IRONY IN SWIFT’S A Modest Proposal… OR NOT?

(The below essay was written almost twenty years ago. Don’t think the concepts of “reader-bound” and “text-bound” irony ever caught on…)


In this essay, I will take a closer look at Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and its ironic qualities. I will show that these qualities are not obvious at all, and that perhaps ultimately they do not even exist.

Before I begin with the actual analysis, however, we need to establish that there exist at least two distinct general kinds of irony. First we have “reader-bound” irony, which relies on a conflict between text and reader. Then we have “text-bound” irony, which relies on a conflict between elements of the text. The notion of reader-bound irony has significant consequences for the text. A person who has got that system of rules regarding norms, values and world-view, which Swift pretends to have, will not get the irony of his proposed solution or the elaboration that follows. However, it must be admitted that most readers probably find the proposed solution absurd, and therefore assume that Swift is being ironic. Yet, it is important to stress here that it is the conflict between the ethics displayed in the text and the ethics of the reader that causes the reader to assume that the text is ironic. Thus, the text is in no way objectively ironic.

Nonetheless, A Modest Proposal contains further cases of irony. But I would like to stress once more that, although these cases lie in the text itself, the interpretation of them is still pretty much dependent on who the reader is. Here it is helpful to use Wolfgang Iser’s term “implied reader”. The implied reader is “the reader whom the text creates for itself” or rather whom the author creates for the text (I pretty much disregard self-writing texts), i.e. the ideal reader of a particular text. The implied reader of A Modest Proposal is someone who at least knows that Swift was no madman (although apparently this is not entirely true), and who preferably is rather learned. For there is at least one allusion in the text which one must be learned to realise the implications of. This is when Swift speaks of “a grave author, an eminent French physician”, meaning Rabelais, who indeed was not grave at all, but a pioneer of humoristic prose. This clearly implies that Swift is being ironic. But most people would probably not realise that Swift is referring to Rabelais. I for one did not when I read this the first time, and then I had read excerpts from the works of Rabelais only seventeen months ago.

Therefore, it is crucial to find other elements of the text that will cause the reader to assume that it is ironic. There may be a few such elements. First, there is the title, “A Modest Proposal”. This is in no way ironic in relation to itself, but in relation to the actual proposal, which is not presented until after several long paragraphs, it is. This is clearly an example of text-bound irony. Yet, I suspect that this has little influence on the reader who is not careful enough. That reader will be concentrated too much on each new paragraph to keep in mind the title, and will therefore not notice the conflict between the title and the actual proposal. As I recall, this was the case the first time I read the text. Furthermore, the fact that he is ironic in this case does not necessarily mean that he is ironic in any other.

Then there is the statement “I shall now humbly propose my own thoughts /…/”, which is false because, as one finds out if one continues to read, he is not humble at all. He does maintain a neutral tone, but he refutes alternative solutions without telling us what they are, and he also cannot think of any objections to his proposal. This, to me, is not very humble. In this conflict between his humble intentions and what he actually does, lies the first rather obvious irony. However, once again this does not necessarily mean that he is ironic in any other case.

Then there are a number of sarcastic and laconic statements, e.g. “/…/ landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children” and “/…/ a beggar’s child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, laborers, and four fifths of the farmers)”, none of which are objectively ironic, since they rely on a conflict between the text and the reader. This conflict will not necessarily occur, since the system of rules of the reader and that of the text may overlap.

Finally, there is the ending, in which he apparently presents the solutions he would seriously like to propose, while pretending that he finds them unrealistic. One could say that the alternatives are so obviously good that it becomes obvious that Swift has been ironic all through the text. There is also a change in tone that suggests that he actually feels for these solutions. He talks with contempt about “the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women” and of “introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance”. Yet, after this he says that he has been “wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts” and that he “fortunately fell upon this proposal”. This implies that he is actually being serious, even if it is out of resignation and frustration.

Consequently, although a few elements of the text evidently cause irony, it is questionable whether there is an ironic quality to the text in general.

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Punctured bicycle, out of milk, and then there’s this…

The impossibility of thinking the radically different, that is, that which lies virtually beyond the system of thought that seeks to contain it. The impossibility of thinking the un-thinking of thought.

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Our Chosen King and Queen

These are the lyrics for a song I wrote a while after Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens passed away. It’s an impressionistic eulogy/elegy. I thought I’d share it with you. (Re: “king and queen“, see the campy transvestism in the video for “Head Full of Steam”)

Our Chosen King and Queen

You can’t redirect the sunbeams to shine on you
You can’t reassign your weakness to someone else
But the pools of rainwater aren’t deep enough to drown you
Though they may confound you
And the drizzle that mixes with your forced tears
Is really quite nice, don’t you think?
Yeah, I do think so

You were never one of the skydiving pioneers
But you could draw funny faces to make us smile
And so, by and by
You have become our chosen king and queen

If you realign the planets with someone else
He’s still your brother and your keeper
So if it should get cold and dusty in here
Escape up the chimney, he’ll be there
Yes, he’ll be there

You were never …

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Surviving the Eng.Lit. dissertation

In his certified classic of 1981, The Pursuit of Signs, Jonathan Culler concludes with a discussion of the fate of the graduate program in English. It may seem both distressing and strangely comforting that, judging from Culler’s presentation, the crisis in the humanities was an undeniable actuality even in the late seventies. And the issues Culler addresses have not been settled—which may, again, be both a good and a bad sign, depending on whether by temperament and conviction one aims for consensus or conflict—for stifling order or creative mess—or indeed, aims to land somewhere in-between.

