Anatoly Lunacharsky On Literature and Art 1930

Jonathan Swift and A Tale of a Tub

Satire must be jolly... and wrathful.

But is there not some contradiction in this statement? Is not laughter in itself good-natured? A person laughs when he is happy. If someone wants to make a person laugh, he must be put down among the merry-makers, comforters and entertainers.

This is what Swift wrote about himself: “I do not wish to entertain, but to irritate and insult people.”

That’s a nice how-do-you-do! If you want to insult us, why do you laugh? Why are you witty?

However, everyone knows that there is something else to laughter besides being an expression of “merriment.”

There is a common saying: it kills with laughter.

How can this be so? How can such a “merry” thing as laughter kill a person?

Laughter does not kill the one it entertains, but the one at whose expense this merriment occurs.

What is laughter from a physiological point of view? Spencer provides a very good explanation of its biological nature. He says that every new idea, every new fact or subject arouses a person’s interest. Everything unusual is a problem, it worries us. To reassure ourselves we must reduce the new idea to one that is already familiar, in order that it cease being something mysterious, and, therefore, possibly dangerous. Thus, faced with an unexpected combination of external irritants, the human body prepares for a certain amount of increased activity (speaking in terms of reflexology, the body produces a new conditioned reflex). It suddenly becomes evident that this problem is an imaginary one, that it is merely a flimsy veil behind which we recognise something quite familiar and not at all dangerous. The entire problem, the entire “incident” is “unimportant”; meanwhile, however, you have armed yourself and mobilised your psycho-physiological powers. This mobilisation has proved unnecessary. You are not faced with a formidable enemy. You must demobilise. That means the store of energy concentrated in the given thinking and analytical centres of your brain must be used up immediately, i.e., it must be drained off along the channels that prescribe the body’s movements. If the resultant irradiation of energy is weak, the movement will be insignificant – a smile touching the lips. If more energy has been stored, there will be a convulsing of the diaphragm, and sometimes even the convulsive laughter of which we say: “howling with laughter,” “shrieking with laughter,” “splitting one’s sides laughing.” This is especially true when a whole series of unexpected solutions to seemingly serious problems produce a number of corresponding reactions.

It should also be noted that the convulsing of the diaphragm which, by the way, also produces the sound of laughter, is, at the same time, a convulsive forced expulsion of air (and, therefore, of oxygen) from our lungs: according to Spencer this is a new “safety valve.” This lessens the oxidation of the blood and, therefore, the activity of the various processes in the brain, so that laughter, from this point of view, is once again a peculiar means of demobilisation.

It now becomes quite clear why laughter is a merry and pleasant experience. You were prepared for stress and... demobilised instead. And then quickly returned to a state of equilibrium. Any good-natured chuckling is proof of the fact that, at the present time, you have no serious enemy. Complacent laughter proves that you consider yourself to have held an easy victory over quite a number of difficulties.

Now a satirist is, first and foremost, a very keen observer. He has noticed several revolting features about society which pose a problem to you. You, his readers, his public, do not yet see these revolting features or are not paying sufficient attention to them. The publicist, in writing in a serious vein and drawing your attention to this evil, views it as an important and serious obstacle to the normal course of affairs. In a way, he uses it to frighten you. A satirist differs from the “serious” publicist in that he wants you to laugh at this evil here and now, that is, to give you to understand that you are the victor, that this evil is miserable, weak and does not merit serious attention, that it is far beneath you, that you can just laugh it off, so morally superior are you to the level of this evil.

Thus, the satirist’s method is to launch an attack against an enemy while simultaneously declaring him already vanquished and making a laughing-stock of him.

A person likes such jokes. For if you laugh at someone, it means his ugliness, his peculiarities do not arouse your fear or any other form of positive or negative “acknowledgement.” Thus, you sense your own power. By laughing at another you acknowledge yourself to be better than he. Incidentally, this is the source of the terrible power of the method used so successfully by Gogol in his Inspector-General: “Whom are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves!” This means: all that is best in you, awakened by me, is laughing at your worst traits as at something ugly, but pitiful.

