Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Gulliver’s Travels (Penguin Classics), by Jonathan Swift
Edgell Rickword said, of Jonathan Swift:
“[He is] the most vigorous hater we’ve ever had in our literature.”
He said those words in the 20th century and I would imagine that the judgment will still stand, long into the future. Haters are easy to come by. But vigorous articulate haters with a skewering pen – leaving his enemies no escape? Rare indeed. I’ve read self-important political bloggers (is there any other kind?) describe what they are trying to do as Swiftian, and sorry, boys, gotta tell you: Don’t flatter yourself. Meanie tantrum insults thrown like poo at a wall is not Swiftian, mkay, boys? And satire is more difficult to write properly than a well-wrought 5 act tragedy. Satire is out of style these days – the audience is much more literal now, that’s just the way it is – so people (in general) don’t have an ear for it. People are confronted with satire and the response more often than not is, “But he’s exaggerating!!” Uhm, yeah. It’s called satire. There’s a reason why, to this day, “A Modest Proposal” is taught as the primary example of satire in Western literature. Nothing else comes close. It was published in 1729. That’s how powerful it is. Everyone else is still trying to match it. I get so annoyed by people comparing themselves to Swift, I’m sorry. SPOOF is not satire. PARODY is not satire. That just goes to show you how definitions have been so degraded that nobody even knows what satire is. Anyway, whatever, I sound like the snot that I am, and I am totally fine with that, more and more every day. It’s a delight when you come across an honest-to-God satirical piece of work nowadays – that really has the courage of its convictions, and doesn’t crap out at the end. The first thing that comes to mind is the movie Election which so could have been terrible, or just a “spoof” of the election process. But it’s not. It’s deeper than that and it has deeper things to say. It’s angrier. Satire is always angry. And the film just works as satire – with all its humor and rage and specificity.
Back to Swift. And his hating.
In 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote in a letter to his great friend Alexander Pope:
I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians – I will not speak of my own trade – soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion. By consequence you are to embrace it immediately, and procure that all who deserve my esteem may do so too. The matter is so clear that it will admit of no dispute; nay, I will hold a hundred pounds that you and I agree in the point.
You know, I really love that. Swift hated the “group”. We see that so clearly in Gullivers Travels – a book broken up into 4 parts, with 4 different journeys of Lemuel Gulliver, to fantastical lands ruled by teeny people or giants or horse-like creatures, or whatever. These people are not individuals. They are groups. Gulliver is kind of a pompous ass, truth be told, he’s always like, “As someone who has studied Sanskrit I understood what they were saying …” “As a person with a deep background in calculus and fire-eating, I understood my role here …” Like, the man has done everything, seen everything, and there’s nothing you could tell him that he didn’t know. He’s a big fat bore. His wife and kids are probably psyched he goes away on such long journeys, just so they won’t have to suffer through his pompous lectures anymore. But of course Gulliver would never see that about himself. He is an insufferable companion. That’s one of the reasons why he is so funny.
My only complaint about my copy of the book is that the footnotes suck. I want more detail. Satire is necessarily very local, and so much of what Swift is satirizing is lost in the mists of time. I’m no history ignoramus, especially not when it comes to Ireland, and the British policies in Ireland – but still – the footnotes just aren’t good enough. I would have liked more detail.
The book ends with Gulliver hanging out with the Houyhnhnms (benign horse-like creatures) and becoming so enraptured and used to their peaceful ways that he finds Yahoos (humans) absolutely disgusting. He returns home, and his wife and children run towards him, thrilled to see him, and he is so revolted by them he slams the door in their faces. This goes back to Swift’s generalized hatred of the human race. He liked Tom, Dick and Harry – but mankind could suck it, as far as Swift was concerned. Not to mention the fact that he doesn’t really see women as part of mankind – they are completely “other” and he is revolted by them. We see that in Gulliver when Gulliver is standing on the breast of the giant woman, and he sees her pores and the blackheads and the dirt on her bosom and it is totally disgusting. So fine. Women aren’t included in “mankind”. Tell me something I didn’t already know!
