When the wind blows for days on end it can be hard to remember what a calm day ever felt like. When you are on long-haul flight you quickly become accustomed to the roar of the engines and it’s only when you land, and the aircraft is powered down, that you realise your earphones were turned up to maximum volume. When shocking news is reported over and over and over, and streams of appalling images, words and sound bites come pouring out of the radio, television and social media feeds, bad news thundering towards us like racehorses approaching Becher’s Brook, we’re inclined to bury our heads and shut it all out. My nana had a shelf of brass ornaments, three of which I can remember clearly. She had a girl in bonnet, carrying a basket of flowers and wearing and a full skirt under which was hidden a little brass ball on a chain so that, when held by the torso and shaken, she became a bell. There was a brass boot, more of an unlaced slipper with the leather cut high on the ankle, the type the Pied Piper might have worn; it’s tongue lying loose like a thirsty horse. And there were three brass monkeys, attached at the shoulder, hunkered down, each holding their hands on their head in a position of: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. That’s me, in reaction to the unrelenting downpour of global unpleasantness; I am the triplet of brass monkeys, shutting down three senses and humming, “la, la, la, la, la,” to myself when, really, I ought to open my heart and feel; react and do something.
In 1729, Jonathon Swift, poet, writer and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, anonymously published a pamphlet entitled,‘A Modest Proposal’. The front cover provided a synopsis of what was contained therein: “A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.” Except the long title didn’t do justice to what readers were to find inside. For although the first portion of his essay describes the plight of the starving poor in Ireland, the reader is quickly dealt a sucker punch with his tender as to how to how the dilemma might be solved. The society of the day was shocked to its core when, lulled, unsuspecting, just like the soft-booted Pied Piper, they danced along the pages until they reached the devastating crux of his ‘modest proposal’. “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”
Swift, recognising his act had to be brazen in order to light a fire under the public apathy of the well-off Dublin classes, took those three brass monkeys, held them by their feet and gave them a vigorous shake. Boom! A punch to the guts was delivered in the form of, what has been called, one of the greatest examples of sustained irony in the history of the English language. The satirical essay is magnificently over-egged with the repulsive suggestion that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to rich men and women of the city. He certainly roused the sleepwalking classes, gaining the reaction he sought: horror, indignation, himself branded as cannibalistic and insane. He had woken them up, temporarily at any rate.
You might think that publishing such an essay was a cheap trick; that Swift had scraped the moral edges of acceptability, but proposing such an extreme hypothesis was his way of skewering heartless attitudes towards the poor and making people ‘feel’ again. Swift felt that the rationalism of modern economics, and the growth of rationalistic modes of thinking in the Eighteenth Century were being slavishly followed at the expense of more traditional human values: empathy, compassion, and benevolence. Certainly, we mustbe rational; we must think things through, we must gather evidence – but when our overwhelming, default setting is to allow ‘thinking’ to shout down ‘feeling’ every time, then we are – as Swift points out – in trouble. The only way Swift felt he could get people to disengage their head and let their heart provide them with the rapid, unfiltered, and often correct response was to present them with something truly shocking and disgusting.
If your hands are moving from your eyes to your ears to your mouth, like mine sometimes do, mimicking my nana’s brass monkeys, then get your head out of the equation and let your heart and guts tell you where you stand before engaging your head. Don’t worry; your head will be there before long, making rational sense of it all. Jonathan Swift knew it to be true, 289 years ago.