What in the world is going on here? I thought Gulliver’s Travels was all about tiny people and giants, but no, Jonathan Swift’s imagination is extraordinary to say the least. Lemuel Gulliver recalls the zaniest adventures as he travels first as a ships surgeon and then as Captain to Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa and to the Houyhnhnms. A companionable chap he narrates it all in a jolly, matter of fact, chatty way, that is bawdy, crude, ridiculous and sometimes very funny.
First published in 1726, the Enlightenment was in full flow. With its emphasis on reason and science, the idea that everything in the universe could be rational, demystified and catalogued, horrified Swift, who saw these purely intellectual concepts as rejecting the wisdom of the past. Seeing our existence as measurable and observable rather than divine and spiritual was in complete contrast to his thoughts as an Anglican. Science was promising man mastery over nature and this he felt threatened the church.
Swift lampoons this thinking mercilessly with his gullible and naive narrator setting off on voyages where he encounters one ridiculous nation after an other. Starting with the tiny Liliputians with their grandiose ideas and vanity but at war with their neighbours over which is the correct end of an egg to crack. Cranking up the state of ridiculous with the flying island of Laputa, always in a state of alarm, never peaceful because they’re always worrying about what will happen and the dangers they face so that ‘they can neither sleep quietly in their beds, nor have any relish for the common pleasures or amusements of life. . .all they can talk about is maths and music.’
And on to Lagado a land of academies where Swift parodies the experiments of the ‘enlightened’: one person has spent 8 years trying to extract sunbeams from a cucumber, in order to warm the air in inclement summers, another is trying to find a new way to build a house starting from the top and in the school of languages there’s ‘a scheme for entirely abolishing all words. . .for it is plain, that every word we speak is in some degree a diminution of our lungs by corrosion, and consequently contributes to the shortening of our lives.’ And so it goes on until it reaches absolute nonsense in the land of the Houyhnhnms; where the savage, angry and violent Yahoos represent humans and the chivalrous, erudite and rational Houyhnhnms are horses.
And what is it about the eighteenth century and their bawdiness and lavatorial humour? Even Swift, an Anglican cleric, has Gulliver being tiny and riding on the nipples of naked teenagers, in fact the whole adventure in Brobdingnag was pretty disgusting, although I’ve read that he’s satirising misogyny (!)
A steady stream of bodily fluids flows throughout the entire book. In Lilliput he puts out the palace fire by urinating on it; while suffering with a cough in Lagado, he’s led into a room where a physician has ‘a large pair of bellows with a long slender muzzle of ivory. This he conveyed eight inches up the anus, and drawing in the wind, he affirmed he could make the guts as lank as a dried bladder.’ And then there’s an experiment to find out about men’s thoughts and ideas by studying ‘the colour, the odour, the taste, the consistence’ of their excrement. Crikey!
But I did think it was funny, which I wasn’t expecting at all. Every land he stays in he tries to learn their language (which is funny now, but I think then they actually did!):
‘I replied as I had been directed: Fluft drin yalerick dwuldum prastrad mirplush, which properly signifies, My tongue is in the mouth of my friend, and by this expression was meant that I desired leave to bring my interpreter.’
I would say that Gulliver’s Travels is one of the cornerstones of my Classics Challenge list, a book that is so well known I thought I knew what to expect. Well I was completely caught out with this one. I can see that there’s an enormous amount to explore – it seems to have something to say about every aspect of the eighteenth century, Queen Anne and the Whigs; reading it as a satire of the Enlightenment is probably the easiest interpretation there is; but it was hugely fun and completely bonkers.