Immodest Proposals

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FEBRUARY 11, 2002

Immodest Proposals

God, Gulliver, and Genocide: Barbarism and the European Imagination,
1492-1945

by Claude Rawson

(Oxford University Press, 401 pp., $35)Genocide, alas, is a common practice across the globe and across
historical eras. But it has now come to haunt Western consciousness
in an especially unsettling way, for the obvious reason that on
European soil in the twentieth century it was implemented with a
systematic rigor and an ideological dedication that had not been
seen before or elsewhere. In his important new book, Claude Rawson
argues that whereas atrocities of this kind had not been seen, they
had in fact been strongly imagined; and he argues also that there
may be a disturbing connection, though by no means a simple causal
one, between the imagining and the enactment. His book, as he
succinctly remarks at the outset, "is concerned with the spectrum
of aggressions which inhabit the space between such figures of
speech [about exterminating certain groups of people] and the
implementation."

Over the past two decades, with evidently growing vehemence, the
critique of Western civilization has become the great preoccupation
of the humanities in American institutions of higher learning,
especially in departments of literary studies. (Edward Said's
Orientalism, which appeared in 1978, was certainly one point of
departure for this general trend, though not all the current
assaults on the pernicious influence of the West can be traced to
Said.) It is Western civilization, we are repeatedly told, that has
perpetrated the evils of colonialism on a global scale, and in the
postcolonial era it is Western capitalism that continues to exploit
and to "immiserate" the masses of the developing world. The legacy
of enslavement and murder that is abundantly manifested in
colonialism, it is sometimes claimed, was merely brought to its
logical fulfillment in the concentration-camp universe created by
the Nazis.

God, Gulliver, and Genocide might at first blush seem to have a
certain similarity to all these fashionable criticisms of Western
values and actions, but it could not be more different from them in
its freedom from ideological agendas, its refusal to cook the
evidence, its ability to see moral nuance, and its steady sense of
the complexity of historical causation. Rawson has long been one of
our most illuminating authorities on eighteenth-century English
satire and on Swift in particular; but in his new book he casts a
much wider net, exhibiting the same meticulous erudition in his
treatment of Montaigne and Wilde and Shaw as he does in his
discussion of the English Augustan writers. Yet Swift remains the
central point of reference, taking up perhaps half the book and
providing the most powerful instance of the moral ambiguity of the
satiric imagination that is Rawson's subject.

What Rawson bracingly demonstrates is that humanistic inquiry still
can be, and deserves to be, an empirically grounded activity. He
decries the "selective use of evidence to support currently
approved indignations (or the earlier ones they replace)," and he
goes on to cite a tart characterization by Marjorie Perloff of how
intellectual arrangements are now generally made in the groves of
academe: "The preferred method is to know what one wants to prove
... and then to collect one's supportive exempla, the game being to
ignore all `evidence' that might point in a contrary direction."

Much of Rawson's book is a documentation of Western imaginings of
other races, ethnicities, and cultures, from Montaigne's "Des
cannibales" to the propaganda of the Third Reich. (To Rawson's
credit, in discussing this topic he avoids the pretentiousness of
using the capitalized and hypostasized form "the Other," and he
also eschews the Gallic barbarity of the abstraction "alterity. ")
Now, many of the images that he considers, both verbal and visual,
are violent and troubling: the ethnic or racial others are imagined
with both prurience and clinical condescension as embodiments of
sexual license and depravity, as human approximations of the
bestial, and hence as fit objects for subjugation, exploitation,
and ultimately extermination. Still, as Rawson repeatedly shows,
the simple story of racist abomination told by the postcolonial
critics often does not correspond to the ambivalences or even the
dialectical character of the actual Western images. And the others
are often imagined, as Montaigne illustrates, not on a binary model
of the good Europeans and the savage non-Europeans, but on a
triadic model, a more complicated model that is not designed to
provide any ideological satisfaction, in which both benign and
brutal varieties of the others are considered as antitheses to the
writer's own culture.

