Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Reading Of Gulliver's Travels


A Reading of Gulliver's Travels: 

I just finished rereading Gulliver's Travels ("GT") and a few bits of analysis right to hand on line.

I gather that the ending of the book is an interpretive challenge and has caused quite some literary debate. (I'm glad to be corrected if I'm wrong.)

I have a view of the ending that maybe can flower into a coherent interpretation of the whole. I have not seen my view mentioned though it may well have been asserted in all the annals of GT criticism. 

My argument in a nutshell is that Swift's vision in GT is ultimately tragic.

A jumping off point for my view is the description at book's end of Gulliver spending four hours each day in his stable speaking to/with his two horses, who he keeps,  feeds and cossets and puts to no labour.

That is madness. That is an estrangement from reality. While the moral nobility of the  Houyhnhnms may well justify Gulliver's desire to live with them until his death, that doesn't vitiate his final demented speaking with horses, who he imagines are speaking with him. 

There is, however, a thematically important limitation to the Houyhnhnms' pure rationality, a practical rationality to be sure, unlike the abstracted craziness of the Laputans, (puta Spanish for whore.) While the Houyhnhnms are perfection to Gulliver, and while he tries in futility to be like them, while they exemplify fellow/horse concern and benevolence, they are also stale, dull and obtuse. Their language is barren, unpoetic, purely functional; their sex lives mechanistic, functional and lifeless. 

Their ordered lives lack all vitality. Death is of no significance to them. They miss the very id energy that makes life hotly messy, tragically flawed and vitally rich. The  Houyhnhnms are all super ego, devoid of the play in human life of the vile and the great, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, so to say. In a nutshell they are, literally, inhuman.

In his encounter with their utopian virtue, Gulliver encounters the heart of darkness, man's rapacity, depredation, folly and illusion, man as Yahoo "with a tincture of rationality." He has this encounter when speaks of European ways with his  "Houyhnhnm master," before he is banished. In this encounter, perceiving he is but a Yahoo "with a tincture of rationality," a patina of it perhaps, he becomes estranged from his own humanity, the vestiges of good that abound in humans, such as the kindness of Don Pedro de Mendez, or the benign, compliant goodness of his own family, wife and children, whom he reviles as Yahoos. He cannot see that the Yahoos of Houyhnhnmland are to humans what humans are in morality and virtue to the Houyhnhnms. 

Gulliver, pliant, pliable, compliant, ready to stoop readily to what he sees as above him, is nearly always bowled over by what he admires. He has at least twice been ready to lay down his European life, his English bourgeois life, in order to live with the Struldbrugs before he learns the truth of them, and of course with the Houyhnhnms, until they banish him. 

And up until he voyages to Houyhnhnmland, he is able to navigate his way back to his ordinary English life subject to never being able to settle there for long. But after the Houyhnhnms, after his intellectual voyage to the heart of human darkness in comparison with the highest virtue of the Houyhnhnms, he is undone, his sanity overwhelmed. 

And so in his madness, in his inability to regain human perspective, to see prosaic human goodness, benevolence and kindness where it exists, he is reduced to letting his wife speak only briefly to him after five years, while he speaks with horses four hours a day in the illusion they converse with him. His peering into the heart of human darkness has a unbalanced him unbalanced, made him mad. 

So therefore, can't we say, and I argue, that Swift's vision in GT's is ultimately tragic, that we cannot confront the deepest truths of ourselves, as has Gulliver, without brooking madness, that, in another way of looking at it, as Wallace Stevens writes, 

The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds?

Not what Stevens says, but what GT says, we must perforce be blind to what is worst about us, the deepest evil truth of ourselves, to be sane. We eke out such existence as we can amidst the folly, depredation, evil and illusion that humans live under in virtue of what they are. Gulliver's madness is the cost the truth of ourselves exacts.

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