The Art of Upsetting People

Jonathan Swift and the Marquis de Sade, patron saints of extremism.

By Chris R. Morgan

Monday, August 24, 2020

Engravings of Jonathan Swift by Edward Scriven, after Francis Bindon, 1818, and of the Marquis de Sade, by H. Biberstein, nineteenth century.

(L) Jonathan Swift, by Edward Scriven, after Francis Bindon, 1818. © The Trustees of the British Museum. (R) The Marquis de Sade, by H. Biberstein, nineteenth century. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

To place Jonathan Swift and the Marquis de Sade next to each other looks at first like setting up hero and antihero. Jonathan Swift is the fierce but righteous satirist; the Marquis de Sade is, as Henry James put it, the “unnameable” pornographer. Swift was the consummate Church of England man who had no shortage of invective to lob against libertine freethinkers like the Earl of Wharton and advocated for theater censorship to stave off vice. Sade was reported to the police by a prostitute for masturbating on a crucifix.

Their characters may never have been clearer than at the end of their lives. Swift’s self-penned Latin epitaph for his burial site at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, where he was a dean, translates as “Fierce indignation can no longer injure the heart. Go forth, voyager, and copy, if you can, this vigorous (to the best of his ability) champion of liberty.” Sade, who died in prison sixty-nine years after Swift, struck a more defiant and grandiose tone in an oft-cited passage said to be from his will: “Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the likes of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change.”

Their parting words left an imposing, almost abstract, impression of these authors on subsequent generations. They had become monuments, examples, ghosts. Whether they were benevolent or malevolent depended on what those conjuring chose to see. At times Swift’s writings were obviously the work of a lunatic, while Sade’s writing was capable of driving people to lunacy and even fits of epilepsy. At other times Swift was lionized by the likes of Irish president Eamon de Valera as “one of the [Anglo-Irish] pioneers…who realized that they ought not to permit themselves to be governed by ministers from England.” William Butler Yeats offered a more grandiloquent, un-Swiftian translation of Swift’s epitaph, claiming that “he served liberty.” In 2014, on the bicentennial of Sade’s death, the scroll manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom Sade had spent thirty-seven days in the Bastille writing was put on public display in Paris; in 2017 it was declared a national treasure by the French government, which ordered it to be withdrawn from private auction.

Treating the manuscript as an object of admiration was likely preferable to trying to actually finish it. Neither author made for easy reading. Sade’s best-known novels are huge bricks alternating between philosophical digressions and sexual depravity that are both comically grotesque and repetitively vulgar. “One of the most fascinating things about Sade’s writing,” Maggie Nelson writes, “is its immense capacity to shock, and its equally immense capacity to bore.” The challenges of Swift are more temporal. His writings are filled with conflicts, controversies, and people long abandoned by posterity. Much of the potency of his language is flattened and the sharpness of his irony dulled because the subjects being ridiculed proved so ephemeral. “He has written miscellaneously,” John Boyle, the fifth earl of Orrery, fairly assessed in his otherwise unfair account of Swift, “and has chosen rather to appear a wondering comet than a fixed star.”

Reading them, we see why Swift biographer John Stubbs calls his subject Sade’s “satirical cousin” with a “technique…classified above all as the art of upsetting people” and whose “determination to vex…prevents any political group from conscripting him.” We see why Swift and Sade are the first two entries in André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor. And we follow why, in Simone de Beauvoir’s words, Sade rejected the idea of submission as “hypocritical resignation which is adorned in the name of virtue” that aims “to destroy the individual by imposing upon him a stupid conformism.” All dissidents would admire such attributes, especially at the height of the twentieth-century obscenity trials, when both Sade and Swift could be cast as patron saints of extremism in the pursuit of liberty. Whatever their pursuits, they were extremists who created literature that wasn’t so much great as it was relentless. Even now they make passive reading impossible.