Consider a literally graphic example of a dialectical or
self-critical representation of the Western perception of the
other. Between 1810 and 1815, a woman named Sartje Baartman,
evidently of Bushman stock, was brought for public exhibition to
London and Paris, where she was popularly labeled the Hottentot
Venus and excited great interest on the part of Europeans fascinated
by the exotic pendulous breasts and the large bottoms of African
women. She was made the subject of numerous engravings and may even
have helped inspire the later vogue of the bustle. A German
illustration of the period, reproduced in Rawson's book, shows a
European gentleman seated in an armchair, his dog by his side,
peering through a telescope at the Hottentot Venus, who is stationed
on what looks like a rock pedestal, actually quite close to him,
with her bulging rear end pointed toward the telescope.

Sander Gilman, a scholar who has made an academic career of
chronicling racist stereotypes, describes the picture as an "erotic
caricature of the Hottentot Venus," with the voyeur flatly defined
as "a white, male observer." What Gilman astonishingly overlooks,
as Rawson duly notes, is that the most obtrusive caricature in the
engraving is the face of the man looking into the telescope. The
man's face is depicted as a grotesque cross between the head of a
bloated frog and the head of a dewlapped bulldog. The telescope thus
becomes a satiric joke about European voyeurism; and, as Rawson
suggests, the woman's thrusting posterior figures as a gesture of
well-deserved contempt directed at the fat man with the telescope
who is ogling her. The image is not an expression of power, it is a
criticism of power. The nineteenth-century artist, it would seem,
had his own acerbic awareness of how his fellow European males
leered at women of other races. In his damning intuition of sexual
and racial prejudice, he needed no prompting from postmodern
critics.

It is important for Rawson to establish that there is a long and
varied tradition in Western thinking that sees certain segments of
humankind, or even humankind altogether, as so degraded that they
deserve to be wiped out. He takes this tradition all the way back
to the Flood story in Genesis, noting that some version of the
biblical phrase "to destroy them from the face of the earth" is
often invoked by later writers. (Another biblical book, as I shall
presently propose, may be still more pertinent.) Yet it is Jonathan
Swift who is the ultimate touchstone of Rawson's argument, owing to
the untrammeled freedom of imagination that Swift permitted himself
on these topics, almost as though he were giving vent cathartically
to the darkest, most tabooed impulses in the paradoxically
astringent clarity of his satiric vehicles. His work, as Rawson
aptly puts it, "embodies a radical critique (radical in the sense
of reaching down to roots) which refuses to shrink from the
violence of its own thinking." A concise summary of the distinctive
tenor of Swift's imagination offered later in the book could
scarcely be surpassed: "an unmoralized surreal eruptiveness which
transcends or exceeds, in a sphere of unfettered ludic aggression,
the borders of satire or hortatory discourse."

The crucial Swiftian texts for the exercise of this "ludic
aggression" are A Modest Proposal and the fourth book of Gulliver's
Travels, though Rawson also glances at a famous passage from A Tale
of a Tub and at a couple of the satiric poems and a few of the less
familiar essays. A Modest Proposal, which was written in 1729, has
long been used as a textbook illustration of satiric irony. The
Proposer's dispassionate and ostensibly pragmatic suggestion that
the Irish poor be encouraged to breed their infants to be served on
the tables of the propertied classes, both as a source of income
and as a means of reducing overpopulation, is conventionally seen
as a mordant satire on the cold-blooded English exploiters of the
Irish masses.

Rawson, providing instructive details of historical context for the
essay, demonstrates that the aggressive energy of this fantasy of a
home industry of cannibalism cannot be so neatly contained within a
frame of neatly ordered satiric irony. Swift's aggression, he
argues, is directed not only against the exploiters, but also
against the Irish. Imputations of cannibalistic practices among the
Irish in fact had some currency in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, and the notion that the Irish masses were scarcely better
than beasts--a notion that Swift may not have altogether
dismissed--was often asserted. Sir John Temple, the father of
Swift's patron, writing in 1646, described them as "living like
beasts, biting and devouring one another."

