Friday, July 12, 2013

Calvin and Jack

At a meeting of the Literary Club that I attended a couple of years ago, Dr. Johnson, Boswell, and their friends praised several books by Jonathan Swift as both instructive and delightful. At the time, I thought perhaps I would read one or two of them instead of rereading Gulliver’s Travels when the time came. But Swift came up on The Plan this year, and as it turned out, I went ahead and reread Gulliver. I’m very glad I did, because I had forgotten a lot of it and think I discovered more wisdom in it this time around.

But in addition, I picked one of the Club’s recommendations and read Swift's A Tale of a Tub. I chose it from among the other possibilities because I found out that it told the history of the Church allegorically, and that topic sounded especially interesting to me. But I had as much trouble reading A Tale of a Tub as I had fun reading its more famous cousin. The book certainly presents problems to the modern reader with its frequent Latin, its lengthy, complex sentences, and its eighteenth-century rhetorical panache. But I’ll dare to say that some of its problems might have been problems even in Swift's own time.

The book has two interspersed parts that alternate often: an allegorical presentation of the history of the Church in the lives of three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack; and a satire on contemporary writing. The allegorical part falls into the pit that all allegory teeters on the edge of: it just isn't very interesting unless you think about what everything corresponds to. For instance, while it’s clear that the plain robes and will that their father left the brothers correspond to a simple faith and the Bible, and while it makes sense within the story as well as in the hidden meaning that the brothers would forget to read the will and start to adorn their simple clothing, I can’t find anything interesting or logical in the fact that the father’s dog keeper may have written a codicil. And the editor’s note that the dog keeper corresponds to the Tobit of the eponymous book of the Apocrypha doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Then the other part, the satire of contemporary writing, has two basic problems, the second of which, again, must have bothered some readers even in Swift’s day: (1) I don't know enough (or any?) of the inane eighteenth-century writing that Swift makes fun of, and (2) by imitating it so successfully, he naturally commits all of its errors, which is only funny for so long. How long, for example, can one laugh at a lengthy introduction about how the lengthiest introductions have absolutely nothing to say?

But I certainly enjoyed some of the details, and one of them I must share, especially in light of its pertinent timing in my reading schedule. Just a couple of weeks ago, I finished a large section in Calvin’s Institutes supposedly about proper Church government, but in actuality mostly about improper government: most of these chapters are devoted to saying that the Catholic Church has discarded every last shred of true Christianity. Then in A Tale of a Tub, Swift tells me that, when Jack (representing John Calvin) rails against his brother Peter (representing the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church), their brother Martin (representing Martin Luther) “begged his brother, of all love, . . . to consider that . . . Peter was still their brother, whatever faults or injuries he had committed” and not to base all his actions on opposition to Peter. I’m sure Dr. Johnson enjoyed this passage as well.

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