Jonathan Swift produced enough prose to fill as many as nineteen printed volumes. For him writing was less a vocation than a means for a narrow set of ends. Professionally he was a clergyman, yet he never produced any notable theological work, much to the disappointment of his church superiors. He had strong opinions about the quality of sermons but looked upon his own with indifference; only twelve survive. He was not as innovative a journalist as his rival Daniel Defoe, nor was he as sagacious as his critic Samuel Johnson. Unlike Johnson, who believed that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” Swift saw payment for his writing as an affront to his pride. Swift’s aims were loftier than mere cash could provide. He wanted prestige and thought his pen the surest route to achieving it. “Swift was outside the shrewd discipline of talent,” critic Carl Van Doren wrote. “He could not sit down and write prose and verse as if they were sufficient ends…He used them in his tragic role, in his war of ambition, not because he valued them but because they were the only weapons he had.”

Swift was born in Dublin to English parents and spent his entire life moving from colony to empire and back again. His writing settled down between those two worlds. In England from 1710 to 1714, during the later reign of Queen Anne, he lived the life of a public intellectual. He engaged in coffeehouse banter and court politics. He helped forge opinion journalism as a propagandist for the Tory party and an advocate for the Church of England before the fall of the Tory ministry sent him back to Ireland. His writing thereafter was closer to that of a dissident, though one who was careful to avoid prosecution. Yet Swift looked at Ireland as something foisted on him. “Irishness,” Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote, “is not primarily a question of birth or blood or language; it is the condition of being involved in the Irish situation, and usually of being mauled by it. On that definition Swift is more Irish than Goldsmith or Sheridan, although by the usual tests they are Irish and he is pure English.”

His sharpest weapon was a shapeshifting “I,” by which Swift could effortlessly attract an audience and voice a person’s prejudices. He ridiculed the outgoing Whig party as sore losers and corrupt miscreants in his Examiner papers. His pamphlet Conduct of the Allies helped shift public opinion on the War of Spanish Succession toward peace after a decade of fighting. He could rally another to a cause of his choosing, most successfully with the Drapier letters, inveighing against a coinage-debasing scheme meant to be foisted on Ireland. Yet it is Swift’s more playful ventriloquism that has made a deeper cultural impression. An ear for mimicry, combined with what F.R. Leavis called an “emotional intensity,” enabled savage, inventive, and even delightful attacks on the “enthusiasms” of religious heterodoxy, intellectual frivolity, and political extremism that so provoked Swift. In this mode he became the unstable hack who exemplified the fashionableness and pretensions of “modern” writing in A Tale of a Tub and the arrogant astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff, one of Swift’s funniest creations, predicting the death of a rival.

Engraving of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., by John Sturt, after Bernard Lens II, 1710.

Aside from Lemuel Gulliver, no Swiftian creation is more significant than the unnamed speaker of his 1729 pamphlet A Modest Proposal. The three-thousand-word monologue has often been ranked the greatest English prose satire ever written. It is an efficient showcase for Swift’s greatest strengths: his sharp irony, his perverse imagination, and his polished style. It has spurred many imitations but has never been bettered. Yet when it was published it seemed strangely minor compared to Swift’s “Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture” and the Drapier letters. Rather than a rousing piece of writing defying the English colonial behemoth, A Modest Proposal—with its ironical endorsements of child murder, body harvesting, and cannibalism—seemed more provocative than persuasive, “a cry of despair,” in the words of Swift biographer Leo Damrosch. And it was wider in its targets. A Modest Proposal is “unusual,” Swift scholar Claude Rawson writes, “in being a satire aimed not at the English oppressor but at the Irish victim”—that is, the Anglo-Irish “settler class failing to look after its own interest” and disregarding Swift’s earlier, more reasonable appeals.

Swift wrote his Proposal as a last resort, after several more straightforward tracts about the generally appalling conditions of Ireland’s poor failed to have much impact on the public. The opening sentence, “It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms,” has echoes of the beginning of his 1715 sermon “On the Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland”: “It is a very melancholy reflection that such a country as ours, which is capable of producing all things necessary, and most things convenient for life, sufficient for the support of four times the number of its inhabitants, should yet lie under the heaviest load of misery and want our streets crowded with beggars, so many of our lower sort of tradesmen, laborers, and artificers, not able to find clothes and food for their families.” But the sermon and his other tracts had little effect. The Irish, Swift told Alexander Pope, “are all inevitably undone; which I have been telling them in print these ten years to as little purpose as if it came from the pulpit.”