Now, I can do little about the crisis in the humanities, and in the Eng.Lit. doctoral programmes in Sweden or elsewhere. What I can do, though, is offer some perspective on the dogged business of completing an Eng.Lit. dissertation and why and how one should do so.

When the opponent at my doctoral defence rounded off his examination, he said something that I thought both generous and insightful. Having grilled me and my dissertation for two and a half hours, he poured some water on the fire by concluding that both the disputation and the dissertation are rather artificial genres of discourse; after getting one’s Ph.D., one never goes through a performance like the disputation again, neither does one write a text like the dissertation again.

But this is of course no real reason to question either of the two or both. Rather, one could say that, well, if you can manage those two well—the dissertation and the disputation—then you’re cut out to be a scholar, and you will have no problem with the occasional question from the floor at a conference, or the composition of the odd article that will be all you have time for in terms of research once you get tenure…

Even if one does get the opportunity to produce another book-length study, the expectations of publishers will be rather different to the expectations of supervisors and examination boards. Indeed, if one is lucky enough to arouse interest in one’s dissertation among publishers, the publication of the dissertation as a more or less commercial book will entail quite an amount of editing and revision. As William Germano writes in his formidable guide, Getting It Published, “what the editor is looking for … is the book you happened to be writing as you were writing your dissertation”. Getting a dissertation into publishable shape involves, as Germano puts it, taking “a deep breath and cut[ting] the long introductory section that shows how what you have to say can be fit into the history of what others have had to say on the subject. The notorious ‘Review of the Literature’ is the easiest chapter to eliminate”. One also needs to lose a lot of the citations from what Germano refers to as “the great, good and tenured of your discipline”, as well as any notes that may be deemed in any way superfluous.

(In fact, this holds for articles sent to scholarly journals as well—one of the criticisms I received from NLH for an article presentation of my thesis argument was that there were to many quotations from secondary sources, too much reliance on other authorities.) Moreover, whereas “a dissertation is an argument that requires a defense”, “a book should be engaging and persuasive, but not defensive”.

These things need to be kept in mind as one looks ahead to the future beyond the disputation. But once again, I do not think these things need result in a questioning of the dissertation format as it stands. The dissertation has the dual nature of final examination and seminal scholarly work—and it has to have that dual nature. And so it is with the disputation—it is both final examination and seminal presentation of the candidate as an accomplished scholar.

The dissertation, and by extension the disputation, is an opportunity for the candidate to display his/her accumulated learning, and to show that s/he has mastered the skills of evaluating sources and performing reasonable critiques of those sources, as well as the skill of responding to imagined or actual critiques. In subsequent scholarly works, such skills need not be as elaborately displayed.

Yet, the dissertation stays with one as the primary text by which one is judged by job committees and external referees for lectureships—they are interested in seeing the applicant’s basic credentials, as evidenced by the dissertation. It may therefore seem wise to stick with a non-commercial publication of one’s dissertation—or, if one does publish it commercially, to include the disputation manuscript in one’s applications—as a commercial version would lack some of the requirements of the dissertation as final examination.

At the same time, though, as the dissertation will stay with one throughout one’s career, I think it wise to have the opportunity to revise after the disputation—to defend a manuscript, subsequently revising in accordance with the feedback of the faculty opponent and the examination board. Thus, the dissertation may be honed as close to perfection as possible before it is published by the department (if there is such an option, as was the case for me).

It is notable that, in my case at least, the post-disputation revision involved adding citations from the great, good and tenured, and adding explanatory footnotes—while this is the opposite of the direction to take for a commercial book, it is indeed a very reasonable direction to take for the final version of what will be taken as the proof of your ability to support and defend an argument; as well as the proof of your vast erudition…

For, the more myopic your dissertation seems, the less likely people are to trust in your ability to perform the duties of a lecturer: teaching diverse classes and producing fresh research. Cover as many bases as possible! If your dissertation deals with Shakespeare, bring in Beckett, T.S. Eliot, The Seventh Seal, Gravity’s Rainbow and the latest developments in string theory by sleight of hand.

Now, once one buys what I’ve just said to a lesser or greater extent—how does one go about producing a dissertation? Well, since we all have different temperaments as well as different intellectual and spiritual inclinations, I could simply say that there is no use in me telling you what worked for me. Myself, I work very well if I procrastinate and then get to work a few hours before the deadline. Myself, I’ve got some of my best ideas by not sitting at home working on my thesis, as my Lutheran genes told me I should, but instead going out drinking or watching a movie or whatever. This works for me. It may not work for you.

