In 1729, Swift wrote A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.
The eponymous modest proposal was that such children be used for food. “A young healthy child well nursed,” wrote the Dean, “is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”
The essay caused a backlash; some critics felt Swift’s flight of satirical fancy had taken him too far. Yet no commentators failed to see that it was indeed fanciful satire, not something to be taken literally.
Today A Modest Proposal would read as reportage. Cue in Prof. Magnus Soderlund, of Stockholm School of Economics, who believes that it’s about time society “awakened to the idea” of cannibalism.
Speaking on Swedish television, the good professor cogently explained that only thus can “our planet” be saved. You see, human flesh is more sustainable than meat or dairy products, and producing it has no adverse effects on climate change.
Since I’m pursued every night by nightmares of a planetary catastrophe caused by the consumption of hamburgers and pork chops, I’m sympathetic to the idea.
My only regret is that Prof. Soderlund failed to think his proposal through to its logical end. Unlike our great satirist, he only talked about scavenging, that is snacking on bodies already dead of natural causes.
Fair enough, those carcasses would otherwise go to waste, being either incinerated or buried to rot in the ground. Hence eating them would save our planet in two ways.
First, since Granny would be put to pasture only figuratively, her cultivation and feeding wouldn’t require tilling large tracts of land, which process jeopardises the planet almost as much as using deodorant sprays.
Second, since Granny could be fed on the carcasses of other Grannies who predeceased her, scavenging would in fact constitute recycling, which is tantamount to regeneration not only ecological but also moral.
However, while the planet lover in me applauds, the foodie sulks. For old people’s flesh has to be tough and stringy. Even with super-slow cooking, it would never achieve the juicy tenderness of younger meat.
Hence we shouldn’t ignore the nutritional and gastronomic advantages offered by stillborn children and, especially, foetuses aborted late, say in the third trimester.
The more one thinks about this, the more one appreciates Swift’s genius. For, from there it’s but a small step to slaughtering the post-natal babies of some undesirable people, such as global warming deniers, Islamophobes and Brexiteers.
The benefits would be staggering: promoting responsible nutrition, ecology, recycling – and cleansing society of the spawn of human vermin. I can already see a chain of human abattoirs, can’t you?
Prof. Soderlund graciously acknowledged that, alas, some anachronistic taboos of cannibalism still persist. But these can be expunged over time by “tricking” people into “making the right decision”. All it takes is “conversation” about eating human flesh, with Prof. Soderlund presumably acting as one party to that learned discourse.
This is where he went terribly wrong. For, if the aforementioned conversation is serious enough, no trickery should be necessary. People can be persuaded by rational arguments, and they may take the idea of cannibalism so close to heart that they’d actually eat Prof. Soderlund.
Lest you might think I’m prejudiced against Northern Europe (I am, but that’s a different story), another news item has caught my eye, this one dealing with France, my second home.
In 2013, Xavier X, whose full name can’t be revealed for legal reasons, went on a business trip from his Paris base to the Loiret. There he picked up a local woman, as one does, and took her to his hotel.
As the couple were consummating their budding love, Xavier X suffered a heart attack and, as the crude saying goes, came and went at the same time. His family immediately sued Mr X’s employer, for a hefty lawsuit is a natural by-product of bereavement.
The family’s lawyers, enthusiastically supported by French labour authorities, argued that, since Mr X had gone to the Loiret on his employer’s behalf, his death should be classified as an accident du travail, making his company liable for damages.
The company’s lawyers objected that, although Mr X did indeed die on the job, that wasn’t the job his employer had sent him out to do. However, that argument didn’t cut much ice.
The trial dragged on a bit, but yesterday the court found for the plaintiff. Mr X’s widow and children will receive 80 per cent of his salary until what would have been his retirement age. After that the company will be making sizeable contributions to the pension.
I can only repeat what many others have said before me: modernity makes satire redundant. Today’s Sophocleses, Juvenals and Swifts would be reporters or political commentators. Their readers might still laugh, but only through tears.