The Ethics of Reading in Swift's Abstract on Freethinking

by Judith C. Mueller
The Ethics of Reading in Swift's Abstract on Freethinking
Judith C. Mueller
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License

The Ethics of Reading in Swift's
Abstract on Freethinking


Although scholars and critics frequently mention Jonathan Swift's early parody of Anthony Collins's pamphlet in defense of freethinking, it receives little extended analysis; until Clive T. Probyn's fairly recent study, we have had only brief and scattered readings within larger discussions of Swift's theology, political activity, or rhetorical artistry.' Perhaps because Mr. C-s's Discourse of Free-Thinking, Put into plain English, by way of Abstract, lacks the refinement and perhaps the subtlety of A Tale of a Tub, for instance, readers have commonly overlooked the remarkable insight it offers into its author's views of authorial control, reading, and the technique of presentation Swift so frequently employs-parody.'

Probyn appears to be the first to observe in the Abstract Swift's concern with the responsibilities and perils of reading and writing. He argues that Collins's original pamphlet, in affirming the reader's freedom to determine all meanings, confronted Swift with the "full horror of the Bible itself becoming uncanonical and spiritual authority replaced by anarchy." Thus Swift's purpose in the Abstract, as Probyn understands it, is to justify and protect the priest's role as "expert Interpreter" and so limit interpretive chaos.4 But clearly Swift's own theology, to a disturbing enough degree, opens up the possibility of the same kind of anarchy in advancing the individual's free access to scripture. Often in this piece, in fact, Swift seems to share the freethinker's perspective, yet critics invariably treat this parody in reductive terms as simple ridicule and screen out its more radical voices in their ~ommentary.~ Swift addresses this very tendency for readers to exclude all that

Judith C. Mueller is a doctoral candidate and, this year, a University Fellow at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She is currently working on her dissertation, a study of "acts of reading" in Swift's political and religious satire.

does not conform to their expectations or desires-a tendency he perceived as particularly dangerous where scripture is concerned and one ironically common in Swift criticism. He is indeed disturbed by the interpretive dangers of free access to scripture but does not oppose that freedom; rather, he stresses the moral nature of the act of reading in parodying Collins, whose perceptions of the Bible, secular texts, and the world, he insists, are determined by a fundamental self-interest. Thus Swift emphasizes the reader's integrity, not church authority, as the only means to secure written discourse and somewhat confine-though not eliminate-the chaos.


Perhaps analyses of the Abstract, and of Swift in general, suffer from the start because critics accurately (though often reductively) assume his conservative, even reactionary, politics and theology. For Bakhtinian criticism, parody subverts an official or sacred discourse, but Swift often appears the champion of orthodoxy, mocking, as in the Collins piece, the cant of dissenting fools, rather than the discourse of establishment heroes or saints6 Edward Said has suggested that this traditional understanding of Swift is in large part responsible for his general neglect by deconstructive and Marxist critics-a fact that has only relatively recently begun to change.' The Abstract might serve well to modify the traditional labels we bring to Swift's writing because it demonstrates Swift's own inclination to "think freely" in his disruptive use of parody.

Readers have generally assumed that Swift mimics Collins in order simply to ridicule deism.8 They recognize only Swift's conservatism when the Whig persona criticizes priests and claims that the freethinker needs no guide or teacher.9 Unabashedly elitist, Swift insists "that the Bulk of Mankind is as well qualified for flying as thinking," and shows in the persona's own chaotic discourse the consequences of unguided thought (p. 38).But at the same time, he risks undermining his position and exploits the opportunity to criticize the church and priesthood from behind the protective cover of the freethinker's mask. Parody, in other words, enables Swift not only to deride, but on occasion to adopt the persona's perspective.1° The freethinker's disapproval of priests who "never once Preach to you to love your Neighbor, to be just in your Dealings, or to be Sober and Temperate," but rather devote their energies to defending their exclusive right to "harangue upon a Text" (p. 40)parallels Collins's complaints almost to the letter, yet conforms to Swift's own criticisms of the clergy elsewhere.'' As in An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, Swift here derides those who call themselves Christian but whose faith in no way influences their cond~ct.'~ defends his clan

The persona against the charge that "Free-thinkers themselves are the most infamous, wicked and senseless of all Mankind": "Men of all Sects," he maintains, "are equally good and bad; for no religion whatsoever contributes in the least to mend men's livesu-a fact Swift here laments rather than disputes (p. 41). In this manner, Swift's parody goes beyond simple ridicule and upsets the neat opposition between good Christians and bad atheists that typically informs readings of the Collins Abstract.