(Note: This is an edited version of the manuscript for a post-grad seminar I chaired in the mid-noughties.)
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A few words on impersonality in literature

In 2004 or 2005 (I think), the British poet Lavinia Greenlaw visited the department where I was at that point Research Fellow in English Literature, and gave a presentation of a few selections of her poetry. The reading of each poem was introduced by an autobiographical anecdote, which explained how the poem had originated in some personal experience or other of Greenlaw’s. These anecdotes certainly made it easier to follow the poems read—every potentially obscure allusion had been explained in advance. But the anecdotes also served to increase the significance and the poignancy of the poems, each emerging as a minor tour de force of extracting art from life.

After Greenlaw’s presentation was finished, a brave fellow from the audience asked whether hers was indeed an autobiographical method, and whether she had ever turned away from personal experience to the resources of pure imagination. At this point something curious happened: Greenlaw responded by stressing that her poems were not about her life and that their voice was not hers. Their content, which due to the nature of her presentation had seemed so intricately connected to herself, was really only the raw material for artistic creation, the stuff to be structured and ordered according to aesthetic protocols.

Greenlaw did not use these exact words, but this was the impression I got from what she was saying. I bit my lip, preventing myself from pompously asking: “Ah, so do you subscribe then, ultimately, to the impersonality ethos of Eliot and other modernists? Why this defensiveness, as if you were accused of being personal?” This question would not only have been pompous, it would have been impolite and misplaced. As it turned out, I did not say a word to Greenlaw, although I was dying to tell her how lovely her presentation had been, how moved I had been by it and that I wanted to read everything she had written. Instead, I snuck off to my office to ponder the implications of that response she had given. Impersonality in poetry, it seemed, is still held in high regard. (See Eliot.) A poet does not want to be caught peddling the sentimental outpourings of his/her self.

To a novelist, of course, matters are different. It is not as easily assumed by a novelist’s audience that it is s/he who speaks in the text—even if the metafiction of the sixties saw the return of the intrusive author, we have for the last hundred years or so generally encountered narrators, not authors, in fiction. Accordingly, the novelist does not have the same need as the poet to stress his/her distance from what is stated in his/her texts.

(Note: Slightly revised version of piece written shortly after the event referred to.)
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Poststructuralist mayhem, with music!


Read, listen and weep here. The text is essentially a load of zxcvbnmf, but kinda funny. The musical piece ain’t half bad, especially given its genesis.

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Reading America (another view of Baudrillard; see previous post…)

The very first thing the reader of Jean Baudrillard’s America encounters is an epigraph that directly, and appropriately, plunges one into the land of Fordism:

“Caution: Objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear!”

The object and the mirror—they sum up much of Baudrillard’s thinking, his two principal themes: the fate of the object, the revenge of the object (it may be closer than it appears!); the mirror of production, the speculum of the spectacle, the mirror of the other whose singularity is robbed in the mirroring (repetition, serialization, cloning).

However, Baudrillard’s book is not so much about the revenge of America as object resisting analysis, as about a mirror of America, and the semiotic analysis of the resulting mirror image: “this mirror”. The objections the book has met with result, I would say, from the failure to recognize this nature of Baudrillard’s America as a mirror image, as a certain triumphant simulacrum. The object of analysis is congenial with America’s status as consumer and media culture par excellence: hyperreal America, not America as factual totality; a phenomenology of virulent simulacra, not the painstaking cognitive mapping of the Great Plains of the real. It is not a “serious work of sociology”, is not announced as such. It is a diary of impressions, a travelogue. Its nearest relative is indeed Umberto Eco’s “Travels in Hyperreality”, with which it shares concerns and conclusions.

In other words, it is of interest to us here as a representation of a representation. Whose representation does it represent, then? Which? The representation produced by mainstream US cinema, but even more the one produced by US sitcoms and drama series; the one of the US political spectacle, all smiles and self-congratulations; the one, in short, of official US doctrine: this is the best of possible countries, the realized Utopia, the home of success and cleanliness next to Godliness, needless to say of the brave and the free. The home of the billboard, the neon temple in the middle of the desert, the sameness and serialization of McDonald’s, Denny’s, etc., re-serialized in pop art. Anti-intellectualism, exported around the world through Americanization.

And thus, we come to the third element of the quote, which for me emerges as a key to understanding Baudrillard: the caution. We are being cautioned. For all his outspoken playfulness, his pataphysical tenets and his insistence that he is working on simulation and not reality, Baudrillard still hazards that the objects in “this mirror”—that is the book, America—may be closer than they appear; that is, the representation of objects that is encountered in the book may in fact be closer to home than we would like to believe. And the epigraph is taken from the text found on rear-view mirrors: watch your back, something is sneaking up on you! A caution, not a promise. Cue spine-tingling suspense music. Baudrillard is writing a horror story in the proud tradition that strectches from Poe via Bradbury to King.

(Note: This is a slightly revised version of a piece I wrote some nine, maybe ten, years ago. I do not necessarily agree with it 100%.)
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