on 11 September 2009
A complete mastery of wit and satire with crisp fresh extraordinarily crystalline observation was a master-art of the golden age of Phampletters.Jonathan Swift enjoys a richly deserved reputation for the piercing razor sharp dismantling of the heirs and graces of the privileged elites by the weapon of the pen allied with penetrating mocking wit.Fielding also proved to be adroit as a practitioner of indefatigable sustained satire.
As Coleridge so correctly identified Henry Fielding deserves no lesser a standing as the humiliater of the leaders of society.In Jonathan Wild Fielding is at his perceptive and mocking best as he synonymously compares the virtues and grand visions of one of the most notorious underground criminals of the age and the Prime Minister Walpole , along with favourable comparisons with Alexander the Great and other ruthless tyrants and cruel rulers of the World.The morals of the great criminal class embodied in the character of Jonathan Wild is also seamlessly interchanged with the principles of the Political Class that run the country.In his exposition of what makes Men Great and Good we find on page 8 " For greatness consists in bringing all manner of mischief on Mankind , and Goodness in removing it from them,".So , according to Fielding, it is the duty of the criminals to steal from society in the form of robbery , and the duty of politicians to take the self-same booty in the form of taxation.Hence the great and the good are joined at the hip in the noble endeavour to relieve the citizens of their burden.
Jonathan Wild is a sidesplittingly funny tale in its own single dimensional right , allied with the allegorical tale of the type of People who aspire to run the country it becomes an indispensable reading on the corruption and perpetual cycle of the ultimate abuse of power generation after generation ,with an uncanny resemblance to the country as run under New Labour.
On page 26 we have Fielding pontificating on the fine art of negotiation " First secure what share you can , before you wrangle for the rest." , a sentiment that is no less prevalent today.
Fielding is no revolutionary , not because he necessarily favours the status-quo , but rather that he sees clearly that an elite-change will proffer no change in the cycle of the ruling class extracting full value from the less privileged quarters in the new order.On page 133 we have a characteristic undressing of the virtues of a popular revolution if the net result will be a different veneer of potential criminals.
Fielding originally started as a writer of stageplays.But Walpole put an end to satire in the English Theatre with an act in 1737 , this meant that Fielding had to find an alternative medium for his satire , so we have Walpole to thank for what turned to be a proto-type for the anti-establishment political novel.His view of criminal and politicians as part of the same spectrum is clearly on show when Wild justifies his brand of highway robbery "If the Public should be weak enough to interest themselves in your Quarrels, and to prefer one Pack to the other, while both are aiming at their Purses; it is your Business to laugh at, not imitate their Folly.".
For Henry Fielding, 'great men', like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and 'great rogues', like Jonathan Wild, are synonymous terms. Greatness consists in bringing all manners of mischief on mankind.
Alexander the Great overran a whole empire with fire and sword, pillaging, sacking, burning, enslaving and destroying millions of his fellow creatures. Julius Caesar abolished the republican liberties of his country in order to take the power into his own hands.
At the opposite side of the spectrum, Jonathan Wild was a great prig (pick-pocket), cheating the very tools who were his instruments to cheat others: 'I had rather stand at the summit of a dunghill, than at the bottom of a hill in paradise.'
For Henry Fielding, greatness rimes with ambition, lust, avarice, rapaciousness, hypocrisy, power, pride, insolence, insatiability, 'a privilege to kill, a strong temptation to do bravely ill'. Greatness is 'playing with the passions of men, to work one's own purposes out of the jealousies and apprehensions to create those great arts which the vulgar call treachery, dissembling, promising, lying, falshood, summed up in the collective name of POLLITRICKS.'
And all that for what? Not for the general good of society, but for the power and the glory of the great man himself, for the satisfaction of his vices.
The fact that 'he is hated and detested by all mankind makes him inwardly satisfied. Otherwise, why should he stand at the head of a multitude of prigs, called an army, in order to molest his neighbours, to introduce rape, rapine, bloodshed and every kind of misery on his own species, to desire maliciously to rob those subjects, to reduce them to an absolute dependence on his own will, to betray the interest of his fellow-subjects, of his brethren.'
Jonathan Wild: 'I ought rather weep with Alexander, that I have ruined not more.'
Another target of the author are the hypocritical priests: 'Life is sweet, I had rather live to eternity ... so many wallow in wealth and preferment.'
He insults the ordinary, who attends to the spiritual needs of condemned criminals; 'You are more unmerciful to me than the Judge.'
Henry Fielding's forceful diatribe against all conquerers, tyrants, pollitrickers, and vicious 'prigs' still sounds extremely modern.
He blames the majority of mankind to continue to praise the said great men.
But, 'there are still some, who view these great men with a malignant eye and dare affirm that these great men are always the most pernicious and generally the most wretched and truly contemptible of all works of creation.'
This book is a ferocious and, unfortunately, still very topical satire.
A must read.