What Is Swift Really Saying?

This semester, I am teaching an on-line literature course. We just finished Gulliver's Travels, which we are now discussing. I read Gulliver's Travels in college. Rereading it was pretty much the same experience: an interesting (and surprisingly fast) read in the first two parts (surprising because the WHOLE thing is exposition); a rather tedious and long-winded read in the last two parts (which is why almost every movie about Gulliver concentrates on the first two parts).

What surprised me was my reaction to the last part, the Houyhnhnms. The Houyhnhnms are the horses who live in a, supposedly, ideal society. At the end of Gulliver's Travels when Gulliver is forced to return to human (Yahoo) society, he is broken-hearted. He is disgusted by other humans (Yahoos) and keeps comparing humans unfavorably to the Houyhnhnms.

I knew Gulliver considered Houyhnhnms the ideal society. I'm not a big fan of ideal societies, so my attitude, when I started reading, was "Ho hum, I hope this ends soon." (I disliked this part the first time too.)

And then it occured to me--Swift is fairly negative about all the places Gulliver visits but not unreasonable. That is, up until the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver is a nice guy with a passive yet objective mindset. He doesn't squash the Lilliputians. He keeps trying to impress the Brob . . . the Giants. He gets more caustic as he goes on, but he tries to see both sides of the society he is stuck in. The Houyhnhnms are the first society he doesn't objectively evaluate (although he is consistently snide and sarcastic about human society wherever he goes).

So what if Swift's point wasn't (just) that human society stinks what with its imperialism and bribery, etc. etc.? What if Swift's point was (rather) that idealistic societies don't really prepare people for the real world? Or, to be more precise, idealistic expectations kind of ruin a person for the real world?

I don't know; my knowledge of Swift is admittedly limited to stuff like "A Modest Proposal." However, I wouldn't put it past him to be that sneaky. Gulliver doesn't come back from the Houyhnhnms a nicer, more compassionate, more understanding person. He comes back, as one of my students claimed, "Rude and cruel."

So, perhaps, idealism is, in its own way, flawed.

I think this is a valid point. One quality that I often associate with T.O.A.Ds, although it isn't a toad-like quality necessarily, is the insistence that the world should or ought to work in a certain, ideal way. They honestly believe that stuff like communism will work because they honestly believe that idealism is imposed rather than chosen and all you have to do is have the right system or tell off enough people or throw enough temper tantrums about how rotten leaders and institutions are (which is kind of what Gulliver does at the end of the novel), and everyone will say, "Oh, absolutely, you are SOOO right. We shouldn't act this way" and will stop behaving corruptly and self-interestedly (after all, the T.O.A.Ds certainly aren't behaving corruptly or self-interestedly). Sure, and children shouldn't hit each other with toys, but they often do despite parental supervision. (And even though it hurts.)

It's the sort of thing that makes you appreciate religions that insist that sin is a real constant. Okay, okay, I'm not into the "human nature is completely evil and this world stinks" form of sin, but I appreciate the insistence that human beings are not capable of unrelenting idealism, no matter what the system, and that any institution, family, group, organization will have its problems. (It isn't anything to get all surprised over.)

In the section on Houyhnhnms, Swift goes out of his way to identify the Yahoos with all seven of the deadly sins: Greed, Lust, Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, Wrath. And I always assumed his point was, Humans stink! But what if his point was, This is part of human reality. Don't ignore it when you try to fix stuff.

Makes you wonder if he was friends with Adam Smith.

After a tiny bit of Wikipedia research: Probably not--There's an overlap but not much of one. But he could have influenced Adam Smith.

BOOKS

3 comments:

  1. I can see that. Swift was all about telling people to go to hell in such a way that they might be looking forward to the trip. In my experience, most people and educators skip the end of Travels because of the sudden shift in tone and theme. It's too hard for most to teach because I think you're right.. most people don't get it. Or if they do, the don;t like it. Kind of the way most people skip Isaiah in the scriptures or most movie adaptations of Huck Finn skip the entire end with Tom Sawyer.

    I think Swift (and Mark Twain, since I mentioned him) had a gift for seeing the world as it is, when most people see it as how they believe it is.

    I can see him being sneaky, particularly if he felt people were going to study and read between the lines anyway.

    Any, I've been putting some new blogs up, take a look!

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  2. a calvinist preacher4/15/2009

    I'm bad. I tried really hard. Honestly. I did. But all i could think of was how to turn everything into "Tom Swifties".

    "What if Swift's point was (rather) that idealistic societies don't really prepare people for the real world?," she asked imaginatively.

    "In the section on Houyhnhnms, Swift goes out of his way to identify the Yahoos with all seven of the deadly sins: Greed, Lust, Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, Wrath," she stated corpulantly.

    I should repent (he said, turning).

    I am soooo sorry.

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  3. I had never heard of "Tom Swifties"--what a hoot!

    I am opposed to adverbs on principle. I agree with Stephen King, from his book On Writing, that a sentence, especially a piece of dialog, should be able to stand alone without that pesky adverb.

    "Captain, look out for the death gliders," she cried startlingly.

    I suppose if that was a Tom Swiftie, it would be, "Captain, look out for the death gliders!" she cried ?morbidly?

    I'm not very good with puns :)

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