At crucial stages in his parody of Collins, in order to avoid reductive dogmatism, Swift risks undermining his most obvious purpose-the defense of Christianity. Such duplicity, perhaps an instance of an author's self-conscious "molestation" of his own authority that Said identifies as characteristic of the novel, is a basic feature of Swift's parody.13 Affirming a conservative ideal, he launches a radical assault on real, corrupt institutions, while defending those very institutions against the likes of Anthony Collins-an apparent inconsistency that hazards great confusion. Perhaps this contradiction derives from Swift's relation to the ideological climate he addresses and what he perceives as, in the words of an early poem, "the contradictions of a poisoned age." l4

Swift often manages to offer such a double vision within a single assertion. Frederik N.Smith's discussion of the way in which "Swift moves deftly into and out of . . . quite temporary voices, seemingly untroubled by the way they contradict one another," l5 agrees with Bakhtin's notions of parody and prose fiction as forms of discourse that create a heteroglot realm of unresolved contra- diction in which divergent points of view or languages "mutually illuminate one another."16 We find this distinctively parodic dialogism in the freethinker's (mis)readings of various authors, including Plutarch, whom he considers an eminent freethinker because he is

very Satyrical upon the public Forms of Devotion in his own

Country (a Qualification absolutely necessary to a Free

thinker)yet those forms which he ridicules, are the very same

that now pass for true Worship in almost all countries; I am

sure some of them do in ours; such as abject Looks, Dis-

tortions, wry Faces, beggarly Tones, Humiliation, Contrition.

(P 43)

Here Swift makes a point that recurs throughout the Abstract: there is much that the so-called freethinker is not free to think. His

freethinking is defined more by what it negates than what it affirms, because it requires one to reject the "common Forms," or generally accepted beliefs, as does madness in the Tale.'' But Swift himself, like a true freethinker, satirizes those common forms in emphasizing the artificiality of the "abject Looks, Distortions, wry Faces, beggarly Tones," that pass for devotion. His ending the list with "Humiliation" and "Contrition," however, reflects back on the freethinker again, whose leveling logic enables him to reject virtue along with even the most minor defect, and whose funda- mental unwillingness to bend (or bruise) the knee motivates the entire Abstract.

Such rapid, imperceptible shifts of voices make enormous demands on the reader.18 As 1have suggested, commentators have selectively screened out all but a narrow range of voices in the Collins Abstract in order to arrive at orderly, systematic interpre- tations of a text so characterized by disjunction. Swift recognizes his audience's power to select, even create, meaning, and dramatizes that power in the freethinker's spurious interpretations of ancient and modern authors. Of course, the absurdity of those interpre- tations may seem to disqualify them as any real threat to authorial control. But Swift also recognizes the legitimate confusion a reader may experience from a text in which conflicting voices converge, as in parody. The persona mentions the unintended service that priests do their enemies in writing "Treatises in Dialogue" which give voice to the arguments of freethinkers. Once voiced, he contends, those arguments necessarily subvert the priests' defense of religion:

For if the Arguments usually offered by Atheists, are fairly represented in these Books, they must needs convert every Body that reads them; because Atheists, Deists, Sceptzcs and Socinians, have certainly better Arguments to maintain their Opinions, than any the Priests can produce to maintain the contrary.


Swift would certainly not share the freethinker's trust in atheistic argument, but the persona's observations about the hazards of dialogue reflect meaningfully on Swift's own dialogic discourse. Like the priests, he relinquishes some control in giving voice to his enemy's position, however ironic that voice may be.

It may be objected that Swift here simply ridicules the free- thinker's idiocy. Phillip Harth maintains that Swift writes out of a tradition that considers scriptural revelation to be self-evidently true; failures to recognize that truth reflect not merely ignorance or stupidity, but "distempers of the Mind."lg And I would agree that, as with many of Swift's personae, we are in some sense to consider the freethinker "insane." For this reason, perhaps we should not take his observations about the priests' dialogues seriously; he is persuaded by the wrong voice-the atheist's voice-because he is not fit to j~dge.2~

But in case we missed the point in his treatment of the priests' treatises, Swift calls attention later in the Abstract to the same problem with dialogue (and by implication, with his own parodic work), yet this time readers mistakenly heed the believer's voice. Cicero, whom the alleged author includes among the host of noble freethinkers, loses command of his text, because, like the priests', "his Philosophical Works are generally in Dialogues, where People are brought in disputing against one another" (p.44). Apparently any dialogue, by introducing multiple perspec- tives, runs the risk of the reader's adopting the wrong perspective. The freethinker complains that when priests find in Cicero "an argument to prove a God, offered perhaps by a Stoic, [they] are such Knaves and Blockheads, to quote it as if it were Cicero's own." The prospects for his resolve "to disarm them of [Cicero's] Authority" seem grim, given the apparent instability of that authority in the face of readers' biases, expectations, and desires. Collins, in the original, offers a "true Method" to decipher Cicero's intended meaning-that is, to identify Cicero's voice in the dialogue.?' Interestingly, this method depends on the reader's coming to know Cicero's opinion (as Collins understands it) prior to reading his work. Swift's parody includes no such foolproof hermeneutic system-no easy scheme to discover the correct voice. His discussion of Cicero's dialogues emphasizes both the reader's and the writer's precarious position, while exposing the folly and arrogance of Collins's interpretive confidence.

