Overweening Generalist

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Swift/Marx/Wilson: Ironies, Paradoxes, and Satires Mordant: Some Faves

De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess it's just one of those things, but I marvel at certain stylistic flair in satire. I think a struggling composer must feel similar things when listening to Bartok or Beethoven, or a young would-be Serious Novelist when reading Joyce or Pynchon.

                                               Jonathan Swift                        

Swift (1729)
My first example is Swift's A Modest Proposal. I dig the rhythm, the build-up before the modest proposal. There certainly were major problems with poverty/overpopulation among the poor in Ireland around 1729, no doubt. And the tone is exemplary of the "can-do" spirit among the well-fed. One of my favorite devices: Swift bolsters his rhetoric with statistics - as if he's some proto-policy wonk - the subtext being that we're reading a rational man here. And, from the first paragraph, we know we're in the midst of a writer filled with compassion and empathy, with a foolproof appeal to the heartbreaking difficulties of Motherhood. (If you haven't read the piece, it's very short, and I know you'll read it all "eventually" but for now click on the link above and read the first paragraph, so we can all be on the same page. Thanks.)

Swift has given this a lot of thought. He wants to alleviate misery. He's a practical man, too.  He's considered others' attempts at solving the problem and thinks he has a better solution. And so, before he tells us he's going to enumerate many reasons why the poor should sell off their children to be fattened and eaten by more wealthy gentry-types, he soberly writes, "I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection." He then follows with this sentence:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

He just wants to "ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance." Let's face it: a lot of these kids were born out of wedlock anyway. And you know what's really terrible? Many of these desperately poor kids are hired on as cheap labor, which, being so poor, they hardly have the strength to carry out. Eating these kids has so many advantages that Swift's argument is a slam-dunk. (To the madman who would take this seriously and not see that the real problem is vast income inequality and oppression by the church, state, and landlords...Are there such madmen amongst us? I mean besides Dick Cheney...)

Some of the benefits of this idea:

-Nine months after Lent, Catholics give birth at an inflated rate; eating their babies will lessen the number or papists in our midst.

-When the poor sell their babies for food, at least they'll have a slightly easier time paying off their landlords. The landlords have already (figuratively) devoured the parents.

-Butchers will do a bang-up biz. A kid can fatten up to 28 pounds after a year: delicious!

(As Swift cites esteemed, virtuous patriots who care about the dignity of humans, and while he keeps citing stats to bolster his claims...)

-A colleague - the same unnamed "American" who we find got his ideas from "the famous Psalmanazar"  - noted the problem of stores of venison being depleted too soon, so maybe we could eat boys and girls who have reached the age of 12 but not older than 14?: Swift is discerning: no, he's heard the boy-meat is "tough and lean" while you may as well let the girls live on, because they're almost of the age to produce more succulent meat from their own bodies. Point well-taken!

-Despite the practical reasons for not eating young teenage girls, as cited above, Psalmanazar's story about criminality - such as trying to poison the rich and powerful - should be considered if plump female teens commit such heinous crimes. Hey, it worked in Formosa...

-The argument against Swift - that he's not considered the aged, maimed, and diseased? Ah, but take this into consideration: they're already, every day, "dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can reasonably be expected." Objections overruled. Swift wins this one, too. And besides, who cares really? Those losers aren't working anymore, anyway. Practicality, people!

-This new source of succulent, tender meat, will provide for a "refinement of taste" for "gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom." Who in their right mind can argue with this?

-Poor people will have a few less mouths to feed. Swift cares. He really does. Bless him!

-This whole scheme will be an economic boost to taverns, where gentlemen who "justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating" will gladly pay whatever is asked for that sweet sweet kid-meat.

-It will enhance the quality of marriage, something every state wants. Why? Well, for one thing, fathers will attend with much more loving care their wives who are pregnant with the cargo that will help them pay the rent in a few month's time. Wife-beatings among the poor will diminish. And who can quarrel with that?

-We all like the fruits of pig-meat: bacon, pork, etc, but let's admit it: things can get a bit dull eating pork chops and bacon day after day. And no pig is "comparable in taste or magnificence to a well-grown, fat, yearling child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at lord mayor's feast or any other public entertainment." Such refinement!

To sum up, Swift can see no objection to his proposal. I mean, think of the beauty of it: it provides for the poor while also relieving them. It also gives "some pleasure to the rich."

I've read this piece maybe 15 or 20 times in my life, and it's never lost its power over me. I think what I admire most is the way Swift, whose voice here seems to emanate from a completely insane man, at the same time has us on his side, because this mode of rhetoric - satire of the highest level - is perhaps the fullest response to poverty and suffering when one feels angry that we can do better. The requisite distance between the rhetoric and the suffering of humans is enough that no one can take this seriously, even if the tone and "rational" argument implore us to consider such a ghastly idea.

The Irish government made lame attempts to silence him, but his character and esteem were of such elevation that Swift continued to publish whatever he pleased.

                                                       Karl Marx

Marx (1862/63)
In the so-called fourth volume of Das Kapital, "Theories of Surplus Value," Marx discusses previous economist's ideas about people who provide productive labor versus those who provide "unproductive" labor. Adam Smith (who Marx greatly admired) thought that the unproductive were, among others: "churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc." When Smith wrote men of letters and musicians, it frankly stung the OG. But "buffoons"? That one was like a punch to the gut. Anyway...All these lay-abouts were parasitical upon the labors of people who actually did real, honest work. But Marx, who knew his Swift (and everyone who ever wrote anything of interest, it seems), disagreed with the greatest classical economist of all time:

A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor books and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between the latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable book in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as "commodities"...

