very horrible Fact, too horrible indeed to mention’, which he then proceeds to mention (unmentionability is a common theme in the not inconsiderable literature of cannibal behaviour, and Sheridan’s phrases are limp with a fussy sensationalising speechlessness worthy of Poe). But the facts are strong, even in his version:
a poor Widow of Newry, having six small Children, and no food to support them, shut up her Doors, Died through despair, and in about three or four Days after, her Children were found Eating her Flesh. He says farther, That at the same time, a discovery being made of Twelve Women, who made a practice of stealing Children, to Eat them, they were all burned, by order of Sir Arthur Chichester, then Governour of the North of Ireland. He likewise tells us, that the poor Butchers, and other Trades-men, who could not afford to part with their goods, at such Rates as the Army would have them, were daily Dragooned by them. That the poor Soldiers were also ruined for not being able to Buy their cloathing here, they were obliged to be supplyed from England, at double Rates.
This focuses on several Swiftian preoccupations about the Irish condition, and the irony of being forced to buy English clothing ‘at double Rates’ has an oblique aptness to Swift’s castigation of the Irish (in A Modest Proposal and earlier) for voluntarily buying English clothes instead of those of Irish manufacture.
Sheridan’s use of Moryson is the consistently simplifying one of portraying the Irish as victims, while Swift’s agenda in the Modest Proposal was to inculpate them in their own misfortunes, a difference which the example of clothes illustrates with a fortuitous neatness. Sheridan goes on to give the story a fairy-tale ending. ‘The good Natured, and Compassionate Author’ is reported as saying that the Queen quickly ‘put a stop to the base Coin’ which was the cause of all the distress. In just this way did the ‘Noble Spirited DRAPIER’ save his country from a later invasion of base foreign coin. Therefore he should not be forgotten, but celebrated on his birthday (for good measure, the birthday of ‘the Great and Glorious King William’, another saviour of the Irish, in this case ‘from Popery and Slavery’, but underappreciated of late, also gets a plug from Sheridan).
The amiable Sheridan is more benign than Moryson in one way and than Swift in another. His fairy-tale ending was a good deal less straightforward in real life. Woolley points out that the Queen moderated the grant of coinage ‘only slightly’, and Moryson gives a sour account of the outcome from the perspective of ‘the Queene’s servants’ (even Sheridan let some of this through). Most revealing is the unusual graphic frankness of Moryson’s portrayal of the cannibal acts, very different from Sheridan’s bland pathos. He speaks of
a most horrible spectacle of three children (where of the eldest was not above ten yeeres old), all eating and knawing with their teeth the entrals of their dead mother, upon whose flesh they had fed twenty dayes past and having eaten all from the feete upward to the bare bones, rosting it continually by a slow fire, were now come to the eating of her said entralls in like sort roasted, yet not divided from the body, being as yet raw ... Captaine Trevor & many honest Gentlemen lying in the Newry can witnes, that some old women of those parts, used to make a fier in the fields, & divers little children driving out the cattel in the cold mornings, and comming thither to warme them, were by them surprised, killed and eaten, which at last was discovered by a great girle breaking from them by strength of her body, and Captaine Trevor sending out souldiers to know the truth, they found the childrens skulles and bones, and apprehended the old women, who were executed for the fact.
This is not incompatible with, but in atmosphere quite far from, Sheridan’s ‘good Natured, and Compassionate Author’. The old child-eating women come over as more wicked than wretched, and the children eating and gnawing at their mother’s entrails, ‘not divided from the body, being as yet raw’, have something of the malign energy one later finds in the children of Lord of the Flies or John Dollar. Woolley is right, and indeed a bit cautious, when he says that ‘Sheridan distorts Moryson’s account in some details.’
When Swift came to write A Modest Proposal less than year after Sheridan’s paper appeared, he went beyond Sheridan and Sheridan’s version of Moryson in his own way. This ironic fantasy, as is well known, argued that the sale for human consumption of small Irish children would rescue the economy, please the Irish nation and prevent ‘the Children of Poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country ... making them beneficial to the Publick’. It would ‘be a great Inducement to Marriage’, putting a stop to abortions, and making men ‘as fond of their Wives, during the Time of their Pregnancy, as they are now of their Mares in Foal, their Cows in Calf, or Sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them, (as is too frequent a Practice) for fear of a Miscarriage’.
The cannibal metaphor extends to all levels of Irish society, indicted in all sorts of ways for behaviour that is self-destructive on a scale which simultaneously suggests that cannibalism is in line with their natural bent, and that it is the only remedy likely to find general acceptance, all others having already been proposed (by Swift among others) and rejected. The Irish in this definition include the Anglo-Irish colons, the commercial and political classes who resented their rulers in London almost as much as they despised the native rabble (in a situation since replayed among the Europeans in colonial Kenya and in Algeria under French rule). Swift sees himself as implicated in the predicament of the colons, and he shares many of their prejudices as well as hating their guts, along with those of the English bosses and the savage natives.
The remarks about the latter, which are his fullest articulation of the beast imputation, are a particularly pointed description of the domestic and family mores of the Irish poor, whose ‘Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages’. Most of Swift’s details of degraded parental behaviour and bad family habits were staple items of anti-Irish rhetoric. The language mimics the ethnic slurs of the more highly placed, but these include Swift himself many times over, and the mock-compassion for beggary in the Proposal, often mistaken by modern readers, is in fact a sneering mimicry of the phoney benevolence of bone-headed and insensitive establishment planners mouthing sugared platitudes. Swift’s real feeling about beggars being that they are fit ‘to be rooted out off the Face of the Earth’. This language was previously used of the Yahoos, and earlier still of mankind by no less an authority than God (Genesis, 6.7), who proceeded to implement the idea in a great death by water. The implication is not (as far as Swift or the author of Genesis are concerned) that the Deity is culpably genocidal, but that the human race is culpably deserving of genocide.