The moments in the Abstract that point to the perils of dialogic discourse reflect back, of course, on the perils of reading parody-a genre of clashing voices-and emphasize Swift's remarkable aware- ness of the risks he takes in his own parodic writing. While parody enables him to exploit an array of voices, it demands that he hand over what little control he has to the reader who must not only comprehend each voice (as any text requests), but decide which voice in the dialogue belongs to Swift.

In closing his discussion of Cicero, the freethinker addresses his readers in a way that seems to include them in the textual dialogue. After suggesting the superiority of ancient Roman religion over "Popery ," and perhaps (he implies) over Anglicanism, the free- thinker cautiously stops himself: "I could say more,-but you understand me" (p. 44). Of course, if the Abstract proves anything, it proves that writers can make no assumptions about what their readers understand. More than a quarter of the pamphlet consists of the freethinker's own self-serving readings of various authors who would find their work unrecognizable in his hands. As in A Tale of a Tub, in the Collins parody "every textual field is . . . constituted as a battle of wills, claims of authority, and the force of desire."Z2 Swift carries the reader's will and desire to an absurd extreme in the persona's ability to turn whomever he pleases into an atheistic freethinker. Although Swift would reaffirm the writer as final authority in his mockery of a self-serving reader, he also effectively convinces us that the writer has no power to assert that authority once the text is in the reader's hands. He both tries to protect the writings that the freethinker appropriates and reveals his powerlessness to do so.

Swift's consciousness that words function autonomously- independent of authorial intent and subject to interpretive whim- has not the characteristically de Manian "bliss" of indeterminacy;23 however, he shares with de Man a similar understanding of textuality. Deborah Baker Wyrick suggests that Swift differs from post-structural and deconstructive critics mainly in his "dissatis- faction with and distrust of the autonomous Deconstructive readings of Swift, like G. Douglas Atkins's, miss the mark because they assume that we know something about language that Swift could not have understood in his own terms. When Atkins claims, "We can now see . . . thanks especially to the work of Derrida, de Man, and others," what Swift could not see in his own treatment of textuality, he makes some dubious assumptions about authorial "blindness" and echoes the illogic of the Tale's hack, who argues "that the noblest Discoveries those Antients ever made, of Art or of Nature, have all been produced by the transcending Genius of the present Age."25

Swift cannot enjoy the free play of the autonomous word mainly because for him so much is at stake-both spiritually and politically. He shares Plato's conviction that discourse cannot be separated from morality, and consequently, he shares Plato's distrust of written discourse, which, as described in the Phaedrus, "rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it just as easily as under the notice of those who comprehend."26 And writing cannot clarify itself, answer the reader's questions or object when misunderstood, as the free- thinker's renderings illustrate. But, unlike Plato, Swift does not condemn writing, in spite of its uncontrollability. He seems to think the freethinker's objection to the authority of scripture- "what Authority can a Book pretend to, where there are various Readings?" (p. 33)-unworthy of serious consideration, for as the Abstract suggests, no text can pretend to have authority if authority requires a conclusive interpretation. In addition to scripture, the freethinker treats works of philosophy (Aristotle and Plato), history (Thucidydes and Livy), and poetry (Homer and Virgil) as "utterly useless, upon account of their various Readings"

(p. 33). Swift would not have us discard writing, and certainly not these writers. But undoubtedly, on one level, he agrees with the alleged author about textual authority; after all, Gulliver must meet history in Glubbdubdrib in order to verify (or refute) the things he's read elsewhere. Yet Swift is willing to work with an imperfect medium rather than relinquish it altogether. In fact, in their imperfection, writing and reading serve as particularly poignant metaphors through which Swift reflects upon an imper- fect world. By admitting the reader's power over his own writing, Swift can explore the basic self-centeredness that he thinks so often shapes the way we read and act. Reading in the Abstract becomes a piercing analogue for the way we live our lives.27