Rawson is surely right in saying that such language strongly
adumbrates the ferocious representation of the Yahoos in Gulliver's
Travels. Both texts draw on an idea that may seem odd to us now:
that the Irish were genetically akin to the savages who lived
beyond the European pale, and that they exhibited the flat noses,
the large lips, and the other gross features supposedly
characteristic of those uncouth peoples. In A Modest Proposal, Swift
is careful never to bring to mind the common accusation that the
Irish might actually be practicing cannibalism--just as Montaigne,
writing about cannibals in the New World, sharply satirizes his
fellow Frenchman by comparing them invidiously to the "savages,"
but never mentions documented instances, about which he knew, of
cannibalism during the religious wars in France in his own time.
Eating human flesh in Swift's essay is confined to a strictly
metaphorical function; but the incendiary historical materials out
of which this fantasy is shaped make its moral direction
precariously unstable. As is often the case in Swift, the vectors
of aggression go in opposite directions simultaneously.

This overdetermination of the aggressive imagination reaches its
apogee in the horrific images of the Yahoos in Gulliver's Travels.
The snarling, stinking, vicious, and lubricious Yahoos are drawn
from defamatory notions about the Irish and about the savages of
the non-European world, with "the equations between humans,
humanoids, savages, and animals ... in constant and volatile play."
Yet Swift, though he did not hesitate to tap some of the most dank
underground currents of ethnic or racial prejudice in his satiric
invention, can scarcely be accused of either racism or misogyny in
Gulliver's Travels, as postcolonial and feminist critics have
variously accused him, because the Yahoos are, after all, an image
of humankind as a whole, from which no race, culture, class, or
gender is excepted. They embody, as Rawson neatly puts it, an
"equivocating and protracted tease, which assimilates humankind to
its own despised subgroups, as well as to humanoid and animal
analogues," and it is precisely this disquieting process of
assimilation that constitutes "a Swiftian signature."

It is hardly startling, of course, to observe that Swift's satire
often reflects a general rage against, or disgust with, the human
species rather than a particular segment of it. What now looks
different in his work, after the century of modern genocide, is the
unsettling way in which satiric fantasy has proved to anticipate
grisly historical implementation from 1939 to 1945. Not every
reader may recall that a recurrent subject of debate in the assembly
of Houyhnhnms is "whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from
the Face of the Earth." Swift uses this same stern biblical phrase
in relation to paupers in an essay titled Proposal for Giving
Badges to the Beggars in All the Parishes of Dublin, an unironic
proposal that unfortunately foreshadows the notorious practice that
the Nazis adopted to mark off the population of Untermenschen that
they would eventually proceed to murder. Gulliver is reported to
have made shoes out of Yahoo skins, bird traps out of their hair,
and a boat caulked with the fat of these creatures and covered
"with the skins of Yahoos well stitched together." (Equally in A
Modest Proposal, the skin of Irish babies is recommended for the
manufacture of fine gloves for ladies and boots for gentlemen.)
This horrific invention in turn draws on classical precedents, as
the learned Rawson alerts us: "Swift is remembering accounts in
Herodotus and Strabo of Scythian tribes which manufactured napkins
and garments from human scalps, weapon-covers from skin and
fingernails."; "The truly disturbing biblical precedent for the
imagination of genocide appears in Numbers and, even more urgently,
in Deuteronomy."

Though the Nazis' use of the bodies of murdered Jews for the
manufacture of lampshades and soap may have been
sensationalistically exaggerated in some early reports, the fact
that such horrors could have been committed at all is a logical
consequence, as in Swift, of the uncompromising re-definition of
human beings as belonging to a category outside, or below,
humanity. Swift's strategy of narrative exposition exerts an almost
scary effectiveness in realizing this re-definition: when Gulliver
first encounters the Yahoos, he sees only noxious, filthy beasts,
scrabbling about on all fours, exhibiting "paws" and "claws," and
he has no inkling that he and they are anatomically identical;
eventually he is forced to recognize that these wretched animals
are a perfectly just representation of the human species, himself
included. Once again, there is a disconcerting correspondence to
the Nazi procedure of first representing the Jews as subhuman in
propaganda and then dehumanizing them in the camps as the last step
before "exterminating" them, like vermin.

