The scientific boom of the eighteenth century led to the advancement of knowledge and discovery at one level, but at another, it rendered generations of people completely disillusioned and consequently, helpless in the face of a fast advancing world that was rapidly leaving people behind. Jonathan Swift was one such man who could not reconcile himself with the times.
The Enlightenment witnessed the inventions of the microscope and the telescope, which overturned the understanding of the world that the eighteenth century held. Everything at once became a possibility and the limitations of mankind were suspended from discussion. The sudden influx of experimentation and discovery created a sense of disillusionment. It was a movement whose complete potential was understood and appreciated by a select few who could fully comprehend the nuances and technicalities of scientific theory. In some ways, it was an elitist movement. The layperson was forced to accept that there were existences and phenomena beyond the realm of common imagination. If there was no single reality, perception was all that remained. The distance that scientific progress had created between the convenience of accepted truths and the uncertainty of discovery was one that Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) could never bridge.
Swift was an artist at a time when the human race was probably at its intellectual and scientific zenith. The impact that the Enlightenment would have had on any thinking individual was tremendous. For any ‘realist’ writer who attempted to portray reality as closely as possible, this was a time of trial. Which ‘reality’ would he hold true in the midst of such disillusionment?
His satire is harsh and bitter, and he presses exactly where it hurts. There is sheer anguish and despair that is interwoven in his works. But this is not born solely out of malice or misanthropy; Swift was not a nihilist. For all his rejection of mankind, there is an underlying and over-yawning angst and a profound sadness for humanity in general.
Some of Swift’s seeming misogyny could stem from the fact that his mother left him with his nurse in the first three years of his life, after the death of his father had cast them in abject destitution. This, along with him being denied a desirable position in the clergy due to Queen Anne begrudging him for ‘A Tale of the Tub’, resulted in a deep-seated hatred for women, which is evident in works like ‘A Lady’s Dressing Room’, the Nymph poems and especially Gulliver’s Travels. His aversion towards women becomes an obsession, a clear motif in almost all his works.
With Swift, there is a constant notion of misplaced identities- he was a Whig who identified with the Tories; he was an artist who was trying to remain true to his artistic perception of a reality that didn’t hold the same meaning or comfort anymore, while reconstructing the vestiges of a world he could no longer understand. He suffered greatly; he was, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “the greatest ironist…who suffered the most”.
“I hate and detest the animal called man,” wrote Swift. Through the severe criticism which he throws upon the eighteenth century, Swift comes across as a ‘man of the Enlightenment’, not by choice but by chance. At face value, he seems to have been driven by his hatred, yet this is mingled with a deep-seated sense of disturbance and loss.