March 2, 2013


Underrated: Jonathan Swift (DANIEL JOHNSON, March 2013, StandPoint)

Why, then, have critics declined to follow Captain Lemuel Gulliver on his adventures in Lilliput and Brobdingnag? Samuel Johnson set the tone with his mean-spirited Life of Swift and his disparaging comment to Boswell: "When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest." Yet the young Johnson had not disdained to entitle his satirical parliamentary sketches for the Gentleman's Magazine of 1738-44 "State of Affairs in Lilliput", thus demonstrating that within 20 years of its appearance Gulliver's Travels was required reading. On their tour of the Hebrides, Boswell recorded Johnson's conversation with a "sensible clever woman", Lady MacLeod, who asked if no man was naturally good. "No, madam, no more than a wolf," he replied. "Nor no woman, sir?" Boswell interpolated. "No, sir." Lady Mac-Leod: "This is worse than Swift." Her startled aside is revealing, both of Swift's reputation and of his influence on Johnson.

And so it has been ever since. The great Whig critics, such as Jeffrey and Macaulay, were repelled by Swift's love of the morbid, the bawdy and the grotesque and by a cultural pessimism they saw as reactionary. Later critics were similarly harsh, with the partial exception of George Orwell. In his essay of 1946, Orwell denounces "a world-view which only just passes the test of sanity", yet also declares: "If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put Gulliver's Travels among them." He treats Swift primarily as a polemicist, and his satire as merely a tool of his political ideology ("Tory anarchism"), but this is surely the wrong way round. Swift, like Orwell, changed his mind about politics; this did not diminish the quality of their writing. Indeed, the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would be inconceivable without Gulliver's Travels.

Why has Gulliver's Travels such a universal appeal? The supposed author is a ship's surgeon, not a savant writing for the savvy. Along with the usual apparatus, Womersley's edition includes "long notes" which are really short essays on aspects of the book. One of these quotes his publisher, George Faulkner, on Swift's practice of having read aloud his works with two servants present, "which, if they did not comprehend, he would alter and amend until they understood it perfectly well, and then would say, This will do; for I write to the Vulgar, more than to the Learned." How many other writers take such pains to make themselves clear?

A charge made against Gulliver is that it is a clever persiflage of Queen Anne's day, but limited to its own time and place. Swift replied to one such critic, his French translator the Abbé Desfontaines, that "an author who writes for only one town, one province, one kingdom, or one age is completely despicable. But those who admire Mr Gulliver say, on the contrary, that his writings will last as long as our language, because they are not based on certain fashions and ways of speaking and thinking, but on faults and follies which are fixed in human nature." The Dean spoke more truly than the Abbé.

The Truth About Human Nature (Lee Perlman, Spring 2012, New Atlantis)

In Swift's poem "The Beasts' Confession" (1738), written several years after Gulliver's Travels was published, he makes clear that lying, as a human condition, is neither accidental nor escapable. The beasts, speaking as the voice of this poem, do confess their faults, but they defend themselves also, on the basis that what they do is simply who they are. If that weren't true -- if the beasts could be mistaken about who they are, or could deceive themselves -- then they would "degenerate into men." Swift's essentialist understanding of human nature -- what distinguishes it from all other natures -- is that we are the creatures who lie to ourselves about who we are.

This is why in Gulliver's Travels, Swift presents his ostensibly ideal race, the Houyhnhnms, as an entirely different species -- a kind of horse that speaks, but is incapable of saying or comprehending "the thing which is not." But if the distinction between humans and animals is the capacity to lie -- which is entailed in the capacity or perhaps necessity of being other than we are -- then the Houyhnhnms are the perfection or the fulfilled telos of animal nature, not of human nature. The Houyhnhnms are passionless and perhaps compassionless. They are a projection of the mistaken British empiricist view of what we truly are. The Yahoos, meanwhile, are humanlike in appearance, and a grotesque cartoon of the existentialist understanding of what we truly are -- creatures that are a random tumble of irrational drives. The Yahoos and Houyhnhnms are mirror depictions of humanity shorn of its capacity to deceive; yet neither the self-less Houyhnhnm nor the selfish Yahoo is a picture of our true nature -- not its source, nor its perfected or authentic state. It is far from clear, then, that getting beyond the capacity to commit falsehood perfects human nature.

Houyhnhnm reason is the purely unimaginative, non-speculative, dispassionate grasping of bare facts. When Gulliver tells the Master Horse where he is from and how he got to their land, the horse replies

that I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the thing which was not.... He knew it was impossible that there could be a country beyond the sea, or that a parcel of brutes could move a wooden vessel whither they pleased upon water. He was sure no Houyhnhnm alive could make such a vessel, nor would trust Yahoos to manage it.