As to the radical impulse of genocide, Rawson uncovers a
surprisingly broad spectrum of injunctions to extirpation, many of
them referring to the Irish, from Spenser to Shaw to the outraged
cry of Conrad's Kurtz: "Exterminate all the brutes." At least in
our own culture (and it would be surprising if other cultures
should prove entirely innocent on this score), there has been an
extraordinary license of discourse about the destruction of entire
populations for more than three millennia. Rawson, as I have noted,
takes this murderous language back to the Flood story, and also to
the story of Sodom, in Genesis. Despite the frequent later
borrowing of the phrase "from the face of the earth" in conjunction
with acts of total destruction, there is a different feel to the
story of the annihilation of humankind in Genesis because it is
embedded in a legendary past and drawn directly from Mesopotamian
myths about the destruction of humanity by the angered gods, so
that the victims of the Deluge do not seem either a part of history
or even a persuasive allegory of future history. But the decisive
consideration is that the agent of destruction is God himself,
which puts the terrible plan in a rather different perspective from
that suggested by a communal assembly deliberating in Gulliver's
Travels about whether a program of extermination of the local
humanoids should be undertaken.

The truly disturbing biblical precedent for the imagination of
genocide appears in Numbers and, even more urgently, in
Deuteronomy. There Israel is enjoined to utterly destroy the pagan
peoples of the land of Canaan that it is about to conquer--to place
them under the ban (herem), to smash their altars, to pulverize
their icons, to kill all their men, women, and children. The
archaeological evidence reassuringly suggests that this project of
total destruction was never implemented, that it reflects instead a
kind of ferocious monotheistic fantasy--one eminent biblical
scholar calls it "utopian"--employed to further Deuteronomy's
ideological program of absolute separation from pagan practices and
population in a seventh-century B.C.E. setting where in fact
peoples and practices constantly intermingled.

What makes these exhortations to genocide different from the Flood
story-- what unfortunately points them toward future horrors, where
a way of talking turns into a way of doing--is that the agents of
destruction are human, urged to destroy with zeal as part of a
higher mission. This model was not lost on Oliver Cromwell. In an
instance cited by Rawson, the Puritan leader told his troops,
embarking from Bristol for a campaign of conquest and massacre in
Ireland in 1649, that they were latter-day Israelites enjoined to
wipe out the idolatrous people of Canaan.

All such macabre adumbrations of the most notorious modern program
of systematic mass murder might seem to lend themselves to the
anti-Western rhetoric of inculpation that passes for intellectual
analysis in many academic circles today; but Rawson, in insisting
on careful discriminations, distances himself equally from the
intransigent critics of European colonialism and from the
complacencies of their academically conservative--which is to say
politically liberal--adversaries. The aim that he lays out in the
introduction of his book is to "uncouple Swift from the indignant
diatribes of self- righteous post-colonial censors, as well as from
the well-intentioned ministrations of `liberal' sensibilities of
the late Ph.D. era ... performing the equal and opposite
irrelevance of refashioning Swift into a benign upholder of
favorite causes."

God, Gulliver, and Genocide might be thought of as a study in the
workings of the literary imagination of rage, with all the moral
irresponsibilities that it entails. The various writers explored
here, confronted with what struck them as intolerable
manifestations of human barbarity, degradation, and perversity,
created what must have felt to them like cleansing fantasies--or in
some cases merely rhetorical gestures--of destruction, in which
whole classes, or ethnicities, or religious groups, or humankind
itself, would be wiped out because they patently resisted any
conceivable reformation. This is not to say that the writers were
serious advocates of genocide (though one wonders a little at the
"utopian" project of the Deuteronomist); and Swift, an implacable
and irascible man but by no means an inhumane one, would surely have
been horrified by the Nazi death camps and would have seen in them
a horrendous confirmation of the vulpine nature of the human animal
against which he repeatedly railed.

