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themes of Roman political thought can of course be grasped without
reading such inimitable scenes, but here and elsewhere in the Annals
Tacitus aims to convey something to which treatise and tract do not
aspire, and that is the way in which irony, disguise and deceit at once
inflect political speech, contribute to its strategic life and alter its formal
or structural stability by allowing the simultaneous play of meanings that
are if not wholly contradictory not perfectly aligned. Knowledge of
political systems and ideals and of their languages is of course crucial to
an understanding of the life of politics in the Roman or early-modern or
indeed modern commonweal, but such knowledge is incomplete without
an understanding of the life of politics in the street, in whispered
exchange, in the privacy and indeterminacy of meditation, as well as in
scenes of publicity and public affairs “ knowledge, that is, of the life of
politics endowed with all the subtle inflections of the voice and con-
tradictions of the psyche. It shall be my argument that such a life can best
be caught from within literature, not of course the only site of irony,
disguise and deceit but surely a domain that both privileges their display
and makes them available, indeed fixes them in place, for our study and
reflection, and for our pleasure. Nor should we underestimate the signi-
ficance of pleasure in this scheme for it signals exactly the imaginative
freedom and poise, the reflective leisure, and the opportunity for surprise
and play that allows irony a space for its unsettling, compromising, work.

˜if the body politique have any analogy to the
natural™
Tacitus alludes to the indivisibility of political authority in a Roman
context; that theme and its transformation into the metaphor of the body
150 steven n. zwicker
politic has a very long life, and I should like to pause over another display
of its idioms and implications for rule, now in an early-modern and
English context. In this instance Dryden unfolds the commonplace and
provides us with a further understanding of the interplay of literature
and political languages and beliefs.
The true end of Satyre is the amendment of Vices by correction. And he who
writes Honestly, is no more an Enemy to the Offendour, than the Physician to
the Patient, when he prescribes harsh Remedies to an inveterate Disease;
for those, are only in order to prevent the Chyrurgeon™s work of an
Ense rescindendum, which I wish not to my very Enemies. To conclude all; if
the Body Politique have any Analogy to the Natural, in my weak judgment, an
Act of Oblivion were as necessary in a Hot, Distemper™d State, as an Opiate
would be in a Raging Fever.8
The ˜all™ getting here concluded is the superb little preface to Absalom
and Achitophel, Dryden™s complex meditation on the bounty and safety of
˜patriarchalism™, a meditation made in the uncomfortable shadow of the
publication of Sir Robert Filmer™s Patriarcha (1680) “ that arch defence
of divine right rule and anatomy of relations between the family and
the state which invested the originary force of paternity in the political
authority of the king. Not only was Absalom and Achitophel composed
in the shadow of Patriarcha, it was made in the even more discomfort-
ing circumstances of a political crisis brought on by a king who had
managed to act out his paternal energies in any number of unsanctioned
circumstances but who had not, by 1681, succeeded in producing a legit-
imate heir.9 Why Dryden was willing to conjure with patriarchalism in
defence of one of its less promising exemplars is an obvious puzzle, and I
want to return to this question. But for the moment what we might note
in the concluding sentence above is the tentative nature of its assertion,
the studied and, I shall argue, dissembled caution with which Dryden
proposes and tests the implications of the metaphor of the body politic.
The poised diffidence is not I suspect a real uncertainty as to whether
the metaphor still holds; whether it continues to name a system of
political beliefs that can sustain and naturalize political authority.
The caution is rather a way of seeming to soften the remedy folded into
the metaphor. Once we accept the unobjectionable, indeed unimpeach-
able, metaphor, a rather different and more dangerous implication
follows: ˜an Act of Oblivion were as necessary in a Hot, Distemper™d State

8
Dryden 1958, i, p. 216.
9
On the Exclusion Crisis, see Kenyon 1972; Scott 1991; Knights 1994.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 151
as an Opiate. . . in a Raging Fever™. The body under siege of a distemper
is in need first of ˜harsh remedies™, and, failing those, of the ˜Chyrurgeon™s
work of an Ense rescindendum™ [an amputation]; it is only the narrator™s
diffidence that prevents him from naming exactly which limb the surgeon
might excise to cure the inveterate disease of rebellion.
Dryden™s cultivation of the conditional with its attractive restraint
and uncertainty allows the emergence of the powerful and unpleasant
consequences of a metaphor whose multivalence covers one kind of
argument with another. Within the folds of a traditional and tempered
and unitary metaphor is concealed a course of action neither tempered
nor unitary, for amputation or dismemberment surely undermines the
argument of an indivisible state. The brief passage manages to invoke
the soothing familiarity of the political commonplace with its assurances
of wholeness, harmony and hierarchy while at the same time, and with
a seeming straight face, sharply to qualify its argument. The passage
seems in fact the very model of irony which works by allowing the yes
and no of assertion, by balancing idealized content against compromises
and distortions that alter but do not wholly deny or render unrecog-
nizable the innocent or ideal form of an argument. Irony, properly
constituted, works by preserving some semblance of innocence in the
linguistic transaction; if the ideal is wholly denied, then irony has nothing
to resist, nothing of value to weigh in the balance, and we have descended
into the simpler arguments and emotions of derision, debasement and
mockery.
