Presentation 1: Empiricism and the Misogynistic Aspects of "The Lady's Dressing Room" by Jonathan Swift


1. Summary of Empiricism

Empiricism is based on the tabula rasa, or blank slate concept. Basically, it states that we are born clear, without any kind of innate behaviors or knowledge and we learn everything along the way.

According to empiricist thinking, knowledge is acquired exclusively through the senses - through observation.

This aspect of empiricism is the basis of modern scientific thinking and methodology. The primary tool of scientific research is observation by the senses, typically sight. Technology has improved our power of observation over time, but it hasn't eliminated its importance.

John Locke's essay, "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" details human functions in a highly structured format. Human Understanding is first broken down into a series of components. Each component is subsequently broken down individually into its sub-components. The description of each component begins with an idealized explanation of its function when at its peak capacity in youth. It ends with a detailing of the component's decay in old age.

In his essay, Locke isolates each component of human understanding and describes its decay individually. Mandell asserts that this is a kind of disavowal of death because the decay of the whole is never addressed. Locke breaks down death in terms of the decay of the components that form the whole making his essay a kind of dilution of death's potency.

Furthermore, the tools of empiricist research, objective scientific observation, impose a distance between the observer and the subject. Perhaps because this is in direct opposition to the poet-muse relationship, which tends to be highly empathetic, Swift and Pope took an allegedly strong disliking to the rationale.

"The Lady's Dressing Room" is a kind of satire of these aspects of empiricist thought. Swift over-dramatizes learning from the senses, researching through observation and assessing human decay through its components.

2. Decaying Human Components

Strephon's intent to catalogue his findings objectively clearly is expressed:

Strephon, who found the room was void

And Betty otherwise employed,

Stole in and took a strict survey

Of all the liter as it lay;

Whereof, to make the matter clear,

An inventory follow here.

The evidence of Celia's decay is prevalent throughout the poem. She uses "A forehead cloth with oil upon't/ To smooth the wrinkles on her front." Wrinkles are indicative of aging, a natural decay and progression towards death. Her offensive smell permeates through the room. Strephon uses his senses to observe Celia's things. Most prominent is his use of the sense of smell:

For Strephon ventured to look in,

Resolved to go through thick or thin;

He lifts the lid, there needs no more:

He smelt it all the time before.

Swift exposes the pitfall of drawing conclusion from your senses, as Empiricists would, when Strephon associates Celia's smell with all women:

But vengeance, Goddess never sleeping,

Soon punished Strephon for his peeping:

His foul Imagination links

Each dame he see with all her stinks;