Swift's uses of parody to reflect upon the act of reading bear an important relationship to his religious and moral beliefs, which he affirms in the Abstract by highlighting the contradictions of their enemy, freethinking. Swift's uneasy acknowledgement of the reader's power to appropriate the text and select or create meaning is perhaps the price he pays for his radical anti-despotism and his particular theology. He illustrates what he perceives to be Catholic authoritarianism in the Tale in the brothers' unanimous decision "to lock up their Father's Will in a Strong- BOX."^^ Harth traces in Swift an Anglican "polemical convention" which sets Protestantism up against a notion of a Catholic despotism that denies the laity access to the text and demands "a blind and implicit faith."Z9 Swift's concern with reading as a moral activity follows from his rejection of such despotic authority, but in the Collins Abstract, he acknowledges the disadvantages of renouncing absolute control. Against the charge that "Free-thinking will produce endless Divisions in Opinion, and by consequence disorder Society," the freethinker answers, "how can [freethinking] create so great a Diversity of Opinions, as to have a Sett of Priests agree among themselves to teach the same Opinion in their several Parishes to all who will come to hear them?" (pp. 38-39). Not only the double- voiced word of parody, but also the self-consciously consistent teachings of Anglican Priests, engender disturbingly diverse inter- pretations when the church interposes no authority between the individual and the articles of faith. But the Anglican position that the whole of revelation is accessible to everyone-that scripture can be read and understood by all-encourages a potentially unman- ageable freedom of thought and admits a chaos of indeterminacy. Swift can embrace such interpretive bedlam no more comfortably than he can Peter's tyranny. Martin Price argues that Swift, like Dryden, "tries to hold a middle way between suspect validation [textual tyranny] and anarchic freedom, between a single entrance [to the text] and six hundred thousand."30 This "middle way" proves to be not a stable balance, but a condition of sustained conflict-a clash of the impulses to interpretive liberty and authorial control, both of which, it seems, only good faith can keep in check. And Swift, whose opinion of written discourse is so divided, chooses parody, a particularly disjunctive mode of dis- course that dramatizes that dividedness most conspicuously.

Although Swift rejects the Catholic church's controlling-and stabilizing-authority over the text and the articles of faith, he devotes much of the Abstract to defending priests and stressing the need for learned teachers to guide thought. He combats the deist's tendency to associate all clergy-all authority-with oppressive "Popery" by suggesting that the persona demands not the right to free thought, but to untroubled ignorance. In his comparison of priests to physicians, the freethinker affirms the individual's right to "be his own Quack if he pleases" (p. 39). Swift points to the freethinker's distorted values, and to all that is at stake for the self-healer, in the persona's claim that "he only ventures his Life." One risks more than a misreading, Swift suggests, in approaching the scriptures. The freethinker claims, with typical illogic, that because reading scripture "requires a thorow Knowledge" of a number of disciplines, "every Body who believes it, ought to understand it, and must do so by force of his own Free Thinking, without any Guide or Instructor" (p. 29). Clearly, Swift would here suggest that what matters most in scripture depends not on a knowledge of "Natural, Civil, Ecclesiastical History, Law," let alone "Husbandry, Sailing, Physic, Pharmacy, Mathematics . . . and everything else that can be named" (p. 29). But he also impresses on the reader the unlikelihood of anyone's ever knowing enough to reach an authoritative reading of the Bible. Priests can offer only limited guidance. The rest is up to the individual reader to decide. Teachers or guides can confine, but not eliminate, interpretive chaos.

Perhaps the most useful service teachers can do for readers is to supply a context for the text. Throughout the Abstract Swift suggests that the freethinker's skewed readings result, in part, from his willfully tearing the text out of its obvious context, which is always a danger for the written word, cut off as it is from its author; as Socrates complains, writing "needs its father to help it, being quite unable to protect or help itself," but it is by nature orphaned.3; Swift's defense of "Heathen Philosophers" in A Letter to a Young Gentleman appeals to an understanding of their historical context in demanding that they not be judged in terms of the Gospel: "nothing can be justly laid to the Charge of the Philosophers; further, than that they were ignorant of certain Facts which happened long after their Death. "32 Untroubled by anachro- nism, the freethinker's complete disregard for context enables him to label Socrates "a true Christian" (p. 42)and to treat anyone whose name might have persuasive force as a freethinker. As the persona tears a given text from its context, he can make individual words mean whatever he desires. We could choose any of his readings to make the point; he claims of Varro, for example, that "he said, the Heathen Divinity contained many Fables below the Dignity of Immortal Beings; such for Instance as Gods BE- GOTTEN and PROCEEDING from other Gods. These two Words I desire you will particularly remark, because they are the very Terms made use of by our Priests in their Doctrine of the Trinity" (p. 43).Swift would no doubt have us see a vast difference between the begetting and proceeding in the two traditions the freethinker carelessly links. The connotation of these words is largely determined by context. Although Swift demonstrates our distance from the authors the freethinker reads, and the suscepti- bility of each text to the reader's will, he suggests that we may come closer to the text if we consider the context that shapes its meaning.

