Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Book #64 - Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift)

We're now a couple of days into the year 2017, and it's time for me to take stock. I started this blog nine years ago, when I thought I was old but I was actually NINE years younger than I am now, which makes me really old now. The years of drinking and swearing and reading great literature have slowly taken their toll: my knees hurt, I have to eat antacids like they're candy, and my brain doesn't remember things the way it used to.  Wait, where was I?  Hmmm.  And then there's the whole 2016 election, which has thrown me for a loop.  I have never gotten political in this blog, but the thought  of Donald Trump with his hands on the nuclear codes makes me feel like the whole world has gone topsy-turvy.  Fortunately my aching knees and a steady diet of martinis keep me from thinking about this all the time.  And right now I'm drinking an ice cold Plymouth Gin martini.  Long time readers of this blog, of which there are none, will recognize this as one of my "go to" gins for martinis...smooth, delicious, not too forward.  And I have in it habanero-stuffed olives, which gives the drink a nice kick at the end.  And since my brain doesn't remember things the way it used to, this can mean a pleasantly unexpected surprise at the bottom of the glass.

Taking more stock: when I started this blog, book blogs were a thing.  Are they still?  I think everyone has migrated to sites like Goodreads and their ilk, making solo book blogs like this one a throwback.  But that's OK, I am so old that I'm considered "retro" and am thus now hip again.  Or so I tell myself.  But it's OK, in a few minutes my martini and encroaching senility will have wiped the memory of these thoughts out of my brain and my mind will have happily moved on to some other thought, like how much my knees are hurting.

But I need to try to focus my rapidly decaying and gin-soaked mind on the issue at hand: Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels", the full title of which is "Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships".  Whew!  This book couldn't be more relevant in this day and age.  The strange reality in which Lemuel Gulliver travels through is no less strange than the reality where Donald Trump is elected president.  I mean, what the freaking fuck??  Donald Trump?!?  Wait, I digressed again, didn't I...?

Lemuel Gulliver is working as a ship's surgeon when a violent storm cause a shipwreck that kills all of his crew mates. He manages to swim ashore and falls asleep in exhaustion. When he awakens he finds he's been tied town by tiny ropes, as illustrated in the photo above. I don't know about you, but this is the one image from "Gulliver's Travels" that I have had since childhood, but it's also the only thing I really knew about the story.  Turns out that Gulliver has washed ashore onto the land of Lilliput, which is occupied by tiny people a few inches tall.  At first the residents are freaked out by him, hence they tie him down, but eventually they learn to trust him, and Gulliver makes the effort to understand them and learn their language.  As he does, he becomes a favorite of the Royal Court.  He also learns that some of their ideas are crazy and capricious, as illustrated by the fact that bitter political rivalries have formed over such things as a disagreement over which end of an egg should be cracked first.  Swift is a master satirist, and this is one of the many times that he skewers English society in this novel, here making fun of how bitter disputes can form over seemingly small differences in custom and religion.  I take the egg-cracking dispute to satirize the differences between Protestants and Catholics, which caused centuries of bitter warfare in Europe after the Reformation, even though both sides were Christian, read the same Bible, and worshiped the same God.  Gulliver helps the Lilliputian emperor by attacking their rivals, the Blefuscudians (whom they disagree with on the egg-cracking issue), and stealing their naval fleet, which he does by wading through the channel separating their islands.  But the Lilliputians turn on him when, in one pretty hilarious scene, he puts out a fire in the royal palace by urinating on it.  While he saves lives and property, the Lilliputians cannot forgive him for this, even though it seemed like a pretty resourceful idea to me.  When he learns that they have decided to punish him by blinding him, he flees to Blefuscu, where he finds a "normal"-sized boat that is shipwrecked offshore.  He manages to recover and fix up the boat, which he sails back to England.  There he makes a living exhibiting miniature animals he has taken from Blefuscu.  All's well that ends well.
And yet, Gulliver can't resist the urge to travel once again.  Come on, dude, stop pressing your luck! Still, he sets sail working on another ship.  All goes well for awhile, then they put ashore on an unknown island.  As Gulliver is puttering about on land, he sees the ship taking off without him due to a giant chasing after the boat.  Turns out Gulliver is stranded in Brobdingnag, which is a land populated by giant creatures, including people.  Basically it's the opposite of Lilliput...this time it's Gulliver who's the little person.  Gulliver is discovered by a farmer and is cared for (in a cage) by the farmer's daughter.  The farmer makes a good amount of money carrying Gulliver around in his cage and showing him off at fairs, until the queen purchases him from the farmer.  So then he hangs out at the royal court where they are amused by his tiny size.  He has discussions with the king about England and its politics, which the king finds ridiculous since Gulliver and his people are so tiny.  How could they have any significant thoughts and politics since they're so tiny, the king wonders, and it's perhaps a good point.  How can such tiny creatures think themselves so important and take themselves so seriously?  Gulliver is offended and tries to impress the king by telling him about gunpowder, which the Borbdingnags have no knowledge of, only to find the king repulsed by the invention when he realizes the horrible things it could be used for.  The end result is that the king has even more scorn for England and its people, the opposite of what Gulliver intended.  The passages where this is all described are pretty funny, and a pretty good satirical damnation of western society and its ways.

