Monday, July 27, 2009

Themed Reading Review: Gulliver's Travels

Although this would be a fun book to study in a classroom setting, this is definitely one you can enjoy on your own. I knew the story when I started, of course--who doesn't know about Lilliput and the rest of the strange lands the narrator accidentally travels to?--and I am so weak in English history and politics that I probably missed a whole lot of the satire. I didn't even read the footnotes, unless I was looking for Latin translations. (My Latin is pretty lousy, too.)

But this was still a hoot. You don't have to know anything about history or politics to recognize that when a long passage is devoted to describing how ministers fall in and out of favor with the monarch based on the heights of their shoe heels, government is getting a send-up.

Nor do you need any marine experience to know that a whole paragraph containing practically nothing but sailing jargon is a parody of sailing books: "Finding it was like to overblow, we took in our spritsail, and stood by to hand the foresail; but making foul weather, we looked the guns were all fast, and handed the missen." And so on and so forth. Jargon, jargon everywhere, and not a drop of sense!

Scholars in an academy earn their living by experiments designed to turn human excrement back into its original food (yes, Swift is quite scatalogical). They try to develop methods for building houses from the roof down instead of from the foundation up, and to establish ways to distinguish paint colors by feel and smell. They experiment to determine which types of flies should be fed to spiders to produce strong, colored webs (thus replacing silkworms and eliminating the need for the dyeing process). You don't have to know anything about past or present academia to know what's going on here.

Swift is a master at poking fun at social wrongs. You can almost feel the nudge in your ribs when he really gets rolling on a subject: "Reader, watch this!" The tone is a bit old-fashioned, as is appropriate for a work first published in 1726, but overall it reads quickly and is never boring. Each chapter is framed with a motif of the narrator departing on a sea voyage at the beginning and returning home after various adventures at the end. The narrator's opinions are strongly affected by his adventures, but boy, human nature and human institutions sure aren't very different these days.

Excerpt:

The [political science] professors appear[ed] in my judgement wholly out of their senses, which is a scene that never fails to make me melancholy. These unhappy people were proposing schemes for persuading monarchs to choose favourites upon the score of their wisdom, capacity and virtue; of teaching ministers to consult the public good; of rewarding merit, great abilities and eminent services; of instructing princes to know their true interest by placing it on the same foundation with that of their people; of choosing for employments persons qualified to exercise them; with many other wild impossible chimaeras, that never entered before into the heart of man to conceive, and confirmed in me the old observations, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some philosophers have not maintained for truth.

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