But the freethinker would prefer not to come closer to the texts he reads. While Swift acknowledges the problems a reader faces in interpreting the orphaned, written word, he insists that a funda- mental self-centeredness motivates the freethinker's misreadings and world view, as it will Pope's Dunces in Book IV of the Dunciad. Nothing that an author could do-however precisely he or she defined terms-would guard against the freethinker's interpretive will. Swift's emphasis on his persona's motivation is yet another way "to invest words with some sort of stabilizing authority,"33 by suggesting that the fault lies not only in language but in its morally flawed users as well. Wyrick claims that Swift writes what might be called "deconstructed texts," but that the moral purpose of his verbal play sets it apart from that of deconstructionism: "his verbal divestitures are rarely ends in themselves; they disclose unpleasant moral truths about man's use and abuse of language." 34

The freethinker's method of reading-forcing the text to mean whatever he wishes-parallels the process of "freethinking" itself, which might be better called "wishful thinking." He recreates both text and reality to conform to his desires; when confronted with anything unpleasant, he free-thinks it away and encourages others to do the same: "If you are apt to be afraid of the Devil, think freely of him, and you destroy him and his Kingdom" (p. 30). He consciously seeks and promotes the hack's happy condition of "being well deceived." The freethinker's self-centered, wishful thinking tends to simplify reality by negating or taming anything that challenges his complacency. In the Abstract, as elsewhere, Swift emphasizes the reductive nature of self-centered systems and exposes such self-centeredness in the act of reading. The free- thinker's most glaring reduction of history and text is in his conversion of Christ into "nothing else but Reason" (p. 42). Perhaps here more than anywhere Swift points to the freethinker's primary motivation; for one whose "Opinion of Virtue is, that we ought not to venture doing our selves harm, by endeavouring to do good" (p. 47), the historical, flesh and blood reality of Christ is intolerable, so he free-thinks Him into abstraction, transforming the disruptive Word into a lifeless, compliant word.

Given the solipsism that governs the freethinker's readings of humans and texts, it is not surprising that, of all the authors he discusses, he would regard Epicurus as "the greatest of all Freethinkers" (p. 42). He praises Epicurus's notion of "Friendship," in particular, "which in the Sense we usually understand it, is not so much as named in the New Testament." Here Swift depends on his reader to compare Biblical and Epicurean notions of friendship. Far from encouraging us to love our enemy, Epicurus recommends withdrawal from all but a few carefully selected friends. People can achieve an Epicurean "pleasant life" only when they "possess the power to procure complete immunity from their neighbo~-s."~~ Apparently friendship, "in the Sense we usually understand it," is centered entirely in the self. In the world of "the pleasant life," where all disagreement and difference is comfortably avoided, nothing would disturb the freethinker's solipsistic project; his specious readings of both text and reality would go unchallenged, allowing him to deny or affirm whatever he pleased.

The freethinker's aversion to difference explains his need to persuade others to think-and read-as he does. Like the religious enthusiast, he must convert others in order to eliminate anything that might challenge his self-centered system. He is obliged to impose his so-called "free thought" on others in a manner that recalls Peter's tyranny over the minds of his brothers and the mad zealot's need "to reduce the Notions of all Mankind, exactly to the same Length, and Breadth, and Heighth of his 0wn":36 "It is the indispensable Duty of a Free Thinker, to endeavour forcing all the World to think as he does, and by that means make them Free Thinkers too" (p. 36).Freethinking permits-or rather, demands- specific thoughts and absolutely forbids others. Of course, Swift's joke, perhaps lacking any great humor because of its obviousness, is that Free Thinking is not free at all, but is actually a bondage as imprisoning as Peter's enslavement to fashion and the desire for power. Although the persona claims that freethinking does not necessarily compel atheism, he eventually reveals that the rejection of God is a fundamental requirement of his self-serving system: "if I never trouble my self to think whether there be a God or no, and forbid others to do it, I am a Freethinker, but not an Atheist"

(p. 42).Those who do not share the freethinker's world view are as disturbing to his solipsistic vision as God, and so he must proselytize the world.