There are many fantastical worlds here (I love the floating island) – and Swift describes the different ways and customs with great verve, so that you can really see the worlds – but my favorite parts of the books are when you can feel Swift’s anger. Has there been a more angry writer? I’m hard-pressed to think of one. There’s the scene where the Lilliputian palace catches on fire, and Gulliver, full of wine from the night before, realizes he has the perfect solution to put out the inferno – he urinates onto the palace, putting out the fire. I don’t need a guide book to understand that. But there’s a great plausible deniability about the whole enterprise, which makes Swift seem quite devilish. He’s just telling a story, don’t you know … a fairy tale, with tiny people, and giants. Don’t read too much into it! Come on now! You’re being too serious!! It’s brilliant.
I love anger. I love subversive literature. I love those who despise the status quo, those who are uppity trouble-makers. There’s a lot of trouble to be made. There are a lot of things which are assumed to be true by the majority of people … and anyone who comes out and says, “I HATE this” is held in suspicion. Swift was one of those people (even though in many ways he was part of the establishment). But he couldn’t help but see, with his laser eye, how horrible politics were, how stupid everybody was (for the most part), and really how awful people were, especially those with any authority – just look at how we treat each other. It is indefensible. Swift does not defend that which is indefensible and I love that about him.
One of the centerpieces of the book is when Gulliver sits down with the King of the giants – and tries to answer all of the King’s questions about law/politics/society of the rest of the world (excerpt below). Swift is brilliant here. His pen is a sword. Sometimes you can’t even tell that he IS cutting something. His enemy might never have known he has mortally wounded until his arm fell off – the slicing is that smooth and perfect. Swift often uses terms of praise and approbation – but in a way where you can tell he means the exact opposite. It’s brutal. Swift shows the absurdity of all of this by putting it all into the questions from the King. One can imagine contemporaries of Swift howling with laughter at the thought of trying to answer those questions in the affirmative (“Were those holy lords I spoke of were always promoted to that rank upon account of their knowledge in religious matters?” “HELL NO!” etc.) … and through that now-you-see-it now-you-don’t literary maneuver, Swift stabs his opponent in the heart. The thing is: you could hear some pompous blowhard (who had been pricked, naturally, by the implications of the satire) try to defend himself – and say, ‘Well, but yes, it is always more complicated than you would think …” and it is THAT kind of person that Swift finds most disgusting. The ones with pride. The ones who have something to lose, the ones who choose to defend the indefensible. The rot goes to the deepest levels of society. If you try to deny it or defend it, you are Swift’s enemy.
Yeats wrote a poem in honor of Swift:
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.
That “imitate him if you dare” challenge still stands.
Here’s an excerpt.
EXCERPT FROM Gulliver’s Travels (Penguin Classics), by Jonathan Swift
The King, who, as I before observed, was a Prince of excellent Understanding, would frequently order that I should be brought in my Box, and set upon the Table in his Closet: He would then command me to bring one of my Chairs out of the Box, and sit down within three Yards Distance upon the Top of the Cabinet, which brought me almost to a level with his Face. In this Manner I had several Conversations with him. I one Day took the Freedom to tell his Majesty, that the Contempt he discovered towards Europe, and the rest of the World, did not seem answerable to those excellent Qualities of the Mind he was Master of. That Reason did not extend it self with the Bulk of the Body: On the contrary, we observed in our Country, that the tallest Persons were usually least provided with it. That among other Animals, Bees and Ants had the Reputation of more Industry, Art and Sagacity, than many of the larger Kinds; and that, as inconsiderable as he took me to be, I hoped I might live to do his Majesty some signal Service. The King heard me with Attention, and began to conceive a much better Opinion of me than he had ever before. He desired I would give him as exact an Account of the Government of England, as I possibly could; because, as fond as Princes commonly are of their own Customs (for so he conjectured of other Monarchs, by my former Discourses), he should be glad to hear of any Thing that might deserve Imitation.
Imagine with thy self, courteous Reader, how often I then wished for the Tongue of Demosthenes or Cicero, that might have enabled me to celebrate the Praise of my own dear native Country in a Stile equal to its Merits and Felicity.
