Friday, November 19, 2010

Gulliver’s Travels: The Four Voyages in Brief

The Ridiculousness of the Lilliputians
The first part of Gulliver’s Travels is occupied with Lilliput. This has always been the most popular portion of Gulliver’s Travels, and it has added a word to the language, the word “Lilliputian” which means something diminutive or small. “Lilliputian” implies that human society and its affairs have been made to look ridiculous by being represented as very small.
Those who know the history of Swift’s time can detect the references in this part of the book to real events and persons. In the preparatory letter by Captain Gulliver, Dampier is referred to by name as his cousin and his book cited by its title. The Emperor of Lilliput has reigned seven years, and so had George I when Swift wrote his book. The inventory of the contents of Gulliver’s pockets, when the “Man-Mountain” is examined, is a parody of the findings of the secret committee to examine the Jacobite dealings of Oxford, Bolingbroke, and Ormond. The qualification for high office is rope-dancing, at which the most skilful performer is Flimnap who represents Walpole (the Prime Minister of England at that time).
Awards and Titles in Lilliput
The prizes awarded were coloured ribbons which represent the ribbons of the Order of the Garter, the Thistle, and the Bath. They were sheer nonsense. But since donkeys need carrots to be lured, Walpole had introduced or invented the Order of the Bath. There were not enough Garters to go round for the assess who wanted them. It caused a lot of heart-burning to those who were not awarded a Garter. So Walpole created what his clever son Horace called a “bank” of honours-a red ribbon instead of a blue-as a compensation to unsuccessful candidates, and condescended to accept a red ribbon himself, instead of a blue, to set the example and to encourage others.
The Big-Endians and the Little-Endians
A civil war was waged between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians, on the vital issue whether to break an egg at the big end or the small end. In these disputes one emperor lost his life, another his crown. The two emperors are obviously Charles I and James II:
“It is computed that eleven thousand persons have, at several times, suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy; but the books of Big-Endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.”
This refers to the proscription of Catholics by Protestants after the Reformation, and the hundreds of volumes of senseless religious controversy. Of course, Catholics had burnt to death thousands of people for denying the “truth” of Transubstantiation, as Protestants had hanged hundreds of Catholics for upholding Papal supremacy. Eleven thousand in Lilliput was a small number compared with those who killed, or were killed, for these stupid disputes. Here they were reduced to their proper perspective.
Gulliver’s Act of Extinguishing a Fire
At the Royal court of Lilliput, Gulliver extinguished a fire in the Empress’s apartment by urinating upon it. He was not forgiven for this:
“The Empress, conceiving the greatest abhorrence of what I had done, removed to the most distant side of the court, firmly resolved that those buildings should never be repaired for her use and, in the presence of her chief confidants, could not forbear vowing revenge.”                                                 (Page 92)
Queen Anne’s confidant in religious matters was Archbishop Sharp. (In A Tale of a Tub, Swift had urinated on their religious beliefs.)
Absurd Beliefs of the Lilliputians
The beliefs of the people of Lilliput were absurd:
“They bury their dead with their head directly downwards because they hold an opinion that, in eleven thousand moons, they are all to rise again, in which period the earth-which they conceive to be flat––will turn upside down; and by this means they shall, at their resurrection, be found ready standing on their feet. The learned among them confess the absurdity of this doctrine, but the practice still continues, in compliance to the vulgar.”            (Page 94)
We are not told exactly what this implies as to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, but Swift makes very clear the obvious distinction between what is thought by the intelligent sections of society and what is believed by the idiotic people.
Their Views about Children
The people of the Lilliput did not recognize that a child had any obligation to his parents for bringing him into the world because, considering the miseries of human life, to beget a child was neither a benefit in itself nor intended to be so by the parents whose thoughts during the sexual intercourse were otherwise occupied. The second proposition is true enough. Hence the conclusion. They thought that nothing could be more unjust than for the people, in subservience to their own appetites, to bring children into the world and leave the burden of supporting them to the public. In Lilliput, poor people contributed a small portion of their monthly income, by way of insurance, to maintain their own children. (We can imagine what Swift would have thought of to day’s society where people have devised all kinds of insurance and where they have recourse to it from birth till death.)
