Sharing Satire: Monty Python and Jonathan Swift Creatively Critique Their World
As literature for Jonathan Swift and TV/film for Monty Python became relevant, respectively, to a public audience, both, Swift from the 18th century and Monty Python, a British sketch comedy troupe famous in the 1970s and on into the 21st century, harnessed popular mediums with their common strength in wit to comment on their respective societies. Culture is their menu, comedy the butter, and satire is the bread they serve from the start. Both use England, their common native land, as the center point of their works’ satiric commentary.
In Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Swift argued that the economic disparity surrounding his lifetime in the UK lay within the oppressive financial woes that a large poor population was forced to endure. With explicit language, Swift likens the affluent land-owning elite to hungry cannibals. Their ravenous appetite for their due money from the masses wrought financial havoc on a starving and “peniless” lower class. Swift offers his proposal as reasoning for selling one-year-old babies’ meat for money as to lift the nation out of poverty. It is a two-part cure: one side of the proposal provides food, and the other side provides money
The poor, obviously, were strapped for cash during the time of Swift’s piece. Swift wrote of the Catholics as especially likely to become or remain destitute as they are obligated to breed children in intercourse, on average they are likely to have more children. Swift’s piece is ironically formulaic. The cost of raising a child is Swift’s most prominent point to the cause of massive poverty. He mock-celebrates his proposal as being a “great preserver” of England even before he dictates much of the proposal. The ‘brilliance’ of Swift’s proposal is essentially an amoral stimulus package. The birth of human babies is a non-monetized resource that can be positively exploited to provide money for any mother of any social caste. A secondary benefit is that the English would have a new sophisticated palette for meat. The latter benefit, a clever device of Swift’s creativity that pushes the reader to envision a human-babe-stocked meat market and to assuage the discerning reader to oblige his irony and continue.
With explicit pseudo language Swift proves the benefits of his ironic financial remedy near the end of his essay where he lists several consequences of his proposal. The language he used was current with essays of contemporary experts during Swift’s time. This added emphasis to his critique on expert society. As modern institutions of finance (banks) and science were coming to the fore in Swift’s society, he decried their longing for structure and order as a constriction forced on poor society. Swift’s essay held institutions at fault for pressing self-improvement as an anti-social propellant that divided elite society from common society. “Classical economics theorizes that the self-interested behavior of individuals will result in the greater good of all,” which is evidently not the real case with England in 1729, nor is it the case 200 years later in “The Meaning of Life” (Anderson, p. 120). Swift’s ironic tone is that of an academic economist whose self-interests lay within profit and efficiency. Swift’s proposal hypothetically reaps the profit of an untapped, self-sustaining market.
In Monty Python’s feature film “The Meaning of Life,” there is evidence of Swift-like satire: Open commentary on England, its imperialism, the sub-classes of the population, the irony of English social order is prevalent during the whole film, and institutional thought in general is satirized. The social consistencies between Monty Python-England and Swift-England are implacable, after Swift’s time, the English empire continued to undertake massive imperial expansion, in which the after shocks of such world influence affected Monty Python to craft a general satire on the institutions and social conventions England had established over the centuries between Swift’s time to their own. Satirically categorizing England and its social peculiarity were strengths endured by Swift and the Monty Python troupe alike.
Monty Python exemplify the long-term influence of Swift-era satire. An almost quintessentially British affectation to mock establishment is performed provocatively through the troupe’s film “The Meaning of Life.” Many essential British themes and political events that the film addresses effectively out-date Swift; nonetheless these events are irreverently exposed with a satirical anti-praise that closely resembles Swift’s satire in “A Modest Proposal.”
A key instance of supposed collusion in both “A Modest Proposal” and “The Meaning of Life,” lies within a film sketch from the latter. Near the beginning finances are a major undertone of the film, and eventually a sketch occurs that refers to issues of impoverished Catholics; Swift clearly addresses a similar event as well in the subject of his essay. Briefly summarized, a dark-comical tone inside of a crude melody during this particular sketch assumes some common woes of being Catholic in Britain; the situation of having too many kids, what Swift’s essay directly addressed, becomes the ironic message of the song and by the end of the sketch the Catholic parents dispose of their litter of children to ‘science.’
Another intensely satiric comment Monty Python and Swift share is their portrayal of the British elite society. Most vividly in the film by Monty Python, a sketch references the high-class British military officer. In this sketch the attitude of arrogant poise held by an elite British man is juxtaposed with that personality in wartime. A relatively skewed perspective is made purposefully by the filmmakers to exaggerate the loftiness of the British officer. They are portrayed as vain, ignorant imbeciles that disregard a brutal reality in vain for the sake of imperious conquest and glory. This detached attitude is also implied in Swift’s essay when he is discussing the character of interactions between the social elite and commoners in the UK.
Where the two, Monty Python and Swift, diverge is in their relative embrace of the absurd. Swift’s essay touches upon the absurd in an effort to awaken social spheres to the real inequities his contemporary England was plagued with during the 18th century. However, Swift aligns his thoughts in a way that is unmistakable and unthreatening. Monty Python, in their film, wholly embraces and run amok with the absurd. Often the film poses extreme behavioral contrasts that drive their commentary on English culture. By its nature English culture exists in constant contradiction with itself and the Monty Python troupe portray the varying inequities well. Swift champions his country’s now-criticized aptitudes in administration in hopes of bettering the future, and Monty Python serve their film as the anti-thesis of the ways of old battered and bruised British social conventions.
These coincidences of subject matter between the film and Swift’s essay are too close for one to refuse a conscious familiarity the men of Monty Python had with Swift’s literature. With this point, Swift’s literature projected a lasting influence for centuries.
Anderson, Jonathan. “A MODEST PROPOSAL* ON “THE MEANING OF LIFE” (With Apologies to Monty Python).” Global Virtue Ethics (2003): 117-28. Print. http://www.spaef.com/file.php?id=642
Monty Python and The Meaning of Life. Dir. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. Perf. John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle. Universal Pictures, 1983. Film.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” Rutgers University. Ed. Jack Lynch. Rutgers University Press. Web. <https://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/modest.html#24>.