The sternness of Swift and the swiftness of Sterne

It was Joyce who suggested that Swift and Sterne should have exchanged names. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine two authors more different in temperament and in outlook, and reading Gulliver’s Travels and Tristram Shandy back to back – as I did not so long ago – is quite an eye-opening experience.

Gulliver’s Travels is a most troublesome work. It is very funny, certainly, but it cannot be taken at face value: were one to do so, the book would be insupportable. In that final part especially, the earth really does open at our feet. If we are to take Gulliver’s voice as the authorial voice, then this final part would emerge as nothing less than an incitement to genocide.

The problem is that there are so many different levels of irony, we never know where exactly the author stands. This book is often regarded, quite absurdly, as a children’s book; it clearly isn’t, but neither is it adequate to class this merely as “satire”. Of course, there are elements of children’s fantasy; and one cannot deny that it is, indeed, satirical. But more than either, it is a most sobering and disquieting examination of the human condition.

I think it safe to say that Gulliver becomes mad by the end, but what is more problematic is the extent to which Swift shared Gulliver’s madness. What is unmistakable is the sheer blind rage in the writing: even granted that the rage is in Gulliver’s voice, and not necessarily Swift’s, it is hard to imagine anyone writing something so powerful without sharing, at least up to a point, his character’s perspective. We often praise a work for the author’s humanity, but there’s little humanity here: here, human beings are mere yahoos, fit only for extermination. I have read nothing that so powerfully and unremittingly conveys so intense a sense of disgust: it’s a bit too much to take at times.

Of course, there are many levels of irony. In the last part, it’s the Houyhnhnmns (horses) who are civilised and endowed with reason, while humans (yahoos) are debased and bestial. Gulliver soon comes to love this hippocracy, and is heartbroken at having to return to the land where mere humans, yahoos, held the reins of power. And when he does return, he feels so strong a sense of disgust at the very thought of humanity, that he recoils at the very idea of putting on a shirt that had been worn by another human (yahoo). Yet, he is at the same time wearing clothes made of yahoo-skin (human skin). The stench of burning flesh and the spectre of extermination camps never seem far away here. Indeed, this is the one point upon which the Houyhnhnmns, for all their reason, seem undecided: should the yahoos be exterminated?.

Gulliver (though not necessarily Swift) views Houyhnhnmns as perfect beings. All their thoughts and actions are governed by “reason”. And yet, perhaps inevitably given this, they show no particular affection for their offspring; and neither does death or bereavement occasion anxiety or grief. Is this what it means to be perfect? And, since they are all governed by the same “reason”, there is never any dissent, never any disagreement or controversy (except for the vexed question of whether yahoos should be exterminated). This is surely the most advanced form of totalitarianism: everyone polices their own thought to such an extent, that a thought police isn’t even required to enforce conformity. Yet the only alternative Swift gives us to this is the vile bestiality of the yahoos. And all this is couched in terms of the most violent rage and fury. Could it be that Swift gives us an overplus of disgust in order to, as it were, inoculate us? – to show where disgust with fellow human beings inevitably leads us? Or did Swift share in this disgust himself? The trouble is, I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive.

In the midst of all this, it might seem a bit perverse to mention Swift’s humour. But one must – for Gulliver’s Travels is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. And this in itself adds to the disquiet, for even as we are laughing, we ask ourselves how we could possibly be laughing at this. Of course, it may be said that the entire book isn’t dark – that it becomes progressively darker, until, by the last of its four sections, it’s almost unbearable. But there are elements of this darkness even near the beginning. For instance, when Gulliver first discerns Lilliputians walking over him, he feels a curious urge to pick up as many of them as he could and dash them to the ground. He controls himself at this point, but even here, there are elements of him that are at best questionable. Nonetheless, one cannot but laugh at the passage where Gulliver in Laputa sees scientists engaged upon extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, and putting these beams into hermetically sealed jars to be released on sunless days. Immediately afterwards, Swift tells us of scientists who analyse human excrement to discover the thoughts of whoever had produced it. After all, it is well-known that at no time are humans more thoughtful than when expelling waste; and these scientists have discovered how to read the thoughts of people by chemically examining this waste. On the evidence provided by this analysis, people may be tried for treason, imprisoned, or even executed. Oh – if only Stalin had thought of that one!

Gulliver’s Travels is without doubt one of the most extraordinary books I have come across, but I did find it unnerving. After that, it was with some relief that I turned to the warmth and geniality of Tristram Shandy.