The Reversal of the Scale in Brobdingnag
Gulliver had set sail on his second voyage in a ship commanded by a Cornishman, Captain John Nicholas, in 1702. East of the Moluccas they were driven off course in a great storm which gave Swift the opportunity to incorporate a page of technical sea-terms, which is very laughable. They were driven “five hundred leagues to the east, so that the oldest sailor on board could not tell in what part of the world we were”. They held on course till they discovered the land of Brobdingnag. In this new land of giants, Gulliver looked small like a Lilliputian. The scale was reversed in the other direction, so that the horrors for a human being were magnified. A child in this new land picked up the tiny-looking Gulliver to play with, as if Gulliver were a toy. Gulliver at this time felt afraid lest the horrid child might do some harm to him like mischievous children treating young birds callously.
The Disgusting Features of the Brobdingnagians
The large scale of Brobdingnag showed up human imperfections under the magnifying glass. A woman giving suck to a child disgusted Gulliver by her exposed breast:
“It (the breast) stood prominent six feet, and could not be less than sixteen in circumference. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug so varified with spots, pimples, and freckles that nothing could appear more nauseous.”                                              (page 130)
This enabled Swift to reflect on the fair skin of English ladies who appeared so beautiful because they were of the normal human size, and because their defects were not seen through a magnifying glass. (Swift applied the magnifying glass in some of his poems, such as The Progress of Beauty and A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed, in which he undresses a woman completely, with her false hair, false eyebrows, false teeth, and false complexion, and where the so-called nymph is revealed as a poxed prostitute.) In Brobdingnag, size showed up every horror. Here is another example:
“There was a woman with a cancer in her breast, swelled to a monstrous size, full of holes, in two or three of which I could have easily crept. There was a fellow with a wen in his neck, larger than five wool-packs. But the most hateful sight of all was the lice crawling on their clothes. I could see distinctly the limbs of these vermin with my naked eye, much better than those of a European louse through a microscope, and their snouts with which they rooted like swine.”            (Page 151)
The Maids of Honour
Smells were similarly heightened and aggravated. The maids of honour at the court
“would often strip me naked from top to toe, and lay me at full length in their bosoms; wherewith I was much disgusted; because, to say the truth, a very offensive smell came from their skins.”        (page 157)
He (Gulliver) believed that to their lovers in Brobdingnag these maids of honour must be perfectly agreeable and acceptable. One of these large creatures took liberties with Gulliver. She was a playful girl of sixteen who would sometimes set him astride upon one of her nipples, and play many other tricks.
Gulliver’s Account of English Institutions
The King of Brobdingnag inquired into the institutions of Gulliver’s native country, particularly into parliament. Gulliver described the House of Lords, with lords temporal and lords spiritual. (The eighteenth-century House of Lords was much smaller, immensely more powerful than now-a-­days, and the bishops formed a very important part of it.) With reference to the lords spiritual, Gulliver gave the following piece of information to the King:
“These were searched and sought out through the whole nation, by the Prince and his wisest counsellors, among such of the priesthood, as were most deservedly distinguished by the sanctity of their lives, and the depth of their erudition; who were indeed                 the spiritual fathers of the clergy and the people.”
(Page 168)
As for the House of Commons, Gulliver described its members as “principal gentlemen”, selected by the people “for their great abilities and love of their country, to represent the wisdom of the whole nation”.
The King’s Comments on Parliamentary Institutions
The King of Brobdingnag was not impressed by Gulliver’s account. The King wanted to know why people were so anxious to get into parliament. Would not an outsider with more money prevail on the vulgar voters against the better man? Was the claim to greater public spirit always sincere, and was not humbug more successful? The King could not also understand how a country could become bankrupt and run short of funds like any private individual. The King asked who were the creditors of Gulliver’s country.
The King’s Views about the Art of Government
One day, when Gulliver happened to say that there were several thousand books in his country written upon the art of government, the King formed a very low opinion of the understanding of Gulliver’s countrymen. The King did not think that the government needed endless discussion and dispute. What the government needed most was common sense, reason, a sense of fairness and a capacity for quick action. According to the King, whoever could make two ears of com or two blades of grass grow upon a piece of ground where only one grew before, would be doing more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.
More Diversified Targets of Satire in Part III
The voyage to Laputa was made in a ship commanded again by a Cornishman, this time a man called William Robinson. This third part of Gulliver’s Travels has more diversity and a less unified impact than the other three parts, and has from the beginning been less appreciated. Its targets are more diversified or, we might say, more specialized. Some critics find it the most diverting portion of the book, and even more suited to targets of present ­day relevance.
Philosophical People of Laputa
The inhabitants of Laputa were philosophers. “There heads were all inclined either to the right or to the left, one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith”. The minds of those people were so occupied with intense speculations that they could neither speak nor attend to the discourse of others, unless their attention was attracted by a flapper[*] hitting them with a blown-up bladder. They were so wrapped in cogitation and so absent-minded, that they needed a flapper to prevent them from falling off the pavement.
Their Interest in Mathematics
The court in Laputa was devoted to mathematics. The King paid no attention to the intruder from another sphere, for “he was then deep in a problem, and we attended at least an hour before he could solve it”. When dinner appeared, “there was a shoulder of mutton, cut into an equilateral triangle, a piece of beef into a rhomboid[†] , and a pudding into a cycloid**.” Clothes were scientifically calculated. When a suit was made for Gulliver, the tailor first took his altitude with a quadrant, and then with a rule and compasses described the dimensions and outlines of his whole body, all which he wrote down upon a paper; and in six days brought his clothes very ill made, and quite out of shape because the tailor had made a mistake in the calculation. However, such accidents being very frequent, Gulliver did not feel uneasy about the matter.
The Defects of These People
In Laputa people did not make their own music; they listened only to the music of the spheres. The houses of these intellectual people were very ill-constructed, with the walls sloping, without one right angle in any apartment, this defect being due to the contempt which those people felt for practical geometry which they despised as vulgar and mechanical. Gulliver goes on to say that these people were “dexterous enough upon a piece of paper in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider” but that he had never seen “a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed upon all other subjects”.
Conceited and Arrogant
These intellectuals, so useless in the practical concerns of life, were yet intolerably conceited and arrogant about public affairs. They were for ever arguing and discussing, “giving their judgments in matters of state, and passionately disputing every inch of a party opinion”. Swift here makes an acute observation. The disciplines of mathematics and politics, and the abilities required for either, are utterly different, so that those who are qualified for one are practically disqualified for the other.
Impractical Schemes
Naturally, in a society run by such intellectuals, their subject country of Balnibarbi was neglected and in a squalid, run-down condition, while they were given up to their projects. Some of the resources in Lagado (the capital of Balnibarbi) went into extracting sun-beams out of cucumbers. Then there was the agricultural projector who had found “a device of ploughing the ground with hogs, to save the charges of ploughs, cattle and labour”. Swift describes the technique with gravity, and then says: “It is true, upon experiment they found the charge and trouble very great, and they had little or no crop”.
The School of Political Projectors
Lagado had a school of political projectors, one of whom proposed that members of parliament should deliver their speeches and then vote directly contrary. In his account of the Academy in Lagado, Swift exposes the nonsensical view of perfectibility held by the progressives. Then there was a short cut to the attainment of proficiency in art and sciences. By this contrivance, “the most ignorant person at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, may write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study”. The projectors were also bent on a “universal language to be understood in all civilized nations”.
Nor did Swift subscribe to the worship of science, and the veneration accorded in his time to Newton:
“New systems of nature were but new fashions which would vary in every age; even those who pretend to demonstrate them from mathematical principles would flourish but a short period of time, and be out of vogue when that was determined.”
However, Swift’s deepest concerns were political and social. He ends with a scathing account of the nobility and family pride:
“I confess it was not without some pleasure that I found myself able to trace the particular features, by which certain families are distinguished, up to their originals. I could plainly discover from whence one family derives a long chin, why a second hath abounded with knaves for two generations, and fools for two more; why a third happened to be crack-brained, and a fourth to be sharpers ……Neither could I wonder at all this, when I saw such an interruption of lineages by pages, lackeys, valets, coachmen, gamesters, fiddlers, players, captains, and pick­pockets.”
