Thursday, July 15, 2010


Almost every time I teach a text I've taught before, I discover something new in it. This year, while working through Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," the Psalmanazar character, mentioned briefly by Swift as a proponent of cannibalism, slowed me down.

Let me stop for a second and give the briefest summary of "A Modest Proposal" for those who haven't read it. Swift's fictional persona pitches his solution to poverty in early 18th Century Ireland: encourage the poor Irish to sell their infants as meat for the elegant tables of the (mostly English) landlords. In this satirical essay, Swift criticizes the relationship between landowner and peasant, the attitude towards the working class of the time, and even some of behaviors of the people for whom he was fighting. Swift lied to tell what he believed to be the truth. Or, at least I thought parts of his story were lies.

For years, I'd been happy enough picturing the George Psalmanazar character as a figment of Swift's vivid imagination, but this year, something struck me; Swift starts with truth throughout the whole essay. While he mocks and exaggerates and creates a dense double-layered persona that is tough and takes more time to sift through than most people allow, small truths are the starting point that he twists in order to tell a bigger truth. As I researched his allusions, I discovered that he didn't just invent characters to people his essay. Instead, these people were real.

However, Psalmanazar is a little different than some of the other "experts" that populate "A Modest Proposal." Psalmanazar, though he existed, was a lie, a lie Psalmanazar created himself. This blond, blue-eyed man may have been French—it's hard to tell because most of what we know about him is what he chose to tell about himself—but he certainly learned early in his life that being French wasn't going to be enough to get him where he wanted to go. And so, he began to tell lies to open the doors through which he wanted to pass. Eventually, he told everyone he met that he was a native of Formosa. Formosa, the Portuguese name for Taiwan, was perfumed with mystery for the Europeans and British he met on his travels. When disbelieving persons asked Psalmanazar why he was so fair and light-eyed and different-looking than they expected, he had a ready answer: the upper classes lived underground and were therefore pigmented like him. He invented a language, traditions, an entire culture that nearly everyone he met believed was true. So successful in his lie was he that he received appointments to translate the Bible into Formosan, accepted invitations to the choicest tables in Britain and Europe, and wore the velvet fame of exoticism. For years, few doubted him and entire nations believed him. But time, opium, and arrogance eventually got in the way, and he began to falter in his lie. When people around him finally outed him and his deceptions, he left the gilded halls to choose the life of a religious academic. When I recounted this story to a friend of mine, her eyebrows raised, and she said, "So, he was three different people in his life."

The story of Psalmanazar fascinates me, not only because of his incredible genius to build an entire identity based on the ignorance of multiple cultures, but also because of the seemingly willful ignorance of the duped. In the early to mid 17th Century, both the Dutch and the Spanish had presences on Taiwan. Though both the Dutch and the Spanish lost their footing on the island by the end of the 17th Century, there still had to be plenty of people around who had actually seen "Formosans" while Psalmanazar was initiating his lie at the turn of the 18th Century.

Perhaps people chose to believe the lie because it was fun to do so. It was entertaining and silly and Psalamanazar sounds like he must have been a mighty fine story teller. They chose to believe his tales of cannibalism and ridiculous clothing because it was easier to believe what was titillating than what was true. And maybe that is why Jonathan Swift includes Psalmanazar in that one paragraph of his essay. Maybe he isn't just making a joke and pointing out that, of course, he doesn't believe in eating children by citing a debunked liar. Maybe he is reminding his readers that what one wants to be told isn't necessarily what one should be told, that what one chooses to believe isn't necessarily the truth, and that the realities of life can be just as hidden through story as exposed by it. Believing Psalmanazar meant not having to think, and by using Psalmanazar in his essay, Swift is asking his audience to throw off the stories we've chosen to believe for so long and accept the truth about the role the we play in the problem.


Robert Brenchley said...

There have been people like that more recently as well, though they didn't take it to the same ridiculous extent. One of the first conservationists was a fake Native American (actually a Scotsman) who called himself Grey Owl.

Unknown said...

I dated that guy once...wait, was there more than one?

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