The satirist anticipates victory. He says: “Let us laugh at our enemies. I assure you they are pitiful and we are much stronger than they.”

That is why laughter can kill. If a publicist calls upon you to fight the enemy, it does not’mean the enemy has already been killed. He might even prove to be stronger than you. But if he calls upon you to ridicule him, it means you have finally and irrevocably passed judgement on him as something you have overcome, as something you can treat with scorn.

Homeric laughter, a truly healthy, victorious tone, is the triumph of an absolute and easily-won victory.

But why should satire be wrathful (and satire which is not wrathful is bad satire)?

The fact is that satire only pretends that the enemy is so weak. It only pretends that it is sufficient to make fun of the enemy, that it might as well have been beaten already and disarmed. But satire is not at all convinced that this is so. Moreover, in the majority of cases, the satirist is sadly convinced that the evil he has challenged is very formidable, very dangerous. He is just trying to encourage his allies, his readers. He is merely trying to discredit the enemy beforehand with a peculiar bit of bragging: We’ll knock the stuffing out of you, all we can do is laugh at you. Satire strives to kill the enemy with laughter. The less successful it is, the more enraged it becomes. Laughter, instead of being victorious, Homeric, becomes sarcastic, it becomes a series of scathing attacks mixed with extreme rage. Sarcasm is the effort to appear as a victor over that which is far from being vanquished. Sarcasm is the arrow of laughter shot, not like Phoebus’ arrow at Python [1] from above, but from below.

But how can this be possible? Are satirists no more than impudent boys, insolent braggarts, deceivers of the human race, who would convince it of the insignificance of something that is actually important?

No, it is more subtle than that. A satirist is truly the victor over that which he mocks. But he is only a victor in theory. His moral superiority makes him a victor. If a satirist had the necessary physical strength besides his intellect and fine emotions he could truly vanquish his enemy quite easily and laugh triumphantly. “And thy visage shines with victory. O Apollo of Belvedere.” But the trouble is that Python did not “fall, writhing, dead,” because our Apollo does not yet have a bow that is mighty enough, or an arrow that is sharp enough.

Satire is a moral victory, lacking a material victory.

It is obvious, therefore, that satire will attain its greatest significance at a time when a newly evolving class or social group that has created an ideology which is considerably more advanced than the ruling ideology of the ruling class, has not yet developed to an extent where it can conquer its enemy. Herein lies its truly great ability to triumph, its scorn of its adversary and its hidden fear of it; herein lies its venom, its staggering energy of hate and, quite frequently, the grief which is a black frame around the glittering vivacious images of satire. Herein lies the contradiction of satire, herein lies its dialectics.


Swift! There is something satanic in his very name. Something hissing, whistling. Swift. Something reminiscent of the whistling of Mephistopheles in the opera of the same name by Arrigo Boito, especially as rendered by Chaliapin, in which he mockingly remonstrates against the scorned yet ruling force.

There is probably no other figure in history in which such a magnificent, elemental wit was embodied.

Swift is surrounded by sparkling waves of laughter. Through the power of his wit he made the nobles and ministers respect and admire him. Through the power of his wit he made an entire people, the Irish people, worship him as their great protector. Through the power of his wit he has conquered the centuries and, in his best works, he vies for the title of the most widely read author with the greatest writers of later generations.

Yet, at the same time, this is one of the saddest, most unfortunate and tragic figures of world history. The “tears, unseen by the world,” which accompanied his laughter, scorched his soul. And were they really unseen? While “the unseen tears” of Gogol, who ended his life in such bitter despondency, were not at all invisible to the sensitive reader, they were all the more apparent in Swift’s works. His boundless joviality, born of his great intellectual superiority over hostile social elements, was organically, chemically a part of his terrible, excessive, torturing grief at the fact that this intellect was, far from being the king of reality, often no more than its helpless moral victor and, as a result of its victorious battles, its stupidly rejected and completely slighted prisoner.

