Lines on the Birthday of Dr Swift

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, 1710.

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, 1710.

It is my birthday this week. People have already started celebrating. Because for the last 350 years I have been vexing the world, they still gather to talk about me, to talk about my books. They write books about my books. One of my younger fellow-countrymen once said that he was writing ‘To keep the critics busy for three hundred years’. This is what I have done.

I have played a number of tricks on my readers, of course. They have read my texts, not always sure whether they were serious or ironical, thinking that they were parodies but not always sure parodies of what. Sometimes it seems simple. My ‘Meditation upon a Broom Stick’ was sometimes referred to as being ‘According to The Style and Manner of the Honourable Robert Boyle’s Meditations’. It mocks Boyle’s famous meditations, or it mocks perhaps the infatuation of Lady Berkeley for Boyle’s meditations. It tells us that a broom-stick is a tree turned upside-down, the Branches on the Earth, and the Root in the Air, the perfect companion to Man, this topsy-turvy Creature (his Animal Faculties perpetually mounted on his Rational; his Head where his Heels should be, groveling on the Earth). The joke may also be on the reader, who, like the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels, fails to recognise his own picture.

Sometimes the jokes are more complex. I remember when poor Partridge, the astrologer, was being particularly irritating with his views on the relation between Church and State. I created the persona of Bickerstaff, parodied the form of the prediction, to attack him of course but also to dismiss the practice of almanacs. He tried to fight back but couldn’t; I predicted his death and confirmed it. He stood defeated. The problem is of course that, when I wanted to be serious, no one was quite sure whether I was, or not. For instance, I was determined to correct, improve and ascertain the English tongue; but some people argued that I could not possibly be putting forward such a project, having made fun of projectors throughout my writings.

Most of the time they could see that I was indulging in irony, but then they were ensnared, and could not dismiss my writings as simple fun. Because I force my readers to consider all the implications of my literary schemes. Take my modest proposal to Prevent the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick. It’s a wonderful plan, one that, as my new persona tried to explain, is based on scientific evidence, as communicated by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance: a young healthy Child, well nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food. The children of needy people could therefore be sold to the Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom, to provide delicious nourishment. I computed that Dublin would take off, annually, about Twenty Thousand Carcasses; and the rest of the Kingdom the remaining Eighty Thousand. Had it been implemented, this scheme could have solved the problems of Ireland, reduced the numbers of Papists, brought money to the poorer part of the population, improved the activity in taverns, etc. Of course, I had nothing to gain by this scheme, for I had no Children, by which I could propose to get a single Penny; and my supposed wife, Esther Johnson, being past Child-bearing.

In A Tale of a Tub, I changed my voice again, adopting the persona of a modern to attack the moderns. This is one of my favourite devices, I am the enemy within. I use the other’s speech and I turn it inside out. No one quite knows, of course, with the Tale, what’s happening. It is a political tale. It is a religious tale. It is a tale about learning, which takes a stand in the battle of the books, which I also described, as it was happening, in St. James’s Library. It is an encyclopaedic text, with its myriad references, including to fictional texts, and perhaps the shortest encyclopaedia ever. There was even room for a digression in praise of digressions.

The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, by James Gillray, 1803.

The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, by James Gillray, 1803.

But then everybody’s favourite is Gulliver. The book of course is called Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World and penned by Lemuel Gulliver, who has perhaps become even more famous than me. Isn’t it odd that this book, which my friend Alexander thought I had made as bitter a pill for the public as possible, has also become one of the most widely read of children’s books? Of course children tend to read only the first two books, probably like Samuel Johnson who, apparently, said: ‘When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do the rest.’ They watch the cartoon by Dave and Max Fleischer (1939) or the more mediocre recent film versions, they read countless adaptations. And as I write, the novelist Jonathan Coe is publishing a book for children whose model is Gulliver’s Travels: The Broken Mirror. My book of course is a bitter satire, a mirror in which we see everyone’s face reflected but our own. Perhaps this is why it still is so successful. Political factions among the little men, Gulliver’s fascination for war, the illusions of modern science which have taken hold of the projectors, not to mention Gulliver’s desire to negate his human passions and to become the model of rationality embodied by Houyhnhnms, all point in one direction: the stables, where man’s dreams and aspirations end up, where Gulliver is left to converse with his horses.

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms, by Sawrey Gilpin, 1769.

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms, by Sawrey Gilpin, 1769.

I have written so much more—poetry of course, I have preached sermons as Dean of St Patrick, in Dublin, I have published political tracts, I have engaged in fake and real correspondences. There is not a single literary endeavour where I haven’t left my mark. And I have often used these writings to engage with the condition of the Irish, to remind the London government of their unfair policies towards Ireland (remember ‘the Wood’s halfpence’?). But I believe that people in Ireland have continued to see me as the great defender of Irish liberties, as one of the shapers of Irish identity. I was hoping this might be the case, when I wrote my own obituary in verse:

He gave what little Wealth he had
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satyric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much:
That Kingdom he hath left his Debtor,
I wish it soon may have a Better.