So don’t be fooled by the Proposer’s tenderness to ‘our Savages’. They treat their children worse than their ‘Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine’, because they haven’t yet picked up the idea of making children profitable. Savages are savages, and the Proposer opens up the Amerindian connection by invoking the expert authority of ‘a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London’ who knows the age at which children taste best and are most nourishing, ‘whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled’ (adding from his own experience of European refinements, evidently unexplored by the ‘American’, that he thinks ‘it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust’). Informed readers know that England, often attacked by Swift for its treatment of Ireland, is only marginally a target in A Modest Proposal where the Proposer says his scheme has the particular advantage that ‘as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no Expence, and little Trouble, full in our own Power; and whereby we can incur no Danger in disobliging ENGLAND: For, this Kind of Commodity will not bear Exportation; the Flesh being of too tender a Consistence, to admit a long Continuance in Salt; although, perhaps, I could name a Country, which would be glad to eat up our whole Nation without it.’ The double sarcasm about England is bitter, but it’s also offered as an afterthought, subsidiary to the main point, which has to do with the special commendability of the proposal to the Irish, just the kind of thing they can do by themselves, successfully and profitably.
Sheridan’s crude and well-meaning little essay hardly accounts for this network of intersecting intensities in A Modest Proposal. Its routine pathos doesn’t reappear in Swift, except as the mock-pathos of the Projector, surveying the ‘melancholly Object’ of ‘the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex’, or parading his objection to cannibalising older children on the grounds that the meat of males is too tough, that the females are more useful as breeders, and that ‘some scrupulous People might be apt to censure such a Practice (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon Cruelty; which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest Objection against any Project, how well soever intended.’
But if Swift desimplified Sheridan, what did he do about Sheridan’s simplification of Moryson? The animus against the Irish that drove him to the exasperated version of the cannibal slur that is A Modest Proposal can only have been strengthened by literal evidence of so shocking a kind as is revealed even in the sentimental rendering of Sheridan: strengthened in the suggestion that this is what the savages do anyway, or (equally pertinent) that the whole Irish nation is driving its poor to such things. If Swift consulted Moryson’s original, he would have found a note of contemptuous horror, akin to his own feelings, and in line with the general run of comments by articulate Englishmen like Spenser or Camden. If he allows no trace of either the Sheridan or the Moryson type of disclosure, it cannot be from any access of tenderness to anyone likely to come under the purview of his pamphlet.
The cannibal imputation has been a staple of ethnic defamation since as far back as Homer. There is a corresponding pudeur over imputations of it to oneself or one’s own people in any literal sense. It is said that even tribes known to practise ritual cannibalism are given to denying it and to imputing the practice to their neighbours. This is partly why cannibal metaphors – to describe, for example, personal, social or political exploitation – are felt to be powerful, but seldom allowed to get out of hand. Swift’s fable, showing the Irish to be fit for a cannibal economy, is perhaps the most uncompromising use of the cannibal slur ever directed at them in modern times. There is no sign of a desire to moderate or soften the attack, but although the evidence of literal enactment offered obvious reinforcement to the fable, Swift made sure that the metaphorical boundaries were not crossed.
A similar phenomenon may be observed in Montaigne, arguing that Europeans are more barbaric than the barbarians. At the very moment when he asserts that it is better to eat a dead man than a live one, he stops well short of saying outright that this is what his countrymen do, although recent cases of siege cannibalism in the French religious wars had become notorious: one, in the Protestant city of Sancerre, had been written up in 1574, a few years before the Essais, by Jean de Léry, whose other famous book, on Brazil, may have influenced Montaigne’s thinking about Amerindians (as it later became part of the ethnographic formation of Lévi-Strauss). Montaigne’s relation to Léry may have been similar to that of Swift to Moryson (Sheridan, who mediated Moryson to Swift, may have translated Montaigne). Even as Montaigne compares Indians eating dead enemies to Frenchmen roasting alive their own kith and kin, the metaphorical sense in which the latter are said to be worse is not allowed to spill over into a literal imputation that would have given his rhetorical case its most powerful validation. It seems that he would not openly say that the French outdid the cannibals in their practice of the cannibal act. Explicit mention of cannibal atrocities, or tragedies of the Sancerre type, is withheld, as the account of Frenchmen roasting their kindred alive is followed by a diversionary reference to feeding their bodies to dogs and pigs.
Cannibalism, it seems, is what others do, except metaphorically. It is part of a cultural reticence that runs from Homer to Conrad and after. You never expressly learn what Kurtz’s ‘unspeakable rites’ were, though your prurient guess is solicited, but when it comes to Marlow’s African crew, they can cheerfully be called cannibals, though, unlike Kurtz, they hold back from any forbidden act.
Woolley’s edition of the Intelligencer is exceptionally thorough, and among the best Clarendon Press editions of Swift, It has a discreetly effective commentary, many appendices, extensive textual and bibliographical information. Its scholarship is capacious, but worn with exactitude and tact, and never overburdened with irrelevant learning. The Intelligencer appears briefly in Joseph McMinn’s Jonathan Swift: A Literary Life, which is also not overburdened with learning. The only other quality he shares with Woolley, however, seems to be an inability to spell ‘scatological’ (a disqualification of some slight importance in Swift studies). His way with scholarship is portentously flat-footed, as when he announces that the edition of A Tale of a Tub by Guthkelch and Smith (2nd edition, 1958) ‘is now widely regarded as an authoritative edition’, the ghoulish ‘now’ an officious piece of pseudo-judiciousness meaning, I suspect, nothing. When he isn’t busy being knowing or authoritative, he offers a brisk and often sensible introductory account.