Furious dean

In Brief

Remembering his time in Marsh's Library, in the enclosure of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Stephen thinks of the important Dublin-born writer Jonathan Swift, who was Dean of that cathedral from 1713 to 1745. Stephen thinks of the "furious dean" as misanthopic and mentally ill, associating both states with the fictional Gulliver who would (if he could) have deserted his own species for the rational horses he met on a Pacific island: "A hater of his kind ran from them to the wood of madness, his mane foaming in the moon, his eyeballs stars. Houyhnhnm, horsenostrilled."

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In the fourth book of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the protagonist lands on an island populated by filthy, inarticulate, avaricious, libidinous, and murderous apes called Yahoos and orderly, logical, serene, selfless, kind horses called Houyhnhnms. The apes clearly are intended as a satirical portrait of human beings, as becomes clear when the horses see the rational Gulliver without his clothes on and realize with horror that they have been harboring a Yahoo. The horses strike Gulliver, and many of his readers, as a utopian alternative to human failings similar to those envisioned in Sir Thomas More's Utopia and Plato's Republic.

But the horses need not be read so idealistically. In their feelings (or lack of feelings) about childrearing and mourning they seem simply inhuman, and their serious consideration of a proposal to exterminate all the Yahoos associates them with one of the worst propensities of humanity. Banished from the island as a lovable but undeniable Yahoo, Gulliver returns to England, in Stephen's words, "a hater of his kind." He stuffs herbs in his nostrils to mask the unbearable smell of his own wife and children, and his only happy moments are spent in the company of the horses in his stable. Confronted with this eccentric behavior, the reader who has sympathetically followed Gulliver's narration cannot help but consider the possibility that he has lost his wits.

Jonathan Swift was not mad; he suffered from Ménière's disease. Nor was he completely a misanthrope; as Gifford notes, he defined man not as a rational or irrational being but as animal rationis capax, an animal capable of reason. He hated the irrational mob as much as Stephen supposes when he imagines him fleeing "The hundredheaded rabble of the cathedral close," but he harbored deep, romantic affection for virtuous individuals. In judging Swift to be a misanthropic lunatic, Stephen seems to be following some dominant biographical and critical opinions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Swift plays a bigger role in Finnegans Wake than in Ulysses, but Joyce's respect for the great Anglo-Irish writer remained grudging. Ellmann notes that he told Padraic Colum that "He made a mess of two women's lives." And when Colum praised Swift's intensity, Joyce replied, "There is more intensity in a single passage of Mangan's than in all Swift's writing" (545n). Nevertheless, by associating Swift with Joachim of Fiore ("Abbas father, furious dean, what offence laid  fire to their brains?"), Stephen seems to discern high prophetic purpose in his ravings. In Stephen Hero he has read an 1897 story by William Butler Yeats, "The Tables of the Law," that links the two men. The protagonist, Owen Aherne, says that "Jonathan Swift made a soul for the gentlemen of this city by hating his neighbor as himself." It does not seem improbable to connect Swift's uncompromising moral aspirations with Stephen's own ambition, as he goes off to exile at the end of A Portrait, "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

JH 2015
Oil portrait of Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas, held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A scene from Gulliver's Travels 4, illustrated by an unknown artist. Source: 4umi.com.