Dr Dan Sperrin, who has been appointed as a JRF in English Literature, talks about satire and cartoons in our latest Q&A. He will take up his post in October 2021.
Your doctoral thesis was about the satirist Jonathan Swift. Please can you tell us more about that?
I wanted to try and write something about this remarkable and often difficult satirist to whom I have always been drawn (rather uneasily), and who left such a peculiar and intimidating mark on the history of satire in English. Swift was an exceptionally deceptive and slippery writer, whose many compositions — in prose and verse — have always caused problems for his biographers, editors, and critics. Because he was so obsessively secretive about his manuscripts and unwilling to put his name on his published material, there are some questions about what was really written ‘by Swift’ (as you can imagine, some people get quite wound up about this). To me, some of the more interesting puzzles in Swift relate to his learning and his complex uses of literary allusion: like Callimachus in Hellenistic Alexandria or T. S. Eliot in the twentieth century, Swift was submerged in an intellectual world which was at once astonishingly wide-ranging and never disclosed in full. My thesis attends to the many hints, allusions, and covert references to other writers which can be found in Swift’s work — I wanted to try and join the dots between what he was reading and what he was writing, because this might suggest new ways of understanding him as a poet, a polemicist, and a cleric.
Of course, many of the most difficult things about Swift are impossible to ‘solve’, partly because his allegiances and motivations were so riddled with contradiction. For instance, Swift thought of himself as a sort of gatekeeper for his church, whose main task was to gain over as many enemies as he could. However, he lost out on clerical promotion and was sent back to his native Ireland to become the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. In other words, he was both intimate with the workings of institutional power in the eighteenth century and miserably estranged from them, and it left him with all kinds of hang-ups and resentments which found their way into his satire. Much of the interest and brilliance of Swift’s work can be found in its combination of stringent spiritual orthodoxy and anarchic satirical rage, which makes him both unclassifiable and extremely interesting.
You are also a cartoonist. How does your cartooning relate to your academic work?
Well, I feel slightly uneasy about moving so quickly from everything I’ve just said about Swift to my own stuff ..! I’m a cartoonist for The London Magazine, a publication which was actually concocted in the eighteenth century and has always been there to promote new writers (people like Keats, Auden, and Sylvia Plath have featured in it at one time or another). My first duty is to mock something topical, but my editors and I are often confronted by larger questions — which have always bothered satirists and their publishers — about what can and can not be said, either to the immediate audience or to the culture in general: whether that be about political power or principles and beliefs circulating elsewhere. I really like James Gillray, the caricaturist of the French Revolution period, because he was completely unimpressed by the cant of fashionable causes and was brave enough to question everything: I have none of Gillray’s technical skill (who does…) but I do think that something about Gillray’s attitude is worth having.
What are your plans for the time you spend at Trinity?
My plan is to write a history of satire in English literature, which I have started and I am really looking forward to completing at Trinity. It turns out that writing a history of a literary genre provides numerous opportunities to answer some of the most urgent and complicated questions about it. In satire’s case, such questions — what it is, why it exists, and how it should be read — are also the most testing, and looking at the various answers provided to these questions over several centuries has produced some very interesting results so far. Among other things, the book takes on the convenient origin stories about satire which have been constructed to suit particular ideological causes: the thing we call ‘satire’ has no single point of origin, but attempts to invent one are often instructive in one way or another. The history of this stubborn, mercurial, and unclassifiable genre is definitely going to take up all my time at Trinity, and that sounds quite good to me!