[Note: I’m going through my enormous “drafts” folder and seeing if I can salvage any of the posts without changing their titles or opening lines. This is my first try]
Every generation has its battle between, on one hand, those who pine for the “old days” and, on the other, proponents of progress who inevitably think better things are preordained. I once probably found the former camp more irritating, due to their hollow affection for activities – like hanging out in a Wal-Mart parking lot or going after much younger romantic obsessions – they’ve outgrown; they make the past appear like baby clothes: impossible to fit back into it, but not impossible to recycle on someone else or hold up in reverie. Maybe even with the immense powers of the empty brain, they can make bygones keep happening.
But the progress camp – purveyors of “optimism porn,” as someone on Twitter once quipped about Harvard professor Stephen Pinker – have made a strong run of their own in the annoyance dept. For the unfamiliar, optimism porn is all about context; it thrives on Twitter in particular as a rejoinder to (very accurate) tweets bemoaning wealth inequality, racial injustice, and warmongering. “Hey, look at these charts showing there have been fewer wars since 1945!” Yes, that’s a form of progress, but it might also be an historic anomaly, sustained only by norms around nuclear missiles, as Dan Carlin noted in a gripping podcast episode about the history of weapons of mass destruction.
Years ago, I entitled this post “The Battle of the Books” in hopes of discussing Jonathan Swift’s work of the same name, which features a debate between the Ancients and Moderns, each represented by equally fussy books in the St. James Library; hence my own much clumsier attempt to juxtapose the “glory days” crowd in opposition to the technoutopians. The piece focuses on how each camp thinks its particular era is the golden age of arts and letters. They’re allegorized by a spider (Moderns) and a bee (Ancients) who debate each other, prior to the actual authors of each era (everyone from Homer to Hobbes) engaging in actual violent combat.
While short, this satricial piece is, in my view, among the tightest and most quotable works of prose in English. It leads with a stunning self-referential opening line [all emphasis throughout is mine] – “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own” – and never relents.
The quip “anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind” comes to mind equally during vigorous exercise or the frustrating angry exchanges of email and other internet-connected tools that do nothing for the body while sending the mind into a tailspin.
This segment reminds me of Elizabethan language about daggers and spears, but in my opinion supersedes Shakespeare et al. in the nuance it conveys about how writing has both an empowering and destructive effect on its most talented executors: “[I]nk is the great missive weapon in all battles of the learned, which, conveyed through a sort of engine called a quill, infinite numbers of these are darted at the enemy by the valiant on each side, with equal skill and violence, as if it were an engagement of porcupines. This malignant liquor was compounded, by the engineer who invented it, of two ingredients, which are, gall and copperas; by its bitterness and venom to suit, in some degree, as well as to foment, the genius of the combatants.
He then progresses to talk about the unbearable process of insisting your argument is better than anyone else’s, but notes that even the most definitive “trophy” of literary achievement ultimately become artifacts of controversy to be potentially dissolved by latter debates, like the groups I mentioned earlier who are ever looking forward: “These trophies have largely inscribed on them the merits of the cause; a full impartial account of such a Battle, and how the victory fell clearly to the party that set them up. They are known to the world under several names; as disputes, arguments, rejoinders, brief considerations, answers, replies, remarks, reflections, objections, confutations. For a very few days they are fixed up all in public places, either by themselves or their representatives, for passengers to gaze at; whence the chiefest and largest are removed to certain magazines they call libraries, there to remain in a quarter purposely assigned them, and thenceforth begin to be called books of controversy. In these books is wonderfully instilled and preserved the spirit of each warrior while he is alive; and after his death his soul transmigrates thither to inform them.”
This is exquisite commentary on the ever-living characteristics of books: “a restless spirit haunts over every book, till dust or worms have seized upon it.”
On the high ambitions but limited abilities of the Moderns; sounds like this could have been penned about proponents of perpetually underwhelming tech like virtual reality and autonomous cars: “for, being light-headed, they have, in speculation, a wonderful agility, and conceive nothing too high for them to mount, but, in reducing to practice, discover a mighty pressure about their posteriors and their heels.”
Swift also effortlessly shifts to some of the best speculative writing I’ve encountered, on par if not better than what he pulled off in “Gulliver’s Travels.” Witness this passage about a spider and a bee: The avenues to his castle were guarded with turnpikes and palisadoes, all after the modern way of fortification. After you had passed several courts you came to the centre, wherein you might behold the constable himself in his own lodgings, which had windows fronting to each avenue, and ports to sally out upon all occasions of prey or defence. In this mansion he had for some time dwelt in peace and plenty, without danger to his person by swallows from above, or to his palace by brooms from below; when it was the pleasure of fortune to conduct thither a wandering bee, to whose curiosity a broken pane in the glass had discovered itself, and in he went, where, expatiating a while, he at last happened to alight upon one of the outward walls of the spider’s citadel; which, yielding to the unequal weight, sunk down to the very foundation.”
