I’ve been listening to Leo Damrosch’s biography of Jonathan Swift, and it’s been fascinating. The secrecy with which he conducted his life, and the resulting uncertainties that surround it; his involvement in politics as an anonymous pamphleteer and poet… and, at times, as a man wanted for charges of sedition; and his tone and voice in his letters, including those to Stella (a woman some believe to have been secretly his wife, but also, unbeknownst to him at first, his first cousin), and those to a young woman whom he knew nicknamed Vanessa, with whom he seems to have been involved with romantically. From Damrosch’s prologue:
In the letters they had a private code. The man suggested that “a stroke thus —— —— —— —— signifies everything that may be said.” In her letters from then on, the dashes flew thick and fast: “I have worn out my days in sighing and my nights with watching and thinking of ——, ——, ——, ——.” Only they knew what words were meant.
Evidently, the word coffee was part of the same code. In a number of letters from the man over several years, “coffee” has a suggestive aura: “I wish I were to walk with you fifty times about your garden, and then—drink your coffee”; “I drank no coffee since I left you, nor intend till I see you again, there is none worth drinking but yours”; “Without health, you will lose all desire of drinking your coffee.” At one point the absence of her coffee is so disturbing that it interferes with his work as a writer: “I am not cheerful enough to write, for I believe coffee once a week is necessary to do that.”
I find it funny, reading the above passages, to think that anyone could believe the coffee references were anything but code… but apparently some people have insisted on it, including Irvin Ehrenpreis, author of another major Swift biography from the 1980s. Ehrenpreis gets some respect from Damrosch on the stuff he gets right, but Damrosch calls him to task on his less-credible claims, interpretations, and assertions… and his apparent desire to impose on Swift some vision of what Swift ought to have been like.
It’s a tremendous biography, and if you’re interested in Swift and in early Georgian England and Ireland, well worth your time. Still, it’s this passage below that finally got me to sit down and post something about the book… a letter Jonathan Swift sent Alexander Pope:
The timing is interesting: Swift sent it just as he finished his masterpiece, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World—what we today call Gulliver’s Travels—and he had this to say:
…the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it; and if I could compass that design, without hurting my own person or fortune, I would be the most indefatigable writer you have ever seen, without reading. (…) I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion. By consequence you are to embrace it immediately, and procure that all who deserve my esteem may do so too. The matter is so clear that it will admit of no dispute; nay, I will hold a hundred pounds that you and I agree in the point.
It’s the misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner that, it seems to be, is both the crux and the challenge to be found in Swift’s literary example.
Timon (of Athens), of course, was a full-on misanthrope, hating people both in the general and the particular. He hated Athens so much that he was actually rooting for outsiders like Alcibiades, because he thought that was the best hope of Athens getting destroyed and all its inhabitants killed. It’s sort of like hating humanity so much you’re rooting for nuclear war, and somehow that crosses the line from misanthrope to asshole. (And yeah, my whole point is that there is a line.)
You might argue Timon’s position is a more self-consistent one, in philosophical terms, but one suspects it’s not better for the world, or one’s own happiness or lucidity…
Or, for that matter, readability. Imagine a Jonathan Swift who’d written Gulliver upon the foundation of a misanthropy after Timon’s manner: that book would not be remembered today except among historians, I think.
There’s a bit of Erroll Morris’s incredible, wonderful documentary Vernon, Florida that comes to mind—“You can go to extremes on aaaaaanything! Aaaaaaanything!”—but I can’t find an excerpted clip anywhere online, so I’ll leave it at that.