giovedì 11 novembre 2010

Misreading Gulliver's Travels

Is Jonathan Swift’s famous satire a defence of humanity rather than a condemnation of it?There is a verbal problem which can be confusing for readers of Gulliver’s Travels. They have ceaselessly been told, almost from the day on which Swift’s novel first appeared, that it was consummately misanthropic; and this was quite true, upon the basis of a certain definition of misanthropy. Moreover, no one has explained this particular definition more clearly than Swift himself. In November 1725, on the eve of the publication of the Travels, he wrote, in a famous letter to Alexander Pope,

"When you think of the world give it one lash the more at my request. I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is towards individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one . . . . But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell."

There is no reason to disbelieve what Swift says here; though if we feel we need proof, we can find it in his biography; for he plainly had very tender feelings for his Stella and Vanessa, and he spoke poignantly of “the terrible wounds near my heart” that the deaths of the Johns Gay and Arbuthnot had been to him. In the same letter he says he defines Man, not according to the classic formula as an animal rationale (a rational animal), but as an animal capax rationis (an animal capable of rationality). This, he says, though he has not proclaimed it, is the theory of misanthropy on which his whole book has been built. It is not, like that of Timon of Athens, just the fruit of personal rage and chagrin; and he will “never have peace of mind till all honest are of my opinion”. It is, one must agree, by no means a fanatical doctrine, indeed quite a moderate-minded one – only, in the cause of self-protective irony, to be called “misanthropy” at all.

Yet what readers tend also to be told is that the moral system of Houyhnhnms, according to which no value is to be attached to personal affections, and death, whether that of others or one’s own, should not be the occasion of any emotion, represents Swift’s notion of an ideal civilization. Gulliver’s account is perfectly explicit.

"They [the Houyhnhnms] have no Fondness for their Colts or Foles; but the Care they take in educating them proceedeth entirely from the Dictates of Reason. And I observed my Master [a dapple-grey horse] to shew the same Affection to his Neighbour’s issue that he had for his own. They will have it that Nature teaches them to love whole Species, and it is Reason only that maketh a Distinction of Persons, where there is a superior Degree of Virtue . . . . If they can avoid Casualties, they die only of old Age, and are buried in the obscurest Place that can be found, their Friends and Relations expressing neither Joy nor Grief at their Departure, nor does the dying Person discover the least Regret that he is leaving the World."

That Swift means us to regard the Houyhnhnms as an ideal contrast to the wayward or sinful behavious of ordinary humanity is plainly false – indeed, frankly, rather absurd. The sooner a reader has cleared his (or her) mind of this idea the better; for it obscures the function that Swift has, in fact, and most ingeniously, assigned to the Houyhnhnms in his scheme. What he presents us with in his Houyhnhnms is an only slightly exaggerated version of the outlook of an early eighteenth-century Deist or devotee of Nature and Reason; and the point that his narrative is making, with steadily increasing force, is that, for a fallible and unwary mortal like Gulliver (or ourselves) an encounter with such rationalizing and Pharisaic doctrines could have a quite lethal effect on our character.

There is no good reason to think that the appalling Yahoos are Swift’s own nightmare vision of the human race: that they are the figment of an author far gone in sick misanthropy. The human race, or “human nature”, as personified in Gulliver, is to be contemplated far more calmly, as up to this point in the novel it has been. The thought that Gulliver may be a Yahoo does not, at first, enter either his or the Houyhnhnms’ mind, for the good reason that he wears clothes. But, his body having been seen in its naked state and found to be indistinguishable from a Yahoo’s, the idea begins, though for different reasons, to take hold of the minds of both of them. It is a pleasant temptation for Gulliver’s “master”, the grey horse, to boast of his “wonderful” Yahoo, who really seems to have a spark (of course only a very tiny one) of rationality; and Gulliver, knowing that his master has decided that he is a Yahoo, and being abashed by the grave and dignified manner of the Houyhnhnms, does not have the strength of mind to reject the idea as absurd.

It is over this question of Gulliver and Yahoodom that David Nokes in his biography of Swift (Jonathan Swift: A hypocrite reversed, 1985) seems to get things wrong – and by no means Nokes only. Nokes points out that Gulliver “never once uses the words ‘man’ or ‘human’” and says, rightly, that from now on Gulliver no longer recognizes himself “as part of the same species as the rest of humanity”. In other words he submits to his master’s judgement that he is a Yahoo, that he is an animal, not a man; and of course to believe he belongs with the monkey-like Yahoos is fearfully disturbing to him. (It is a kind of rehearsal of the Darwinian controversy in the next century.) But after all, forgetting later zoological prejudices, it was open to him, had he had the courage, to have firmly denied that he was a Yahoo, to have asserted that he was a man, a possessor of humanitas. Perhaps, in his shoes, we would have been equally weak. But his decision leaves him in a desperate situation. Loyalty to his fellow Yahoos is, for him, out of the question, so he will have to rest all his hopes on the remote and awe-inspiring Houyhnhnms.

