Monday, November 23, 2009

A Modest Proposal

Swift, Jonathan - A Modest Proposal

My students had the privilege of being introduced to this for the first time on Friday. Can you imagine? The first time reading somethings so shocking that you won't be able to forget it? What a treat they were in for.

Since I was gone, the sub said that the class elected to read it aloud. I just wish I would have been there to see their reactions.

For those of you who don't know, "A Modest Proposal" is the classic satire by Jonathan Swift in which he proposes eating children to help cure some of Ireland's social ills: "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or ragout."

Serving up one year olds for food?

He, of course, is not being serious at all. But part of the impact of the essay is that Swift adopts the persona of an efficiency effort when looking at the proposal. So he is absolutely cut-throat efficient and cruel down to every minor detail.

Here is a sample of his sinister logic.

Of the 1.5 million people in Ireland at the time (mid-18th century), Swift calculates that there are 200,000 possible candidates for his solution. Of those 200,000, thirty thousand must be subtracted for they will be couples who can actually maintain their own families and will not need to be included. Another 50,000 will be subtracted because they will miscarry or whose children will die in their first year. Of the remaining 120,000, twenty thousand shall be reserved for breeding, but only five thousand will be male and they will be charged with servicing the other breeders in order to replenish the stock. The remaining 100,000 can be sold for food!

As if that line of thinking is not absurd enough - he offers this unforgettable line - "A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter."

I mean who ever heard of such a thing?

And that's part of the impact of the satire. How can you ever forget something like that once you've read it and been exposed to the sheer logic behind it?

Of course, the Nazis had such logic behind their plans to dispose of their European enemies through starvating and systematic extermination.

So, the sinister logic is not really that hard to consider, but still . . . it changes you as a person and a thinker.

Swift is so methodical. He analyzes every angle of the plan, even suggesting for thriftier consumers that they might skin the carcasses for gloves or boots.

Of course, once he has everyone thoroughly aghast, he hits him with his real intent - that all of his previous suggestions as to how to cure Ireland's social ills have sparked no concern or debate. So let no one criticize this plan UNTIL they take a look at his other options.


Every time I read it, I never fail to be shocked, terrified, intrigued, and persuaded all in one sitting!

The students reactions are always interesting to watch. Some get the irony and satire right away. A few always think, "Well . . . I suppose it would work, but who wants to be a cannibal?" Others are angry, "How could he propose this?"

Then I inform them of Swift's profession . . . a Protestant minister!

However, when we turn out attention to satire in our culture today . . . well, there are plenty of topics but not much for modern examples. It seems that satire is a lost art.

Are we just too quick to take things as truth? I can't help but think of the classic exmaple of Orson Well's radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" and a good chunk of people really thought the martians were invading!

I think it's because we tend to believe things too quickly. I mean if you have to ask yourself (or the author) if it's satirical, haven't you missed the point?

Here are a couple of my favorite modern satires.

Visiting Hank
Financial Crisis

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