Swift is woe from wit. His great wit worked great woe in him. There is good reason why his name is linked with Gogol and Griboyedov. Those two also had their full share of woe from their great wit.

But neither Griboyedov nor Gogol was our Russian Swift. Our Russian Swift was Saltykov-Shchedrin.

Recall the last and best-known portrait of him. We see a thin, long-bearded old man with a plaid across his ailing knees. There is anguish in his intelligent eyes. Reality had finally done him in. The face of a zealot, a saint, a martyr gazes out at you gloomily. But this was the cleverest writer to have ever graced the Russian land, this is our greatest satirist who had swung his fiery intellectual mace over the lowly skulls of the freaks of reaction and liberalism, but who had become physically exhausted, consumed by the struggle against unshakable stupidity.

Swift was the contemporary of Voltaire, his elder contemporary.

Recall Houdon’s statue: Voltaire in his old age, his helpless, wasted hands on his knees, wrapped in a shapeless cloak, looks at you from his emaciated head, so full of cunning, intelligent venom and a magnificently caught combination of the feeling that the battle against stupidity is triumphantly won, and at the same time, a weary confession that stupidity carries on.


The bourgeoisie was quickly coming to power in the times of Swift, in the times of Voltaire.

The powerful and wealthy bourgeoisie was fated to win. Its victory was also fated to be the source of new evil and, after gaining its victory, the bourgeoisie was not to fulfil the hopes which the masses placed upon it and which it falsely raised.

Since the bourgeoisie in its attack on the old ruling classes appealed also to the masses, it acquired brilliant ideologists from the then developing (and but recently evolved) petty-bourgeois intelligentsia.

The principal political clash between the bourgeoisie and the ruling classes during the reign of Queen Anne took the form of a struggle between the two parties, the Tories and the Whigs.

Swift was neither a Tory nor a Whig. He was a most outstanding individual, carried along on the crest of the liberal-bourgeois wave, and far surpassing its horizons and its tendencies.

Actually, he did not represent the moderate and extremely wealthy bourgeoisie which sought its political expression in the Whig Party, but was a representative of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia which as yet had not found sufficient support in the masses and which was carrying on a peculiar “romance from afar” with the poor.


Swift was born to a poor family, the son of a poverty-stricken widow. Perhaps he would never have survived infancy if not for a nurse who loved him dearly. She kept him for two years, having obtained the permission of his destitute mother.

However, the poor lad had wealthy relatives. It was they who fed and clothed him. They made it possible for him to attend school and, later, university; thus, he grew into a homeless, indigent proletarian intellectual.

He was known at the university as a nervous, unbalanced and not especially diligent student. Actually, he was consumed by helpless rage, rage at the contrast between the wonderful gifts he felt he possessed and the hopeless poverty that made his life a misery.

The violent clashes between the classes were destroying the old established way of life and awakening a large portion of the population that was striving to steer a course through the social confusion and find an outlet in the written word to express their aspirations, indignation and sympathies. Since there was no daily press as yet, semi-legal pamphlets served as the voice of the awakened masses. The names of the authors were kept a secret and the printers were often subjected to terrible punishment for printing them.

In these pamphlets and the first, usually satirical, magazines that followed, and that were echoed by the satirical magazines of the times of Catherine the Great in Russia, Wit tried to take over the reins; it tried to set its clear argumentation and the simplicity of its mockery in opposition to the other social forces.

Gradually, Wit acquired more and more admirers and supporters. The more intelligent men were drawn to government, while the men in power tried to appear intelligent. The intelligentsia began to carry weight in society, and ministers began to pose as intellectuals.

Upon graduating, Swift found employment with just such a minister who was extremely proud of his intelligence – the well-known diplomat Sir William Temple. Life in his employ was fraught with dire insult for Swift, who was riled by his status of exploited retainer. He left his patron several times only to return. In the end, he chose to become a modest pastor in the village of Laracor, Ireland, where he wrote his first great masterpiece, A Tale of a Tub.

