Sunday, December 26, 2004

A Pain in Me Gulliver...

I finished Gulliver's Travels this week. As a comedy writer it's embarrassing that I never read any Jonathan Swift before now. I've had my copy of Gulliver's Travels since my mom bought it for me when I was about six. Since then it's sat in my room, ignored, as I always thought of it as too daunting for a kid to bother reading. Now that I'm 24, I figured I could handle it. Plus I hadn't read anything of "quality" in a long time and I was starting to feel dumb.

Lots of people in high school enjoyed Swift's "A Modest Proposal," but that's because they were dumb people not in AP English, leaving them free to take awesome teacher Heinitz's English Lit class. I was a super-genius, so I was in AP where we didn't read that particular piece of classic satire. I still haven't, though I may try on the plane tomorrow. This post is still about Gulliver's Travels.

Anyway, the first two books are the part you'd recognize. Book 1 is Lilliput, where Gulliver's big and the people, or "Lilliputians," are small. Book 2, slightly less well-known, is when Gulliver is small and the people on the island are huge (every made up foreign place but Lilliput has a gibberish name that's impossible to remember). Books 3 and 4 take Gulliver to an island that flies and an island where horses are intelligent and men are primal beasts, sort of a Planet of the Apes, but with horses.

The first two books, though well known, are not actually funny at all. The only "humor" comes in various situations that are metaphors for the political situation of the period, clever references to disputes between Queen Anne and the Whigs and the Tories. You'll only know because of footnotes and it still won't be funny unless you're a history major with an emphasis on 18th century Britain, because who cares?

The second two books contain most of the satire that actually holds up. The flying island people are caricatures of scientists, which at least comes across somewhat. The best part is when he visits a place where some people are born immortal, which seems great until he learns that while they live forever, they don't stay young forever, so they're doomed to suffer the ever-increasing infirmities of old age:

"If a Struldbrugg [immortal] happen to marry one of his own kind, the Marriage is dissolved of course by the Courtesy of the Kingdom, as soon as the younger of the two come to be four-score. For the Law thinks it a reasonable Indulgence, that those who are condemned without any Fault of their own to a perpetual Continuance in the World, should not have their Misery doubled by the Load of a Wife.

...At Ninety they lose their Teeth and Hair, they have at that age no Distinction of Taste, but eat and drink whatever they can get, without Relish or Appetite. The Diseases they were subject to still continuing without encreasing or diminishing. In talking they forgot the common Appellation of Things, and the Names of Persons, even of those who are their nearest Friends and Relations. For the same Reason they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their Memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a Sentence to the end; and by this Defect they are deprived of the only entertainment whereof they might otherwise be capable.

The Language of this Country being always upon the Flux, the Struldbruggs of one Age do not understand those of another, neither are they able after two hundred Years to hold any Conversation (farther than by a few general Words) with their Neighbours the Mortals; and thus they lye under the Disadvantage of living like Foreigners in their own Country.

...They are despised and hated by all sort of People; when one of them is born, it is reckoned ominous...

They were the most mortifying Sight I ever beheld, and the Women more horrible than the Men. Besides the usual Deformities in extreme old age, they acquired an additional Ghastliness in Proportion to their Number of Years, which is not to be described, and among half a Dozen I soon distinguished which was the eldest, although there were not above a Century or two between them.

The Reader will easily believe, that from what I had heard and seen, my keen Appetite for Perpetuity of Life was much abated. I grew heartily ashamed of the pleasing Visions I had formed, and thought no Tyrant could invent a Death into which I would not run with Pleasure from such a Life."

The real comic gems, though, are in book 4, in which Gulliver tries to convince his horse master that in the land that he's from, men are rational creatures. Thus, Gulliver must explain things like lawyers, doctors, war, ministers of state, and noblemen to the horse, whose noble, honorable society cannot understand the illogical corruption of men.

On Lawyers:
"I assured his Honour, that Law was a Science wherein I had not much conversed, further than by employing Advocates, in vain, upon some Injustices that had been done me: however, I would give him all the Satisfaction I was able.

