Friday, November 19, 2010

The Character of the Houyhnhnms, Not an Ideal to Be Followed

No Apparent Positives in the Fourth Voyage
For a long time the fourth voyage of Gulliver’s Travels was regarded as the outburst of a misanthrope who took pleasure in degrading human nature.
Swift was hostile to all doctrines of the natural self-sufficiency of man; and the fourth voyage embodies that hostility. But while the object of attack in this voyage is established, it is not immediately clear, from the voyage itself, where any positive attitude is implied in the Houyhnhnms or in the other characters. The Yahoos clearly embody the negative intention and are to be condemned. The Yahoos illustrate what happens to man when he tries to live by nature. The Yahoos have degenerated because their feeble human reason has been overwhelmed by an irrational nature.
The Modern View of the Fourth Voyage Different from the Old View
The fourth voyage is ambiguous not because of the Yahoos who, as indicated above, illustrate a negative position. The ambiguity lies in the position of Gulliver and, even more so, in that of the Houyhnhnms. It had long been believed that the function of the Houyhnhnms was to present an ideal of the true life of reason, an ideal to be admired even if it be unattainable. But now such a view is not accepted any longer. It has now been pointed out that the Houyhnhnms are not altogether admirable beings, and that they are actually sometimes absurd and even repellent. It has also been pointed out that our reaction to Gulliver’s extreme devotion to them may be one of disgust. There is considerable truth in this view which is supported by many modem critics.
The Houyhnhnm Master’s Absurd Criticism of the Human Anatomy
There is much in the Houyhnhnms that we find to be unpleasant and unacceptable. The arguments offered by the speakers at the Assembly of the Houyhnhnms, about the nature and future fate of Gulliver and the Yahoos, for instance, show the characteristic coldness of the Houyhnhnm’s race. Again, the Houyhnhnm to whom Gulliver refers as his “master”, shows the characteristic self-satisfaction of his race when he criticizes Gulliver’s physical qualities. This self-satisfaction is, indeed, carried here to the point of absurdity. Gulliver’s master criticizes the flatness of Gulliver’s face, the prominence of his nose, his eyes placed directly in front so that he cannot look on either side without turning his head, the need for Gulliver to lift one of his fore-feet to his mouth in order to feed himself, and so on. This attitude of the Houyhnhnm master certainly goes against his race.