A highly recognizable critique of filibustering senators and “contrarians” of all sorts who like nothing more than argument itself, undercutting the very “trophies” they were earlier cited as “At this the spider, having swelled himself into the size and posture of a disputant, began his argument in the true spirit of controversy, with resolution to be heartily scurrilous and angry, to urge on his own reasons without the least regard to the answers or objections of his opposite, and fully predetermined in his mind against all conviction.
The spider poetically describes a bee: “[B]orn to no possession of your own, but a pair of wings and a drone-pipe. Your livelihood is a universal plunder upon nature; a freebooter over fields and gardens; and, for the sake of stealing, will rob a nettle as easily as a violet.”
More on the temporarity of literary achievement and fame, of trophies than can easily fade,: “Erect your schemes with as much method and skill as you please; yet, if the materials be nothing but dirt, spun out of your own entrails (the guts of modern brains), the edifice will conclude at last in a cobweb; the duration of which, like that of other spiders’ webs, may be imputed to their being forgotten, or neglected, or hid in a corner.”
On what Ancients see in the itinerant art of the bee, which behaves like a poet searching for magical inspiration but knowing that legwork (literally, in this case) is necessary: “As for us, the Ancients, we are content with the bee, to pretend to nothing of our own beyond our wings and our voice: that is to say, our flights and our language. For the rest, whatever we have got has been by infinite labour and search, and ranging through every corner of nature; the difference is, that, instead of dirt and poison, we have rather chosen to till our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.”
Setting the table with cosmic implications: “Jove, in great concern, convokes a council in the Milky Way. The senate assembled, he declares the occasion of convening them; a bloody battle just impendent between two mighty armies of ancient and modern creatures, called books, wherein the celestial interest was but too deeply concerned.”
A fantastical personification of criticism as a vicious and ill-informed goddess: “Meanwhile Momus, fearing the worst, and calling to mind an ancient prophecy which bore no very good face to his children the Moderns, bent his flight to the region of a malignant deity called Criticism. She dwelt on the top of a snowy mountain in Nova Zembla; there Momus found her extended in her den, upon the spoils of numberless volumes, half devoured. At her right hand sat Ignorance, her father and husband, blind with age; at her left, Pride, her mother, dressing her up in the scraps of paper herself had torn. There was Opinion, her sister, light of foot, hood- winked, and head-strong, yet giddy and perpetually turning. About her played her children, Noise and Impudence, Dulness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill-manners. The goddess herself had claws like a cat; her head, and ears, and voice resembled those of an ass; her teeth fallen out before, her eyes turned inward, as if she looked only upon herself; her diet was the overflowing of her own gall; her spleen was so large as to stand prominent, like a dug of the first rate; nor wanted excrescences in form of teats, at which a crew of ugly monsters were greedily sucking; and, what is wonderful to conceive, the bulk of spleen increased faster than the sucking could diminish it.”
The best critique of “grammar hounds” and anyone else more obsessed with technical features than with clear meaning: “[B]y me beaux become politicians, and schoolboys judges of philosophy; by me sophisters debate and conclude upon the depths of knowledge; and coffee-house wits, instinct by me, can correct an author’s style, and display his minutest errors, without understanding a syllable of his matter or his language; by me striplings spend their judgment, as they do their estate, before it comes into their hands. It is I who have deposed wit and knowledge from their empire over poetry, and advanced myself in their stead. And shall a few upstart Ancients dare to oppose me?”
A thrilling description of Criticism influencing the discourse, with an especially striking line about “now desert” bookshelves: “The goddess and her train, having mounted the chariot, which was drawn by tame geese, flew over infinite regions, shedding her influence in due places, till at length she arrived at her beloved island of Britain; but in hovering over its metropolis, what blessings did she not let fall upon her seminaries of Gresham and Covent-garden! And now she reached the fatal plain of St. James’s library, at what time the two armies were upon the point to engage; where, entering with all her caravan unseen, and landing upon a case of shelves, now desert, but once inhabited by a colony of virtuosos, she stayed awhile to observe the posture of both armies.
Even amid the verbal pyrotechnics, Swift finds time to be unforgettably funny: “Then Aristotle, observing Bacon advance with a furious mien, drew his bow to the head, and let fly his arrow, which missed the valiant Modern and went whizzing over his head; but Descartes it hit; the steel point quickly found a defect in his head-piece; it pierced the leather and the pasteboard, and went in at his right eye. The torture of the pain whirled the valiant bow-man round till death, like a star of superior influence, drew him into his own vortex.”
Even better, about Virgil struggling with an ill-fitting helmet and appealing to Dryden for help: “The brave Ancient suddenly started, as one possessed with surprise and disappointment together; for the helmet was nine times too large for the head, which appeared situate far in the hinder part, even like the lady in a lobster, or like a mouse under a canopy of state, or like a shrivelled beau from within the penthouse of a modern periwig; and the voice was suited to the visage, sounding weak and remote.”
A memorable closing line to pair with the opening: “Farewell, beloved, loving pair; few equals have you left behind: