Monday, June 18, 2007

Review of Gullivers Travels, by Jonathon Swift

Grade: B
Though most of us like to imagine ourselves anonymous as we crackle along the corners and concourses of these internets, individual character still has an annoying tendency of poking through. You can try to control your electronic output, position your profile in the best available light, and so on, but few of us are quite the actors as we imagine, and once you get the dynamic down, knowing people online doesn't have many fundamental differences with knowing them on the outside. Of my handful of pixellated pals, hipparchia is probably the worst offender of badly-hidden anonymity--she's got half a dozen versions of herself floating around (that I know of), but she can't keep her genuine and idiosyncratic charm out of any of them. She's got the likability and affability thing down, but she's also been known on occasion to strike an argument with a giant and necessary 2x4. Hipparchia is great.

If you're a more observant reader than me, you'll probably pick up right away that someone named hipparchia (among other things) is a horse-lover. In fact, I've got it on pretty good authority that rule by intelligent horses beats rule by dumbasses any day of the week. I can make a good guess as to what human novels such a creature might prefer, and so I reviewed one. As for me, I'm glad hipparchia still bothers to slum it with us yahoos.

The conventional way to introduce Gulliver's Travels as an adult is as a series of shocked revelations. Why, it's not a children's book at all. Oh my. Gasp, choke. I suppose that I got some of that when I was twelve, but to be fair, thanks to my parents' draconian television policies, I read Swift well before I ever caught wind of any terrible kiddified version. My grownup self was more interested in how the vitriol held up. My opinion is mixed.

You could maybe forgive producers their tender renditions if they only read half of the thing (which I suspect gives their attention spans too much credit). Swift's game throughout the book is as much to poke holes of honesty into various human fantasies (size, immortality, utopia) as into actual human institutions and character. Gulliver's voyages to Lilliput and Brogdingnag play more for straight laughs than scathing ones, and while it's funny enough to consider Gulliver fighting disgusting Brobdingnagian flies over scraps of meat (and so forth), the author is only knocking down houses of his own construction when he does that. The first half of the book isn't empty of political satire, but what's there is of a roughly Seussian sort, reduced enough into silliness that it doesn't sting very much.

The protagonist spends a lot of time treating with kings and nobles, and Swift doesn't knock them very hard from Gulliver's point of view, instead he treats them with a naive and likable narrative voice. In this mode, Swift's probably at his best when he lets his character get indignant about defending some horrible human institution or other. I didn't feel that he was painting monarchy as an evil in itself, merely a corrupted one, as all of our endeavors must be. His portrait of an essentially defective human nature suffuses every page.

Swift's pen gets sharper as the story progresses, however, and he gets consequently funnier too. His swipes at the Academy are priceless, whether it's scientists attempting to recover food from excrement and sunlight from cucumbers, extorting funding, or engaging in the self-evidently futile pursuit of competent and just government, Swift's in his highest gear driving across the kingdom of the floating island. If you were looking to skim this novel, I'd recommend skipping all the crap about the little people.

Gulliver's final journey is to a populated by a utopian society of reason-endowed horses and nasty, brutish, unintelligent humans. It's a mechanism, of course, to mock our faulty pretenses toward reason, but I didn't find myself liking the houyhnhnms all that much, with their annoying certitude (none really accepted their bestial natures in other societies), and their intolerance. Though Gulliver, like all humans, may be an imperfect intellect, the houyhnhnms cast him out only because he resembles the other yahoos. Swift (perhaps remarkably, given his times, and all his generalities about fictional foreign societies) avoids racist ideas, but the houyhnhnms, while admirably not dumbasses, are a bunch of speciesist bastards. Screw them.

Satire, like any writing, is an art. To succeed at it, you need to both tell the truth (or at least a truth), the harder the better, and you also have to be funny without being too silly. Now and then, Swift's truths seem a little easy, and he sometimes treats his subjects a little indulgently. He's an adorable sort of misanthrope. Which is maybe not a bad fit for hipparchia at all.

Genre: , ,


hipparchia said...

[cool timeline]

they were real horses' asses, weren't they? i read this one back in school, in whatever grade that was, which was eons ago. now i'm going to have to go back and read it again to see how insulted i am or am not supposed to be [not to mention being able to make an intelligent comment on the book or the review].

i can live with adorable misanthrope, but i have it on good authority, from the horse's mouth you might say, that some fraysters think i sound like different people under different nics. me of the tin ear, especially for my own writings, i can't tell.

i'm honored that i appear to be the first recipient [target? :-)] of what looks like original art there, dude. may i inquire which program you used?

also, i'm thrilled that you worked a dr seuss refernce into "my" review!

wblgb i kid you not
aheoaml ahem, o animal

Keifus said...

we're bloggers?

I sketched the figures in pencil (with a little help) and then marker, and then used (the) Gimp for the coloring and backgrounds and stuff (didn't quite figure out all the issues with backgrounds and transparency, but it came out OK). Thanks for the recommendation.

That timeline is pretty cool. Swift has one part in which Gulliver chats it up with historical greats, noting their superior stature to his contemporaries (which is funny, because he was smack in the Enlightenment, going to prove the maxim that history has sucked pretty thoroughly throughout). It's that kind of conventional agrarian wisdom that I find his weakness...but when he's on, he's on.

The satire that I've paired against this one is Candide, which I'm finding more appealing in terms of delivery and outlook (god help me).

Keifus said...

Also, maybe it's like the same writer making up different characters or something. (Is posting more like writing or acting?)

Also also, learning nothing about the sometimes futility of clarifying oneself (see above), I wanted to say that Atlas was just a model (not scanned or anything). I needed to use horse models too to get the eye and hoof right(ish).