‘ “His foul Imagination links / Each Dame he sees with all her stinks”: Masculinity and Obsessional Disorder in The Lady’s Dressing Room’

Steve Van-Hagen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


In the past century many of Swift’s works have been reinterpreted in the light of later philosophies which critics have argued Swift anticipates and predicts. Examples include the now common claims that he anticipated aspects of the Theatre of the Absurd and the concept of ‘dark comedy’, later found in the works of Antonin Artaud, and the view popularised by Norman O. Brown that Swift’s ‘excremental’ or ‘scatological’ poems anticipate aspects of psychoanalysis.1  This chapter will bring these interests together, focusing on one of the most notorious of all Swift’s productions, The Lady’s Dressing Room (1732). While a number of recent critics have turned away from reading the poem as being primarily concerned with female filthiness, noting that the figure of Caelia does not at any point appear in the poem itself, my reading will instead suggest that the poem’s primary concern is instead with the disturbed thinking of the figure of Strephon. While Swift’s primary conceptual inspiration was doubtless the work of John Locke on the association of ideas, using both modern-day postfeminist theories of masculinity and contemporary work on obsessive compulsive disorders, this chapter argues that the poem should be read as taking its place in the pantheon of Swift’s writings about the relation between disturbed masculinity and obsessionality, anticipating the variant of OCD often today termed Primarily Obsessional Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (or ‘Pure OCD’). The chapter further suggests that Swift’s prescient anticipations of later views of obsessionality are fundamental to his status as an essentially modern thinker and writer, who depicts crisis as definitive of masculinity, and intractable and irresolvable paradox as definitive of human experience.

[1] See Norman O. Brown, ‘The Excremental Vision’, in Life Against Death (Middletown, Conn. and Oxford, UK: Wesleyan University Press, 1959), pp.179-201.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJonathan Swift and Philosophy
EditorsJanelle Poetzsch
Place of PublicationLanham, Maryland
PublisherRowman and Littlefield
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)978-1498521536
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016


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