I began my Discourse by informing his Majesty that our Dominions consisted of two Islands, which composed three mighty Kingdoms under one Sovereign, beside our Plantations in America. I dwelt long upon the Fertility of our Soil, and the Temperature of our Climate. I then spoke at large upon the Constitution of an English Parliament, partly made up of an illustrious Body called the House of Peers, Persons of the noblest Blood, and of the most ancient and ample Patrimonies. I described that extraordinary Care always taken of their Education in Arts and Arms, to qualify them for being Counsellors born to the King and Kingdom; to have a share in the Legislature; to be Members of the highest Court of Judicature, from whence there could be no Appeal; and to be Champions always ready for the Defence of their Prince and Country, by their Valour, Conduct, and Fidelity. That these were the Ornament and Bulwark of the Kingdom, worthy Followers of their most renowned Ancestors, whose Honour had been the Reward of their Virtue, from which their Posterity were never once known to degenerate. To these we joined several holy Persons, as part of that Assembly, under the Title of Bishops, whose peculiar Business it is to take care of Religion, and of those who instruct the People therein. 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.
That, the other Part of the Parliament consisted of an Assembly called the House of Commons, who were all principal Gentlemen, freely picked and culled out by the People themselves, for their great Abilities and Love of their Country, to represent the Wisdom of the whole Nation. And these two Bodies make up the most august Assembly in Europe, to whom, in Conjunction with the Prince, the whole Legislature is Committed.
I then descended to the Courts of Justice, over which the Judges, those venerable Sages and Interpreters of the Law presided, for determining the disputed Rights and Properties of Men, as well as for the Punishment of Vice, and Protection of Innocence. I mentioned the prudent Management of our Treasury; the Valour and Atchievements of our Forces by Sea and Land. I computed the Number of our People, by reckoning how many Millions there might be of each religious Sect, or political Party among us. I did not omit even our Sports and Pastimes, or any other Particular which I thought might redound to the Honour of my Country. And I finished all with a brief historical Account of Affairs and Events in England for about an hundred Years past.
This Conversation was not ended under five Audiences, each of several Hours, and the King heard the whole with great Attention, frequently taking Notes of what I spoke, as well as Memorandums of all Questions he intended to ask me.
When I had put an End to these long Discourses, his Majesty in a sixth Audience consulting his Notes, proposed many Doubts, Queries, and Objections, upon every Article. He asked what Methods were used to cultivate the Minds and Bodies of our young Nobility, and in what kind of Business they commonly spent the first and teachable Part of their Lives. What Course was taken to supply that Assembly when any Noble Family became extinct. What Qualifications were necessary in those who were to be created new Lords: Whether the Humour of the Prince, a Sum of Money to a Court Lady or a Prime Minister, or a Design of strengthening a Party opposite to the publick Interest, ever happened to be Motives in those Advancements. What Share of Knowledge these Lords had in the Laws of their Country, and how they came by it, so as to enable them to decide the Properties of their Fellow-Subjects in the last Resort. Whether they were always so free from Avarice, Partialities, or Want, that a Bribe, or some other sinister View, could have no Place among them. Whether those holy Lords I spoke of were always promoted to that Rank upon account of their Knowledge in religious Matters, and the Sanctity of their Lives, had never been Compliers with the Times while they were common Priests, or slavish prostitute Chaplains to some Nobleman, whose Opinions they continued servilely to follow after they were admitted into that Assembly.
He then desired to know what Arts were practiced in electing those whom I called Commoners: Whether a Stranger with a strong Purse might not influence the vulgar Voters to choose him before their own Landlord, or the most considerable Gentleman in the Neighbourhood. How it came to pass, that People were so violently bent upon getting into this Assembly, which I allowed to be a great Trouble and Expense, often to the Ruin of their Families, without any Salary or Pension: Because this appeared such an exalted Strain of Virtue and publick Spirit, that his Majesty seemed to doubt it might possibly not be always sincere: and he desired to know whether such zealous Gentlemen could have any Views of refunding themselves for the Charges and Trouble they were at, by sacrificing the publick Good to the Designs of a weak and vicious Prince in Conjunction with a corrupted Ministry. He multiplied his Questions, and sifted me thoroughly upon every Part of this Head, proposing numberless Enquiries and Objections, which I think it not prudent or convenient to repeat.