Think how much of our precarious economy owes to criminals! Where would judges or bailiffs or courthouse builders be without them? How about those fine men we call "police"? Jailers, makers of iron bars, gas chambers, badges and truncheons, guns, handcuffs? What about John Grisham and Perry Mason and Sherlock Holmes and The Sopranos? They'd be nowhere without the productions of criminals. Marx reminds us of all the improved and applied science that went into torture devices, and just think how good locks have become because of criminals. In Unistat, the gun trade is booming (sorry); the criminal's at times murderous contributions seems most essential to our very way of life!

The value of crime upon the way we think about morality is endlessly productive, and furthermore, as Francis Wheen writes, "The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of bourgeois life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would get blunted..." (p.78, Marx's Das Kapital)

Here's more of Marx on the subject:

Would the making of banknotes have reached its present perfection had there been no forgers?...And if ones leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world-market ever have come into being but for national crime? Indeed, would even the nations have arisen? And hasn't the Tree of Sin been at the same time the Tree of Knowledge ever since the time of Adam?

To those of my Dear Readers who find themselves unemployed, I offer Marx's riffs on productive labor here as merely a suggestion that perhaps we may frame our problems in different ways...

Wheen's slender book is one I found a delight, and he made me go back to reading Marx anew. There's a considerable take on Marx as a literary figure. Marx certainly wanted to produce something thoroughly along the lines of a literary masterpiece, but I personally would direct the reader to something like Dickens's Hard Times instead.

That said, Wheen covers the reception and attempts at categorizing Marx's sprawling work: "The book can be read as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created ('Capital which comes into the world soiled with gore top to toe and oozing blood from every pore')." Stanley Edgar Hyman saw the book as a Victorian melodrama: "The Mortgage on Labour-Power Foreclosed." The book can be seen as a black comedy, with a debunking of the "'phantom-like objectivity' of the commodity to expose the difference between heroic appearance and inglorious reality." (Wheen, p.75)

Wheen notes the critic C. Frankel saw Kapital as like a Greek tragedy: fate, tragic blindness, fixated ideas, seeing the truth too late, etc. In To The Finland Station, Edmund Wilson saw Marx as the greatest ironist since Swift, as a supreme parody of classical economics texts, and that, having read Kapital, the classical economists "never seem the same to us again; we can always see through their arguments and figures the realities of the crude human relations which it is their purpose or effect to mask."

I can see you now, Dear Reader: you've gathered your family and closest friends in one room for an announcement. Everyone is whispering what it could be. Tension in the room is palpable. Finally, you enter through the very large main door into the parlor. Everyone becomes silent. All eyes are trained on your every move. You let the drama build, then finally, get down to brass tacks: "Friends, my most beloved family members...this has been a difficult period in my life, as you all know, but I've done a lot of thinking - soul-searching, if you will - and I've made a decision about what to do, and I hope you will all help me in my new endeavor as best you can."

"Well? What is it?!?!," your father shouts, not with a small note of anxiety in his voice.

"I've...decided to enter a life of crime."

                                                 Robert Anton Wilson

Robert Anton Wilson (c. 1975?)
If Unistatians follow politics to any appreciable level, you will note that our "leaders" tell us that many things must be done in the name of "national security." The very phrase has proven to carry a mass hypnotic effect of considerable heft. "We cannot tell you anything about why we might be doing something that would make Al Capone look like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Trust us: it's about national security." And that is usually that. Oh, some Nosy Parker journalists will look behind the curtain and then report what vast cool and unsympathetic beastly doings are going on in our name, but who the fuck READS anymore?

Much less: who actually cares?

And maybe it doesn't matter at all. Why? Well, maybe we've had it all wrong in the first place. And I mean all wrong: it could be that "national security is the chief cause of national insecurity." This is the "First Law" of Hagbard Celine, a real character who uses the words of his author, Robert Anton Wilson.

The Reader would do well to consult the primary text, in The Illuminati Papers, pp.118-122. Wilson's virtuoso satirical chops are on display here, but like Swift and Marx - whose writings RAW knew well - it's only because he's at pains to convey the many invasions of our "privacies" that we find ourselves in. And I assert RAW was not drilling in a dry hole, but has shown that, in this First Law ("National security is the chief cause of national insecurity") he has, as of 2013, proven to be a Prophet. RAW made this observation around 40 years ago - probably after citizens broke into the FBI office in Media, PA in 1971 - and the essay was written (possibly) around the time Watergate became a news item, and (possibly) close to the summer of 1975 Church Committee hearings that "damaged" the CIA...at any rate, COINTELPRO was at work and possibly known, this was all well before Internet and the massive We Make the East German Stasi Look Like Pikers-era of Total Information Awareness by the NSA, FBI, CIA, local police, nefarious hackers, Wall Street, Facebook, Google, the TSA...et.al

RAW's main rhetorical ploy there was one he played with verve and aplomb like Bach played the organ: the reductio ad absurdum. That is, if we took the claims of "national security" seriously in the early 1970s, it meant that  the watchers must have watchers, because who can place total trust in the first group of watchers over our security and movements? But that second group can't be entirely trusted - something corrupt might happen - so we need another "security group" to watch the second group. And while they're at it, they should probably try to watch the first, initial group of security-providers. You can see where this went. For RAW, it was satire, but with a point. For us in 2014, it's something like Nightmare Prophecy come true: the (near) total Surveillance State.

Most of you are way ahead of me, so I'll just pick one story that I've mentioned with my friends that seems to have slipped through the cracks: NSA intercepts shipments of laptops purchased online and installs malware in them.  I'm sure you guys have a "favorite" that's "better" than this one. Have at it in the comments!

O! To be able to write satire with the panache of Swift, Marx, Wilson!