In his treatment of the contradictions and corruptions of freethinking, Swift develops a view of reading and writing replete with ambiguity. Price argues that Swift willingly admits uncer- tainties into his own writing to avoid bondage to d~gmatism.~' Perhaps this explains why he makes such frequent use of parody. In the Collins Abstract, Swift's heteroglot discourse precludes reduction to an orderly system, and thus resists the temptation-or lacks the means-to demand adherence to a single point of view. Or does it? Here, as elsewhere, Swift associates the desire to "reduce the notions of all Mankind" to conform to one's own-as well as the willful rejection of the "common FormsH-with madness.38 The freethinker's absurd arguments-his leaps in logic, non-sequiturs, and self-delusion-put his sanity into question from the start. Doesn't Swift then entrap his audience, in a sense, by suggesting that the sane reader will heed the proper voice of his parody and reject the persona's brand of freethinking? While accusing the freethinker of proselytizing, isn't Swift's own dis- course coercive as ~e11?3~

Because Swift assumes that the reading reflects the mind of the reader-which he clearly illustrates in the freethinker's performance-he puts the reader on the spot, in peril of being exposed as dull or corrupt, if not insane. In spite of his verbal play, Swift intends, like the freethinker, to convert the reader and is far more likely to succeed. But exactly what he would


have the reader believe appears to be more involved than the simple orthodoxy most readers of the Abstract have assumed. Swift's parody complicates the precise nature of his own relation to freethinking as he criticizes the "common forms" as well. However sane or moral his readers may be, the task of determining exactly what he would have them think remains perplexing.

Aware of the power of writing to persuade, and of the reader to revise what has been written, Swift emphasizes both the writer's and the reader's responsibility to the public. In the freethinker's fallacious interpretations of various texts, Swift dramatizes the "(con)fusion of reading and writing,"40 but the theoretical impli- cations of reader responsibility-reader creativity-matter less to Swift than its practical, moral repercussion^.^' He stresses the political effects of the ideas the freethinker extracts from each text; if Mr. Collins's friend can convince others of his skewed readings, "nothing would more contribute to the continuance of War, and the Restoration of the late Ministry," as well as to the demise of the church (p. 28). While no writer can control the fate of his text, Swift insists on responsible expression, as well as an honest effort to understand what others say. In "Some thoughts on Free-Thinking", probably written about the same time as the Abstract, Swift charges that one should be held accountable for the effects of one's thoughts on others if one chooses to express them.42 He associates indiscriminate expression with madness. With meta- phors of disease and of bad seed carelessly sown, he stresses the potential danger of the text. But the freethinker fails to understand- or care about-the impact of his thinking, reading, and writing on others: "There is not the least hurt in the wickedest Thoughts, provided they be free; nor in telling those Thoughts to every Body, and endeavouring to convince the World of them; for all this is included in the Doctrine of Free-Thinking" (p. 30). While Swift here, as elsewhere, emphasizes the importance of writing respon- sibly, he makes that point within a text that reveals the impossi- bility of controlling the fate of the written word. Perhaps unwittingly-perhaps consciously-he raises the same question that Plato raises in the Phaedrus: "Is it proper to write" at a11?43

Despite the susceptibility of even the most straightforward of texts to self-serving readings, Swift writes parody, which neces- sarily complicates even the most sincere attempts to understand. Perhaps he chooses this genre because its very complications demand a self-consciousness in reading that might guard against the freethinker's sort of interpretive solipsism. Parody, in joining the perspectives and languages of (at least) two texts, calls particular attention to the reader's part in creating meaning. Of course, any text requires a reader if it is to mean anything, and as the free-thinker's example confirms, any text is subject to reader whim. But parody highlights the need for a "decoder" to "activate the intertext." 44 Said argues that Swift can only be understood as having a self-conscious mission "to make his reader more conscious of what a given political or moral position entails."45 The Collins Abstract stresses Swift's desire to heighten his readers' self-consciousness by calling attention to their responsibility as active creators or "decoders" of meaning within specific political and moral circumstances. For this reason, I would disagree with Price, who claims that Swift delighted in verbal play, "so long as it was not introduced into argument involving practical consequences." 46 Although he may betray his own cynicism about the effectiveness of his textual efforts to impact real people, meaning for Swift depends on his audience's active re~ponse.~7

Indeed, of the Abstract itself, Swift suggests in his Journal to Stella that its value depends on the public's reaction.48 Of course, determining precisely how he would have his readers respond proves to be more demanding than generally assumed. His ironic, "double-voiced word" increases the risk in the already dangerous activity of writing.

