Having always considered the National Inquirer to be apolitical, I’ve been puzzled by its enthusiasm for Trump and its unceasing attacks on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (Hillary’s Crimes! Treason! Bribery! Perjury! Fraud! Espionage! Embezzlement!) It sounds like we will soon learn more given publisher David Pecker’s immunity deal with prosecutors in the Michael Cohen case. At the very least, it appears that National Inquirer helped Trump by “catching and killing” articles that threatened his presidential bid, and who knows what other uses it has made of information at its disposal. Somewhere along the line, National Inquirer morphed from entertainment magazine into political operation.
Pecker brings to mind the publishers and political hacks that Pope attacks in The Dunciad. I’ve already turned to Pope’s satiric masterpiece to capture our debased times generally (here), but in Book II he specifically talks about unscrupulous members of the media. All succeed in begriming themselves as Pecker has.
One warning: Pope uses scatological imagery (excrement) to make his point.
Pope imagines heroic games held to celebrate the coronation of a new chief dunce. In one, two unscrupulous publishers race after a money-making project, wading through the discarded contents of chamber pots to seize it. In a diving competition, political hacks dive into London’s sewer system, vying to see who can plunge most deeply into the muck.
Competing against Bernard Lintot, Edmund Curll, the more unscrupulous of the two publishers, encounters the slops which Corinna (his mistress or maid) has dumped in front of his competition’s shop:
Full in the middle way there stood a lake,
Which Curll’s Corinna chanced that morn to make
(Such was her wont, at early dawn to drop
Her ev’ning cates [delicacies] before his neighbor’s shop):
Here fortuned Curll to slide; loud shout the band,
And “Bernard! Bernard!” rings thro’ all the Strand.
Obscene with filth the miscreant lies bewrayed [befouled],
Fall’n in the plash his wickedness had laid…
Curll, however, has access to divine aid and sends up a prayer to Jove, sitting on a chamber pot and dispensing favors through his aide Cloacina, the Roman goddess of the sewers. Put bluntly, Curll has a long practice of publishing shit, so Cloacina gives him extra juice, revitalizing him with “ordure’s sympathetic force” and “effluvia strong.” Curll wins the race, albeit stained with excrement.
Oft had the Goddess heard her servant’s call,
From her black grottos near the temple wall,
List’ning delighted to the jest unclean
Of linkboys vile, and watermen obscene;
Where as he fished her nether realms for wit,
She oft had favored him, and favors yet.
Renewed by ordure’s sympathetic force,
As oiled with magic juices for the course,
Vig’rous he rises; from th’ effluvia strong;
Imbibes new life, and scours and stinks along;
Repasses Lintot, vindicates the race,
Nor heeds the brown dishonors of his face.
The diving contest is similarly obscene. Fleet Ditch, once the Fleet River, is now part of the London sewer system: as London’s population grew, the Fleet became clogged and the Thames grew increasingly polluted. The “Weekly Journals” for which the contestants vie are political publications:
This labor past, by Bridewell [the women’s prison] all descend
(As morning prayer and flagellation end)
To where Fleet Ditch, with disemboguing streams,
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames;
The king of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
“Here strip, my children! here at once leap in;
Here prove who best can dash thro’ thick and thin,
And who the most in love of dirt excel,
Or dark dexterity of groping well:
Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes around
The stream, be his the Weekly Journals bound…”
One of those expert at groping well and flinging filth is Smedley, a venial churchman who spent a lot of energy attacking Pope’s friend Jonathan Swift. Like Hylas, the Greek youth kidnapped by water nymphs, Smedley has his own encounter with underwater maids, although these ones are besmirched with sewage:
First he relates how, sinking to the chin,
Smit with his mien, the mud-nymphs sucked him in;
How young Lutetia, softer than the down,
Nigrina black, and Merdamante brown,
Vied for his love in jetty bowers below,
As Hylas fair was ravished long ago.
The end result is a man as thoroughly tainted as Pecker:
When lo! a burst of thunder shook the flood,
Slow rose a form in majesty of mud;
Shaking the horrors of his sable brows,
And each ferocious feature grim with ooze.
Greater he looks, and more than mortal stares;
Then thus the wonders of the deep declares.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just shrug off the garbage put out by National Enquirer and other such publications and social media. Pope himself worried that he elevated his targets by attacking them. Unfortunately, as we have seen, they play a significant role in our political discourse, as they did in the 18th century.
Nor did Pope’s satire have much of an effect on them. After all, there’s always a market for dirt. Whatever the outcome of the charges that an immunized Pecker will testify to, we haven’t seen the last of him or of people like him.
At least Pope reminds us that there is virtue and decency in the world, even if it’s under constant attack.