Among the Midnight Cynics

by NORMAN SIMMS January 22, 2016

On one of those all too frequent "white nights" (without sleep), I turned on the television set and watched a book discussion group from Australia go through their witty and cynical turns about current books, almost all novels, of course, but the occasional celebrity autobiography and biography as well. Then they came to a section of the programme called "classical books".  What was chosen for this week was Travels into Remote Regions of the World by Lemuel Gulliver, better known today as Gulliver's Travels

"Better known," in this instance means, that all the panellists, regulars and guests, knew Gulliver's Travels either from a host of dumbed-down children's versions in print, film and television.  A few of the literati here could speak of Book II, the Voyage to Brobdingnag or the land where Lemuel Gulliver is tiny in comparison to the giant natives, as well as the more familiar first book, the Voyage to Lilliput, where a normal-sized ship's physician is marooned in a land of miniature human beings.  In the course of their badinage, one of the panellists mentioned that Book III dealt with a flying island called Lapita and Book IV a remote island where horses ruled and primitive humans known as Yahoos were their slaves.

It was established by one and all, including the moderator of the discussion, that this classic book now nearly three hundred years old was extremely boring to read, but full of obscure allusions and unpronounceable names.  Though two or three of the speakers confessed that they only knew the infantile edition of the first book and two others claimed that they couldn't really push their way through all four of Gulliver's voyages, and as they were doing so they had a nagging feeling they were back in a first year university course and had to prepare an essay.

The highpoint of the discussion was when a guest panellist said she knew how to pronounce the name of the Houyhnhms and then she proceeded to whinny like a horse with all the accompanying facial expressions.  The audience roared with laughter, nervously agreeing that it was otherwise impossible to read the name Swift had spelled out.  And really, well, that was it.

Why did they find it boring? Why do I call them cynical? Why has Lemuel Gulliver's early eighteenth-century satire become a classic? And finally why did the television discussion so distress me?

A book is boring, first, if you don't read it properly, and by properly I mean in its entirety and in its own words, and certainly if you don't read it carefully and closely.  I used to teach Gulliver's Travels to second and third year university students, so I read it at least dozens of times every year and over many years.  The more I read it (and about it, as well) the more interesting it became.  My lectures got longer and longer, as there was more and more to point out.  The more I put it into its immediate historical context of the struggle between the Irish nation and their colonizers the English, mostly absentee landlords, as well as their differences a Roman Catholics on the one hand and Anglican Protestants on the other, the more Swift's cutting comments became excruciatingly ironic.  Appearing in print only a few years after Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and even John Bunyan's  Pilgrim's Progress, the intertextual references in Gulliver's Travels were powerful and disturbing to commonplace assumptions about the Age of Discovery and the emergence of the British Empire. These allusions included  memories of the mid-seventeenth-century Civil War in England, as well as more recent feelings about the development of party politics (Tories and Whigs, originally two Irish gangs of thieves) in a time when the whole bourgeois, urban and capitalist revolutions were in progress.  All this added to the tensions and anxieties evident in Swift's parody of a travel book. 

Yet it was also a book about the relations between England and Ireland, its first, longest and least successful colony.  Jonathan Swift was an Anglo-Irishman, one of the last of his breed to know the Celtic language of Ireland, and as Dean of Saint Paul's in Dublin, loyal to his congregation and neighbours. Always on the outs with the establishment in the church and state in England, Dean Swift wrote passionately about the exploitation of his home country (e.g., on the unfair taxes and the callous disregard of its poverty-stricken masses.  Think of his "Modest Proposal", wherein the concerned letter-to-the-editor-writer mockingly suggests raising Irish children like cattle to be sold as food in England as a good way to solve the problems of over-population and poverty in Ireland. Perhaps the panellists on the Book Show would also find that boring and irrelevant to their own concerns, with no application to modern difficulties of too many mouths to feed, joblessness and social unrest.

A book is boring, second, if you don't know how to think about ideas in the light of history, a history that is still with us: think of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the religious and racial divides that persist in Europe and America, and the relationship of Europeans to the rest of the world, a world that still looks distorted from whichever end of the telescope you view the other, where science becomes increasingly bizarre, counter-intuitive and against common sense.  One of the greatest moments in the book occurs when, after his return from the Fourth Voyage to Hounhymland, Gulliver, who seems to have gone mad, wishing he were back among his friends those wise horses, imagines them sailing in a great armada to Europe, landing in vast numbers, and using their hoofs to beat the assembled European armies into a pure "mummy".

And this has no relevance to the vast number of illegal migrants claiming refugee status or simply sneaking across borders?  Think of riots in northern European cities in the last few weeks the blockages of the tunnel under the English Channel: think of them not in sentimental terms but as a profound testing of your moral, ethical and legal principles.

