Castration Anxiety in Jonathan Swift 5: The Satiric Focus

Locating the voice of the author in a piece of satire can be difficult as there can be numerous levels of discourse. The initial assumption when looking at Swift’s work is that the author is suffering from the anxieties towards women which he is displaying in his male characters. In attempting to locate Swift’s voice it is helpful to look at evidence of his relationship with women. Margaret Doody, in her analysis of Swift’s journal,details an apparent mistrust and even hatred towards the women in his early life, ‘He says [Swift’s mother]“seems to have a good deal of the shrew in her countenance”,’ (Doody, 2003, p. 87). Swift grew up surrounded by strong women who had control over the economic affairs of the household, a situation uncommon for the time, but one which pockets would allow to happen with more frequency (Doody, 2003, p. 87). Doody suggests that this reversal of accepted gender roles, with women being in control and men subjugated, could have led to Swift developing a dislike towards all women, ‘Swift adds one of his odd marginal notes, amplifying the unpleasantness of this heiress’, (Doody, 2003, p. 87). This understanding of Swift’s early formative years would certainly help to inform the reading of Swift’s work as presenting the contemporary male anxieties of the time as possibly being Swift’s own opinions.

Carol Houlihan Flynn picks up on the negative portrayal of women and sees it as Swift’s revulsion at corporeality (Flynn, 1990, p. 110). Women’s wombs seemed to connect them with a biological process which inevitably culminates in death, and this appears to have given Swift unease with women and the physicality they represent (Flynn, 1990, pp. 112, 120). Flynn also highlights how Swift would use his authority to invade upon the privacy of his lover Esther Vanhimrigh, immortalised as Vanessa in ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’, in a bullying manner (Flynn, 1990, pp. 114, 117). The fact that Swift could act so aggressively and violently towards a woman who was so infatuated with him would seem to show Swift’s relationship with women as being an exercise of power. Doody however refutes the importance of Swift’s feelings towards women as being an issue of gender. By focusing his satiric gaze on women and pulling no punches, Swift was fighting for a certain kind of equality. He showed that women in their privacy were dirty and grimy, but he is saying that this is the natural state of all humans. Women are no more or no less filthy than men, ‘Swift is one of the partners taken in by the women when they wish to censure the false idealization of women… Swift attracts because he does not ignore dirt,’ (Doody, 2003, p. 108).

Swift’s poetry targets men as well as women. The misogyny he apparently shows is more an indicator of the general misanthropy Swift suffered with. By not idolising women and putting them on the proverbial pedestal, out of reach of invective satire, and by fiercely satirising the male preference for an unrealistic female cleanliness, Swift brings both genders to the same equal level, ‘It is that unreality that Swift dismisses so energetically’ (Doody, 2003, p. 109). He says women are not worthy of reverence, but neither are men. Both genders are disgusting when looked at too closely, both genders use privacy to construct their identities, both genders are creatures that live in filth behind closed doors.

It would seem that this male anxiety, although not felt by Swift, was common among men of the time; the fact that Swift is able to satirise these male concerns over the growing strength of women is proof that they existed:

If Swift makes much frank mention of the human excremental function, it is in order to discount its importance and satirize those who think it is important, in the hope that those obsessed by its importance may come to revise their values (Greene, 1967, p. 688).

Critics have noted that Swift displays a sense of shock at realising that people would care or be surprised that women are dirty in private, or extending the metonymical function of this dirt, that they are capable of traditionally male activities, ‘Far from being as Brown says, “variations of the theme ‘Oh Celia, Celia, Celia shits’’’, the three poems are rather variations of the theme “Who, except neurotic egotists like Strephon and Cassinus, cares whether Celia shits?”’, (Greene, 1967, p. 687). The idea Swift is presenting is not that women are dirty like all living creatures, but that increased privacy and independence will not corrupt women. They are already corrupted just by being human. Swift was ahead of his time in this regard. His work on progress and excrement neither celebrates nor derides female corporeality, it states them as value neutral fact. Swift touches here on the absurdity of rationale capax, the theory of humans as creatures capable of reason rather than reasonable creatures. Swift’s neutral attitude to the filth in his poetry is summed up eloquently by Kelly: ‘His refusal to act as one defiled after touching pitch was inexplicable and, in a way, awe-inspiring’ (Kelly, 2002, p. 95). The fact of Swift’s nonchalance towards human bodily functions shows his ease with them and points a finger of shame towards those shocked by the reality of human nature. 

Swift’s history with strong women controlling the money of households, it seems had given him a deeper understanding of women’s strength and independence before the majority of the male populace could fathom it. What was novel and uncomfortable to his contemporaries was long understood by Swift. Their fear of women’s private interior space and what it meant for their own hold on power had never been felt by Swift because he had been aware of feminine strength all his life through the economic agency of the women in his household.

There were further experiences of Swift’s which would lessen his anxiety over a changing world. Swift suffered all his life from Meniere’s disease ‘a disturbance of the inner ear which produces nausea and vertigo, and which was little understood in Swift’s day’, (Cody, 2000) and was periodically incapacitated by it. When castration anxiety is seen as an anxiety over power and control as the cultural context of the eighteenth century demonstrates, it has been shown in the work of Sarnoff and Corwin that high castration anxiety correlates closely with high fear of death (Kline, 1981, p. 142). Those who have been ill regularly will have resolved within themselves this surrendering of power over their body to an illness. Samuel Johnson had previously written about what he perceived as Swift’s fear of old age and physical decay, but this has largely been disregarded as erroneous in subsequent centuries (Hunter, 2003, p. 234), and was perhaps a projection of Johnson’s own well documented thanatophobia (Cody, 2000).

Control and power is always fragile, ready to be usurped by revolution, and the gender politics of the eighteenth century is no different. Women were an unknowable unit, kept in control by being told how to think and how to act. But one can never see another’s thoughts nor know what is inside them. This unknown interior is a place of danger. Whether it is teeth, knowledge or sexual liberation, it presented a threat to the male power structure and Swift made frequent reference to this anxiety throughout his work.

Sigmund Freud’s theory of castration anxiety puts forward the idea that young boys are afraid of being castrated by their fathers as punishment for sexual feelings towards their mothers. This very basic outline of the theory holds some of the elements which are found throughout Swift’s work. First there is the causal link between sexual urges and punishment. Second is the loss of masculinity as a result of this female sexuality. Freud describes it as castration, the loss of the penis; in Swift it is slightly more subtle. The innately male item which is at risk is not the gender identifying physical item, but the gendered socially identifying power of men in a patriarchal system. By losing ownership of independence they are losing what it is that makes them men. Also of note is that Freud says that the father is the one who will issue the punishment. In Swift, the private interior associated with women is the place of danger but it may be suggested that men are responsible for allowing themselves to be castrated. Swift’s presentation therefore could be read as the unknowing woman inadvertently leading man to his loss of masculinity. But the male will castrate himself by allowing women to gain such a social standing through privacy so as to rival men.

Swift may not refer directly to vaginas or penises in his work but the similarities between a man losing that which identifies him as a man, his penis in myth, his power in Swift, to an inherently female place, the vagina in folklore, the dressing room of eighteenth century England in Swift, are clear.

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