`The Last Writer' or the first Editor? Some thoughts on A Tale of a Tub

Jonathan Swift, far from being separate from the publishing culture he calls "Grub Street," is really rather on top of it, in both senses. There was in early nineteenth-century London an expanding print-culture, out of which came new editions and translations of Greek and Roman authors as well as heavily-footnoted tracts on various 'scientific' subjects by an emerging brand of intellectuals Swift and his circle liked to refer to as "moderns." I read Swift's assault on these moderns in works like _A Tale of a Tub_ as a way of assuring that a kind of of `authorship' would remain in his hands in spite of the modernization of textual production that threatened to transform the meaning of 'authorship.'

Whoever hath an Ambition to be heard in a Crowd, must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain degree of altitude above them. (From the Introduction)
Swift wants to keep his head above the "Crowd," but not the way everyone else in the crowd does it; rather than emerge the Crowd, he will strive to assure that he is in fact never subject to it. Such is the fantasy of the `Ancient' who invents the persona who is narrator of the Tale.

If the sturdiest foundations for authority in a society ought to be religion and government, such foundations were completely corrupted and disoriented as early as the late seventeenth century in England, and these structures are readily satirized in the allegory which is the title of the book. The `Tale of a Tub' is the myth that sailors would throw out a `tub' to lure a `whale' away from capsizing their ship.

This parable was immediately mythologized; the whale was interpreted to be Hobbes's Leviathan, which tosses and plays with all other schemes of Religion and Government, whereof a great many are hollow, and dry, and empty, and noisy, and wooden, and given to rotation. This is the Leviathan from whence the terrible wits of our age are said to borrow their weapons. The ship in danger is easily understood to be its old antitype, the Commonwealth. But how to analyze the tub, was a matter of difficulty; when after long enquiry and debate, the literal meaning was preserved; and it was decreed, that in order to prevent these Leviathans from tossing and sporting with the Commonwealth (which of itself is too apt to fluctuate) they should be diverted from that game by a Tale of a Tub. And my genius being conceived to lie not unhappily that way, I had the honor done me to be engaged in the performance. (From the Preface)
In short, A Tale of a Tub, as a clever diversion, as itself the `tub,' might help save the "commonwealth." Is Swift surrpetitiously acknowledging the hollowness of the strategy of his satire? Or is it even worth looking at in these terms? Sometimes the joke is so extended that it only barely makes sense. In such cases, a feat of prodigious critical explication might be able to save the situation:
Fictional satire immerses one in that necessary mental state akin to the `dark night of the soul' of mysticism, or to the Inferno of Dante, or to the wilderness of the Jews- by means of which the superior mystical union with God or the discovery of the Promised Land can at all be achieved. Yet the winning of Paradise must take place outside the borders of satire; for satire's action is set solely in Hell; its plot enacts the winning of Hell itself. (Clark[1], 88-89)
Or it might fall flat. One need only go so far out to sea with Swift, when thought begins to lose its shape.

Swift incorporates Wotton's attack of the officially authorless Tale into the 1710 edition as punishment for a high-and-mighty literal interpretation and explication of the allegory. Wotton, whom we might expect to be some kind of obsessive, presumptuous idiot, after what Swift does to him (following a whole generation of `Ancients,'), is actually a fairly attentive reader of the `main' story of the Tale- the main `tub' itself. The `tub' is in fact a ruthless satire on the history of Christianity, ???.

While Swift satirizes Christianity, a once-highly-dignified source of tradition, he also takes aim at "Grub Street," the newly emerging locus of a `hack' printing culture. According to Pat Rogers[2], Grub Street, while it is a real street in London (in an area called Cripplegate, just north of the Wall, and near Bedlam), is mainly significant as a metaphor for degeneracy. Because of a canonization-effect, we have Swift, Pope, and Johnson- non-Grub Street writers- intact, but we don't have access to whatever supposedly voluminous and shoddy products were actually produced on `Grub Street.' In some ways, this development is ironic but perhaps predictable- `Grub Street' exists mainly so that literature and history students can make sense of canonized authors' deprecation of it.

