Remembering Swift

With apologies to Jon Stewart and Tom Lehrer, the greatest satirist who ever lived was Jonathan Swift. He is best known from the watered-down versions of his classic Gulliver’s Travels that has been turned into a children’s book — or from one of the terrible movies starring buffoons like Jack Black that trample on the greatness that was Swift. But Swift was above all things a cleric and a moralist and his satirical writings — of which Gulliver was merely one small portion — were almost always written to draw attention to a wrong with an eye to remedying the situation. And in Swift’s age, the latter seventeenth century and the early eighteenth, there was much that was wrong.  Swift saw it through the eyes of a brilliant, witty misanthrope. Human foibles drove him wild even though he was an amiable friend and companion with a small group of close friends and the two women who worshipped the ground he walked upon. And the Irish loved him and regarded him as their champion — as indeed he was.

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Swift could be downright acerbic in his observations, as when he wrote the following in voicing his conviction that humans don’t bear a close look because the deeper you probe the worse they seem to be: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” But he could be not only witty but wise and very timely — which is why he is worth reading even today. He noted, for example, that “. . . if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either in the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well deceived. . . .This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state, of being a fool among knaves.” Those of us who are not rich and who like to believe that the rich are not truly happy can take comfort in the conviction that their “happiness” is a “deception.”

Swift generally pilloried the vanities and stupidities of his age, always with an eye toward the need for bringing reason to bear on the frailties and weaknesses of humans. He was, among other things, a deeply religious and a wise man who knew the absurdities of many of the religious as well as most of those of the wealthy and famous. Of religion, for example, he said “We have just religion enough to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another.” When he turned his attention to the politicians and academics around him he could be particularly scathing. In fact, the major portion of his classic about Lemuel Gulliver focuses on the politics and politicians of his day many of whom he knew close up. He also knew and hated the pretense he found in the universities. In the third trip Gulliver made, for example, after being lowered from the flying island he visited an academy in the city of Lagado and was confronted by a variety of dusty and smelly academics who were intent on such esoteric pursuits as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, building houses from the top down “like bees and spiders,” plowing fields with the snouts of hogs, making silk from spider webs, and curing colic with a pair of bellows. These were busy little men and women involved in absurd intellectual games while those around them went without food and shelter and agriculture suffered. We can agree that even in our day there is much being done in the academies of learning that has little to do with what is going on in the real world. One must wonder, for example, how research on the “Use of the Past-Perfect Participle In Late Elizabethan English” will help improve the lot of humankind. And it could be said that the entire attempt to land a man on the moon or a rover on Mars takes millions of dollars away from the genuine human needs here on our planet where many people don’t have food to put on the table — or a table, come to that. Swift was above all else a moralist.

Indeed, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” of eating all the small children in Ireland was an attempt to draw attention in England to the plight of the poor in Ireland where he was Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin until his death. But those in his day who read his works (always written anonymously) were afraid of the Dean and kept him from the posts he dearly wanted back in England. They knew who wrote them, and they read his works with great glee, laughing up their collective sleeves, but never realized that it was they who were being made to look foolish. In the end, Swift concluded, satire is a mirror in which the viewer sees everyone but himself. Indeed.

Roving On Mars

I recently watched the NOVA episode telling about the building, launching, and successful landing of the Mars rover, “Curiosity.” It was amazing! I sat transfixed as the plethora of team members supported by hundreds of men and women worked their way through the thick tangle of problems connected with such an immense project. I followed closely as they considered every possible eventuality that could arise before and during a two-year venture on a planet where radio signals take fourteen minutes to reach us when the planet is at its closest.

I was inspired afterwards to check my computer for more detailed information about the rover and its myriad of technically sophisticated parts. Just think of the difficulties involved simply to get to the planet Mars safely — an extraordinary thing in itself. Though there had been three rovers before this one none was as complex, sophisticated, or heavy as “Curiosity.” The team had to think of every possibility and develop entirely new systems of delivery to get the capsule containing the rover safely to the planet millions of miles away and land it safely. And once there the two-ton mobile lab had to explore an alien surface in 60 degrees below zero temperatures, take and test soil and air samples, and send the results back to earth along with thousands of photographs. It really does boggle the mind.

It was indeed breathtaking and a marvel to behold, testimony to human intelligence and determination. At one point the parachute designed to slow the capsule down upon entering Mars’ atmosphere ripped apart in the wind tunnel during testing. It was about here that I started to  have questions. The team-member told us that after the first parachute ripped apart they went out and bought six of the most sophisticated cameras they could find to photograph the next test so they could figure out what went wrong. I am sure this was when I began to wonder how much all this must have cost and, the bigger question, why they were going to all this trouble. I never did determine the answer to the first question, but the answer to the bigger question was contained in the name of the rover itself: curiosity. It’s what makes humans climb impossibly high mountains and dive to the depths of the ocean. It is what brought Columbus to this continent (well, Bermuda). And it is an admirable quality indeed.

But probing more deeply into possible explanations we realize that the underlying rationale for what had to be an incredibly expensive venture involving hundreds of man-hours of some of the best and brightest people in America was to find out if there had ever been life on Mars. It’s certainly a question worth asking and I would love to know the answer.

But, again, as I thought about the program and read the material on the computer that gave me more details about the rover and its mission I read hundreds of words, but nowhere was it mentioned what the project had cost. Don’t they want us to know? It had to be hundreds of millions of dollars. And that was the thought that kept sticking in my craw. Hundreds of man-hours and hundreds of millions of dollars to find out whether or not there ever had been life on a distant planet. So I asked myself again, WHY?  What about life on this planet? Why aren’t we willing to commit this country to spending a fraction of that amount of money and man-hours to save this planet? I do wonder.