Witty they may be in their own milieu and self-congratulatory circles, but these television celebrity intellectuals are cynical, as one can tell from the books they like and the way they choose to talk about them.  They are modern, or rather post-modern in their outlook: they want literature to be about themselves, their own private, intimate and emotional lives.  If there are ideas to be dealt with, in the way that Swift used ideas to formulate his satire, the panel of literati do not know how to handle them.  If Lemuel Gulliver, a troubled youth who dropped out of medical school in England and then went to a more radical Protestant academy in Holland, the reader today does not register the kind of details Swift's narrator provides.

Manifestly, there is no historical context in this new kind of reading public's mind to deal with religious and philosophical problems, not even when Gulliver shows his further instabilities of character by taking a wife in order to gain financial backing for his practice, and then almost at once goes to sea to avoid his responsibilities as husband and father.  In fact, each time he returns from one of his voyages, he is even more emotionally unstable and seeks another position aboard a ship.

By the fourth and last voyage, Gulliver has left behind his medical duties and ethics  and taken over as ship's captain, and yet as each succeeding account of his relationship to the men aboard shows, he has little or no "people skill".  On the first voyage he was left stranded among the Lilliputians because he did not pay attention to what the other sailors were doing scurrying back to their ship, and in each subsequent voyage his alienation becomes more extreme, until finally he is cast adrift by a mutinous crew sick of his dangerous behaviour.  Similarly, each of the strange lands he finds himself in is a distorted version of his own mind's perceptions of reality-of history, of culture, of psychology.  Swift shows that Gulliver (the gull, the gullible fool, fooled by his own egotistical perceptions) is dangerous to himself and others precisely because he is so ordinary, ordinary in age gone mad.  And all this, too, is boring?

The fatuous religious controversy between Big Endians and Little Endians mocks the theological issues of the Reformation by the reductio absurdum of which end of an egg should be cracked open first. The question of what makes a human being human, whether the classical contrast between people with language and horses without any becomes complicated not only by the way in which irrational Yahoos look like people while rational Houyhnhms look like horses, while the rational equine-masters lack any humane feelings: these horsey-folk wantonly kill baby Yahoos for their soft-skins and plan to execute Gulliver for being an anomaly, a Yahoo who can speak and reason. 

Lemuel himself remains troublesome and enigmatic, even as he provides the main point of view through which everything is seen and measured. He is vain, selfish and lacking in moral responsibilities.  Aren't these still crucial matters in the 21st century insofar as they involve basic principles of logic and self-awareness?  As a satirist, Swift holds a distorting mirror up to humanity, and reveals its pettiness in Lilliput, its grandiosity in Brobdingnag, its lack of balance between reason and feeling in Laputa, and mankind's essential failures in Houhynmhmland reading those who are different out of the bounds of law, love and spiritual integrity-in fact, in a Nazi-like way, out of the human race.

Gulliver's Travels became a classic almost as soon as it was published because it engaged with the eternal and universal questions of the Enlightenment and the long Classical and Biblical traditions at the heart of European literature since ancient times.  For those who cut themselves off from their own civilization and seek meaning only in their own feelings, everything else will be boring, vapid and tedious.  Like Narcissus, staring at his own pretty image reflected in the pond, they become fixed in a vegetative state.  They have nothing to learn from history.  They have no ideas to discover and none to share.

Why does this distress me?  Am I merely a dinosaur living into the New Age?  In a book like Gulliver's Travels I see insights and provocative questions still very relevant today, and the fact that I have to approach them with my eyes wide open, constantly querying my relationship to Swift and his world, as well as the culture from which he drew his ideas and the society that surrounds me today, puts me on my mettle.  I am fearful of a world which is daily threatened down to its very core by hostile societies and pseudo-states, by fanatical ideologues who cannot tolerate any ideas different to their own, who lack the patience to meditate on unfamiliar things until they recognize in them aspects of humanity they have forgotten or never knew about themselves.  I am bothered by a cloying, egotistical sentimentality that is closed to rational thought.

Near the very end of his book, Lemuel Gulliver swears "By Sinon!" that all he has written is true.  And I am distressed by readers who don't recognize in Sinon the Greek sailor who was left behind after the Hellenic fleet seemed to sail away, leaving him behind on the shore near the large wooden horse in order to trick the Trojans who file out of their city to check if the enemy has actually departed after ten years of siege.  Naked and disingenuous, Sinon says he was meant to be killed on the altar as a sacrifice by the Greeks but ran away, and now surely he would never tell a lie about the reason why this giant statue was left behind.  They would be safe if only the horse could be taken into the city, even if it means breaking down the protective walls.  Then the gods will be pleased and the Trojans granted peace and prosperity. Dear readers, the author seems to say, the barbarians are no longer at the gates; they have been welcomed into Troy itself.  Our leaders, too, have believed Sinon in all his unctuous lies.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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