Friday, September 14, 2012

Thoughts on A Tale of a Tub

Jonathan Swift is one of my literary heroes.  Gulliver's Travels is a work of creative genius and a hallmark of political and social thought.

Apparently he had to work his way to that point.

A Tale of a Tub is from considerably earlier in Swift's career, when he was mainly concerned with his contemporaries.  Seriously, A Tale of a Tub (and various works included in the volume I read) is all about Swift's reaction to the thoughts swimming around the literary scene of his day.  If the Internet existed at the time, it would have been posted rather than published (and perhaps later published).  It's all about the squabbling over distinctions between the classics and current efforts, how thinking was either superior in his own day or had really reached a zenith hundreds of years in the past.

It's all stuff we still grapple with today, which becomes clearer in some of the other essays included in the comprehensive edition.  Should the present be sacrificed to the past, simply because there's a extensive knowledge and appreciation of what already exists versus what someone is trying to contribute now?  It's a little odd that Swift's Tale is actually about the schism of the Christian faith that was still fresh at the time, because hardly anyone is worked up about that anymore (as opposed to, oh, Islam); the different dominations are so well established that they virtually function completely independent of each other, even though they follow the same basic tenets (something ecumenical cooperatives have attempted to rectify in recent years).

Tale follows three brothers (when it bothers to do what it's supposed to be doing; there's a lot of the Laurence Sterne style of writing, which can be bafflingly alien to modern readers) who represent the Catholic Church and the two acts of the Reformation.  There's very little to this narrative, though, certainly not what someone would expect from familiarity with Lemuel Gulliver.  It mainly concerns itself with trivial matters.

Most of it, as I may have suggested, probably meant far more to Swift's contemporaries than their successors.  Today it exists as an intellectual exercise, which remains its thrilling legacy.  Curiously, very few people in the modern age care about such things.  More readers than I'd care to calculate would only consider Tale to be impenetrable, even in academia.  I don't know how exclusive the schooling has to be where interested persons would not find themselves isolated to care about it, but I never experienced it.

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