Tristram Shandy is known as a bag of tricks. Indeed it is, and a very funny one at that. It starts, famously, not with the birth of the hero, but with his conception. (At the moment of conception, his mother asks his father if he had remembered to wind up the clock, and, not surprisingly, this puts him right off!) The only real incident happens when the infant Tristram, pissing out of the window, is accidentally circumcised by a falling window-sash. There is a missing chapter, with the next chapter telling us why the last one had to be taken out, and relating what had been related in therein; there are blank pages so we may write in for ourselves a description of Widow Wadman (the reader is told that he may make it “as like your mistress and as unlike your wife as your conscience will permit”); there is a black page to mark the death of a character; there are chapters on noses, on buttonholes, on the significance of names; there are digressions within digressions within digressions – indeed, one of the digressions is actually on the subject of digressions; and so on. There are the silliest gags – made all the funnier by the very elaborate set-ups. And there are gags and double-entendres so smutty that even the Carry On team might have been embarrassed. All in all, it’s tremendous fun – still the greatest and the funniest and the most outrageous of all avant-garde novels. But it’s also more than that, I think.

It’s a very humane work. The characters may behave in an absurd manner, but, unlike Swift, Sterne likes people, and he allows us, the reader, also to like them. Uncle Toby and his manservant, Corporal Trim – two of the greatest comic creations – spend all their time recreating past battles in their back garden, and are yet the gentlest of people imaginable: Uncle Toby, quite literally, wouldn’t hurt a fly. And beneath all the clowning is an awareness of the passage of time, and of the transience of it all. In this sense, we may even think of this as a sort of forerunner of Waiting for Godot: there, too, we have the mad and frantic clowning against a backdrop where absolutely nothing happens – not even an occasional accidental circumcision. But instead of the bleakness of Beckett’s play, we have here a warmth and geniality. There is no cry of despair behind the humour, and a somewhat sad acceptance rather than despair at the sense of time passing. This sense of time passing is perhaps best exemplified in a marvellous passage where Sterne (as his alter-ego Tristram) muses that since it has taken him some five years to chronicle but two years of his life, he finds that the longer he writes and the further he gets into his narrative, the more there is for him to write, since the pace of the narrative can never catch up with the pace of life itself. In effect, his narrative is going backwards in time, and will never catch up with the time of writing. But before we are allowed to reflect on the sadness of this, Sterne is off again on one of his mad jokes: there is no time for reflection in what – as Sterne tells us at the very end – is the biggest cock and bull story ever devised.

This is one of those rare books that I felt rather sad at finishing, mainly because I enjoyed Sterne’s company so much. And I really did need this after Gulliver’s Travels, which, great book though it certainly is, isn’t one that I expect to be returning to shortly. I can understand, though, why Orwell chose it among the half dozen or so of books that meant most to him. On balance, though, it is Sterne rather than Swift I think I tend to turn to.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Can’t get more self-referential and meta than Tristram, unless you go to Don Quixote. Both have what the modern avante garde lacks, a faith in and love of humanity, rather than a devotion to artistic form above all else.

    I had a college professor who began a lecture about Tristram Shandy, practically in mid-sentence, as he was squeezing into our room through a half-opened door, continuing to talk as he stepped over to his desk. That always seemed to me to be such a perfect way to begin presenting that novel.


    • Certainly – Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy remain the finest of avant-garde novels.

      Literature is unlike music or the visual arts in that it cannot be abstract: literature has to refer to something external to itself. I am not, frankly, too avid a reader of contemporary literature, as all too often I have found myself disappointed by works that had been presented to me as “modern masterpieces”. There are exceptions, of course – I don’t mean this criticism to cover all contemporay writing – but it does seem to me that there are too many authors who have a good grasp of technique, a good understanding of literary theory, and who can clearly put words together well, but who do not seem to have a particularly profound or striking perspective of life outside literature to impart. Compared to something such as Life and Fate, say, so much that passes for quality literature in the Western world seems to me merely trivial: mastery of literature demands more than mastery of mere literary technique.

      Well, let’s not get into a rant now. I can leave that for a future post! 🙂


  2. I wouldn’t want to make sweeping generalizations, but for myself, I have no great fondness for abstract visual art, except for sculpture, sometimes. In my view, ALL visual art is abstract, so removing the “subject” matter just makes it boring.

    I think the “modern” attitude you are criticizing is a symptom of some sort of profound cultural problem, even if it is limited to the ‘elite’: the failure of confidence that one individual can or should have anything to say. It’s really quite a downer in the end…


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