The “projection” or “project”—a pitch made to the public for the improvement of their welfare—was a popular way of getting noticed in a burgeoning media environment of cheap, fast printing. Projects could be written by anyone and ranged widely in quality from outright scams to substantial, pathbreaking policy proposals. Defoe gained notoriety with an entire book of projects for the reform of mental health care, bankruptcy, the education of women, and other ideas. Not all projects were humanist, of course; Swift also wrote pamphlets in support of suppressing the opposition press and flogging beggars. With his satire exposing the condition of Ireland’s poor and the negligence of their imperial managers, Swift turned the projection on its head. The result is an authorial voice who, in the words of Swift biographer David Nokes, tilts between “nervous” reticence and “lip-smacking relish” over his one neat trick. The first eight hundred words of the Proposal are innocuously grandiloquent:

I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

The invocation of “sound, useful members” is perhaps the first red flag. Without further warning, the proposer gets to his point: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that 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.” The selling of Ireland’s poor children for food will ensure a reduction of the noxious Catholics, he argues, and poor tenants will have children as currency to pay rent. “Constant breeders” will make “eight shillings sterling per annum by the sale of their children” and will be relieved from caring for them after a year. The author then makes the famous declaration of his own charitable disinterest: “I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny.”

Like Swift’s previous efforts, however, A Modest Proposal had little practical effect. Ireland would continue to be seen as a burden to its neighbor. A famine came in 1740 that killed at least 300,000 people. One million died in the Great Famine a century later. Instead his proposal took on greater relevance the further it drifted from its intended context and came to indict humanity at large. Philosopher John Gray writes: “The final effect of the Modest Proposal is to leave the human story a dark and senseless farce.” This effect is best demonstrated by the reading Peter O’Toole gave in Dublin in 1984. He began by noting that the essay had “a little something to offend everybody,” and his appropriately lackadaisical reading did just that. O’Toole was heckled, people walked out, and the reading, broadcast live on Irish public broadcast station RTÉ, was cut short, setting forth a flock of ironies that would have delighted the dean in his nearby resting place.

Swift did succeed in his desire to “vex” his readers—some say far too much. Edward Said noted a “discomfort” in all of Swift’s work, “that we have before us a show of freaks and horrors: a mad writer, an astrologer being murdered, an absurd and impossible war…a gallery of raving freethinkers, men burrowing in dung, and so on.” Leavis went further, contrasting Swift’s cruel irony against what he saw as the less abrasive variety practiced by Edward Gibbon. “Gibbonian prose insinuates solidarity with the reader,” whereas the “ironical” solidarity of Swift is a “betrayal.” To Leavis, Swift’s irony “is a matter of surprise and negation,” as he implies that “this is the only argument that appeals to you. Here are your actual faith and morals. How, on consideration, do you like the smell of them?” It is a small blessing that Leavis lived only one year into punk.


If Jonathan Swift were a wandering comet, then the Marquis de Sade was the fixed star—or the black hole. He never moved very far, with the second half of his life spent shuffling around the French penal system for various sex scandals and blasphemies. Sade’s writing, begun in earnest once he reached middle age, was not a tool for raising his social station, as with Swift, but a by-product of his decline. Restricted from pursuing his orgiastic and blasphemous hobbies, Sade undertook several writing projects across different forms: philosophical dialogues, short stories, a Candide-esque novel of morals, and drama. In 1783 he wrote his wife from the Château de Vincennes that he had begun a “great novelistic labor” requiring six hundred pages of manuscript paper thin enough to be rolled. The result was, in his words, “the most impure tale ever written since the world began.” Few have been inclined to disagree.

Photograph of a page from the manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade.

