August 18, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "Gulliver's Travels," by Jonathan Swift

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift
Gulliver's Travels (1726)
By Jonathan Swift
Book #21 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
To really understand the story behind Jonathan Swift's satirical masterpiece Gulliver's Travels, it's important to understand some of the things going on in England in the early 1700s when this was written (which I of course am simplifying for the sake of today's essay, and am probably getting a little wrong too in some of the details). For example, it was a time when Protestants and Catholics were still fighting pretty bloodily over which is the one true Christian faith; and this flavored everything from the prevailing domestic political parties (the Catholic Tories versus the Protestant Whigs) to which outside countries England was to officially ally with (the Catholic French versus the Protestant Dutch). And then at the same time, this was also when the Enlightenment was under full swing, in which the search for rational, scientific truths almost did away with the argument over religion in the first place; it was the time of "natural philosophers" (forerunners of modern scientists), of the Royal Society, of political theorists like Descartes and Locke arguing for a new, Greek-inspired, ultra-rational form of government (something successfully put into place just fifty years later in the US after its revolution, a failed experiment twenty years after that in the case of France and its own revolution).

Swift himself, then, was actually kind of in the middle of all this; he was an ordained minister in the Church of Ireland/England, a Tudor invention from the previous century that tried to be a nonviolent compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism; it was basically a middle-of-the-road way to look at life, created by Henry VIII and strengthened by Elizabeth I as a way to hopefully avoid the insanely bloody religious civil war that had erupted on the Continent previously over the issue*. And Swift was an Irish nationalist too, a higher-up in the King's Court back when it was Catholic-based and the Tories were in power; in fact, most of his personal friends were Tories despite him not being Catholic, in that the Tories were much more sympathetic to the Irish plight than the Whigs. Ah, but then when the Whigs did get back into power in the early 1700s, Swift found himself suddenly exiled from London and the machinations of the court, back in Ireland and tending over a rural church with a total congregation of 15. That's where Gulliver's Travels comes from, frankly -- it was mostly a result of Swift being bored and frustrated out there in the Irish countryside, feeling like he was missing all the important things going on over in London, writing a snotty little satire about it all as a way of making himself feel better, which then accidentally turned into a runaway bestseller when actually published in London under a fake name.

As such, then, the resulting book is both a general parody of the "either/or" mindset (as expressed through two-party politics, religious infighting, civil wars, etc), as well as a highly specific satire of the exact obscure political events going on that moment, expressed as four fictional voyages to far-off lands by Swift's eponymous natural-philosopher Enlightenment hero. In the first, Gulliver comes across a race of people a tenth the size of him, a race which tends to overblow the importance of every little thing he does, and who have been fighting a century-long civil war themselves over which side of eggs God wants them to crack first, the big end or the narrow end; in the second voyage he meets up with a race ten times bigger than him, which he ends up being disgusted by because of all their imperfections taking on such gargantuan proportions. In the third trip, then, Gulliver comes across a race of people even more rational than his fellow natural philosophers; so rational, in fact, that their entire society has come to a practical standstill, convinced as these people are (for example) that it's possible to build a house from the roof first down to the ground, if they only conduct enough experiments and take enough notes. And then in the fourth tale, Gulliver finally comes across a race that seems perfect, a society of man/horse hybrids with the perfect combination of intelligent savvy and animal instinct; the only problem, in fact, is that it's humans in their society that are considered the non-speaking beasts of burden who couldn't possibly ever be taught to think straight, a theory only strengthened when Gulliver gets to telling them about the various insane and ironic ways parliamentary government in 1700s England worked back then.

The argument for it being a classic:
There are a number of reasons this book should be considered a classic, argue its fans; just for one, its mere age should be taken into consideration, the fact that it's about ready to celebrate its 300th anniversary and is still being read for pleasure on a daily basis. Let's not forget, after all, that witty political satires were already a popular form of entertainment with the masses by the early 1700s, making Gulliver's Travels not exactly unique when first coming out; the fact that this one has stuck around as long as it has, versus the hundreds of others from that period that most of us never even realized existed, says something about Swift as an individual writer, and about this book as an individual manuscript. Because the fact of the matter, argue its fans, is that you don't necessarily have to know anything specific about the political events of those times to still appreciate and enjoy this book; Swift was such a master of the form, they say, that he wrote the stories in a way which can be immediately recognized by anyone in history in any situation, even occasionally adding scatological humor to great effect. (See, for example, the night the Lilliputian royal palace catches on fire, which Gulliver puts out basically by pissing all over it, a joke I think would even work on The Daily Show if used to this day.) This is not exactly a three-act novel as we know them today, but did mightily help pave the way for such a format; and given how sharp and precise Swift's observations about human nature were, it's also a book that can be appreciated simply on its own, not necessarily for whatever historical contribution it's made over the centuries.

The argument against:
The main argument against Gulliver's Travels being a classic seems to be one made with a lot of older books, that it has simply become too obscure and linguistically dated to be a "must-read" anymore with the general population. Let's not forget, after all, that this was written half a century before even the Declaration of Independence; there is still a pretty liberal sprinkling of "thee"s and "thou"s and whatnot in this manuscript, despite the Enlightenment rapidly starting to change all that in the literary arts in those years, and also of course with a lot of Words being Randomly Capitalized in the Middle of Sentences for No Particular Goode Reason At All. And besides, the critics argue, this book ain't exactly as universal as its fans say; especially when it comes to the last two stories, they say, it's not necessarily clear at all what Swift's point actually is, unless one already has a knowledge and detailed understanding of 1700s current events. No one's arguing its importance to posterity and history, I think, or at least I can't imagine how someone could possibly argue that in a serious way; it's just that this book is no longer that relevant to a general audience, with it maybe being better anymore to simply study this book instead of actually read it.

My verdict:
I'm torn today now that I've read Gulliver's Travels myself, because I can empathize with both of the arguments laid out above; I myself ended up enjoying it quite a bit, but also admit that I ended up skipping over huge expository sections, and that I also deliberately read up on the political issues of those times beforehand, so that I could keep up as much as possible while scanning the actual manuscript. Now, that said, one of the things its fans say is definitely true; that this is a much more general parable about the dangers of an either/or mindset, of a world where only two choices are available, than it is a specific tale about Whigs versus Tories. And this is what saves the book, I'm convinced, what makes it still read to this day versus the hundreds of other satires from the 1700s that no longer are, is simply Swift's sublime observations about the human condition in general; I have to confess, for example, I in particular found part 3 to be the most entertaining, the withering attack on do-nothing scientific nerds who will eventually lead us all to ruin. (I mean, how can you not love an obscure academe who has spent the last eight years trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, one of dozens of absurdist scientific experiments mentioned by name in this manuscript.) I guess, then, that ultimately I will fall on the side of the book and declare it a classic, but with a caveat this week -- that you couple your reading of it with a little homework, that you read up on the events that were taking place when Swift wrote this. It's not absolutely necessary for enjoying this book; it's the only way, though, that I think you can realistically argue for it still being a classic.

Is it a classic? Yes, but only with a little homework first

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
In two Fridays: Beloved, by Toni Morrison
In three Fridays: Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
In four Fridays: The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*Yes, I know, the establishment of the Church of England was actually much more complicated than what I just mentioned. I know, I know.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:22 PM, August 18, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |