Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Si Vulgus Vult Decipi, Decipiatur

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Si Vulgus Vult Decipi, Decipiatur

Article excerpt

Si Vulgus Vult Decipi, Decipiatur

Hugh ormsby-Lennon has for many years been one of the most respected, learned and adventurous scholars of Swift in general, and of A Tale of a Tub in particular. He has produced a series of long and original essays on a variety of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century contexts for Swift, including mountebanks, the Quakers, commonplace books, and "Trips, Spies, Amusements."1 Now at last, in Hey Presto! Swift and the Quacks (Delaware, 2011), he has ventured a full-size monograph, concentrating for the most part on an area he has already briefly explored in a powerful article explaining why Swift's tubster chooses to list his "present treatise" under the "classis" of the "stage itinerant," though adding a great deal of new material, on this and a variety of related themes. This is a thrilling and entertaining, if not always an easy book. It is digressive, and it is progressive too-and at the same time. Blessedly, ormsbyLennon does not consider that scholarship need be solemn, and his prose exploits his many opportunities for laughter. His materials are richly comic and entertaining in themselves, and he is not above invoking the plentiful comparisons that our own modern world offers.

A major part (not, as we shall see, the whole) of his thesis is that the figure of the mountebank furnishes the missing link necessary to our understanding of A Tale of a Tub, and that indeed the Tale itself is an elaborate medicine show, which "emblematizes . . . the crowded, but heretofore uncharted, crossroads between [Swift's] satire on numerous and gross corruptions in religion . . . and his exposé of comparable corruptions in learning" (28). In this ormsby-Lennon is for the most part convincing, delineating and exploring a nexus of tub-thumpers, Rosicrucians, Paracelsians, universal cures, puppet-shows both lay and clerical, madness, iatrochemistry, self-advertizing, lies, cheats, and mechanical operations. He demonstrates, both more clearly and more extensively than previous commentators, how actively present the stage itinerant, and its tub-preachers, mock-medicos, and fake alchemists were in the London world of Swift's time and earlier, setting out a new cultural geography of such activities mapped particularly around Moorfields and Leicester-Fields. In this process he draws on a vast range of both familiar and unfamiliar reading. In his demonstration of contemporary consciousness of the charlatan's exhibitions he quotes George Fox in his Journal, inveighing in the 1650s against the "deceitful merchandise, and cheating and cozening," and "the mountebanks playing tricks on their stages," and Joseph Addison in the Spectator in the year of the Tub's fifth edition, recalling that "it was impossible to walk the Streets without having an Advertisement thrust into your Hand of a Doctor who was arrived at the Knowledge of the Green and Red Dragon" (115, 61). ormsbyLennon argues that the main narrating voice of the Tub is not merely a hack, but a truffatore, a patterer, a quack, with haunts in Moorfields as well as Grub Street. When the Tubman speaks of "our Society" he refers, ormsby-Lennon insists, not only to fellow writers, but to fellow mountebanks (Rochester, another writer who mounted a bank, spoke of the "Fraternity' in which, temporarily, he installed himself). Such elements in the Tub as Rosicrucianism may owe more to the travelling stage, and less to originary and pristine documents of the rosy cross, than we had thought. The puppet-shows of Peter, and the pranks of Jack, are readily referrable to the world of circumforaneous cozenage and legerdemain that ormsby-Lennon describes. The deceptions of Peter in particular are illuminated by the historical, or perceived, thaumaturgy of the Church of Rome, as described in nameless pamphlet literature, or the writings of Tom Brown, or of John Dunton:

is there any distinction of Scenes in a Puppet-show?-enter Priest, Scaramouch, operator, or what you please, with two or three small Harlequins like Tumblers or Rope-dances to attend his merry Holiness . …

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