The Houyhnhnms’ Way of Life Not an Ideal for Us
Towards the end of the book we are introduced to a ship’s captain whose name is Pedro de Mendez and who turns out to be one of the most attractive characters in the book. After meeting this man, we are struck by the contrast between him and the Houyhnhnms whose arrogance alienates us from them. Indeed, even Gulliver alienates us when we find him absorbed in his admiration of his former equine master and avoids his own family to concentrate on the neighing of two English horses which he has bought and in whose company he spends several hours daily. It is likely that Swift has deliberately produced this effect on our minds in order to show that the Houyhnhnms are far from being a model of perfection and that they are, in fact, intended to show the inadequacy of the life of reason. In other words, Swift not only condemns the Yahoos for their evils but also looks sceptically at the Houyhnhnms who embody a life governed wholly by the rational faculty. In other words, Swift does not offer the Houyhnhnms’ way of life as the kind of ideal which we should emulate. Thus there is in this part of the book no norm, positively and unambiguously suggested to the reader.
No Consistent Satiric Norm in the First Three Voyages
It seems to be foreign to Swift’s method to represent in one person or one race a state of things of which he fully approves. Swift was greatly attracted by the spirit of compromise or by what may be called the middle way. He had a strong feeling for existing forms and a dislike of innovation. Any suggestion of radical remedies was distrusted by him even as he presented it, and he would withdraw from it into irony, or fall back into compromise (as he does in the ambiguous Argument Against Abolishing Christianity). In Gulliver’s Travels too, Swift adopts the same method. In the first two parts of the book, no one person or group of persons is put forward for our approval. Neither the Lilliputians nor the Brobdingnagians, nor Gulliver himself, can be-regarded as a consistent satiric norm against which the moral and political shortcomings of the England of that time are to be precisely measured. Swift slips &om one side to another according as his isolated satiric points require it, and we are at one moment to admire and at another to dislike the creatures of his imagination. Even in Laputa, several serious political schemes, such as the visionary project of persuading monarchs to choose favourites upon the score of their wisdom, capacity, and virtue, appear among the absurdities of the projectors. Thus in none of the first three voyages are we left with a consistent standard embodied in any creature.
The Portrayal of the Houyhnhnms in the Fourth Voyage
Likewise, in the fourth voyage the Houyhnhnms are not presented fairly and squarely for our unqualified approval. The radical primitivism and rationalism of the Houyhnhnms has not been offered to us as completely and thoroughly desirable. The portrayal of the Houyhnhnms is accompanied by an ironic and sceptical withdrawal on the part of the author. Swift, then, uses the Houyhnhnms not as a complete statement of the right kind of man or society, but as a satiric contrast in which good and less good are mixed. Several of the characteristics of the Houyhnhnms are intended to show their remoteness from, and their irrelevance to, the ordinary life and standards of mankind. Primitivism, for instance, is used precisely for this effect. The Houyhnhnms have great difficulty in understanding such humanly simple matters as Gulliver’s clothes, his ship, and his writing. The Houyhnhnm master, in his dealings with Gulliver in Chapter 3, is not only unattractive, but unattractive in a particular way. Gulliver here tells us that his Houyhnhnm master brought him to meet his brethren “and made them treat me with civility because as he told them privately, this would put me into good humour and make me more diverting”. This may be intended to reduce Gulliver’s status and lower his pride. But this also produces an impression of the lack of humanity and sympathy in the Houyhnhnms, and their cold curiosity. The Houyhnhnm master’s condemnation of Gulliver’s physical characteristics also, as already pointed out above, shows the Houyhnhnms’ inability to understand the human point of view. This condemnation shows, further, the Houyhnhnm master’s self-righteousness and his determination to belittle the human race which in its own land claims to rule over the race of the horses.
Rational Beings without Any Passions
The Houyhnhnms, we find, are alien and unsympathetic beings; they are not mankind at its best. In fact, they represent a kind of life with which mankind has little to do. The Houyhnhnms are not human beings but virtuous animals, perfect but limited natural creatures. They are of a nature which is irrelevant to man. They are-incapable of the heights as well as the depths to which mankind can reach. The Houyhnhnms have no shame, no temptations, no conception of sin. They are totally unable to understand the purpose of lying or other common temptations of mankind. They can live by reason because they have been created passionless. In man, as we know, the passions are apt to have the better of the reason and the result of this in its extrement form is seen in the Yahoos. But the Houyhnhnms have no passions to control. Gulliver thus describes the Houyhnhnms: “As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with a general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions or ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand ,maxim is to cultivate reason and to be wholly governed by it.”
No Natural Affections and No Fear of Death in the Houyhnhnms
In the Houyhnhnms nature and reason are identical. They have no natural affections in the human sense. Nature has taught them to be equally benevolent to everyone, and to make a distinction of persons only on the rational grounds of a superior degree of virtue. They undertake marriage simply as “one of the necessary actions in a reasonable being”. They have no fear of death either. They treat death with the same complete absence of emotion that they show towards every other event. These attitudes are not those which nature teaches human beings. Man has affections and passions, and Swift does not seem to regard them as wholly bad. The painful fear of death in mankind was a subject which particularly interested and affected him, and the curious episode of the immortal Struldbrugs in the third voyage is an attempt to deal with it. The Houyhnhnms are rational even in those things in which the wisest man’s passions inevitably and even perhaps rightly rule him.
Human Beings Different from Both the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos
The Houyhnhnms believe that nature and reason are sufficient guides for a reasonable animal. Man, according to this view, has no right to lay claim to the life of reason because in him reason and nature are not identical and because there is in his nature something which is outside the legitimate control of reason. But that does not necessarily mean that man’s nature is thoroughly evil and his situation hopeless, as is the case of the degenerate Yahoos. Nor is man treated by Swift in these terms. Gulliver and the other human beings in Part IV are clearly distinguished not only from the Houyhnhnms but also from the Yahoos; and the differences in their mental and physical habits from both the other races are strongly emphasized. The human beings stand apart from both the races of this animal world. They possess characteristics which are proper to humanity and which are understood neither by the naturally virtuous and rational Houyhnhnms nor by the vicious and irrational Yahoos. Man does indeed share the Yahoos’ tendency to evil, but he has compensating qualities which the bestial Yahoos have not possessed since their first degeneration. With these compensating qualities man surpasses the cold rational virtue of the Houyhnhnms also.
Love, Pity, and Gratitude Not Valued by the Houyhnhnms
The member of the Houyhnhnms race who is treated with most sympathy by Swift is the humble sorrel nag who acts as an escort for Gulliver and who belongs to the servant-breed of the Houyhnhnms. There is in the rational mind of this nag some near-human warmth and devotion, and he is the only creature in Houyhnhnm-land to show any affection. When Gulliver sails away, this nag cries out to him: “Take care of thyself !” With this slight exception there is no sign among the Houyhnhnms of kindness, compassion, or self-sacrifice. Yet elsewhere in the book there is a sympathetic treatment of the human qualities of love and pity which are very different from the Houyhnhnms’ equal benevolence, detachment, and rational respect for virtue. Even in Part I., there is an insistence on the importance of gratitude among the Lilliputians who regard ingratitude as a capital crime (Chapter 6). In Part II there is the toleration of the giant King, and the affection between Gulliver and the protective nurse who looks after him. In Part IV great prominence is given to the captain and crew of the ship which rescues Gulliver.
Gulliver, a Misanthrope at the End
The Portuguese sailors in Part IV are portrayed as admirable human beings. Swift emphasizes in them the very qualities which the Houyhnhnms neither possess nor understand. It is Don Pedro who persuades Gulliver to give up his plan of living as a recluse, and to commit himself once more to the human relationships proper to mankind. Gulliver’s duty, as Don Pedro sees it, is a return to a life of humanity, tolerance, and affection among his own people. However, Gulliver’s behaviour towards his own family shows him to be almost crazy. Only with difficulty can Gulliver endure the sight of the wife and children for whom he had always shown such a charming affection in the past. Gulliver, once a normal affectionate human being, is now a solitary misanthrope. To this point has Gulliver been led by his pride in reason unaided by other qualities. He has become inhuman, and has lost the human virtues in his attempt to achieve something for which humanity is not fitted. He is ruined as a human being, and the failure of his fellows to attain his own alien standards has made him hate them.
The Rationalism of the Houyhnhnms, Inadequate and Inhuman
In short, neither the Houyhnhnm master nor the misanthropic Gulliver who once thought so highly of mankind is presented as an ideal of behaviour. Like all the peoples in this book the Houyhnhnms have some qualities such as honesty and truthfulness which we might well try to acquire, but on the whole they represent an inadequate and inhuman rationalism, and the negativeness of their blameless life is part of Swift’s deliberate intention.

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