What the Houyhnhnm cannot easily imagine must be untrue. Their inability to knowingly lie is identical with their inability to see beyond facts -- to imagine, to speculate, and even to have opinions. As Gulliver reports, "I remember it was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either." Despite their seemingly hard-nosed rational empiricism, there is in fact dogmatism in their rejection of anything beyond what is familiar to them.

The irony is thus that, in their insistence on not saying "things which are not," the Houyhnhnms do not truly understand what is -- and so are after all capable of speaking falsehoods. The Master Horse, for example, claims to know that there could not be a country beyond the sea. And without opinions, they are incapable of genuine and potentially truth-revealing speculation and inquiry. Moreover, not understanding what could be, they cannot even begin to grasp what should be. (Indeed, Swift tells us that the word Houyhnhnm even means "the perfection of nature" -- and of course when in a state of perfection, the notion of should has no meaning.) In the Houyhnhnms' incapacity to see anything as representing, evoking, or pointing to something else, they are enemies of the muses. Houyhnhnms show no concern for a search for Truth; they are a species that simply tells the "truth" -- or at least, the facts of the matter. To those who never delude themselves, nothing is ever hidden -- and therefore truth is not something that need be sought, but rather something that lies always plainly before us.

A life devoted to Truth as mere fact is repulsive to human beings. This is nowhere as obvious as when the Houyhnhnms look at death: They are incapable of experiencing loss, because they never abstract themselves from the immediate present and immediate facts. They are animals that have perfected their animal nature, living lives of truth as pure factuality. It is of course a common human pretension to strive for just such a thing. Gulliver, in his narrative, claims "to relate plain matter of fact in the simplest manner and style." This claim, of course, is absurd, made as it is in a story that is wildly satirical fiction, and it is clearly not the view of Swift, the true narrator. The truth he seeks is not one of plain facts, plainly stated, but of something else.

So lies, which Swift takes to be part of our essential nature, are not the target of his satire. The enemy of human authenticity and flourishing is pride, the pinnacle of which is the denial of the lies inherent in our nature. After his sojourn with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver resigns himself to the idea that he and his species are just a bunch of Yahoos, and writes:

My reconcilement to the Yahoo kind in general might not ... be so difficult, if they would be content with those vices and follies only, which nature has entitled them to.... But when I behold a lump of deformity, and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience.

Gulliver's disgust with the pride, rather than simply the vices of the Yahoos, brings to mind Swift's criticism of human hypocrisy in "The Beasts' Confession": our defining vice is fooling ourselves about our vices. The ultimate form of this vice -- fooling ourselves about our capacity to fool ourselves -- is what takes us outside the realm of nature; it is the essence of not being who we are.

A prime source of this delusory pride is the detachment of reason from passion and the apotheosis of mere fact-grabbing as the essential nature of reason itself. In the land of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos, we see reason and passion precisely separated, housed respectively in these two creatures. In the Houyhnhnms, we see reason without passion, and in the Yahoos, a depiction of our raw nature, absent reason -- and that nature is shown as grotesque, suggesting that our reason masks our natural depravity. Yet it is not at all clear whether simply "adding" reason to this nature, if we somehow could, would ameliorate or intensify its odiousness.

When Gulliver's Houyhnhnm host hears his sympathetic account of the ways of law and war of contemporary Europe, Gulliver reports that he responds, "When a creature pretending to reason, could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty might be worse than brutality itself." Gulliver's host later adds that he views humans as having been given "some small pittance of reason," of which we have made "no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions, and to acquire new ones which Nature had not given us."

Indeed, through most of Gulliver's Travels, Swift seems to present rationality as enslaved to passion -- which might lead us to consider the liberation of reason from passion to be Swift's ideal. But in his depiction of the Houyhnhnms, we begin to see that rationality detached from life and feeling would make us strangers to ourselves. This point is even more obvious in A Modest Proposal, the famous 1729 tract in which Swift proposes a decidedly novel solution to the problems poverty and unemployment. The satire in that work rests on the trope of treating human affairs as if they were only factual matters -- in this case, questions of economics.

The pretense is that moral thought can be reduced to practical calculation. Swift criticizes the moral weakness of mothers who have abortions or commit infanticide, which he describes as a "horrid practice," while himself posing the more economically sound solution of selling children for food. The joke, of course, is that, in earnestly proposing a solution to monstrosity, the author casually proposes one far greater. It is the reduction of moral thought to nothing more than calculating rationality that is the true source of the writer's cruelty -- and perhaps of the peculiar track record of modernity for the same, in spite of its Enlightenment.

The second essay here is so good that it made me re-read the book for the first time in 30 years.  I'm ashamed to say I'd not realized how squarely Swift fit with what we've argued is the quintessentially Anmglospheric rejection of Reason.
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Posted by at March 2, 2013 9:58 AM

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