Returning to London, he published a witty pamphlet and a number of articles in Steele’s Tatler under the pen-name of Bickerstaff, and soon became one of the leading journalists.

During the early period of his political activity Swift was considered a “peer” of the Whig Party. But when the Whig Party lost power and Queen Anne, influenced by her new favourite, Lady Masham, called upon the Tories, headed by Harley and St. John, Swift deserted his former friends and went over to the side of the new government. He paid dearly for his “treason,” for many of his friends violently denounced him. However, Swift considered himself to be far above the miserable quarrels of both parties, he envisioned a power which he could use “for the good of Great Britain.”

Swift reached his zenith when the government of Harley and, later, Bolingbroke was in office.

There is a description of how he would appear, a stately and proud figure, his magnificent head high, his deep-set eyes flashing blue fire, dressed in clerical black, at the salons and ministry receptions and there, surrounded by petitioners, friends and flatterers, he would pass judgement upon various matters, convinced that the ministers, captivated by his genius, would never oppose his suggestions.

Swift was the actual head of the Tory government for three consecutive years. They realised full well that without him, the “king of journalists,” they would not be able to carry on in office. Nevertheless, Swift remained a poor man. He never knew a desire for riches and later, as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, to the end of his days he donated a third of his modest living to the poor.

Although the Tory government had not yet fallen, Swift’s status within it had deteriorated and he left for Ireland. The death of Queen Anne, the ascension of George I and the firm rule of the intelligent but villainous Walpole cut Swift off from the British political arena. Returning to his native Ireland, Swift was struck afresh by the sufferings of his people. Ireland was subjected not only to political oppression, but to unbelievable economic exploitation as well. Ireland was forbidden to export sheep to England, wool abroad, and a currency was being forced upon her that was all but counterfeit. It is difficult to imagine all the infamies the avaricious English nobility and bourgeoisie heaped upon the poverty-stricken people of Ireland. Swift, no longer concerned with power and honours and no longer afraid of danger, became the defender and spokesman of his people. His Drapier’s Letters were an example of bold, clear-thinking publicism. He became the idol of his people, he awakened their will to live, he threw himself into battle for their defence and forced the all-powerful British government to retreat, step by step.

However, Swift was not content with these partial victories. Now, as never before, he felt the great yawning chasm between his intellect and his love for his people and black reality. He became more and more pessimistic. The blackest monument of satirical laughter and tragic grief combined was a pamphlet he wrote at this time, entitled A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.

Here in a most restrained and sober manner, Swift suggests that surplus children be used as a delicacy for the tables of the rich, as “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.”

Swift had reached the bottom of his deepest rage from which he still sent forth glittering sparks of wit. He now began work on a book which was to become world-famous, and the slightly abridged version of which has become a children’s classic, one of the most entertaining and jolly in world literature, Gulliver’s Travels, but which, in all actuality, was a most hopeless, gloomy and despairing satire not only of contemporary mankind but, as Swift believed, of mankind in general. Swift, who was now getting on in years, lost his dearly beloved Esther Johnson, his “Stella.” Swift’s love life was both unusual and mysterious. He had a very close friendship, a gentle and loving friendship with both Stella and “Vanessa” (Esther Vanhomrigh) which was never consummated by marriage but which created a rather peculiar situation, exhausting him mentally by the obscure but most complex of relationships.

Now, alone in his old age, the gloomy Swift began to sink lower and lower. Cursed reality now had its revenge upon his intellect. Not long before his death he became senile and died a wretched madman at the age of 79.

Crowds of poor Irishmen surrounded his death-bed. Someone cut off the grey locks that framed the dead forehead of the great writer and handed them out as remembrances of “our benefactor.”


In the Introduction to A Tale of a Tub Swift clearly reveals its true meaning.

Having in mind the powerfully materialistic Leviathan by Hobbes, Swift compares it to a whale which could have overturned a ship, i.e., the nation, if it had not been distracted by a tub – religion, the Church – which Swift believed diverted the revolutionary forces from directly attacking the government. [2]

In other words, Swift seems to be saying: The real, important task is to strike out against the government, against class rule, but this cannot be done at present; however, we are permitted a little free-thinking as concerns the Church, so let us make the most of this!