Rawson does not claim that these lethal imaginings constitute a
unique pathology of Western civilization. What seems to be implied,
rather, is that they reflect the West's particular literary
articulation of a complex of aggressive impulses that are a
regrettable part of the general human legacy. Rawson takes pains
throughout the book to resist misleading equations. "Confronting an
unwelcome analogy," he nicely observes, "is not the same as
asserting the similarities it implies." What, then, is the relation
of Gulliver to genocide? The sensible conclusion of this book is
that the link is indeterminate, perhaps involving some oblique
causal element or perhaps reflecting merely a certain murky
affinity of mind, but in either case not to be blandly dismissed.

Observing that both Swift and Sade drew on bookish or documentary
sources that they outdid in their own literary fantasies, only to
be outdone in turn by the Nazi enterprise, Rawson concludes: "What
that enterprise ... may have owed to bookish sources and what it
merely took from common motions of the human mind, is not a
question which can be answered, though it insists on being asked. "
Over the years there has been a great deal of talk, which seems
especially appealing to literary people, about an almost
theological uniqueness of the Nazi program of genocide, a
uniqueness that puts the Shoah beyond representation, analogy, and
language itself. One of the important implications of Rawson's
argument, though it is not one that he himself spells out, is that
the Western imagination has been busy representing, or fantasizing,
such horrors for millennia, articulating a rich language for
them--with Swift its most uncompromising master--that was
abundantly present in European culture, whether or not the Nazis
were consciously prompted by any of it. In this case as in others,
the study of history and the artifacts of culture uncovers ample
precedents for the seemingly unprecedented.

Satire is in certain ways the most intellectually controlled of
literary genres, and the almost geometric logic of both Gulliver's
Travels and A Modest Proposal clearly manifests this quality of
control. At the same time, there is an emotional vehemence, albeit
channeled into formally lucid structures, that defies control, and
for this Rawson invokes the crucial term "slippage":

The controlled rhetorical slippages I have been discussing, and to
which Swift [in an essay that talks about taking hyperbole too
literally] partly alludes, are part of an imperfect system of
constraints on radical violence, as well as a species of invitation
to it. It seems likely that some of history's great genocidal
outbursts have been unplanned results of outlooks and ways of
speaking whose murderous content was not generally or widely
intended to be taken at face value.

There is an instructive analogy between Rawson's argument and Roger
Shattuck's argument in Forbidden Knowledge, about one-third of which
was devoted to an unflinching scrutiny of the most horrific aspects
of the novels of Sade. Shattuck seeks to understand the disturbing
implications of "forbidden knowledge that we may not forbid" even
when it leads to ghastly practical consequences. (He documents
cases of pathological killers who were sedulous students of Sade's
novels.) As Shattuck recognizes, censorship is clearly not an
option, because a free society must allow the imagination its full
prerogatives to delve into whatever dark places to which it may be
drawn. What he argues in the case of Sade, who has been elevated by
modern French intellectual tradition to the status of a brave and
profound moral philosopher, is that he be seen unblinkingly for
what he is: "potential poison, polluting to our moral and
intellectual environment."

The case is surely not the same for Swift--though at one point, as
we have noted, Rawson has occasion to bracket the two writers--or
for Spenser, Baudelaire, Shaw, and other writers who have given
vent to exhortations to extermination, for in their work the
language of extirpation is set in some kind of humane frame of
reference, or is to a degree insulated from reality by its
deployment as metaphor or rhetorical gesture, what Swift calls
"hyperbole." If essential distinctions need to be made between the
notion of extirpating the Yahoos and the Final Solution,
distinctions also have to be made, as Rawson would agree, among
these different writers.

Still, the monitory idea that Rawson traces so well is that even
metaphor has its responsibilities. One purpose of imaginative
literature may be to provide a satisfying outlet, a vehicle of
cathartic fantasy, for violent impulses that are shared by writer
and audience. Yet it is a simple act of moral wisdom not to explain
away the expressions of violence as neatly fashioned instruments of
higher and humane ends. It behooves us instead to acknowledge that
works of literature can conceivably contribute to creating a
context of imaginative enablement for the perpetration of terrible
acts in the real world.

By Robert Alter

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