As with A Modest Proposal, The 120 Days of Sodom describes the utmost lengths of human depravity. In Sade’s case, the audience (predominantly four libertine men of eminent rank but grotesquely low character) is an active part of the sprawling narrative. It is an unfinished tale, written after he was incarcerated in the Bastille, then abandoned when Sade was transferred elsewhere for yelling that prisoners were being murdered, and seemingly lost when the prison was stormed just days later. The manuscript was discovered by a man named Arnoux de Saint-Maximin, who sold it to the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans. Villeneuve-Trans’ family kept it until the early twentieth century, when it was sold first to a German collector, and then to Sade’s descendants in 1929. Of the four parts, only the first is near completion; the remaining three are in outline form, some largely just telegrammic lists of obscene acts. Sade replicated the novel’s tone in his subsequent works Justine, Juliette, and Philosophy in the Bedroom, but 120 Days remains the quintessential and most criticized and cited of Sade’s works.

“Any decent pleasures, or any prescribed by that beast…that you call Nature…shall be expressly excluded from this collection,” Sade wrote in his introduction, “and should you stumble across them by chance it shall only be in cases where they shall be accompanied by some crime, or tainted by some infamy.” The narrative, such as there is one, is double-layered. Inside a castle in the Black Forest four prostitutes regale the four noblemen with stories of past exploits. The men, eager to explore the “six hundred passions,” then imitate the remembered debauchery with the adolescent boys and girls they have kidnapped and brought to the castle for sexual exploitation along with older male studs, or “fuckers.”

Sade’s most salacious novels lead the reader to question how much of it is meant to be read as a litany of straightforward sexual fantasies. He rejected the speculative “wizardry” of the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, but he had a gift for black comedy that won the appreciation of the surrealists. He described one of the storytellers as “the very image of crime incarnate. Her withered arse resembles marbled paper.” One of the libertines, in a test of his strength, “wagered he could suffocate a horse between his legs, and the beast breathed its last at the very moment he had predicted.”

“Written down, shit does not smell,” Roland Barthes wrote of Sade with a reassurance similar to a parent telling a frightened child that no monster hides under the bed. One salient criticism of pornography is that it glosses over the less pleasant physical rigors and secretions that accompany the acts depicted: sweat, stench, intrusions of the digestive process, exhaustion, vomit (when applicable), etc. Sade, quite famously, invites and revels in these by-products, which appear with such frequency, and are recounted in such detail, that the pungency of his prose is difficult to tolerate. The reader is ceaselessly confronted with the scents and sounds of Sade’s players and their playthings. Sade lacks the willingness or the ability to keep up the pornographic pretense of serving the reader’s pleasure. Instead the reader is beset with examples of pleasure he is certain they have never thought possible, performed with a sprightly energy that is almost more discomfiting than the acts themselves. One storyteller recalls:

“The first, whom I frigged as we stood naked, wanted floods of nearly boiling water to stream over our bodies through a hole in the ceiling as long as our session lasted…One cannot imagine the pleasure he felt as it washed over him; as for me…I screamed out like a scalded tomcat—my skin peeled from this, and I firmly promised myself never to return to that man’s house.”


“Oh my God,” said the Duc. “I feel the urge to scald the love Aline like that.” “My lord,” the latter humbly replied, “I am not a pig.” At once everyone laughed at the innocent candor of her childish response.

That is probably the most representative Sadean exchange that one can respectably reprint, wherein “pleasure” is a top-down decree. “The idea of seeing another person experience the same pleasure,” Sade wrote, “reduces one to an equality which spoils the unutterable charms that comes from despotism.” If there is any cogent idea to extract from Sade’s filth, it is the lure of anarcho-tyranny. That was given full expression in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, the equally infamous 1975 film adaptation of 120 Days, set in Fascist Italy. “We Fascists are the only true anarchists, naturally, once we’re masters of the state,” the duke declares in the film. “In fact, the one true anarchy is that of power.” Sade’s worldview combined hostile atheism, might-makes-right determinism, and madcap nihilism, cutting against the humanist and deist grain of the Enlightenment philosophes: when God is absent, man will sooner re-create hell in His stead, not heaven.

The Marquis de Sade and the King of Diamonds, 1965, lithograph by Jose Luis Cuevas.