Recall, Voltaire found himself in precisely the same situation. However, this less dangerous battle against the Church was of definite value, even as compared to the struggle against the monarchy.

Swift carried it off brilliantly.

The device he uses here, as in so many of his other works, is an outwardly quite serious rendition of the absurdities of life, told with a smile trembling on his lips. A shower, an avalanche of wit pours down upon the reader. In this respect there are few works of world literature that can withstand comparison with A Tale of a Tub. Recall the wonderful pages devoted to the philosophy of dressing which later served as the basis of Carlyle’s major work, Sartor Resartus.

The construction of the Tale is such that a brilliant allegory on the history of the Catholic, Anglican and Puritan churches in England alternates with a magnificent attack on contemporary literature.

In the first instance we have an inimitable irony, sparkling with unprecedented, bitter humour, in which the story of Brother Peter adorning his coat and the dinner where the mysteries of Communion are ridiculed so mercilessly, etc., are related. The description of Peter and Jack leaves nothing to be desired in the presentation of the sly and boundless hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy and the stupid, fanatical, ignorant and no less hypocritical teachings of the Puritans. Swift was more moderate in his estimation of Martin, but here, too, there is a magnificent portrayal of opportunism per se, while in one of the last chapters, returning to Martin, Swift brings down a torrent of ridicule upon him for his indecisiveness.

This part of the narrative ends in a bold escapade: a plan for creating an original travel bureau for the next world. On the whole, Swift does not conceal his atheism.

Swift’s digressions attacking the writers of his time are less clear, but no less brilliant. And the modern reader, especially the modern writer, will find here a whole arsenal of witticisms and poisoned arrows.

Swift is often obscene. He likes witticisms based on sex and on the natural functions of the human body. Woe to him who would classify Swift among the pornographers for this reason!

The humanist Poggio, one of Swift’s predecessors in this field (for Italy was more progressive than England at the time), said that the great and merry writers of antiquity used so-called obscenity to make their readers laugh, while the nasty little pornographers of his time used it to arouse their readers’ lust.

Swift’s obscenities will certainly never arouse lust. Christianity has debased the animal in man. Swift was influenced by Christianity in this respect, and he gloats whenever he can remind man of his bestiality. Swift’s indecent jests always play the part of a burning lash of nettles, a reminder to man that he is practically an ape, a Yahoo.

Swift did not really believe in the longevity of his Tale. In the Introduction he writes:

“Now, it sometimes tenderly affects me to consider, that all the towardly passages I shall deliver in the following treatise, will grow quite out of date and relish with the first shifting of the present scene.” He then goes on to deliver a number of magnificent and witty opinions.

Swift was undoubtedly very advanced for his time. But was this not because he reacted to the demands of his time as a man of great intellect who had just awakened and was reaching for a mastery of life? His contemporaneity in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries makes him our contemporary as well. Will this circumstance not reserve a place for him on the library shelves of socialist cities now under construction?

An unidentified Russian translation, formerly confiscated by the tsarist censorship, served as the basis for the present edition. The translation has been edited and supplemented by parts which were simply missing in the few remaining copies. For the reader’s convenience the author’s Apology has been placed at the end, as it was written at a later date as an argument against the enemies of A Tale of a Tub.

Thus, A Tale of a Tub now first appears in full in Russian translation. (The translation by V. V. Chuiko, which appeared in Izyashchnaya Literatura in 1884, has many inaccuracies and is a severely abridged version of A Tale of a Tub.)

The present volume has been carefully annotated.


1. This myth is of the Greek God of Light, Phoebus Apollo, who shot an arrow at the serpent Python, a frightful monster who symbolised darkness and night. – Author’s note.

2. Actually, Swift’s book should have been called A Tub-Tale, a tale tossed, as a tub to distract the “whale,” i.e., to divert the revolutionary forces from attacking the government. – Author’s note.