Friday, November 19, 2010

The Character and Life of the Laputans

The Flying Island, Suggestive of the Relationship of King and Country
Gulliver’s visit to Laputa, and to the subject land of Balnibarbi, has a more serious intention than one of ridiculing the Royal Society of the time.
The flying island, through its contemporary scientific interest, offers a political philosophy and a comment on man’s relation to nature which go beyond the merely topical, beyond the particular scientific discoveries of the time and the relations of the kingdoms of England and Ireland at the time. The flying island, in its devious and sensitive oblique movements, suggests the relationship of king and country. Laputa is ultimately dependent upon Balnibarbi, its motions only allowed by the magnetic quality of the “King’s dominions”. It is this quality which has allowed the Laputan King to establish his power over the fixed land of Balnibarbi. But there is a mutual dependence, because if either side pressed its power too far the result would be general ruin. The King’s last resource, in case of defiance from the populace of Balnibarbi, is to let the flying island drop upon their heads, but this would at the same time damage the adamant of Laputa itself. As for the nobles and ministers, they are committed to the welfare of both lands because their estates lie on the continent below even though they attend at the Laputan court. The balance of power, and the delicate relationships which exist between a king and those whom he governs, are very well represented by the conditions in Laputa and Balnibarbi.
Man Dependent upon and Limited by Other Men and by the Laws of Nature
Further, the relation of the greater and the lesser magnets, Laputa and Balnibarbi, suggests the limited usefulness of that understanding of the laws of the universe upon which the Age of Newton so prided itself, and which is one of the main targets of Swift’s satire in this part of the book. The Laputan King, for all his knowledge of cosmic circumstance, for all the ingenuity of his flying island, is yet dependent upon the firm earth beneath him for every movement that Laputa can make. This means that, for all his theoretic achievement, man is in practice dependent upon and limited by other men and by the laws of nature. The astronomers of Laputa, in spite of their considerable knowledge, have their limitations. Their pursuit of second causes ends in inscrutable mystery.
The Laputans Divorced from the Everyday Human Concerns
The Laputans, though they are in human shape, are more obviously allegorical creatures than any in Gulliver’s Travels. Their physical characteristics certainly express their nature as do those of the Brobdingnagians or the Yahoos, but in a different way. Their effect is made, not through exaggeration or isolation of the physical, but through a distortion of the physical. The Laputans have lost their human quality in their abnormal absorption in things remote from the concerns of men. With “one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith”, they are completely absorbed in their own speculations and in the study of the stars. Their interests are entirely abstract, and they see nothing of the everyday practical world, ignoring the knowledge of the senses totally. The Laputan is “always so wrapped up in cogitation that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post”. As they scorn the evidence of the senses, the Laputans are “very bad reasoners”, though very positive and dogmatic ones. Laputan thinking produces results as flimsy and useless as a spider’s cobweb, such as Gulliver’s ill-fitting suit, and the devastated countryside of Balnibarbi.
The Laputans’ Absorption in Abstract Sciences
The King and his court are devoted entirely to two subjects, music and mathematics, the most abstract sciences. The analogies between these two sciences serve to identify the Laputans as members of the Royal Society. The Laputans’ with their strong interest in music, mathematics, and astronomy, represent specifically the members of the Royal Society but more generally all those who turn away from the impressions of the senses and from the ordinary concerns of human nature in an effort to reach eternal truth. Swift’s reference to the music of the spheres emphasizes this more general meaning. The Laputans spend hours at their instruments, preparing themselves to join in the music of the spheres, which they claim they can hear.
The Exaggeratedly Intellectual Life of the Laputan Males
The narrowness, to the point of inhumanity, of the Laputans is indeed stressed throughout. They have out themselves off completely from all that is humanly creative and constructive. Even their food approaches as nearly as possible to the rarefied atmosphere in which they live, for their meat is carved into geometrical shapes and their poultry trussed up “into the form of fiddles”. Nor do they have any conception of physical or sensuous beauty, because they see beauty only in mathematical abstractions. As the world of human beings cannot be adequately dealt with in mathematical terms, the wives of the Laputans have fallen into matter, escaping whenever possible into a life altogether physical and degraded, as exaggeratedly animal as that of their husbands is exaggeratedly intellectual.
The Results of the Laputans’ Efforts, Purely Destructive
