Friday, February 08, 2019

A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Hubris of Thinking We Are Better Than We Are And for Making Us Beneficial to the Publick

I was going to say I wasn't that big a fan of Atwood's novel the first time around, and now that it's a Disney theme park I'm even less thrilled.  But I had to type the comment on my phone and my thumbs couldn't take it and I had too many typos and then I went to class to teach (again!) "A Modest Proposal" and I realized what my problem with such dystopian tomes (all the rage!  again!) is, in light of Swift's modest genius.

The basic problem with novels like The Handmaid's Tale is that they allow us to see others as the problem, and not us.  We are not the barbarian fundamentalists or even the women cowed by authority who submit to this nightmarish world order in the name of survival (the obvious analogue being all that mass of people ("men" in the original, but now....) living lives of quiet desperation.  We don't do that, O best beloved, but they do!).  It's too easy to look at tales like Handmaid and conclude the problem is with what people would let happen but I never would!  Just like the people packing weapons because they will be the heroes of their own action movies, but thankfully for the rest of us never get the excuse to prove it (bullets go where physics dictates, not human desire), we have zero chance of living in the dystopian hellscapes these novels (and movies!) all "project."  Even horror films about what white people really want to do to black people are escapist fare in this sense.

Then comes the Rev. Dr. Swift, with his morality tale about economics and human beings.

The heart of the argument in the "Modest Proposal" is one that would please the most die-hard Reaganite or, today, Trumpite:  allow the market to work, and all will be well.  The idea of eating children may be morally abhorrent, but the market has no morals, only costs and benefits and returns on investment and goods and services to sell and buy.  The invisible hand keeps all in balance and benefits all who accept its guidance.  This early 18th century essay presents a proposal based on the way the market and those in agriculture calculate the cost and return on investment of sheep, cattle, and swine, and shows those calculations work as well for infants who can quite reasonably be raised cheap on mother's milk for one year, then sold for slaughter before they become both an expense (needing food and clothing of their own) and too tough and stringy to be delectable.  Besides, miss that deadline and its another 11 years before they can be put to work at any job besides stealing.  Even chickens lay eggs and cows give milk (well, some species do; the ones that don't can go to market before 12 years have passed).

It's the perfect free market solution.  To solve the problem of poverty give the poor something to sell, and the only thing they are guaranteed to have, and can replace of their own efforts, is infants.  This gives, as the narrator says, property for the landlord to seize against deadbeat tenants, a reason for husbands to marry wives (think of the money, dear!), and a new source of trade for butcher shops and taverns, not to mention the multiplier effect from trade in a product locally grown and marketed.

And if you don't see yourself in that system, it's only because you aren't looking hard enough.  The system that consumes the poor in all but body, is the system that sustains the rest of us.  The difference between the narrator's proposal (it is not Swift's plan) and reality, is its honesty for, as the narrator says, the landlords having consumed the better part of the parents, might as well eat the children for a gain to both parties.

I don't see my daughter in Offred, or myself in Offred's master turning a minor practice mentioned once in the story of Abraham into the basis for social order; I do see my complicity in the system Swift satirizes.  Maybe it's because satire is so much closer to reality than fiction; maybe it's because of Swift's genius.  I tend to think it's because of his experiences as a Christian pastor, but that's probably bias on my part.  In any case, Swift does not offer us a hellscape for our entertainment, an imagined garden of red delights to make us shudder at how bad "they" are and delight us with how much better we are, or would be, if only because we won't allow that "future" to come true.  Swift offers us the world here and now, and the passing of almost 300 years only reminds us that the more things change, the more they remain the same.  The description of the problem Swift's narrator describes, the argument for the solution he modestly proposes, is written in the language of early 18th century England; but its terms are as familiar today, as they would have been recognizable then.

And that's the most frightening horror story I know.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent.

    One of the criticisms of Handmaiden's Tale I recall was Black commentators pointing out how unrealistic it was to think that Black People who had survived the slave trade, the middle passage, slavery, "post-slavery" American apartheid, etc. would just get killed off or driven out without a fight that would be to the death.

    It's one of the reasons I'm not a big fan of sci-fi, fantasy, sword and sorcerer etc. It's just too easy when you don't have to adhere to reality. Atwood's own analysis of her book is kind of strange, I read one place that she denies it is a feminist narrative but is about oppression. I think she probably figured on writing a scary story a la Joyce Carol Oates and that's the one that did it. I'm not interested in dystopian novels, I'm more interested in bad-enough reality.