Perhaps Dryden™s performance in the preface to Absalom and
Achitophel asks if we are at a juncture in the history of a political
language that exposes a faultline in its authority, a weakening of the
capacity of the metaphor to sustain political argument and contain
the disintegrative forces of different and challenging metaphors and
myths “ fictions that urge contractual or voluntaristic imaginings of the
relations of parts and whole. But perhaps the sleight of hand within this
sentence is less an indicator of tectonic shifts or even a piece of nostalgia
than a momentary and strategic regrouping, a pause, a dissimulation
of uncertainty, an act of politesse that invites reflection, perhaps even
acknowledges the possibility of dissent, all the while aiming to foreclose
that possibility and narrow the remedies for a state recoiling from the
very act of reimagining the foundations that the conditional ˜if™ seems
to invite and imply. The dissimulative arts of this sentence, and more
largely of the preface, and more amply of the poem as a whole, allow us
to hear linguistic play and political manoeuvering as they take place
152 steven n. zwicker
in real time “ as, in this instance, a series of events unfolded into
a political crisis which turned out to have revolutionary implications.
The literary text may enhance our understanding of the life of
political languages in time imagined as a horizontal dimension, but the
horizontal dimension is not its main argument and literary texts do not
form the most efficient or effective archive for mapping the changes
of political language over time. Within the freedom and with the lin-
guistic resources of literature, what we discover is an opening onto the
vertical dimension of political languages, their performance at specific
moments and under particular strain, their subtlety and operative
power, their ability to sustain and simultaneously undermine argument,
to provoke both scandal and assent. The capacity of literature to allow
this contradictory spectacle adds significantly to our understanding of
the performativity of political language, and in a way not easily available
outside the freedom and authority of the literary. Irony and contra-
diction, dissimulation and outright deceit may not be the exclusive
domain of literature “ and surely a number of examples of the ironic
and dissimulative capacities of language in other forms come quickly
to mind “ but there is something about the gifts of the literary, its
concentration and artful and studied character, its capacity to sustain
both play and polemic, both irony and sublimity, and perhaps too its
indeterminacy and its access to pleasure, that make literature the most
economical and rewarding domain within which to explore the vertical
dimension, that is the life and reach, of political languages.
We have touched on the meanings of the body politic in the closing
sentences of Dryden™s preface to Absalom and Achitophel and on the
extension of that metaphor into a patriarchal subtext. But patriarchy
turns out to be less a subtext of the poem prefaced by those sentences
than one of its crucial exhibits. With fatherhood the poem begins and
concludes, and fatherhood in its psychic and sexual and in its domestic
and civic dimensions forms the poem™s central theme. But what might
be the rewards for invoking patriarchy in defence of a political regime
whose responsibilities towards patriarchy might seem to have been so
negligently squandered? In answering this question we must of course
acknowledge Patriarcha, the book whose print publication in 1680
inserted the fixtures and fundamentals of patriarchalism into the crisis
looming over the succession once Charles II had been gathered into
the arms of his lord.10 That publication made it difficult wholly to avoid
10
On the dating and original context of Patriarcha, see Filmer 1991, pp. x“xxi.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 153
the arguments of Filmer™s systematic defence of the sanctity and authority
of patriarchal rule, but Patriarcha seems a text nearly devoid of irony
and Absalom and Achitophel is bathed in irony from beginning to end,
from its initial punning and joking to the slightly hollow and irrev-
erent prophecy at its close. Filmer™s work had put the cards of patriarchy
on the table, but Patriarcha is not a report on their status during the
Exclusion Crisis. The most subtle and responsive report is in fact
Dryden™s poem which tells us something about the political landscape
in which patriarchalism had come into play but more importantly
reveals the nature and capacity of this language to absorb and refashion,
to manage and deflect political crisis. And that is because Dryden
deploys the resources of political language so deftly and with such a full
measure of irony. His poem works as a serious-minded argument about
the social cohesion and psychological comforts of a political arrange-
ment that imagines kingship as patriarchy in an organic commonweal.
Simultaneously Absalom and Achitophel is a daring, witty and resource-
ful defence of a particular instance of patriarchy in the person of a king
for whom very little by way of sanctity, solemnity, indeed even sexual
fecundity could at this point in his rule straightforwardly be invoked.