The King has no interest in “the laws of government, history, religion, or manners of the countries” which Gulliver has visited, and his Kingdom of Balnibarbi is chaotic. Gulliver “could not discover one ear of com, or blade of grass” except in a few places, during his journeys. (It may be recalled that the Kingdom of Brobdingnag was called a “simple Utopia of abundance” where government was conducted with practical goodwill and a due regard for traditional wisdom, and where the King thought his task to be one of promoting life, making two ears of com or two blades of grass grow where only one grew before.) The Laputans produce a world of death, and the results of their efforts are purely destructive because their aims are too high and unrelated to real conditions. For instance, according to them, some day a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. In the meantime, houses are ruined, land is uncultivated, and people are starving.
Wrong-headed Abstract Conceptions, the Basis of Experiments at the Academy of Projectors
The activities of the members of the. Academy of Projectors, though they involve experiment, are yet related to the abstract thinking of the King. For the most part, they are based on some wrong-headed abstract conception, and are really examples of reasoning downward, taking “the High Priori Road”. They are aspects, therefore, of the modem tendency to ignore “the old forms” and to rely on a spider-like spinning of thought. By blending experiment and High Priori reasoning in the Academy at Lagado, Swift is able to show scientific “projects” as yet another example of the kind of thinking which leads away from the methods of a Christian and humanist tradition. Indeed, one of the projects is an exact allegorical equivalent of the process of reasoning downward to the foundations of plain experience. There is a most ingenius architect who has contrived a new method of building houses, by beginning at the roof and working downwards to the foundation, which he tries to justify by the practice of those two prudent insects-the bee and the spider. Again, the notion of ploughing the land with hogs to save the charges of ploughs, cattle, and labour results, upon experiment, in no crop and a good deal of trouble and expense.
Aimless Activity, Distorted Values, and a Perversion of Things
Such projects leave an impression of uselessness, dirt, temporariness, or death. An eminent member of the Academy has been busy for thirty years converting things into their opposites. Air has been made tangible and marble has been made soft; land is sown with chaff, and woolless sheep have been reared; the hooves of a living horse are petrified. In short, the projects are conducted in an atmosphere of aimless activity, distorted values, and a perversion of things from their proper purpose. While the general effect of the images we associate with Lilliput and Brobdingnag is of man and other animals as vigorous physical beings, the effect of Laputa and its subject Kingdom of Balnibarbi is of a deliberate giving up of the physical and the vital for the abstract, the mechanical, and the unproductive. The prevailing images in Laputa and Balnibarbi are not of real people and animals, but of ruins, mechanical constructions, men who look like allegorical figures and women who are thought of in geometrical terms. Animals are only negatively present, as in the pathetic horses and sheep of the Academy. Laputa itself is a mechanical device, because the flying island expresses not only the Laputans’ desertion of the common earth of reality but their conversion of the universe to a mechanism, and of living, to a mechanical process.
Immortality Not a Cheering Prospect
From Lagado, Gulliver goes to Glubbdubdrib, where again he is in a world of no-meaning, of delusion and death, a world which is darker even than Laputa. In the palace of the sorcerer who is the governor of the island, Gulliver has a series of strange interviews with the ghosts of the famous dead. Alexander and Hannibal, who were conquerors and destroyers, give particularly trivial answers to Gulliver’s questions. We get a very gloomy picture of both the ancient and the modem worlds. Then follows the most sombre episode, relating to the Struldbrugs of Luggnagg. Here the lesson of Laputa is repeated with a greater seriousness. A right sense of values is here suggested through the figure of man, immortal yet still painfully recognizable. Gulliver, hearing of the immortals, cries out as in a rapture, exclaiming upon the wisdom and happiness which they must have achieved. Being born exempt from death, these immortals must have minds free, without the weight and depression of spirits caused by a constant fear of death. So Gulliver thinks. In fact, however, the immortal and aged creatures, though tree from the fear of death, are yet as full of other fears and wretchedness as any other men. This means that, being what we are, we will yet always display those vices which as human beings we will always have, however long we may live. The Struldbrugs certainly do not have free minds, and for them the thought of endless life does not give rise to hopes of endless improvement in wisdom and virtue. They regard their immortality as a dreadful prospect even as other men regard their death, and indeed they long to die. Thus, we find that immortal man is still man, limited in his capacity for growth, sinful, fearful, and dissatisfied. Gulliver, who dreams of being a Struldbrug, has to learn that life is a serious, difficult, and moral undertaking, and that humanity being always the same there is no escape from our vices and our trivialities. Gulliver says that he grew “heartily ashamed of the pleasing visions I had formed; and thought no tyrant could invent a death into which I would not run with pleasure from such a life”.

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