Grayswandir (_grayswandir_) wrote,

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Or: Travels to Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver.

So my English Lit class is over, and what's the first thing I do? Decide it's time to finally read Gulliver's Travels.

It was actually far more entertaining than I had expected. Swift's style is very prosaic and straightforward, which is probably why every time I've tried to read the book in the past, I was bored within the first couple of pages. But having gotten accustomed to his dry sarcasm from the excerpts in my Lit textbook, I was ready to give him another try. He's... quite a character, that Swift.

Mainly, I find myself astonished at how I can have ever imagined 1700 was a long time ago. I mean, I never thought 1800 seemed all that far in the past, but 1700 was another matter. The wigs and stockings had me confused, I guess. Diderot and Voltaire set me straight about the later part of the century, but I was still a bit wary of Swift. I see now that I was being an idiot. Gulliver's Travels begins in 1699, and is scarcely any less relevant now than it was three hundred years ago.

First of all, I cannot believe the way Gulliver's Travels is nowadays mistaken for some kind of children's story, and is always showing up in cartoons and fairy-tale books. I know I read/watched several versions of it as a child myself. For god's sake, Swift could not have made it any less appropriate for children if he'd tried! The thing is perfectly crude.

I mean, in Lilliput -- the land of the tiny people -- practically the first thing he does is to defecate in the city temple, and shortly thereafter he finds occasion to piss all over the imperial palace. The tiny soldiers marching under him have the indecency to look up and discover the unfortunate condition of his pants, which inspires much "laughter and admiration." In Brobdignag he goes on and on about gigantic, six-foot-prominent breasts, and enormous women undressing (and using their chamber pots) in front of him, since he's too small and inconsiderable to be treated with any ceremony. I'm quite sure he only makes a point of describing how horrible their enormous bodies appear to him in order to evade being censured for pornography.

And that's only the first half of the book; the second half is worse! It includes a contraption like a bellows with an ivory tip to be employed in a... suppository manner, for instance. It also includes a completely gratuitous description of the precise areas of hair growth on the bestial-but-humanoid Yahoos -- and I mean medically precise. He finally winds up sailing away in a boat covered with human skins and waxed up with human tallow. o_O

But anyway, the satire is fucking hilarious. It's pretty dry at first, I think because Swift was trying to be at least somewhat subtle, but he gets bolder as the story progresses, and in the last few chapters he is absolutely scathing. Well, there's also the fact that Gulliver is becoming progressively more disgusted with England and with humanity in general, and by the time he meets the Houyhnhnms in the end, he's pretty much ready to throw his whole country to the dogs.

One of my favorite bits was his attempt to explain the British legal system to the Houyhnhnms:
I assured his honour, that the law was a science in which I had not much conversed, further than by employing advocates, in vain, upon some injustices that had been done me: however, I would give him all the satisfaction I was able.

I said, there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves. For example, if my neighbour has a mind to my cow, he has a lawyer to prove that he ought to have my cow from me. I must then hire another to defend my right, it being against all rules of law that any man should be allowed to speak for himself. Now, in this case, I, who am the right owner, lie under two great disadvantages: first, my lawyer, being practised almost from his cradle in defending falsehood, is quite out of his element when he would be an advocate for justice, which is an unnatural office he always attempts with great awkwardness, if not with ill-will. The second disadvantage is, that my lawyer must proceed with great caution, or else he will be reprimanded by the judges, and abhorred by his brethren, as one that would lessen the practice of the law.*

And therefore I have but two methods to preserve my cow. The first is, to gain over my adversary’s lawyer with a double fee, who will then betray his client by insinuating that he hath justice on his side. The second way is for my lawyer to make my cause appear as unjust as he can, by allowing the cow to belong to my adversary: and this, if it be skilfully done, will certainly bespeak the favour of the bench. Now your honour is to know, that these judges are persons appointed to decide all controversies of property, as well as for the trial of criminals, and picked out from the most dexterous lawyers, who are grown old or lazy; and having been biassed all their lives against truth and equity, lie under such a fatal necessity of favouring fraud, perjury, and oppression, that I have known some of them refuse a large bribe from the side where justice lay, rather than injure the faculty, by doing any thing unbecoming their nature or their office.

It is a maxim among these lawyers that whatever has been done before, may legally be done again: and therefore they take special care to record all the decisions formerly made against common justice, and the general reason of mankind. These, under the name of precedents, they produce as authorities to justify the most iniquitous opinions; and the judges never fail of directing accordingly.

