I Kidnap Jonathan Swift
by Glen Draeger
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Greetings Fellow Yahoos,
Last week I decided to take H.G. back to the year 1739. The place: Dublin, Ireland. Fezzik, as usual, accompanied me with great exuberance wagging his tail so viciously as we entered H.G. that he broke the cupholder that was one of the reasons I bought the time machine in the first place. Oh well. We landed outside the city and walked in on a dirt road crowded with wagons, horses and pedestrians. Fezzik greeted the people and horses as if each were a brother or sister he had not seen from his days as a puppy nearly 10 years ago. A great celebration erupted in the center of the town. The sounds and smells of music, dancing, food, drink and speeches drifted among the buildings and down every street like a warm wind blowing through a county fair. Its honoree? Jonathan Swift, one of the greatest writers of satire who has ever lived.
After asking around it became obvious to me that getting an interview with Mr. Swift bordered on being one of the more hopeless things I have ever attempted. However, this is a Great Literature web site and "A Modest Proposal" just wouldn't be right without an interview with its author. I waited until about 4 a.m., snuck into Mr. Swift's house, taped his mouth shut with some duct tape I brought along, then dragged him with no little effort out to an empty barn on the edge of town.
I tied him to a chair then pulled the tape off.
"Why you little, minuscule, sniveling Yahoo! What do you plan to do? Kill me? That might be a relief," he laughed.
"Mr. Swift," I pleaded. "I'm sorry about this, but I just want to talk to you and there was no other way to get to you."
"Only a human would kidnap an old, feeble man in order to talk to him. What a fine species!" he said with more sarcasm than I have ever witnessed. "What a paragon of virtue. Why have I been so blind about the righteousness of the human race?"
"I'm from the future," I blurted out, not knowing what else to say.
"Apparently, then, nothing has changed," he said without hesitation. "My guess is that over breeding has populated the world with more Yahoos than we have today." He paused, shook his head back and forth slowly as if thinking about what he had just said. "Hmmmm," he continued. "More—more than we have today," he sighed. Fezzik, who normally attacks everyone with his tongue, had been watching the old man warily. Finally Mr. Swift looked at him and said "Come here, pooch." Fezzik walked slowly toward him, then sat down leaning heavily against his leg. "This is a fine creature," he said. "Loyal, loving, self-sacrificing—if only the world was populated with such as these."
I felt bad. "Mr. Swift, I'm sorry." I untied him. "I'll take you home now."
"Now?" he said incredulously. "I'm wide awake, home is good mile from here, you tell me you're from the future and now you want to take me home? Just ask me whatever you want," he said more with disgust than hospitality. "I'm an old man, but I'm still curious."
"I read Gulliver's Travels when I was a child," I said immediately feeling foolish for again blurting out what seemed to me an irrelevant comment, but I didn't know what else to say.
"You mean you read about Gulliver's Travels? Oh, I see, you think that's the title. No, young man, the real title is, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World . . . By Captain Lemuel Gulliver."
"It's a wonderful children's story," I said.
At this statement Mr. Swift stood up and seemed as if he was about to strangle me. "A children's story? It is nothing of the sort!"
"But is was so short. Maybe 60 pages at best."
"Must be that someone has abridged my original story. Typical, predictable—I should have guessed such a thing would happen. Gulliver is my masterpiece! It is my travels through this world disguised. It is my comment on the world at large, on humanity, on education, on politics . . ."
"I'm sorry," I interrupted. "I'm not really here to talk about that. I wanted to ask you about your life."
"Oh. I see. Yes, yes, of course, we wouldn't want to clutter up your world with trivialities concerning the world we live in. No, no, we must not, above all else, do that. Let's see. My father died before I was born," he spoke as if he were reading a dry, dull speech in a monotone voice. "I was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church in 1695 and have made it a practice to make sure that those around me remember that I am first a clergyman. In 1710 I became a political writer for the Tories in England and," here his voice gained a hint of emotion, "I did not want them to see me as someone who would forsake his calling."
"You were involved in politics?"
Then, as if he could not help himself, the passion in his voice returned full force. "Very involved in the politics of both Ireland, my native land, and England. I wrote many straightforward pieces about political subjects, but it has always been my satirical works that get me in trouble. I was not promoted in England because the Queen and many people of influence considered "A Tale of a Tub" to be irreligious."
"Did that bother you?"
"I suppose, but I'm knowledgeable about the effects of satire. I wrote about that in the 'Battle of the Books.'"
"Yes, I know," I said. "I have it here." I pulled out our book and read to him from page 2. "You wrote,
'Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke; for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent.'"
"Only I could have written that," Swift said with no hint of modesty.
"I'm a teacher and we're reading 'A Modest Proposal.'"
"Ah yes," he said. "The last thing I wrote about Ireland. If the Irish are not willing to help themselves then I have no plans to offer any further help to them. I've written many pages of solutions for our problems here and no one listens. Humans are despicable beings. Willing, they are, in every pub to announce the failures of their species, yet unwilling to engage in any behavior to change the evil that deep down they wish to cling to with every muscle of their infected bodies. They are to me as dead men."
"You're not a happy guy, are you Mr. Swift?"
"This is not a happy place. I wrote, as you like to call it, Gulliver's Travels, 'to vex the world not divert it.'"
"What does 'vex' mean?"
"To annoy, to puzzle, to perplex, to cause distress! Are you uneducated, young man?"
"Compared to some," I said almost ashamed of myself. "Anyway, you did that, Mr. Swift, but you also diverted it. Your book is still around nearly 300 years later—read by millions of people over the years. 'A Modest Proposal' is considered one of the greatest satirical essays ever written. People study you and your works in school. People visit your grave. Do you know what you plan to write on your gravestone?"
"If you are from the future, you tell me."
"Sure," I said, "Listen to this. It's written in Latin but here's what it means:
'The body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, dean of this cathedral church, is buried here, where fierce indignation can no more lacerate his heart. Go, traveler, and imitate, if you can, one who strove with all his strength to champion liberty.'"
"Hmm," he mused. "I like it. I just might use that—with your permission, of course."
"Given," I said.
"So when do I die?"
"1745. You have a stroke in 1742 and can no longer take care of yourself. Some people think you went insane, but others believe that you were simply unable to physically deal with life. You lived, as one writer put it, in 'silent apathy' for the last three years of your life."
"I have just recently written my will. Do you know what is in it?"
"I know two things. You wish to be buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral at midnight, you leave 11,000 pounds to build a hospital for idiots and lunatics in Dublin and, I guess there's a third, that's where you left the epitaph for your grave."
"It's a strange world, young man," he said almost as if he were lecturing me. "More corrupt than strange, I think. I don't believe you have it any better where you are than where I am." He stopped and thought for moment. Then he stared at me as if he were looking for something, as if he were attempting to discern what kind of a man I was. "You must," he began, "fight evil as I did. You must consider every affront against goodness and righteousness as an enemy. Will you do that? Will you with all the strength you possess oppose corruption whenever you have the opportunity?"
I didn't know what to say. It seemed a request far beyond my means. Then his sad, yet still confident, proud eyes stared at me. Fezzik licked his hand. Mr. Swift looked down at him with longing and affection, but when he looked at me I saw sadness and an anger that made me feel small and insignificant.
"Take me home now," he said. I obliged.
The sunrise was beautiful as Fezzik and I climbed into H.G., but it made little impression on me that day—it was several days before I could enjoy another sunrise.
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Ill., 1988, 15th edition, Vol. 11, pp. 443-444
Swift, Jonathan, The Portable Swift, edited, and with an introduction, by Carl Van Doran, Penguin Books, New York, 1978.
©2005-2013 Glen Draeger (all rights reserved)
Millstone Education: World Literature / http://www.millstoneeducation.com/worldLit