I said there was a Society of Men among us, bred up from their Youth in the Art of proving by Words multiplied for the Pleasure, that White is Black, and Black is White, according as they are paid. To this Society all the rest of the People are Slaves.

For Example, if my Neighbour hath a Mind to my Cow, he hires a Lawyer to prove that he ought to have my Cow from me. I must then hire another to defend my Right, it being against all Rules of Law that any Man should be allowed to speak for himself. Now in this Case, I who am the right Owner lie under two great Disadvantages. First, my Lawyer being practiced almost from his Cradle in defending Falshood; is quite out of his Element when he would be an Advocate for Justice, which as an Office unnatural, he always attempts with great Awkwardness if not with Ill-will. The second Disadvantage is, that my Lawyer must proceed with great Caution: Or else he will be reprimanded by the Judges, and abhorred by his Brethren, as one that would lessen the Practice of the Law. And therefore I have but two Methods to preserve my Cow. The first is, to gain over my Adversary's Lawyer with a double Fee; who will then betray his Client by insinuating that he hath Justice on his Side. The second way is for my Lawyer to make my Cause appear as unjust as he can; by the Cow to belong to my Adversary; and this, if it be skilfully done, will certainly bespeak the Favour of the Bench.

Now, your Honour is to know that these Judges are Persons appointed to decide all Controversies of Property, as well as for the Tryal of Criminals; and picked out from the most dextrous Lawyers who are grown old or lazy: And having been byassed all their Lives against Truth and Equity, are under such a fatal Necessity of favouring Fraud, Perjury, and Oppression; that I have known some of them refuse a large Bribe from the Side where Justice lay, rather than injure the Faculty, by doing any thing unbecoming their Nature or their Office.

It is a Maxim among these Lawyers, that whatever hath been done before, may legally be done again: And therefore they take special Care to record all the Decisions formerly made against common Justice and the general Reason of Mankind. These, under the Name of Precedents, they produce as Authorities to justify the most iniquitous Opinions; and the Judges never fail of decreeing accordingly.

In pleading, they studiously avoid entering into the Merits of the Cause; but are loud, violent, and tedious in dwelling upon all Circumstances which are not to the Purpose. For Instance, in the Case already mentioned: They never desire to know what Claim or Title my Adversary hath to my Cow; but whether the said Cow were Red or Black; her Horns long or short; whether the Field I graze her in be round or square; whether she was milked at home or abroad; what Diseases she is subject to, and the like. After which they consult Precedents, adjourn the Cause from Time to Time, and in Ten, Twenty, or Thirty Years, come to an Issue.

It is likewise to be observed, that this Society has a peculiar Cant and Jargon of their own, that no other Mortal can understand, and wherein all their Laws are written, which they take special Care to multiply; whereby they have gone near to confound the very Essence of Truth and Falsehood, of Right and Wrong; so that it may take Thirty Years to decide whether the Field, left me by my Ancestors for Six Generations, belongs to me, or to a Stranger three hundred Miles off."

Sorry about this online edition, which has not been edited to modern conventions and retains the "capitalize every Noun" style that I hated so much when reading the Autobiography of Ben Franklin.


Sarah said...

It was possible to be a super-genius and take both AP English and Heinitz's awesome English Lit class. I sacrificed AP Calculus for it. Hm... maybe that's why you got into Berkeley and I didn't. And you knew that writing that paragraph would make me leave this comment. Well played.

C said...

I had to read Gulliver's travels for some class. the only thing i remember was that it was the first book we read for the semester, and i had to check a dirty, old copy out from the library, because amazon was being a bitch about shipping my order. surely the part where all the tiny people try to tie him down must have been funny?

as for modest proposal, i had to read that for my awful rhetoric class where people didn't seem to understand the concept of satire. and then, the next page of the reader contained Matt's squelch article.

Anonymous said...

"Capitalize every noun" leads to more humour.

Book 4 of Gulliver's Travels is the best.

Cynthia, he wakes up already tied down. It's way less funny than it should be. "A Modest Proposal" is legitimately pretty entertaining, I think. It's about eating Irish babies.