Saturday, February 11, 2012

(excerpts from jonathan swift's

short satire A Full and True Account of the Battle Fought Last Friday Between the Ancient and Modern Books in St. James's Library.)

". . . but the issue or events of this war are not so easy to conjecture at; for the present quarrel is so inflamed by the warm heads of either faction, and the pretensions somewhere or other so exorbitant, as not to admit the least overtures of accommodation.  This quarrel first began (as I have heard it affirmed by an old dweller in the neighbourhood) about a small spot of ground, lying and being upon one of the two tops of the hill Parnassus; the highest and largest of which had, it seems, been time out of mind in quiet possession of certain tenants, called the Ancients, and the other was held by the Moderns.  But these disliking their present station, sent certain ambassadors to the Ancients, complaining of a great nuisance; how the height of that part of Parnassus quite spoiled the prospect of theirs, especially toward the East; and therefore, to avoid a war, offered them the choice of this alternative; either that the Ancients would please to remove themselves and their effects down to the lower summity, which the Moderns would graciously surrender to them, and advance in their place; or else that the said Ancients will give leave to the Moderns to come with shovels and mattocks, and level the said hill as low as they shall think it convenient.  To which the Ancients made answer: how little they expected such a message as this from a colony whom they had admitted out of their own free grace, to so near a neighbourhood.  That, as to their own seat, they were aborigines of it, and therefore to talk with them of a removal or surrender, was a language they did not understand.  That if the height of the hill on their side shortened the prospect of the Moderns, it was a disadvantage they could not help, but desired them to consider, whether that injury (if it be any) were not largely recompensed by the shade and shelter it afforded them.  That, as to leveling or digging down, it was either folly or ignorance to propose it, if they did, or did not know, how that side of the hill was an entire rock, which would break their tools and hearts, without any damage to itself.  That they would therefore advise the Moderns rather to raise their own side of the hill, than dream of pulling down that of the Ancients, to the former of which they would not only give license, but also largely contribute.  All this was rejected by the Moderns with much indignation, who still insisted upon one of the two expedients;  and so this difference broke out into a long and obstinate war, maintained on the one part by resolution, and by the courage of certain leaders and allies; but on the other, by the greatness of their number, upon all defeats, affording continual recruits.  In this quarrel whole rivulets of ink have been exhausted, and the virulence of both parties enormously augmented.  Now, it must here be understood, that ink is the great missive weapon in all battles of the learned, which conveyed through a sort of engine called a quill, infinite numbers of these are darted at the enemy, by the valiant on each side, with equal skill and violence, as if it were an engagement of porcupines.  This malignant liquor was compounded by the engineer who invented it of two ingredients, which are gall and copperas, by its bitterness and venom to suit in some degree, as well as to foment, the genius of the combatants. . .

. . .but I believe it is with libraries as with other cemeteries,
where some philosophers affirm that a certain spirit, which they call
brutum hominis, hovers over the monument till the body is corrupted and turns to dust or to worms, but then vanishes or dissolves.  So, we may say, a restless spirit haunts over every book, till dust or worms have seized upon it, which to some may happen in a few days, but to others later; and therefore, books of controversy being, of all others, haunted by the most disorderly spirits, have always been confined in a separate lodge from the rest; and for fear of mutual violence against each other, it was thought prudent by our ancestors to bind them to the peace with strong iron chains.  Of which invention the original occasion was this: when the works of Scotus first came out, they were carried to a certain great library and had lodgings appointed them; but this author was no sooner settled than he went to visit his master Aristotle, and there both concerted together to seize Plato by main force, and turn him out from his ancient station among the divines, where he had peaceably dwelt near eight hundred years.  The attempt succeeded, and the two usurpers have reigned ever since in his stead; but to maintain quiet for the future, it was decreed, that all polemics of the larger size should he held fast with a chain.
     By this expedient, the public peace of libraries might certainly have been preserved, if a new species of controversial books had not arose of late years, instinct with a most malignant spirit, from the war above-mentioned between the learned, about the higher summit of Parnassus.
     When these books were first admitted into the public libraries, I remember to have said upon occasion, to several persons concerned, how I was sure they would create broils wherever they came, unless a world of care were taken; and therefore I advised that the champions of each side should be coupled together, or otherwise mixed, that like the blending of contrary poisons their malignity might be employed among themselves.  And it seems I was neither an ill prophet nor an ill counsellor; for it was nothing else but the neglect of this caution which gave occasion to the terrible fight that happened on Friday last between the Ancient and Modern books in the King's Library.  Now, because the talk of this battle is so fresh in everybody's mouth, and the expectation of the town so great to be informed in the particulars, I, being possessed of all qualifications requisite in an historian, and retained by neither party, have resolved to comply with the urgent importunity of my friends, by writing down a full impartial account thereof.
     The guardian of the regal library, a person of great valor, but chiefly known for his humanity, had been a fierce champion for the Moderns; and, in an engagement upon Parnassus, had vowed, with his own hands, to knock down two of the Ancient chiefs, who guarded a small pass on the superior rock, but, endeavoring to climb up, was cruelly obstructed by his own unhappy weight, and tendency towards his center, a quality to which those of the Modern party are extreme subject; for, being light-headed, they have in speculation a wonderful agility, and conceive nothing too high for them to mount, but in reducing to practice discover a mighty pressure about their posterior and their heels.  Having thus failed in his design, the disappointed champion bore a cruel rancour to the Ancients, which he resolved to gratify by showing all marks of his favour to the books of their adversaries, and lodging them in the fairest apartments; when at the same time, whatever book had the boldness to own itself for an advocate of the Ancients, was buried alive in some obscure corner, and threatened, upon the least displeasure, to be turned out of doors.  Besides, it so happened, that about this time there was a strange confusion of place among all the books in the library; for which several reasons were assigned.  Some imputed it to a great heap of learned dust, which a perverse wind blew blew off from a shelf of Moderns into the keeper's eyes. Others affirmed he had a humour to pick the worms out of the schoolmen, and swallow them fresh and fasting; whereof some fell upon his spleen, and some climbed up into his head, to the great perturbation of both.  And lastly, others maintained that by walking much in the dark about the library, he had quite lost the situation of it out of his head; and therefore in replacing his books he was apt to mistake, and clap Descartes next to Aristotle; poor Plato had got between Hobbes and the Seven Wise Masters, and Virgil was hemmed in with Dryden on one side and Wither on the other.
     Meanwhile those books that were advocates for the Moderns chose out from among them to make a progress through the whole library, examine the number and strength of their party, and concert their affairs.  This messenger performed all things very industriously, and brought back with him a list of their forces. . .