In Pope's Dunciad, `Grub Street' as denoting degenerate print-culture gets conflated with a general cultural looseness and depravity. `Dulness,' Rogers points out, is also a "quasi-syphilitc" kind of madness; `Grub Street' is the site of all refuse; `Cripplegate' is an allotted living-area for the poor and diseased. Both Pope and Swift are out to stigmatize the abject and uncontrollable masses gathering just outside the gates, and they employ every ruthless metaphor at their disposal to do so. It seems that what these particular zones in outer London represented to them was a threat of dissolution- pathological dedifferentiation from outside. It may have been a little bit apparent to the writers' themselves (particularly for Pope) that the texts they were producing were in fact a part of `Grub Street' as well as completely dependent on its production. And it will become ironic retroactively that the print-industry would play such a powerful role in the `civilizing' of Europe- as well as the rest of the world (see Bhabha's `Signs Taken for Wonders')- throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Swift denatures by exaggerated overuse all of the beloved structures and myths of ancientness and antiquity; he pathologizes all that is modern, sending it `outside' to Grub Street. So where is his text? How does he establish his `authorship' and over what domain of language is he `author'?

It is impossible to claim authority over A Tale of a Tub. Swift put in measures that would assure that an aspect of all future editings of his work would be awareness that the project would be an exercise in self-mockery: Swift effectively inoculates his text against editors. And this is perhaps especially so of a hypertext edition. Hypertext's purveyors and generators have a tense relationship with the now-sacred tradition of writing and authorship because, as people like Michael Joyce argue, it precisely threatens a writer's claim to any completely `individual' or `autonomous' production. `Hypertext' (especially incarnated in the World Wide Web) might be a `Grub Street' of the late twentieth-century: there is the possibility of a limitless textual production that is effectively free and immediately accessible. Furthermore, rather than being `bound' into discrete objects- books- all text is networked and `horizontally' traversible. Joyce, in his essay "Hypertext Narrative,"[3] argues that such a move to a `networked' rather than `axial' (my, or rather George Landow's words) environment for writing/reading might profoundly transform the experience of the text, because of what Joyce calls "interaction" and "addition":

Because hyptertexts are read where they are written and written where they are read, interaction is the assumption of authority over the replacement of one writing by another. . . .
[E]ach addition is an initial node to the replaced story she tells in her reading. The target node becomes, instead, a source node; the text may be seen as leading from it. To accommodate the location of the addition, the text itself becomes marginal; meaning reorders the text. The meaning of a story that had none becomes part of its story. (Joyce, 192-93)
Rather than merely adding as the last and least in a long line of "additions" to a text, the reader in the present is the center of a text. Each reader (or, one might say, editor) of a text fundamentally restructures it based on her `perceptions' of it. How might we relate this to the debate between the `Ancients' and the `Moderns'? In one way it's a very Modern argument. A certain passage near the end of Section V of the Tale comes to mind:
But I here think fit to lay hold on that great and honourable privilege of being the last writer. I claim an absolute authority in right, as the freshest modern, which gives me a despotic power over all authors before me.Section V
Or perhaps a footnote from Section V:
The learned person here meant by our author, hath been endeavouring to annihilate so many ancient writers, that until he is pleased to stop his hand it will be dangerous to affirm. whether there have been [ever] any ancients in the world.
Isn't "the last writer" the one Swift, behind the pompous `Modern' persona (which he is, ostensibly, mocking), really wants to be? He incorporates the Moderns; he denatures (emulating Moderns) the Ancients. A Tale of a Tub behaves precisely like hypertext. From our perspective (that of hypertext culture), Swift is actually much more like the first writer.

To return to the `tub': the `commonwealth' that the "game of a Tale of a Tub" actually preserves is none other than the cause of authorship. The way to make sense of the allegory acknowledging the satirical element is to read it with the terms reversed (I won't attempt explicate it exactly). What's begun to appear (to change?) in Swift's reaction to the battle of the books is the feeling that control over print-production is control over culture. The Leviathan, the Whale, is not so much the body of the state or religion, as those institutional bodies have been cast down. Rather, in Swift's time the 'tub' probably functioned more like a body of The Body, a visibly hollow figure for something the culture had lost, and was only secretly, negatively, regaining.

1 Form and Frenzy in Swift's A Tale of a Tub. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970.
2 Grub Street Studies in a Subculture. London: Methuen & Co., 1972.
3 Of Two Minds. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1995. pp. 189-197.