One day, on a trip to the beach, Gulliver is in his cage when a giant eagle grabs the cage and carries Gulliver out to sea.  The eagle eventually drops him into the ocean, where he is rescued by a passing ship and returned to England.  Gulliver goes back to his wife and kids but stays only two months before setting out once again (I feel for this dude's family...I mean, he's constantly abandoning them!).  Once again, tragedy strikes and his ship is attacked by pirates, with Gulliver ending up marooned on a strange island.  But then he's rescued by an even stranger island...an island called Laputa that floats in the air!  This turns out to be one of the weirdest places Gulliver visits.  The residents of Laputa are obsessed with math and music, but because of this they are totally spaced out.  They need special assistants who slap them on the ears when they need to listen and slap them on the mouths when they need to respond, because they're so lost in thought they'd otherwise forget and drop the conversation.  Actually, I have encountered a few scientist colleagues myself who are like that.  The floating island is controlled by astronomers, who move around a large magnetic stone to change the island's movement and position in the air.  The king can position the island over lands he controls, and can subjugate the populations by blocking out the sun with the floating island or dropping rocks on the inhabitants below.  In today's political discourse the Laputans would be called "the elites", because they're out of touch with the people below whom they rule over...the royals on Laputa never go to the lands below, and they live in this abstract world of thought and math and science.  Gulliver finally manages to leave Laputa because he is bored to tears...no one there is interested in him, because they're lost in mathematical and musical thoughts.  Gulliver then goes to one of the lands below called Balnibarbi.  Here he finds a land that is in ruins, with misshapen houses, and crazy, unworkable farming techniques.  He discovers that years ago some of the inhabitants went to Laputa, where they learned a little science and math, and when the returned they founded an academy to study science and discover new techniques.  However, their newfound enthusiasm for science and math didn't match up to their intellect, and their schemes for remaking society were all crazy and unworkable.  Gulliver travels to the academy where he learns of some of their latest research, such as trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, building houses from the roof down, mixing paint by using smell only, and turning excrement back into food.  Obviously these projects aren't going well, and schemes of this type explain some of the disorder and ruin he finds in Balnibarbi.  Swift seems not to be satirizing science itself, but in its misuse to develop crazy fanciful schemes.  In other words, he worries about what human folly will do when it acquires scientific knowledge.  He foresees both science being a tool of terror (using the floating island of Laputa to rule over others by blocking the sun and performing aerial bombardment) and as a tool of folly.  Both of which are still concerns today, actually, although I like to think that science has also done a lot of good for humanity (see, for example, penicillin, and the iPhone).  Still, his idea of using science for terror purposes presages much of the twentieth century.  After leaving Balnibarbi, Gulliver visits the island of Glubbdubdrib, an island of magicians who conjure up ancient historical figures for Gulliver to chat with, and the island of Luggnagg, where he meets people called struldbrugs, who are immortal.  You'd think being immortal would be awesome, but the struldbrugs don't stay young even though they live forever...they just grow old, stubborn, prejudiced, greedy, and sad.  They have most of their estates away from them at the age of 80 or else they would eventually acquire all the nations wealth and end up destroying society.  Interesting...there's lots of talk today on how we can extend the human lifespan, but Swift has a good point here, in that this might not be good at all for both the individual and for society.  Gulliver then leaves Luggnagg, makes his way to Japan, and from there returns to England aboard a Dutch ship.

Gulliver's last and final voyage is the one I found most entertaining.  He returns to sea (leaving behind his newly pregnant wife....that poor woman!), this time as the captain of a boat, but his crew mutinies and abandons him on the shores of a strange land.  He encounters a savage race of hideous human-like creatures (I imagined cavemen in my mind) called Yahoos (Wow, so that's where the word comes from!  Who knew??).  He then encounters the Houyhnhnms, a race of talking horses.  It took me a while to get the joke, but if you say aloud the word "Houyhnhnms" in a rough manner it sounds like a horse neighing.  The land that Gulliver finds himself in is a land where horses (Houyhnhnms) are the intelligent rational creatures, who rule over humans (Yahoos) who are brutal savages.  Gulliver sympathizes with the Houyhnhnms, and loves hanging out with them, and tries to get them to appreciate him, rather than classify him as another Yahoo, which they are prone to do.  Gulliver wants to stay with the Houyhnhnms and doesn't want to return home (again, that poor wife of his!).  Gulliver also tells the Houyhnhnms all about European society, but the Houyhnhnms decide that European humans are not so different from the savage Yahoos, they just have more developed systems of government and learning.  Oooh, SNAP!  Gulliver is housed by one of the Houyhnhnms, and is quite comfortable, but his master eventually tells him that the other Houyhnhnms are upset that he has a Yahoo living in his house, and the Houyhnhnms decide that Gulliver must be banished.  By this time, Gulliveer is a total misanthrope, and thinks of all humans as savage Yahoos, so he doesn't want to go back and live with humans again.  But a European sailing vessel finds him and takes him back to England.  He returns to his family, but is miserable and doesn't want them to be near them.  Instead, he hangs out and converses with his horses.  Thus the story ends with Gulliver a rather crazed misanthrope who would rather be with animals (horses) than humans.  And yet the world of the Houyhnhnms that he longs for wasn't really all that great...the Houyhnhnms seemed to just hang out and not really do anything or get excited about anything.  They just existed...they peacefully existed, but there was no life there.  While Gulliver may have gotten disgusted with human society, it's the foibles and failings and quirks of humanity that keeps us interesting.  Gulliver never quite got that.

And so this novel seems very relevant today, as the Donald Trump administration is about to begin here in the U.S.  The president elect seems irrational and unpredictable, and the world seems to have gone as crazy as a world populated by giants, or little people, or odd intellectuals, or talking horses.  But despite the feeling of losing our bearings, one cannot argue that the next four years won't be interesting, and it's humanity's foibles and failings and quirks that keep us wondering what's going to happen next.  Whatever it is, we're all Yahoos, so it should be interesting.  One thing is for certain, though: the martinis will keep flowing.