That this poem with its system of veils, innuendos and puzzles was
designed as an entertainment “ and an entertainment that might
appeal both to the esoteric and exoteric communities of its readers “ is
certainly true. But puzzles and allegories, veiling and innuendo in no
way diminish, indeed, they rather enhance, its value as a report on the
condition and capacities of political language. The poem is a register
of the state of play among political languages and models of governance
in the midst of the Exclusion Crisis. It is also a demonstration of irony™s
nimble if unsteady truths. Absalom and Achitophel carefully diminishes,
even at points dismantles and certainly ironizes, what is hegemonic or
overbearing and wearisome, and of course dangerous, about the argument
of the divine donation of royal authority to Adam and its undiminished
lustre as it passed from generation to generation of fathers and kings
finally to devolve onto the person and office of Charles II and, by a not
so shadowy extension, onto the Roman Catholic person and patriarchal
capacities of the Duke of York. It allows us to ask “ and allowed con-
temporary readers to contemplate “ whether or not, two decades after
the Restoration and some thirty years after the beheading of Charles I,
and in the wake of a flamboyant series of sexual scandals and polit-
ical crises “ whether or not the crown could be sustained by the
systematic if late born defence of its authority articulated in Patriarcha.
154 steven n. zwicker
Locke™s Two Treatises of Government is certainly evidence “ and it was
not alone “ that this was a question worth asking, but the answer was
neither simple nor obvious.
Or rather Absalom and Achitophel allows us to say that the answer
was both yes and no, and simultaneously yes and no. The shimmering
uncertainty of the opening lines of this poem has been often and
beautifully parsed, and in ways that show us how divine sanctity and
authority, creative energy and sexual abundance, paternal indulgence
and political generosity might provoke both laughter and more serious
kinds of assent, and the poem as a whole seems a meditation on both these
possibilities. What the much studied sequence of images and ironies
establishes is the possibility that a serious political claim and one with
a sharp polemical edge might be made in a way that spends some
of the ideological capital of its assertion: that the sanctity of lineal descent,
the divinity of kingship or the abundance and social generosity of a
particular system of governance might be proffered, and simultaneously,
as a serious argument and as a joke. The joke does not disallow the
patriarchal argument but rather converts it into legal tender, into a fungible
proposition; yes, devaluation takes place but not the utter evacuation of
value; yes, a reduction of some of the high-toned authority of the argument
but a reduction that means it might be traded on the open market of ideas
rather than put aside or lofted on high as a burdensome treasure or as
a target of refutation or demolition. That is what irony is doing not only
at the opening of this poem but throughout all of its brilliant parts.

˜all parts fulfilled of subject and of son™
Listen for a moment, and on this very subject, to Absalom™s discourse
of paternal authority and kingly rights, as Dryden, the master™s hand
hidden partly behind a veil, acknowledges some delicate and embarrass-
ing, perhaps dangerous, themes: an indulgence grown into negligence;
a feminization of authority through sensual play; debility; political
dependence on France; and the distinction between kingship and
paternity in the matter of authority and obedience:
˜My Father, whom with reverence yet I name”
Charmed into Ease, is careless of his fame:
And, brib™d with petty sums of Forreign Gold,
Is grown in Bathsheba™s Embraces old:
Exalts his Enemies, his Friends destroys:
And all his pow™r against himself employs.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 155
He gives, and let him give my right away,
But why should he his own, and yours betray?
He only, he can make the Nation bleed,
And he alone from my revenge is freed.
Take then my tears, (with that he wip™d his eyes)
˜Tis all the Aid my present power supplies:
No Court Informer can these Arms accuse;
These Arms may Sons against their Father use,
And, tis my wish, the next Successors Reign
May make no other Israelite complain. (ll. 707“22)
We should note, though it is perhaps the least interesting aspect of
this passage, that this speech emerges from the mouth of a character
weak, indulged, and ambitious beyond his station. The truth claims of
Absalom™s charges are, in consequence, partly denied or delimited “ but
only in part. But such damage control cannot wholly deny the cogency
of these charges, their truth value in a world where they were rumoured
and acknowledged and not simply as a way for the emergent opposition
to discredit Stuart political authority. And now the proximity of this scene
to the opening manoeuvres of the poem comes into view. The passage
mingles truths and lies and exaggerations, and blurs them in such a way
that they are difficult wholly to disentangle. They are mixed purposefully,
and not simply to apply a bit of camouflage, but rather to suggest that
truth and deceit, integrity and bad faith, assertion and irony are more
intimate with one another than we might allow. More important than
their distinction and disaggregation is an obedience to the overriding
sentiments of the domestic and civic system, to the power of affect,
to the authority of a love and loyalty that even the compromised character
and impure psychology of an ungrateful son might acknowledge, ˜my
Father, whom with reverence yet I name™ (l. 707). And that sentiment
hovers over the whole, masks the impurities and foibles and follies
even of this father and his son. This is not an invocation of the patri-
archalism of Sir Robert Filmer, but the conjuring of fatherhood as
political authority mingled with domestic sentiment. Even the sugges-
tions of sexual weariness and spent energies contribute to the conversion
of the high rhetoric of patriarchalism into an idiom of restraint
and flexibility, of diminished expectations but heightened rhetorical

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