(Pages 243-44)
The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos
Gulliver’s last voyage takes him to the country of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. The Houyhnhnms are horses, while the Yahoos are the human beings subject to those horses. The Yahoos are the beasts of burden. (The word “Yahoo” is another contribution by Swift to the English language.) We should here note that Swift’s disgust is directed towards Mass-Man, because the Yahoos are hardly individualized, and this is in itself a sufficient reflection on the mass of men. The first distinction made is that the horses have no word for lying: they can only call it “the thing that is not”. (Lying is a human tendency. Swift was disgusted by it. Not only do ordinary people tell lies, but they can hardly ever describe an event correctly. In statement, they do not care whether what they say is true or not; and as for thinking, in the exact sense of the word, they are mostly incapable of it.)
Gulliver’s (or Swift’s) Analysis of the Causes of War
Gulliver’s equine master wants the fact of human war, and the causes for the killings, to be explained to him, because it is not understood in the world of horses. Gulliver-Swift explains that in the long European war that had gone on through William Ill’s and Queen Anne’s time, almost without a break from 1689 to 1713, “about a million of Yahoos might have been killed in the whole progress of it, and perhaps a hundred or more cities taken, and thrice as many ships burnt or sunk”. Swift’s analysis of the causes of war is noteworthy. Sometimes the cause is the ambition of princes who never think they have land or people enough to govern. There are, too, religious or ideological wars:
“Difference in opinions* hath cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine Sometimes the quarrel between two princes is to decide which of them shall dispossess a third of his dominions, Sometimes a war is entered upon, because the enemy is too strong, and sometimes because he is too weak, Sometimes our neighbours want the things which we have, or have the things which we want;”                                                                                            (page 292)
The Portrayal of the Yahoos
Gulliver’s equine master observed that “the Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals”. But, though the Yahoos could hurt each other with tooth and nail, they did not have the advantages of civilized men: “They seldom were able to kill one another for want of such convenient instruments of death as we** had invented.” Swift also makes Gulliver point out that, for want of a foreign war to engage their attention, the Yahoos engage in a civil war among themselves. Thus the Yahoos are recognizably men all right. And such is the case in other respects also. Swift disliked extravagance, all forms of waste, and vulgar ostentation. He makes the following radical observations on the subject:
“The rich man enjoyed the fruit of poor man’s labour, and the latter were a thousand to one in proportion to the former. That the bulk of our people was forced to live miserably, by labouring every day for small wages to make a few live plentifully.”
(Page 298)
There is a further stricture on the absurdity of magnifying human wants. The Yahoos are as idle and lazy as they are mischievous and vicious. Work is good for them, and so they do their utmost to avoid work. Their sexual appetites are similarly inordinate and uncontrolled. Swift here finds an opportunity to express his disgust for female sexuality. One day, when Gulliver takes off all his clothes to take a bath in the river, a female Yahoo, inflamed with desire, pursues him into the water. Gulliver had already noticed that, on such occasions, a female Yahoo had a most offensive smell; and when any of the males advanced, she would slowly retire, looking often back and, with a pretence of fear, run off into some convenient place where she knew the male would follow her. Now, on this occasion, Gulliver finds himself embraced in a most fulsome manner, and has to be rescued from his humiliating plight. Swift felt a disgust for normal copulation also. That explains Gullivers horror at the “fact of life” on his return home, when he begins to consider that, by copulating with one of the Yahoo species, he had become a parent of more Yahoos. The thought fills Gulliver with “the utmost shame, confusion, and horror”.
Control of Population by the Houyhnhnms
In the country of the horses (or the Houyhnhnms), numbers are regulated: “Caution is necessary to prevent the country from being overburdened with numbers”. The Houyhnhnms realized that reproduction is a matter for the exercise of rational control because otherwise there would soon be over­population.
Governed by Reason
“Controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness in false or dubious propositions” are unknown in the country of the Houyhnhnms. Similarly, systems of philosophy all differing among themselves, are of no account. In a sentence which gives the whole clue to Swift we read:
“Neither is Reason among them a point problematical as with us, where men can argue the plausibility on both sides of a question; but strikes you with immediate conviction, as it must needs do where it is not mingled, obscured, or discoloured by passion and interest.”
(Page 315)

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