Thursday, April 24, 2014


I have enjoyed teaching this term, largely because I have gotten to teach in my area; I have gotten to teach Survey of British Literature I, which spans roughly 450 to 1785. I admit that I am not at my best across the whole thirteen-hundred year span, but I do pretty well, and I enjoy myself thoroughly. It helps that I have a good set of students, including one who was recently accepted into graduate school. (She will be concentrating in contemporary American literature, in which she means to focus more narrowly on African-American literature and cultural studies. It is outside my area, but for those of you who are up on such things, information about any reliably scholarly references or standard works would be welcome; I would love to pass them along.) Congenial materials and congenial students make things work a damned sight better than their lack.

As part of that teaching, I had the pleasure of covering materials by the inimitable Jonathan Swift, whose Modest Proposal is standard reading in high schools and colleges, and whose Gulliver's Travels is often given to children. Indeed, I worked with both (treating only the fourth part of the latter, given time constraints). In doing so, I necessarily treated the related ideas of cannibalism and anthropophagy--people-eating. The shock-value of A Modest Proposal comes, of course, from the assertion that eating year-old children is a good idea, both gustatory and economic, and in the fourth part of Gulliver's Travels, the eponymous narrator is only able to leave the Houyhnhnms by sailing a boat made of Yahoo--feral human--skins and caulked with Yahoo tallow. Both narrators, the one explicitly and the other tacitly through modeling actions, engage the idea that the consumption of people is a right and just thing--and that has interesting implications for postcolonial analysis of the works.

I am not a Swift scholar; my emphasis is on earlier works. But I do know that Swift is intimately engaged in colonialist practices perpetrated by England and the United Kingdom on Ireland, and that those colonialist practices were echoed--admittedly with some modifications--in the English colonial efforts in the Americas and elsewhere. One of the ways that those later colonists justified their destruction of the people they encountered and the ways of life those people practiced was the assertion that those people were cannibalistic; eliminating them eliminated a visceral threat, as, aside from the vore community, being eaten, reduced to fodder only, is a primal human fear and an abnegation of sentient identity. In Swift's works, though, the colonist presence, the center from which Otherness and therefore fitness for subjugation or abjection is typically determined in colonialist discourse, is the perpetrator or proponent of anthropophagy. The usual trope is inverted utterly--and the inversion reads as authentic, representative of the observable world. What this implies, I leave to others to discuss for themselves (I have already gone over the idea with my students), but I cannot help but think that the relevance of the inversion is part of what should serve to keep Swift among those works studied as standard. (What does is that "we've always done it that way," which is a crappy reason.)

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