Perhaps the rather suspicious attitude toward writing that Socrates assumes in the Phaedrus might offer some insight into Swift's use of parody-a suggestion I suppose I have been making all along. Derrida directs our attention to Plato's use of the Greek word pharmakon as a metaphor for writing throughout the dialogue. Pharmakon, an ambiguous term, might mean remedy or poison, medicine or intoxicating drug.49 Like Plato, who writes an argument against written discourse, Swift calls upon the very disease he would cure-the poison for which he would concoct an antidote-in his duplicitous (or multi-plicitous) use of the free- thinker's voice. He would both represent and excise an evil that threatens church and state, while affirming a kind of free thought that undermines the very conventions and institutions he would protect. Swift's parody has all of the implications of peril and promise that we find in the ambiguous ph~rmakon.~~

Although he advances various means to limit interpretive whim and the autonomy of the written word-guidance, context, reader integrity- he recognizes the limits of authorial control. His only hope seems to be that he might sting the reader's conscience with the example of the freethinker's self-centered readings. Aware of-and perhaps uneasy with-his precarious control of this text, so fraught with contradiction, Swift makes his self-conscious choice of genre as much the topic of Mr. Collins's Discourse of Free-Thinking as freethinking itself. While this may indicate Swift's affinity with poststructuralist and deconstructive criticism, his major difference from our late twentieth-century theory-the emphasis on actual moral and political responsibility that pervades his uneasy treat- ment of textual disruption-could perhaps encourage us to examine how comfortable we've become with the autonomous word.


'Clive T. Probyn, "'Haranguing upon Texts': Swift and the Idea of the Book" in Proceedings of the First Munster Symposium on Jonathan Swift, ed. Herman J. Real and Heinz J. Vienken (Munich: Fink, 1985), pp.187-97. For other discussions of Swift's Abstract, see John M. Bullitt, Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire: A Study of Satiric Technique (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 97-102; Irvin Ehrenpreis, Swift: The Man, his Works, and the Age, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967), 2: 587-89; Louis Landa, introduction to vol. 4 of The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis and Louis Landa, 14 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 4: xvi-xx; Martin Price, Swift's Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning (London: Archon Books, 1963), pp. 60-62.

2All quotations from Swift's Mr. Collins's Discourse of Free-Thinking Put into Plain English, by way of Abstract, for the Use of the Poor are taken from vol. 4 of The Prose Works, pp. 23-48. Subsequent page numbers will appear in my text.

SProbyn, "'Haranguing upon Texts,' " p. 187.

4Probyn, "'Haranguing upon Texts,' " p. 193.

5John M. Bullitt, for example, identifies two kinds of syllogisms underlying

the Abstract's irony that structure Swift's assault on deism; indistinguishable from satire, Swift's parodic attack on freethinking operates not unlike mathematics or traditional logic, in which "a true refutation is similar in character to an affirmative proof" of its opposite, and vice versa; Anatomy of Satire (p. 99). Though less schematized, the readings of Ehrenpreis, Landa, and Price make similar assumptions about Swift's relation to the freethinker. The notion of parody as "critical ridicule" still prevails, though the term as early as 1696 suggested a wider range of response to the target text than ridicule or burlesque. See Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (New York: Methuen, 1985),

p. 51. See particularly chap. 3, "The Pragmatic Range of Parody."

6M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 51-83, 296-97.

For a discussion of Swift's avoidance of the "high mock-heroic," see C. J. Rawson, "'I the Lofty Stile Decline': Self-apology and the Heroick Strain in Some of Swift's Poems," The English Hero, 1660-1800, ed. Robert Folkenflik (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1982), pp. 79-1 15.

7Edward W. Said, "Swift as Intellectual," The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 73-74.

80f course this assumption about the Abstract follows from the notion of parody-as-ridicule that underlies the criticism of Bullitt, Ehrenpreis, Landa, Price, and even Probyn.

gProbyn admits that Swift finds Collins's denial of priestly authority both attractive and repellant, but ends up insisting that because "Swift prefers dogma" to interpretive chaos, he dismisses the freethinker's affirmation of the readers' freedom to determine meaning; "'Haranguing upon Texts,' " p. 191.

loSee Robert C. Elliot on Swift's ambiguous or ambivalent relationship to the positions he parodies in The Literary Persona (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 107-44. John Traugott goes to an untenable extreme in maintaining that parody leads Swift to a mad sympathy with his enemy that frees him from priestly propriety, "A Tale of a Tub," Modern Essays on Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. Leopold Damrosch, Jr. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 3-45.

"Anthony Collins, A Discourse of Free-Thinking, Occasion'd by the Rise and Growth of a Sect call'd Free-Thinkers (London, 1713), p. 93. See "A Letter to a Young Gentleman," where Swift warns against the common practice of pointless, self-indulgent argumentation concerning mysteries confirmed by scripture, Prose Works, 9:77.

l2Probyn notes similarities between Collins's original piece and Swift's Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, but does not observe how Swift's perspective on priestly corruption and false piety in the Abstract often coincides with that of the target text; "'Haranguing upon Texts,'" p. 193.

lSEdward S. Said, Beginnings (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 84.

