Rhapsody in Penguins III — Second Movement: Gulliver’s Travels

Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
by Jonathan Swift
edited by Robert Demaria

The name Ambrose Bierce will mean almost nothing to all the Cantonese speakers here in Hong Kong, and it’s not exactly clear where he stands with the English speakers either. Those who do know him, though, will probably be familiar with him because of his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, in which a soldier being executed suddenly gains the ability to imagine a three-page story while falling to his death. Anyway, slightly less famous is his 1911 word-book, delightfully titled “The Devil’s Dictionary”, in which we find wonderful entries like this one:

Egotist (n.): A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

Bierce was well-known for his insights (read: cynical attacks) on the human condition, and this entry is no exception: we’ve all been there, haven’t we? (Please say yes, reader…) We always think that somebody is incredibly self-absorbed, thinking that somebody is completely wrong in not listening to us, never realizing how much of an ass we ourselves look like. And this talk of asses brings me, in a somewhat roundabout way, to Gulliver’s Travels.

Most of you will probably be familiar with the book because of the tens of thousands of retellings it’s had in the media, including lots of sanitized children’s retellings: man goes to strange island in the Indian Ocean, gets tied down in a ritual by some people who are much shorter than he is, then manages to defeat people similarly diminutive people by being a giant. Classic children’s fantasy, right?

But that’s not the whole story: in fact, the Lilliputian part is only one part out of four. Most versions, for some unfathomable reason, leave out the part where Gulliver actually pees on the palace in an attempt to help out with a fire that’s broken out, therefore swamping the court in urine and earning the ire of many an official. (Is it the urination or the flashing that editors feel kids can’t handle, I wonder?) As for the other sections, some editions have Part II, Part III might be famous only because it lent its name to a Hayao Miyazaki film… but almost nobody will have heard of Part IV, in which Gulliver travels to a certain island with an unpronounceable name. No news there, except that there are clever horses who enslave primitive people on this particular island. (They’re called Yahoos — the people at the tech company must be kicking themselves.) And these abridgments almost always leave out the most important detail: Jonathan Swift didn’t write these tales as a light-hearted romp through a fantasy land. They weren’t even travel narratives through uncharted territory. He was, in fact, damning everyone around him for their hypocrisy and idiocy.

Here, for example, is a bit from shortly after Gulliver is freed from Lilliputian captivity. He is told that there is some sort of disagreement between two parties (double meaning very much intended) of courtiers, the solving of which he, a giant, would be very useful in. Then he is informed that he is also to be used as a weapon against the similarly tiny nation of Blefuscu. And while that’s going on, he’s told by an official that

we have heard you affirm that there are other Kingdoms and States in the World, inhabited by human Creatures as large as yourself, [but] our Philosophers are in much doubt, and would rather conjecture that you dropped from the Moon, or one of the Stars, because it is certain that an hundred Mortals of your Bulk would… destroy all the Fruits and Cattle of his Majesty’s Dominions.

(The very strange capitalization is not me becoming shift-happy: this really is how people wrote in the 18th century. Only another Reason why I hate this Novel.)

I imagine that this would be the biggest insult one could bestow on Gulliver. Initial misunderstandings aside, you are told that the only reason you’ve been freed is because you’re of use in a grab for power. Then to add insult to injury, you, a sailor, are told by people who have NEVER LEFT THEIR COUNTRY that “nah, you know what, we think you’re the stupid one, and we’re right about the world.” Why? Because our country is the cultured and powerful one, sir, so our word is gospel! Imagine a child saying all that to you in a particularly unrepentant tone: any person would have said “sod that, I’m out of here” and faceplanted into the sea.

