Personations: The Political Body in Jonathan Swift's Fiction

By Ward, James | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Personations: The Political Body in Jonathan Swift's Fiction


Ward, James, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


Although Gulliver's Travels is perhaps the single most celebrated work of early Irish prose fiction, the idea of Jonathan Swift as a writer of fiction still meets with suspicion. His work is commonly viewed as traditionalist satire that makes only instrumental and cursory use of narrative fiction. This essay seeks to extend such debates by arguing that Swift's writing engages with non-literary fictions, namely the fictive modes of individuality and political representation encountered in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651). The essay shows how, by providing delusive fictions of personal and social integrity, Hobbes's metaphors of the political body shape the narrative and rhetoric of Gulliver's Travels.

**********

   Whereas all Writers and Reasoners have agreed, that there is a
   strict universal Resemblance between the natural and the political
   Body; can there be anything more evident, than that the Health of
   both must be preserved, and the Diseases cured by the same
   Prescriptions? (1)

Gulliver's Travels (1726), the single most celebrated work of fiction by an Irish writer in the long eighteenth century, creates a series of fantastic places and populates them with extraordinary beings. But despite its creative exuberance, the fictive qualities of Swift's text have traditionally been viewed with suspicion. As satire that employs narrative fiction for an instrumental purpose, the Travels has traditionally been subject to criticisms which question both the morality of this purpose and the text's legitimacy as fiction. These not unreasonable criticisms are, I will argue here, interrelated, and informed by a common anxiety about the failure of Swift's text to fulfil what is now conventionally expected of early modern fictional prose narratives--namely that they should lend form and substance to modern ideas of individuality. Instead, Swift's fiction explicitly attacks these ideas. 'It is a mockery of individualism', John Mullan asserts; a reaction against modernity, according to Ronald Paulson, and 'against the excessive freedom and individualism that had replaced the excessive order' of traditional forms of social organization. (2)

If attacking modernity is the purpose of Swift's satiric fictions, then their method is obsessively to reinstate one in particular of these traditional forms. My epigraph, from the third part of the Travels, identifies this as 'a strict universal resemblance between the natural and the political body'. I will argue here that Swift's work exploits this resemblance as a central, animating fiction and uses it to expose modern notions of individuality as deceptions--fictions in a negative, delusive sense. One contribution of Gulliver's Travels to the tradition of Irish prose fiction is, therefore, its insistence that sovereignty and integrity are problematic guarantors of personal, as much as political, identity. To underline this insistence, Swift's writing continually draws comparisons between natural and political constitutions. Part three of Gulliver's Travels humorously evokes a parallel that is deployed polemically and provocatively elsewhere--from the parallel history of The Contests and Dissensions in Athens and Rome (1701), through The Story of the Injured Lady (1707) to the repeated depictions of Ireland as an afflicted body in his sermons and later pamphlets. Swift's use of such figures invokes a rhetorical tradition which, as Richard Braverman explains, helps to 'legitimate the social order, making it appear to be consistent with the inherent nature of things' and which accounts for contradictions 'by depicting them as individual aberrations rather than systemic faults'. (3) However, Swift modifies this scheme by depicting damaged and degraded bodies so that individual aberrations are made to reflect faults in the system. Metaphorical bodies are ruined like the Injured Lady, reduced to a carcass in the Contests and Dissensions, or, as in the sermon 'On the Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland' (1715), cannibalised by offspring who 'draw out the very Vitals of their Mother Kingdom'. …

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