In pleading, they studiously avoid entering into the merits of the cause; but are loud, violent, and tedious, in dwelling upon all circumstances which are not to the purpose. For instance, in the case already mentioned; they never desire to know what claim or title my adversary has to my cow; but whether the said cow were red or black; her horns long or short; whether the field I graze her in be round or square; whether she was milked at home or abroad; what diseases she is subject to, and the like; after which they consult precedents, adjourn the cause from time to time, and in ten, twenty, or thirty years, come to an issue.

It is likewise to be observed, that this society has a peculiar cant and jargon of their own, that no other mortal can understand, and wherein all their laws are written, which they take special care to multiply; whereby they have wholly confounded the very essence of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong; so that it will take thirty years to decide, whether the field left me by my ancestors for six generations belongs to me, or to a stranger three hundred miles off.

[* Paragraph break mine, not Swift's.]
I'm sure glad we Americans got our independence a few decades later, or we'd still have to deal with a legal system like that! Oh, wait...

There were some really nice political jabs in some of the earlier episodes, too, though Swift delivers most of them in allegorical form rather than by making speeches, as above. I really liked the way he concluded the episode in Brobdignag, for instance, when Gulliver, finding himself among his own normal-sized people again at last, is not merely astonished at how small they are, but actually finds it impossible to forbear ridiculing them, and the tiny implements they wield and the tiny houses they build, the tiny ships they sail and their tiny garments, and their tiny persons which they imagine to be of so great importance. Wherewith Swift makes the observation that those who spend too much time among the "great" become so accustomed to bigness that they cease to perceive any virtue, or even any humanity, in the small, and cannot conceive of human dignity or courage existing in any but the highest circles.

The whole war over how to break eggs in Lilliput was excellent, too, and I loved that the actual scripture merely commanded believers to break their eggs at the "convenient end," and all anyone was fighting about was the interpretation. Incidentally, I was also perfectly astounded at how straightforwardly Swift asserted that colonialism and slavery in every form were wrong, and that they made England look far less civilized than the "savage" countries she was supposedly "civilizing"; and also at how the Houyhnhnms "thought it monstrous in us, to give the females a different kind of education from the males." This in 1726. Either the man was a very long way ahead of his time, or the rest of us the world is a long way behind.

Laputa confused me a little, though. I suppose it's not intended as a jab at science, but rather at the aristocrats, who, being free of want, spend all their time and money on the most obscure and useless academic pursuits, rather than dealing with anything concrete or practical (such as their own people living in poverty and famine). I do get the point, that these metaphysial-minded noblemen are less fit than anyone to rule anything, since they're too concerned with the behavior of the stars and the elements to pay attention to their own feet, and are liable to inadvertently precipitate themselves down a flight of stairs whilst pondering the mysteries of the universe. And after all I have no way to judge how absurd and impractical most theoretical science may really have been in the early 1700's. But I do think he was a bit hard on science in general.

The academy of scientists making perfectly useless advancements was still pretty entertaining, though. Especially the books of randomly-generated phrases being pieced together -- a more sanitary version, essentially, of the thousand monkeys who will theoretically produce all the works of Shakespeare, given sufficient time.

The metaphor about crushing the townspeople with the adamantine underside of the flying island -- but not too roughly, for fear the island itself might be destroyed with the violence -- was very nicely done, too.

My favorite section was the last one, though, in the land of the Houyhnhnms, partly because Swift showed the least reservation there, but also because Gulliver's increasing despise for humanity was interesting to watch, and pretty well founded. (And having spent a good part of today waiting at the DMV to renew my truck registration, I had ample opportunity to observe all kinds of modern-day Yahoos, and to be perfectly ashamed of belonging to their species. *sigh*)

What's really funny is that the whole book reminded me, more than anything, of Star Trek. Okay, I know, I know. But in an age when the idea of interstellar travel was beyond any reasonable conjecture, Gulliver was nevertheless making the same kind of journeys the Enterprise makes, to strange new worlds where no man has gone before; and in most cases, the beings he discovers there are even less like his own people than the aliens on Star Trek are like earthlings. And, most importantly, in every case, by observing the behaviors and cultures of other creatures, he learns something about humanity, for better or worse. Only I'm afraid Swift was much less optimistic, and much less forgiving, than Roddenberry was.

Anyway. I should stop, because I have to go buy another computer monitor, since the one in my room has died again. God, I'd almost forgotten how preposterously long my posts get when I don't have a zillion more urgent things to be doing. You can all see how profitably I spend my free time. Whee.
Tags: books, jonathan swift, literature, star trek

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