141 take this quotation from Swift's "Ode to Dr William Sancroft" (line 118) in Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems, ed. Pat Rogers (London: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 64.

l5Frederik N. Smith, "Vexing Voices: The Telling of Gulliver's Story," PLL 21, 4 (Fall 1985): pp. 383-98.

16Bakhtin,Dialogic Imagination, p. 76.

'7Jonathan Swift, A Tale of A Tub, ed. A.C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920), p. 171. Phillip Harth makes the same observation about the relation between madness and departures from the "consensus gentium," Swift and Anglican Rationalism: The Religious Background of "A Tale of a Tub" (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969), p.


l8Wayne C. Booth's understanding of the way Swift prepares the reader for such shifts has limited use. In choosing "A Modest Proposal" as an example of "stable irony ,"he deliberately and openly avoids Swift's more controversial (and typical) writings and gives a rather misleading account of the demands Swift makes on the reader; A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 105-20.

lgHarth,Anglican Rationalism, p. 78.

20While we are undoubtedly to consider the freethinker's world view perverse, I think Swift's suggestion that his satiric victims are insane functions figuratively, as a means of emphasizing that perversity, and still leaves us with the task of determining when these fools have insight, and when they unwittingly expose their own corruption.

2lCollins, Discourse, p. 11 1.

221 take this phrasing from G. Douglas Atkins's study of Swift's Tale in Reading Deconstruction, Deconstructive Reading (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1983), p. 11 1.

2SPaul de Man suggests that one of a particular temperament might respond happily to referential indeterminacy, as he seems to, in Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 19.

Z4Deborah Baker Wyrick, Jonathan Swift and the Vested Word (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988), p. 21.

Z5Atkins,Reading Deconstruction, p. 117. Swift, Tale, p. 96.

26Plato,Phaedrus, trans. W.C. Helmboldand W.G. Rabinowitz (Indianapo- lis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1985), pp. 69-70. Probyn suggests that a major emphasis in the Abstract is the "folly of authorship," which for Swift involves "the sin of solipsism"; one would need to believe that "self is the only thing that really exists" to imagine one's writing at all secure; "'Haranguing upon Texts,' "

p. 190.

27Murray Cohen, in his discussion of The Rape of the Lock, discovers in Pope a similar emphasis on the ways in which reading-of both texts and reality-reflects habits of thought and moral character, "Versions of the Lock: Readers of The Rape of the Lock," ELH 43, 1 (Spring 1976): 53-73.

Z8Swift,Tale, pp. 89-90.

Z9Harth,Anglican Rationalism, p. 40.

SoMartin Price, "Swift in the Interpreter's House," Satire in the Eighteenth Century,ed. J.D. Browning (New York: Garland, 1983), p. 105.

SIPlato,Phaedrus, p. 70. See also Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 77, 104, 144-48. SZSwift, "A Letter to a Young Gentleman," in Prose Works, 9:73. SSI take this phrasing from Wyrick, Vested Word, p. 29. 34Wyrick, Vested Word, p. 65. 35Epicurus,Principal Doctrines XL, in Epicurus: The Extant Remains, trans. Cyril Bailey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), p. 105.

SGSwift, Tale, p. 166.

37Price, "Interpreter's House," p. 105.

S8See Harth on the association of proselytizing, self-delusion, and madness in

Swift, Anglican Rationalism, pp. 118, 128.

SgInterestingly, Collins also treats the "Zeal to impose Speculations" on others as a kind of intellectual despotism (p. 90). See Derrida's argument that writing is fundamentally coercive, even seductive, Dissemination, p. 71.

401 borrow this phrasing from Derrida, Dissemination, p. 64.

41For a discussion of the special demands of the Augustan age on studies of reader response, see Jane P. Tompkins, "The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of Literary Response," Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. Jane P. Tompkins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 21 1-14.

42Swift, "Some thoughts on Freethinking," in The Prose Works, 4:49-50. Landa speculates about the date of this piece in the introduction to vol. 4 of The Prose Works, p. xx.

43See Derrida, Dissemination, p. 74.

441 borrow this language from Hutcheon, Theory of Parody, p. 37.

45Said, "Swift as Intellectual," p. 88.

46Price, "Interpreter's House," p. 112.

47See Wyrick for a discussion of Swift's commitment to "a behavioral theory of language," Vested Word, pp. 18-20. 48Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella, ed. Harold Williams, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1948), 2: 603-604.

49Derrida, Dissemination, p. 70.

5OThe notion of the pharmakon seems particularly useful for understanding

satire. Gulliver, for example, is both physician and satirist, and his final "treatment" of mankind is deadly.

  • Recommend Us