“Swift, Secret History, and War” argues that the relationship between Swift’s writing, reading, and his abiding interest in the English Civil Wars produced a distinctive contribution to the discourses that arose after the reestablishment of monarchy, called “secret histories.” These narratives claim to expose clandestine acts, to pull away veils that hide petty motives, and to expose abuses underlying the exercise of power. In Swift’s work, however, the impulse to dig up embarrassing or disillusioning secrets serves yet another purpose; it allows more painful realities to remain buried and thus provides a means of displacing, postponing, and avoiding direct confrontation with the devastation caused by war. The following discussion identifies and analyzes some of the ways in which traumatic conflict—especially within a nation in which neighbor has fought neighbor—requires indirection, delayed response, and the transference of the burden of representation onto succeeding generations. Literature can play a crucial role in the process of displacement when human history has proven (as Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master observes) “capable of such Enormities, . . . worse than Brutality itself.” Swift’s distinctive deployment of secret history’s strategies allows an ironic historian a mechanism to look directly at and disclose some of the follies and vices of his culture, but also to remain cognizant, at some level, of what remains buried under “the heap” of a traumatic past.
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Melinda Alliker Rabb; Swift, Secret History, and War. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 September 2020; 44 (3): 30–50. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-8718644
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