- A Modest Proposal in the Context of Swift’s Irish Tracts: A Relevance-Theoretic Study by Maria-Angeles Ruiz Moneva
Swift’s Modest Proposal of 1729 is often used as a test or limit case for irony or satire beyond the usual realm of literary criticism, especially in rhetoric and linguistics. It would be good to see the findings of these scholarly subcultures coalesce on so endlessly provocative a pamphlet, and the title of this study promises something of the kind. Our various intellectual specialties do not talk often or well to each other these days, though many interesting prospects lie in interdisciplinary searching for it. Unfortunately, as a work of literary or historical criticism, Ms. Moneva’s book is not good enough to engage across the gap. It claims to address context but, if you read far enough, you realize that Swift’s Irish Tracts are the entire context: these pamphlets are treated as a self-contained corpus while other contemporary writing receives no attention. It may be meaningful in linguistic pragmatics to treat the other political pamphlets of Swift [End Page 256] as the only meaningful context for the Modest Proposal, but a literary scholar who talks intertextuality without reference to Petty, Molyneux, and various respondents to the Drapier’s Letters does not engage. This artificial containment of context to Swift’s argument severely limits discussion of intertextuality, or even (in traditional terminology) context.
So this book is remarkably disengaged from literary history, and little more can be said of its engagement with the literary and biographical criticism around the Proposal. Ms. Moneva’s “The Irish Tracts within Swift’s Literary Production” treats Bullitt’s chapter on the Proposal in Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire (1961) as a central text. I remember thinking Bullitt’s book was particularly good when I read it in the 1980s, but the debate had moved on. Unfortunately, Ms. Moneva appears to be hostage to the holdings of the Library of the University of Zaragoza, and quotes only one thing Swiftian (Joseph McMinn’s 1991 overview) after Alan Downie’s 1984 biography. Even so, the bibliography is free of mention of Irvin Ehrenpreis and Claude Rawson, central writers on Swift’s Irish pamphlets; Sean Moore’s piece in PMLA (2007), “Devouring Posterity: A Modest Proposal, Empire, and Ireland’s ‘Debt of the Nation’ “ would be a good place to start if one were taking context seriously.
The bulk of Ms. Moneva’s book extensively argues about relevance theory and its application to ironic utterance. The theory is traced back to an old fundamental debate between Grice and Sperber & Wilson, and essentially attempts to discern the rules under which meaning happens. Irony inevitably presents hard cases, and the fundamental difference between literary critics (traditional or poststructuralist; the disagreement is a matter of degree) and pragmatists is that we critics tend to rejoice in irreducible ambiguity while pragmatists keep working on analytic propositions and qualifications to solve hard cases. Ms. Moneva focuses on echo, use, and mention in irony, specifically the value of pretense to explain the dynamics of Swiftian irony. She is certainly more sure-footed (and writes better) here, and, while I would claim neither competence nor patience for pragmatic approaches to meaning, this is where the book contributes to knowledge. What follows is a long quasi-experimental analysis of most of Swift’s Irish Tracts treated as a contained corpus for the analysis of contextual and intellectual echoes in the Modest Proposal: words (modesty, proposal, projector, country/countrymen); techniques (the use or nonuse of persona); attitudes (a gathering despair at the nation’s incapacity to look after its interests). If none of this looks like rocket science to readers of this journal, that is how it felt to me too. It is my hope that the careful and detailed elaborations of fairly obvious meaning and technique have a value in pragmatics, but they provide only systematic elaborations of long known things.
This makes me wonder why a...