. . .While things were in this ferment, discord grew extremely high, hot words passed on both sides, and ill blood was plentifully bred.  Here a solitary Ancient, squeezed up among a whole shelf of Moderns, offered fairly to dispute the case, and to prove by manifest reasons, that the priority was due to them, from long possession, and in regard of their prudence, antiquity, and, above all, their great merits towards the Moderns.  But these denied the premises, and seemed very much to wonder how the Ancients could pretend to insist upon their Antiquity, when it was so plain (if they went to that) that the Moderns were the more ancient of the two.  As for any obligations they owed to the Ancients, they renounced them all.  'Tis true," said they, 'we are informed, some few of our party have been so mean to borrow their subsistence from you; but the rest, infinitely the greater number (and especially we French and English) were so far from stooping to so base an example, that there never passed, till this very hour, six words between us.  For our horses are of our own breeding, our arms of our own forging, and our clothes of our own cutting out and sewing.'  Plato was by chance upon the next shelf, and observing those that spoke to be in the ragged plight mentioned a while ago, their jades lean and foundered, their weapons of rotten wood, their armour rusty, and nothing but rags underneath, he laughed aloud, and in his pleasant way swore, by G-- he believed them. . .

. . .Things were at this crisis, when a material accident fell out.  For, upon the highest corner of a large window, there dwelt a certain spider, swollen up to the first magnitude by the destruction of infinite numbers of flies, whose spoils lay scattered before the gates of his palace, like human bones before the cave of some giant.  The avenues to his castle where guarded with turnpikes and palisadoes, all after the Modern way of fortification.  After you had passed several courts, you came to the center, wherein you might behold the constable himself in his own lodgings, which had windows fronting to each avenue, and ports to sally out upon all occasions of prey or defence.  In this mansion he had for some time dwelt in peace and plenty, without danger to his person by swallows from above, or to his palace by brooms from below: when it was the pleasure of fortune to conduct thither a wandering bee, to whose curiosity a broken pane in the glass had discovered itself, and in he went; where expatiating a while, he at last happened to alight upon one of the outward walls of the spider's citadel; which, yielding to the unequal weight, sunk down to the very foundation.  Thrice he endeavored to force his passage, and thrice the center shook.  The spider within, feeling the terrible convulsion, supposed at first that nature was approaching her final dissolution; or else that Beelzebub (the devil whose name has been identified as "the god of the flies") with all his legions, was come to revenge the death of many thousands of his subjects, whom his enemy had slain and devoured.  However, he at length valiantly resolved to issue forth, and meet his fate.  Meanwhile the bee had acquitted himself of his toils, and posted securely at some distance, was employed in cleansing his wings, and disengaging them from the ragged remnants of cobweb.  By this time the spider was adventured out, when beholding the chasms, and ruins, and dilapidations of his fortress, he was very near at his wit's end; he stormed and swore like a madman, and swelled till he was ready to burst.  At length, casting his eye upon the bee, and wisely gathering causes from events (for they knew each other by sight), 'A plague split you,' said he, 'for a giddy son of a whore.  Is it you, with a vengeance, that have made this litter here?  Could you not look before you, and be d--nd?  Do you think I have nothing else to do (in the devil's name) but to mend and repair after your arse?'  'Good word, friend,' said the bee (having now pruned himself, and being disposed to be droll) 'I'll give you my hand and word to come near your kennel no more; I was never in such a confounded pickle since I was born.'  'Sirrah,' replied the spider, 'if it were not for breaking an old custom in our family, never to stir abroad against an enemy, I should come out and teach you better manners.'  'I pray have patience,' said the bee, 'or you will spend your substance, and for aught I see, you may stand in need of it all, towards the repair of your house.'  'Rogue, rogue,' replied the spider, 'yet methinks you should have more respect to a person, whom all the world allows to be so much your betters.'  'By my troth,' said the bee, 'the comparison will amount to a very good jest, and you will do me a favour to let me know the reasons that all the world is pleased to use in so hopeful a dispute.'  At this the spider, having swelled himself into the size and posture of a disputant, began his argument in the true spirit of controversy, with a resolution to be heartily scurrilous and angry, to urge on his own reasons, without the least regard to the answers or objections of his opposite, and fully determined in his mind against all conviction.
