Ellis Washington
On Swift and Sterne and the rise of modernity
By Ellis Washington
January 17, 2015

If wealth is a value in heaven it would not be given to bastards on earth.

~ Swift

I take a very simple view of life. It is keep your eyes open and get on with it.

~ Sterne

Biography of Swift

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was an Anglo-Irish political writer (first for both the liberals and conservatives), poet, essayist, satirist, and cleric who became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. His most celebrated work of course is Gulliver's Travels, but Swift was a prolific writer of many other notable writings as, A Modest Proposal, Drapier's Letters, A Journal to Stella, An Argument against Abolishing Christianity, The Battle of the Books, and A Tale of a Tub. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Swift is considered by many literary scholars as the best prose satirist in the English language, and though a fine poet, Swift's poetical works aren't as notable to us in contemporary times because his prose was so outstanding with strong classical structure and a timeless appeal that has endured over the centuries. Swift was an expert of two satire styles: the Juvenalian and Horatian styles and originally used pseudonyms to publish his writings – such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, MB Drapier or Anonymous.

Important writings by Swift

A Tale of a Tub, was Swift's first significant work of prose and establishes many of the themes and literary techniques he would use in his later works. Typical of his style this satire on religion is very spirited and witty while being severely critical of its enemies, penetrating and psychologically profound. In its central themes, the Tale recounts the adventures of three sons, signifying the primary aspects of Christianity, who accepted an inheritance from their father of a coat each, with the further command to not change the garment at all. Nevertheless, to the son's disappointment, their coats are no longer fashionable, and begin to take a liberal interpretation of their father's will that will permit them to make the desired alterations. As each son compromises the original intent of his father's commands, they fight with one another for power and supremacy. Following the tradition of Rabelais, Swift interjects alternating chapters, whereby the narrator includes a sequence of imaginative "digressions" on different topics.

Jonathan Swift's magnum opus is Gulliver's Travels (1726). Originally published under the fictional pseudonym, Lemuel Gulliver, a ship's doctor and later a sea captain. Gulliver's Travels has frequently been incorrectly thought of and circulated in an abridged form as a children's book, however, this opus is a supreme example of masterful satire which in a proto-Freudian manner, plunges the psychological depths of human nature based on Swift's own transformative and epiphany experiences as a child of the Age of Enlightenment.

Gulliver's Travels is a systematic examination of human nature, a mocking mirror where society's psychosis are reflected back in the face of society with astounding clarity, yet frequently criticized for its seeming misanthropy or skepticism of society. It demands of the reader to repudiate its assertions if you can, to prove with logical deductive reasoning where Swift has failed to adequately criticize modern society, human nature and the bottomless psychological abyss of the human condition. Each of the four volumes – recounting four expeditions to fictional, mysterious lands – possess a diverse subject matter, yet all are efforts to expose and deconstruct human pride and hypocrisy. Following the techniques of Cervantes's masterpiece, Don Quixote, historians and literary critics celebrate Swift's Gulliver's Travels as a satiric psychological analysis on the deficiencies of the Age of Enlightenment and its attendant secular and atheistic worldviews.

Other works by Swift include: Drapier's Letters (1724) was a collection of pamphlets critical of the monopoly established by the English government to William Wood to provide the Irish with copper coinage. Swift's economic arguments and logical reasoning regarding economic theory (predating Adam Smith's laissez faire capitalism theories by over 50 years) provoked the government to appoint the great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton to endorse the reliability of Wood's coinage and to oppose Swift's allegations. Five years after England tried to undermine Ireland's monetary system, Swift wrote a satire with a very lengthy titled called, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (1729), where the narrator deliberately uses grotesque reasoning to suggest that Ireland's poor escape their poverty by selling their children as food to the rich as an allegory that every so-called modern society owes a debt of solicitude to its poor and ophrans.

Biography of Sterne

Laurence Sterne (1713–1768) was an Anglo-Irish novelist and an Anglican clergyman. He is most remembered for his novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy; however Sterne also published many sermons, wrote memoirs, and like Jonathan Swift was active in politics. After years of suffering from tuberculosis, Sterne died in London.

Writings of Sterne

Sterne's early period were essentially his efforts at finding his literary voice – he published a collection of letters, and two rather unremarkable sermons in 1747 and 1750, and experiment with early forms of satirical writing. In 1742, he even tried his hand in and wrote about local politics. 1759 would be Sterne's Year of Destiny: His mature period included the satire A Political Romance (1759), which addressed political and economic conflicts of interest within York Minster. Scholars believe that Sterne's work, A Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais, a posthumously published piece dedicated on the art of preaching seems to have been written in that same year of 1759. Also, Sterne's magnum opus Tristram Shandy, was not started until that pivotal year of 1759 when he was 46 years old. Now that his literary technique and gifts were fully developed, Sterne viewed his place in the literary pantheon as a successor to the great Rabelais, the founding Father of the modern French language, who was Sterne's favorite author. While he scrupulously tried to separate his writing and literary style, especially when it came to satire from that of Jonathan Swift, in a revealing passage from his diary Sterne wrote: "I ... deny I have gone as far as Swift: he keeps a due distance from Rabelais; I keep a due distance from him."