As much as he tried to instill his work with philosophical heft and authorial ambition, Sade was not a writer of ideas—he was a writer of sensory overload. Even in his more thematically and compositionally complete novels, he could not stop pushing beyond the bounds of good taste or sense. Sade remained preoccupied with release at the expense of tension. The only option that leaves for a reader is simply to endure. Those who do endure likely get by on the faint traces of better, more concise narratives that Sade could have wrung out of his excesses.

If there is an irony in Sade, it is that, rather than scandalize and draw the reader into his morass, he incites them to flee as far away as possible—anything to escape Sade’s tedious and putrid garden of damnation.


Considering these texts sometimes leads me to wonder about a literary history where things turned out differently for their authors. What if Sade had somehow evaded prison? Doubtless he’d have kept on with his libertine extracurricular activities. His writing might have been a more gentlemanly or remunerative pursuit, producing bawdy but harmless stories and pedestrian infidel tracts. What he channeled into his novels might have been redirected into his letters—indeed, he might have become, as Gore Vidal thought him to be, one of the great letter writers of his age. What if Swift had managed to stay in England, never returning to Ireland—and even managed to attain a much-desired bishopric? More pamphlets and polemics, to be sure, and more banter in coffeehouses with his equals. But also likely a deepening involvement in sectarian issues, leading him to become a more rigid Tory and a more committed High Churchman. He might even have followed his colleagues Bolingbroke and Francis Atterbury into Jacobitism, and hence into exile in France. Something like Gulliver’s Travels would still have been possible, but one that had more in common with the bloody-minded Hobbes than with the anarchic Rabelais.

What is more certain is that The 120 Days of Sodom and A Modest Proposal have no place in these alternate histories, so wedded as they are to the circumstances their authors encountered at the time of writing.

The extremes of Sade’s novel would have been less possible if he had been free from the contradictory extremes of prolonged incarceration. The social and sensory deprivation, the regimentation of time and the elasticity of the experience of time, the total absence of freedom and the fluid morality of mere survival, the myopia of living with your own thoughts—all were necessary elements for the creation of The 120 Days. Sade obsessively kept track of the patterns and frequency of letters and visits to make sense of how long he’d been in prison and how long he’d have until he was released. By the time he wrote The 120 Days, Sade had been in prison for seven years; he remained imprisoned for five more before the Revolution freed him, if only for a time. “Prison is bad,” Sade wrote to his wife, “because solitude gives added strength only to ideas, and the disturbance that results therefrom becomes all the greater and ever more urgent.”

Similarly, Swift’s tract would never have been written if he had remained on the other side of St. George’s Channel, remote from the toll British policy exacted on its nearest colony. Gone would be the vision of a consumer economy taken to its most literal conclusion and of industrialism taken to its logical extreme. Swift makes several references to the overly fecund Catholics, the shameful waste of babies who are aborted, and the equally if not more shameful waste of resources by those babies who are not. At its heart, A Modest Proposal is a coldly concise plan for bodily control, rendered with the greatest simplicity, that comes with the dehumanization of one population by another. Swift never had a perfectly benevolent attitude toward the Irish as a mass, but he found them redeemable enough to conjure the great Swiftian image of a baby leaving an Irish womb only to enter an English mouth.

Both Swift and Sade created works with tenacious wills to survive. Their legacies now seem to cast them as more beast than ghost at first. Subsequent artists have tried to leash the anger of Swift or the depravity of Sade, taming them for their own transgressive ends. But in truth they are more like warnings. Swift’s and Sade’s literature was neither the literature of majestic vision nor of pure shock. They are not examples of a certain method of execution but of conditions that made other methods impossible. In considering the heirs of this kind of art, we move away from the provocative fantasies of Salò or Naked Lunch and toward the nightmare reportage of Elem Klimov’s film Come and See and Curzio Malaparte’s novel Kaputt. The result is a double-edged critique of humanism, which dredges the enduring capacity for cruelty out from beneath an enlightened, noble surface and shows the mind not as a parent to an idea but under the dictatorship of an idea.