Now, first things first: Lilliput does not exist. The United Nations has yet to hear from any such country, and until then we can safely assume that this book is not a travel narrative. But look closer at this particular passage: doesn’t it sound somewhat familiar to you? I suggested that one could imagine a child saying the quote above, but it could easily be applied to any overly self-assured party. It’s pretty blatant, then, that Jonathan Swift was not talking about some godforsaken country in the Indian Ocean, but telling us home truths about his adopted homeland. England back then was already calling itself the centre of the world, flexing its muscles, demanding to be known as rightful masters of the world — but Swift also saw hypocrisies in the political circles and in society, the scheming and jostling for power that went on behind closed doors. People back then liked to say they were different in terms of their (better) principles, but he thought that they were all similarly wretched souls at heart. And so he created this insular island nation, where everyone looked out for only themselves and only accepted advice that they liked. (So… just like Brexit-era UK, then?)

And the satire works! As you go through the book, it becomes apparent just how accurate and horrifying his subjects of satire are. Swift wastes no time in digging out all our worst tendencies, all our most stupefying habits. It’s a horrifying picture of humanity… but as it continues, it becomes a bit TOO horrifying, and a little exaggerated. And that’s when you start asking questions.

Near the end of the book, Gulliver is rescued from the Land of the Horses (I could look up its real name, but I can’t be bothered) by some Portuguese sailors, and Gulliver says of the captain

he was a very courteous and generous person, he entreated me to give some account of myself, and desired to know what I would eat or drink; said I should be used as well as himself, and spoke so many obliging things that I wondered to find such civilities from a Yahoo. However, I remained silent and sullen: I was ready to faint at the very smell of him and his men.

(I’ve dropped the archaic grammar, we need to let him get his message across and Swift’s random capitalization is emphatically not helpful.)

Nowadays, we would find this language not only snobbish but even repulsive: what business has he in defaming the human race, what lunacy makes him think that we smell? It’s a striking about-turn from this character, so striking that you can’t help but start to think: is Jonathan Swift merely reflecting his bitter views on humanity, or is he inviting us to laugh at Gulliver as well? Gulliver is not a particularly heroic figure: he’s been seen pissing on a palace and being carried onto the roof of another building by a gigantic monkey (NOT King Kong). And with these words, the last vestiges of heroism are blown to pieces: this is not a nice man, being caught in all sorts of quaint adventures. This is a misanthropic, cynical arsehole.

Perhaps it’s the travelling. Sixteen years of being tossed from ocean to ocean, being met with rejection and insulted by people large and small, clever and stupid everywhere he turns, it’s perfectly reasonable for Gulliver to develop a cynical view of humanity. But that’s the way the world is: one cannot expect to be met with smiles and welcome arms everywhere s/he turns. Such was the case in 18th-century England, and such is the case today. The problem is when we treat this hypocrisy as license to be arseholes to these people in return, to shun everybody because they do one thing and say another. It just continues the cycle: you’re awful to me, so you deserve to be treated the same way. And in doing that, not only do you sound awfully, awfully stuck-up, you also become one of the people you detest yourself — bitter, sardonic, and unable to show any love for anyone. Gulliver’s family and friends all leave him not because they’re ashamed of what they’ve done to him, but because he is unable to treat their sincere attempts of love and care without contempt and cynicism. Swift was a cleric in his spare time. He must have known how people suffered without love for one another.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that we should all forgive one another regardless of what they do to you and join hands to sing “All You Need is Love”. I myself am a sardonic person at the best of times, and I know how silly that sounds. But we could at least tone down the cynicism a little, choose to have a little more faith in people: after all, we often hold each other to strict standards that we ourselves fail to hold at times. I know it’s hard in this world (and in Hong Kong especially, where everyone seems to be at each other’s throats, fighting tooth and claw for meagre benefits), but shouldn’t we at least try?

In any case, I like to think that we can do better. I put down the book for the final time just before the Lilliputian adventure ended, confused by both its heavy-handed cynicism and its wanton capitalization (seriously, screw 18th-century grammar). I have no desire to return to it anytime soon.

Next time: Really, the only connection I can think of is that I have finished neither this book or our next one, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”… both are tough reads, go easy on me.

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