Sunday, January 2, 2011

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

“…the question therefore was not whether a man would choose to be always in the primes of youth, attended with prosperity and health, but how he would pass a perpetual life under all the usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it. For although few men will avow their desires of being immortal upon such hard conditions, yet in the two kingdoms before-mentioned of Balnibari an Japan, he observed that every man desired to put off death for some time longer, let it approach ever so late, and he rarely heard of any man who died willingly, except he were incited by the extremity of grief or torture. And he appealed to me whether in those countries I had traveled, as well as my own, I had not observed the same general disposition.” – Gulliver, on living forever

Gulliver’s Travels is a strange book. Now mostly pigeonholed as a children's book, perhaps because most adaptations never make it past part two, it’s actually a scathing—extremely scathing—satire on both the specific political events at the time it was written, and on the shortcomings of mankind in general. It’s also an occasionally grotesque comedy, full of more poop than you can shake a stick at, and occasionally leavened with moments of poignancy, like the excerpt above, where the disadvantages of living forever are spelled out to the titular traveler.

The plot, for those who don’t know, revolves around Lemuel Gulliver, an intrepid traveler with an unnatural propensity for ending up in the most unusual places: Lilliput, where the tallest citizen barely exceed 6 inches in height; Brobdingnag, a land of giants; Laputa, a floating city full of brilliant idiots; and the country of the Houyhnhnms, where horses rule over feral—or are they?—humans.

Each episode is basically self-contained, and each presents it’s own opportunities for Swift’s two favorite things: the aforementioned scathing satire, and all the scatological humor a reader could ever want. Dogs are inflated with billows until they burst; horses climb trees to cover Gulliver in excrement; Gulliver is used as some sort of sexual aid for giant women; Gulliver pees on a building to put out a fire. Just saying, Swift likes his bodily fluids.

Of course, Gulliver’s Travels isn’t well-regarded because of its giggle-inducing dirty bits. Swift’s pen takes on virtually every high tower of the European empire (although we are repeatedly assured that the negative things Gulliver says about Europe do not apply to England), and the satire is as sharp and relevant today as when it was published. For example, government officials in Lillput are chosen thusly:

I was diverted with none so much as that of the rope-dancers, performed upon a slender white thread, extended about two feet, and twelve inches from the ground… This diversion is only practised by those persons who are candidates for great employments, and high favour at court. They are trained in this art from their youth, and are not always of noble birth, or liberal education. When a great office is vacant, either by death or disgrace (which often happens,) five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest, without falling, succeeds in the office.


It’s difficult to tell to what extent Swift empathizes with Gulliver, which makes certain sections of the book a little challenging—for example, the Houyhnhnms, whom Gulliver seems to admire, and to whom are given mostly desirable qualities in contrast to humans, practice breeding in a way that seems perilously close to eugenics, and at one point, their council seriously considers genocide to rid their land of the Yahoo—that is, feral human—menace. Gulliver also, disturbingly enough, eats Yahoo meat and uses Yahoo skin to make clothes, making him essentially a cannibal and a Nazi tailor. They also seem rather xenophobic, eventually exiling Gulliver after 3 years of peaceful coexistence. To attribute all these views to Swift seems awfully presumptuous—he did, after all, write a famous essay about eating Irish babies—but they present a complicated counterpoint to Swift’s overall point—mankind has major issues.