– Alexis Tadié


Pangloss, Guru of Positive Thinking: Candide at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Candide new imageMark Ravenhill is now in his second year as Writer in Residence at the RSC. His latest play, Candide, ‘inspired by Voltaire’, is currently in rehearsal and opens at the Swan Theatre in Stratford on 29 August, where it will run until 26 October. The play is directed by Lyndsey Turner, and the advance publicity warns that the performances will include ‘strong language, violence and reckless optimism’. Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation, went to watch an early rehearsal and talk to Mark Ravenhill.

Candide REH-114

Candide in rehearsal

Nicholas Cronk: The RSC invited you to write a new play on any subject: what made you choose Candide?

Mark Ravenhill: Candide is one of those books I read when I was young and that I come back to regularly. It’s a book that makes me laugh and think – it would be very hard to like someone who didn’t enjoy Candide! Also, everyone thinks they know Candide – you hear people described as ‘Panglossian’. So if Candide appears on a poster, it feels familiar.

NC: Candide has often been rewritten as a narrative, for example George Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God (1932), but less often successfully reworked for the stage – with the notable exception of Bernstein’s Candide. What are the challenges of rethinking this work for the stage?

MR: There is a remarkable nimbleness of style, a balancing act of tone, in Voltaire, which is hard to bring off on stage. When you speak the words out loud, the effect is very different from when you read them. So one needs to do something new with a stage performance, not simply ‘tell the story’. When I was asked by the RSC to write a new play, I was already thinking about ideas of happiness and optimism in modern society. The American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this in her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009) [in the USA the book is called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America]. She talks about the happiness industry, the rise of medication to make us happy and of self-help books, and the influence of all this on religion. In many ways religion has become another form of self-help. We all suffer from over-exposure to positive thinking.

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

NC: I like the idea of Voltaire as agony aunt. There is a novel by Dinah Lee Kung, A Visit from Voltaire (2004), in which the ghost of Voltaire turns up to sort out the problems of a modern-day American family living in Geneva…: this is Voltaire as the inventor of the self-help manual.

MR: In the business world, the idea of positive thinking is absolutely entrenched. The financial crisis happened because no-one could actually say out loud how bad things were…

NC: Voltaire’s novel makes fun of Pangloss and the Leibnizian idea that evil doesn’t really exist. And you feel we are living in a culture that can’t face up to the existence of evil? that makes Panglosses of us all?

MR: We are now so far advanced in our denial of evil that we want to rationalise it away. Twenty years ago, when you bumped into someone and asked how they were, they would say, ‘Mustn’t grumble’ or ‘Getting by’: now they feel obliged to say ‘Just great!’. In both cases, the reply is just a social nicety, but the framework has changed, it’s as if it’s become a social duty to express happiness. Optimism and happiness are not the same thing, but they are becoming interchangeable, and it seemed to me that Voltaire’s Candide gave me a way into something important happening in modern-day culture.

NC: Are there other ways in which the text has contemporary echoes for you?

MR: Rereading Candide, I was struck by the link between optimism and the optimal, the idea that we have been placed in this optimal world rather than some other. Voltaire’s novel offers us parallel universes, the possibility of entering into alternative worlds existing side by side, and this is something quite modern. Nested narratives and parallel universes are popular at the moment in many different art forms.

NC: Candide itself is a very self-referential text, full of spoofs of other fictions. When Candide is driven crazy by his love for Cunégonde, he rushes round carving her name on the bark of trees, like a character in a Shakespearean comedy…

MR: Yes, even within single sentences, there are sudden changes of register. And when the travellers go to Venice, they see a play by Voltaire! This is a novel which has narratives within narratives, such as when Cunégonde recounts her story.

NC: And these nested narratives and parallel universes shape your new play?

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

MR: I have not chosen to create a linear story, but a series of different narratives: in the end there are five plays that almost, but don’t quite, add up to one play…  I start with the story of Candide, being performed as a play within a play, to bring the audience up to speed with the story. Each scene exists in a different universe and moves between different genres. The fourth scene invites us to join Candide in Eldorado and explores life as it could ideally be: this is proto sci-fi, rather like what happens in Gulliver’s Travels. And in the fifth and final scene, we move slightly into the future, as Pangloss finds success as the purveyor of optimism.

NC: How easy is it to stage contemporary characters engaging in philosophical debate?

MR: Theatre within theatre, when characters sees themselves on stage, always raises philosophical questions of choice and free will. And then there is the question of language. Although the play is not written in strict verse form, there is an underlying beat of rhyming couplets, with echoes of Pope and the tradition of eighteenth-century philosophical verse.

NC: For members of the audience who would like a refresher course in Candide before the first night, you have produced a special new version of Voltaire’s novel?

MR: Yes, I have adapted the whole book into tweets of 140 characters, and these are being sent out daily, at the rate of eight tweets per day [from 26 June to 29 August: @TweetCandide].

NC: It tells us something remarkable about Voltaire’s style that his novel lends itself so well to this exercise. You have invented a completely new way of translating Candide: I hope one day we can publish it on the website of the Voltaire Foundation!

MR: Yes, translating Candide into tweets has really deepened my appreciation of his writing – it wouldn’t work so well with nineteenth-century authors. Every single sentence in Voltaire seems to advance the story, and yet stand alone as a sound-bite.