Upon what I said in relation to our Courts of Justice, his Majesty desired to be satisfied in several Points: And this I was the better able to do, having been formerly almost ruined by a long Suit in Chancery, which was decreed for me with Costs. He asked, what Time was usually spent in determining between Right and Wrong, and what Degree of Expence. Whether Advocates and Orators had Liberty to plead in Causes manifestly known to be unjust, vexatious, or oppressive. Whether Party in Religion or Politicks were observed to be of any Weight in the Scale of Justice. Whether those pleading Orators were Persons educated in the general Knowledge of Equity, or only in provincial, national, and other local Customs. Whether they or their Judges had any Part in penning those Laws which they assumed the Liberty of interpreting and glossing upon at their Pleasure. Whether they had ever at different Times pleaded for and against the same Cause, and cited Precedents to prove contrary Opinions. Whether they were a rich or a poor Corporation. Whether they received any pecuniary Reward for pleading or delivering their Opinions. And particularly whether they were ever admitted as Members in the lower Senate.
He fell next upon the Management of our Treasury; and said, he thought my Memory had failed me, because I computed our Taxes at about five or six Millions a Year, and when I came to mention the Issues, he found they sometimes amounted to more than double; for the Notes he had taken were very particular in this Point, because he hoped, as he told me, that the Knowledge of our Conduct might be useful to him, and he could not be deceived in his Calculations. But, if what I told him were true, he was still at a Loss how a Kingdom could run out of its Estate like a private Person. He asked me, who were our Creditors; and where we should find Money to pay them. He wonder’d to hear me talk of such chargeable and extensive Wars; that certainly we must be a quarrelsome People, or live among very bad Neighbours, and that our Generals must needs be richer than our Kings. He asked what Business we had out of our own Islands, unless upon the Score of Trade or Treaty, or to defend the Coasts with our Fleet. Above all, he was amazed to hear me talk of a mercenary standing Army in the midst of Peace, and among a free People. He said, if we were governed by our own Consent in the Persons of our Representatives, he could not imagine of whom we were afraid, or against whom we were to fight; and would hear my Opinion, whether a private Man’s House might not better be defended by himself, his Children, and Family, than by half a dozen rascals picked up at a venture in the Streets, for small Wages, who might get a hundred times more by cutting their Throats.
He laughed at my odd Kind of Arithmetick (as he was pleased to call it) in reckoning the Numbers of our People by a Computation drawn from the several Sects among us in Religion and Politicks. He said, he knew no Reason, why those who entertain Opinions prejudicial to the Publick, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And as it was Tyranny in any Government to require the first, so it was Weakness not to enforce the second: For a Man may be allowed to keep poisons in his Closet, but not to vend them about for Cordials.
He observed, that among the Diversions of our Nobility and Gentry, I had mentioned Gaming. He desired to know at what Age this Entertainment was usually taken up, and when it was laid down; how much of their Time it employed; whether it ever went so high as to affect their Fortunes: Whether mean vicious People, by their Dexterity in that Art, might not arrive at great Riches, and sometimes keep our very Nobles in Dependance, as well as habituate them to vile Companions, wholly take them from the Improvement of their Minds, and force them, by the Losses they have received, to learn and practice that infamous Dexterity upon others.
He was perfectly astonished with the historical Account I gave him of our Affairs during the last Century, protesting it was only a Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments, the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, or Ambition could produce.
His Majesty in another Audience was at the Pains to recapitulate the Sum of all I had spoken, compared the Questions he made with the Answers I had given; then taking me into his Hands, and stroaking me gently, delivered himself in these Words, which I shall never forget nor the Manner he spoke them in: My little Friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable Panegyric upon your Country: You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness, and Vice may be sometimes the only Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator: That Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose Interest and Abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some Lines of an Institution, which in its Original might have been tolerable, but these half erazed, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by Corruptions. It doth not appear from all you have said, how any one Virtue is required towards the Procurement of any one Station among you, much less that Men are ennobled on Account of their Virtue, that Priests are advanced for their Piety or Learning, Soldiers for their Conduct or Valour, Judges for their Integrity, Senators for the Love of their Country, or Counsellors for their Wisdom. As for yourself, (continued the King,) who have spent the greatest Part of your Life in Travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many Vices of your Country. But by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pain wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.