This of course raises the question of what we, the readers, are to think of the Houyhnhnms. They increasingly make literary critics uncomfortable, yet the theory still persists that they represent the criterion, at least in a watered-down form, by which Gulliver is to be judged. David Nokes writes that “There is no doubt that Swift shared many of the attitudes and values that he attributed to the Houyhnhnms”. Douglas Jefferson, in an essay in the Pelican Guide to English Literature, wonders just how seriously we are meant to take the Houyhnhnms, asking if there might not be “a slight humorous awareness in the suavity with which he [Swift] dwells on the their solemn simplicity and innocence”, but his questioning reaches no farther. F. R. Leavis, elsewhere so good on Swift’s irony, declares flatly in The Common Pursuit (1952) that “The Houyhnhnms, of course, stand for Reason, Truth and Nature, and it was in deadly earnest that Swift appealed to these”.

Yet, in fact, the Houyhnhnms strike one as a distinctly sinister crew. This is not simply because of their frightening prescriptiveness and speaking-with-one-voice; for we learn that they have seriously considered getting rid of the Yahoos altogether, either by simple extermination, or, more gently, by castrating all Yahoo males, so that the race will die out in a generation. It is no doubt with their encouragement that Gulliver mends his boots with dried Yahoo skin, and that the sails of the boat in which he finally leaves the land of the Houyhnhnms are made of the same material (young Yahoo skin being found the most suitable).

At all events a curious incident reveals the way Gulliver’s mind is tending. He ventures among a herd of Yahoos, safe in the company of a Houyhnhnm protector, and he strips off his sleeves so that the hated Yahoos can see his bare arms and breast – evidently to score off them and show them he is on conversible terms with one of their superiors. His plans become clear. He means, by toadying and sycophancy, to get as far as he possibly can into favour with the Houyhnhnms. It is not a pleasant sight, and one grows nauseated by his Uriah Heep-like affectations of humility. When his master is entertaining, he receives permission to be in the room and listen to the conversation, and sometimes the guests (so he tells us) will “descend” to ask him questions, though of course he never otherwise presumes to speak – being “infinitely delighted with the Station of a humble Auditor”. On occasion their talk turns on himself, and he listens while they are “pleased to discant in a Manner not very advantageous to human Kind”. Originally, he admits, he had not felt that “natural Awe” which the Yahoos and all other animals feel for the Houyhnhnms, but it grew upon him by degrees, mingled with a “respectful Love and Gratitude, that they would condescend to distinguish me from the rest of my Species”. He falls into the habit of imitating the Houyhnhnms’ gestures and their way of talking and walking, not feeling “the least Mortification” at being laughed at for it.

Thus it is an overwhelming shock to him and to all his hopes when his master tells him that they have to part. The Houyhnhnms, he explains, have formed the impression that there is something almost resembling friendship between him and the Yahoo, Gulliver, which is an indecency “never heard of before among them”; and this, they have said, has to stop. Gulliver must either revert to the status of a lowly servant or swim back to the country that he came from. For Gulliver this is a quite insupportable blow. He faints upon hearing it, and it drives him out of his mind. He is from now on mad, from sheer wounded and insane pride – pride being a vice which he condemns as intolerable in any Yahoo, not realizing that it is what he himself is eaten up with. He builds a canoe in which to flee the land of the Houyhnhnms and is rescued from a desert island by a Portuguese ship en route for Europe. The captain, a most humane man, loads him with kindnesses, but it is only with extreme repulsion that Gulliver can force himself to speak to this “Yahoo” at all. “At last” – these are Gulliver’s words – “I descended to treat him like an Animal which had some little Portion of Reason”. Plainly, anyone whose thoughts have taken such a megalomaniac turn is insane; and insane he remains. He has told himself that his wife and children are Yahoos, and he feels only horror and disgust on being reunited with them; he cannot endure their smell.

Yet this was once a very decent and ordinary, if fallible and perhaps not over-bright, specimen of (fallen) human nature. He has gone mad with misanthropy. The book is precisely a defence of the human, not an interdict on it, an impassioned warning against misanthropy, in a sense of that word utterly different from the one it suited Swift to apply to himself. Gulliver’s Travels is a book strangely much misread.

P. N. Furbank is Emeritus Professor of the Open University. His books include Diderot, 1992, A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe, 1998, with W. R. Owens, and Behalf, 1999, a reflection on the nature of social and political thought.

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