     'Not to disparage myself,' said he, 'by the comparison with such a rascal, what art thou but a vagabond without house or home, without stock or inheritance, born to no possession of your own, but a pair of wings and a drone-pipe?  Your livelihood is an universal plunder upon nature; a freebooter over fields and gardens; and for the sake of stealing will rob a nettle as easily as a violet.  Whereas I am a domestic animal, furnished with a native stock within myself.  This large castle (to show my improvements in the mathematics) is all built with my own hands, and the materials extracted altogether out of my own person.'
     'I am glad,' answered the bee, 'to hear you grant at least that I come honestly by my wings and voice; for then, it seems, I am obliged to Heaven alone for my flights and my music; and Providence would never have bestowed me two such gifts, without designing them for the noblest ends.  I visit indeed all the flowers and blossoms of the field and garden; but whatever I collect from thence enriches myself, without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste.  Now, for you and your skill in architecture and other mathematics, I have little to say; in that building of yours there might, for aught I know, have been labor and method enough, but by woeful experience for us both, 'tis too plain, the material are naught, and I hope you will henceforth take warning, and consider duration and matter as well as method and art.  Your boast, indeed, of being obliged to no other creature, but of drawing and spinning out all from yourself; that is to say, if we may judge of the liquor in the vessel by what issues out, you possess a good plentiful store or dirt and poison in your breast; and, though I would by no means lessen or disparage your genuine stock of either, yet I doubt you are somewhat obliged for an increase of both, to a little foreign assistance. . .'

. . .This dispute was managed with such eagerness, clamor, and warmth, that the two parties of books in arms below stood silent a while, waiting in suspense what would be the issue, which was not long undetermined, for the bee grown impatient at so much loss of time, fled straight away to a bed of roses, without looking for a reply, and left the spider like an orator, collected in himself and just prepared to burst out.
     It happened upon this emergency that Aesop broke silence first. He had been of late most barbarously treated by a strange effect of the regent's humanity, who had tore off his title-page, sorely defaced one half of his leaves, and chained him fast among a shelf of Moderns.  Where soon discovering how high the quarrel was like to proceed, he tried all his arts, and turned himself to a thousand forms.  At length in the borrowed shape of an ass, the regent mistook him for a Modern; by which means he had time and opportunity to escape to the Ancients, just when the spider and the bee were entering into their contest, to which he gave his attention with a world of pleasure; and when it was ended, swore in the loudest key, that in all his life he had never known two cases so parallel and adapt to each other, as that in the window, and this upon the shelves.  'The disputants,' said he, 'have admirably managed the dispute between them, have taken in the full strength of all that is to be said on both sides, and exhausted the substance of every pro and con.  It is but to adjust the reasonings of both to the present quarrel, then to compare and apply the labors and fruits of each as the bee has learnedly deduced them; and we shall find the conclusions fall plain and close upon the Moderns and us.  For pray gentlemen, was ever anything so modern as the spider in his air, his turns, and his paradoxes?  He argues in the behalf of you his brethren and himself, with many boastings of his native stock and great genius, that he spins and spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any obligation or assistance from without.  Then he displays to you his great skill in architecture, and improvement in the mathematics.  To all this the bee, as an advocate retained by us the Ancients, thinks fit to answer; that if one may judge of the great genius or inventions of the Moderns by what they have produced, you will hardly have countenance to bear you out in boasting of either. . .

. . .'Tis wonderful to conceive the tumult arisen among the books upon the close of this long descant of Aesop; both parties took the hint, and heightened their animosities so on a sudden, that they resolved it should come to a battle.  Immediately the two main bodies withdrew under their their several ensigns, to the furthest parts of the library, and there entered into cabals and consults upon the present emergency.  The Moderns were in very warm debates upon the choice of their leaders. . .

(to be continued)