Yes, this post is about doing misanthropy right, because there is a right and a wrong way… at least, if you want to be a celebrated writer (and a sane human being). But the means by which I arrived at such a thought, with enough force to incite me to write a blog post, means that this will have to double as a hit-and-run book review of sorts.
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: