I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized This Life a Long Disease

This Life a Long Disease

James Ward
Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch, Yale University Press, 512 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0300164992 Leo Damrosch’s new biography of Jonathan Swift closes by detailing some of the many indignities suffered by its subject after death. As he lay in state in St Patrick’s Cathedral, souvenir hunters plucked locks from what remained of his hair, leaving his already bald head utterly stripped. The image is apt for a satirist who went about the task of laying bare the reputations and personal habits of others with relish. It recalls perhaps the remark made in A Tale of A Tub about seeing a woman flayed alive: “you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse”. Here, as often in Swift’s writing, humiliating violence grates against the banality of polite sentiment and rhetorical amplification makes the second look more inexcusable than the first. Readers are left to puzzle for themselves whether the appropriate response might be compassion, callous amusement or some strange blend of the two. Such a mixture was perhaps more common in Swift’s time, which unlike our own, did not place a premium on heart-wringing sincerity. Context is important and Damrosch’s new biography provides this amply. His focus, as his subtitle says, is not just on Swift’s life but also his world. This dual perspective helps avoid a pathologising mode, something which is very easy to slip into when writing about Swift: if some features of the life look unusually mordant or morbid by our standards, they were not out of place in that world. A Modest Proposal’s baby-eating humour still has the capacity to shock but in the week of its publication, one Dublin shop made a window display of a mummified corpse to attract passers-by, likening the skin’s texture to a freshly-baked cake of puff pastry. On a similarly gruesome note, Damrosch informs us that the original of the Tale’s flayed woman may have been the desiccated corpse of a convict displayed under glass in the library of Trinity College during the time Swift studied there. When its face was eaten by rats, a new one was duly peeled from another more recently executed body and mounted on the faceless cadaver. We tend to think of grotesque fascination with bodily degradation and its public display as peculiarly Swiftian, but perhaps he just used the materials that came to hand around him. He seems to have been…

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