Sterne achieved national and international celebrity for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which was more popular throughout Europe than in England the latter of who consider such writing too vulgar, whereby for example in 1776 Samuel Johnson criticism was that "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." In this novel, Sterne brilliantly juxtaposes narrative, time and voice, parodies conventional narrative form, and following the traditions of his literary mentor, Rabelais, includes regular interludes of "bawdy" humor. Europe, particularly in France, loved this novel and applauded Sterne and Tristram Shandy as innovative and path-breaking. Voltaire considered this work "clearly superior to Rabelais," and later Goethe praised Sterne as "the most beautiful spirit that ever lived."

Due to the novel's disjointed, unconventional structure, it is almost impossible to describe in synopsis form. The novel is very long and only concludes after 9 volumes, written over a decade, nevertheless it abruptly ends without a customary conclusion. The story begins with the narration, by Tristram, of his own origins. It sequences in a wild but witty manner using a literary technique Sterne refers to as "progressive digressions." These "digressions" are so frequent that they elongate the story until the third volume before we come to Tristram's birth! Nevertheless, the novel is abundant in character development, humor and the French joie de vivre (joy of life), including the inspirations of Rabelais and Cervantes which are omnipresent throughout this work. And also like Rabelais, Sterne frequently takes a detour from the narrative by inserting sermons, essays and legal documents into the pages of his novel while he travels beyond the parameters of typography and print design by including marbled pages and, most notably, a completely black page within the narrative.

Sterne and the Abolitionists

To demonstrate how one man standing on First Principles and truth can effect positive change on society and history, an serendipitous connection occurred in July 1766, bringing the literary giant, Laurence Sterne into the great debate about slavery when the composer, actor, writer and former slave, Ignatius Sancho (1729-80) wrote to Sterne pleading with him to use his literary skills and reputation to push for the abolition of slavery. "That subject, handled in your striking manner" Sancho wrote, "would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many – but if only one – Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!"

Sancho's letter reached Sterne at a very propitious time for he had just completed writing a passage in Tristram Shandy of a dialogue between his fictional characters Corporal Trim and his brother Tom regarding the severe oppression Tom witnessed of a Black slave inside a Lisbon sausage shop that he recently visited. Sterne's extensively publicized rejoinder to Sancho's letter became an essential aspect of abolitionist literature in 18th century America, England and throughout Europe.

Sterne wrote in a July 26, 1766 letter replying to Ignatius Sancho:
    There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me – but why her brethren? – or your's, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St. James's, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, 'ere mercy is to vanish with them? – but 'tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make 'em so.
The eminent historian, musicologist and my history teacher for almost 30 years, Arthur R. Labrew (b. 1930), has written extensively on Ignatius Sancho and many, many other Black classical musicians from before the Christian Era up to the twenty first century. A portion of his prolific and revelatory oeuvre can be found at his new website under the caption, 2013 Kresge Artist Fellow in the Literary Arts.

Swift and Sterne in Modern Times

Both Swift and especially Stern owe their literary and satirical legacy to the Father of the modern French language, Rabelais (1483-1553). This literary humorist traditions of course descends in modern times to the French satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo which suffered a horrific tragedy by the murder of 12 of its writers including Charlie himself killed by Muslim terrorists, Cherif and Said Kouachi.

Several of the advances in writing that Sterne presented, were essentially precursors to the modern genre the novel, were very persuasive to Modernist writers as diverse as Diderot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Flann O'Brien, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Italo Calvino considered Tristram Shandy as the "undoubted progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century" and Viktor Shklovsky, the writer of Russian Formalism considered Tristram Shandy as "the most typical novel of world literature, of which all other novels are mere subsets."

One of my favorite quotes by Sterne is he wrote, "Only the brave know how to forgive... a coward never forgives; it is not in his nature." For me this quote is reminiscent of the recent 2014 election where John Boehner (R-OH) was voted into his third term as Speaker of the House, however, rather than being magnanimous in victory, Boehner quickly sought revenge against the 25 Republicans who did not vote for him to be Speaker of the House. Why would John Boehner take such cowardly action against conservatives who merely voted against him on principle? Also, why is virtually every Republican cowering in fear, afraid to fight Obama's socialist agenda against America, border security and constitutional principle? Because the establishment parties considers We the People as their slaves – "...[A]ll government without the consent of the governed" Jonathan Swift wrote, "is the very definition of slavery."

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 22 – Emotion; Vol. 3, Chap. 63 – One and Many; Vol. 36 – Swift, Sterne.

Book Notice

Please purchase my latest opus dedicated to that Conservative Colossus, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Here are the latest two new volumes from my ongoing historical series – THE PROGRESSIVE REVOLUTION: History of Liberal Fascism through the Ages (University Press of America, 2015):
However, before the book is officially released to the public, I have to place 100 pre-publication orders (50 orders per each volume). I need your help to make this happen ASAP. Please place your order today for Volume 3 & Volume 4. Of course, if you can order all 100 copies today, the book will become official tomorrow.

Please circulate this flyer to all your email contacts & Facebook/Twitter followers who may be interested in purchasing this opus which will serve as a ready apologetic against the rampant Marxist-Progressive propaganda taught in America's public schools, colleges, universities, graduate schools, and law schools. Thanks in advance to all my friends, associates and colleagues for your invaluable support! Law and History Blog: www.EllisWashingtonReport.com

Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)


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