Rob Went Traveling with Gulliver

Both Julie and I have a lot to write and share about what has been going on with Nate over the last few weeks. So far I’ve been unable to sit down and put the story and my feelings to page. I promise we’ll get this information written down but for now I found it easier to finish a post I started in January about a book I recently finished reading. For now that will have to suffice and I hope you find it interesting.

A few months ago I sat down and watched an episode of the Great American Read. The series seeks to identify the top 100 fiction reads of all time. It is great fun to watch people describe their favorite books and explain why the books are so meaningful to them. One of the episodes I watched with Julie covered Sci-Fi and Fantasy titles. I’ve read many of these books and truly enjoyed them. Some of my favorites are below.

  • Dune
  • Foundation
  • Harry Potter
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Hobbit
  • The Martian

One of the books I’d never read was described fondly by the same people who loved my favorite Sci-Fi and Fantasy books. This book is Gulliver’s Travels and it had never really been on my radar. Because of the Great American Read I decided to give it a chance. It turned out that it was already on our bookshelf all ready to go.

Within days of picking up the book I heard a reference to it in the media and was shocked! I questioned how many references had been flying over my head for so many years and felt like I’d been missing out. There are many interesting parts of the book and I’ll mention just a few of my favorites.

Lilliput and Blefuscu

Lilliput and Blefuscu are inhabited by small people (about six inches in height) and the rest of their land is proportionally small. The Lilliputians are ruled by an Emperor who appoints officials and his court based on their abilities to rope dance. The people are also cunning, devious, and inclined to political intrigue. Eventually, Gulliver gets into political trouble and flees to Blefuscu (the mortal enemies of the Lilliputians). What is the cause of the never-ending rift between these two minuscule societies? The Lilliputians open their miniature eggs on the small end (Little-Endians). There ensues an enormous rift and those wanting to open their eggs on the large end (Big-Endians) flee to Blefuscu and never-ending wars ensue.

My favorite quote from this part of the book is Gulliver’s reflection on his treatment by the jealous emperor of Lilliput after Gulliver refuses to destroy the Big-Endians in Blefuscu. “Of so little Weight are the greatest Services to Princes, when put into Balance with a Refusal to gratify their Passions.”

Laputians and the Lagado Royal Academy

The Laputians live in a floating city which is suspended in the air by magnetism. The people are obsessed with math and music and abhor any practical matters. The Laputian king rules from the floating city and his ministers and subjects live below on normal ground. When the people get out of line. the King floats his city above and cuts the people off from light and rain until they cave to his wishes. There are even threats to lower the city and crush the rebellious commoners.

In the Royal Academy, people were hard at work getting the sunlight back out of the cucumbers, converting excrement back into the original food, mixing paint without the use of eyes (by touching and smelling), making colored silk by feeding dyed flies to spiders, and softening marble for use as pillows. The list goes on and on. I’ve read that the experiments observed by Gulliver are based on actual published experiments by the members of Royal Society. Oy. Swift clearly had little love for scientific enterprise that was either impractical or of little benefit to humans.

A History Lesson at Glubbdubdrib

While visiting Glubbdubdrib, Gulliver interviews ancient and modern historical figures (during which, lying is not permitted) by the power of the local governor who is a necromancer. He interviewed Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Caesar, Homer, Aristotle, Descartes, and finally a suite of more recent historical figures.

Gulliver gives a sweeping diatribe against historical figures which goes on and on for pages. You can really feel the despair in his words and I’ve included just a small excerpt here. “I was chiefly disgusted with modern History. For having strictly examined all the Persons of greatest Name in the Courts of Princes for an Hundred Years Past, I found how the World had been misled by prostitute Writers, to ascribe the greatest Exploits in War to Cowards, the wisest Counsel to Fools, Sincerity to Flatterers, Roman Virtue to Betrayers of their Country, Piety to Atheists, Chastity to Sodomites, Truth to Informers. How many innocent and excellent Persons had been condemned to Death or Banishment, by the practising of great Ministers upon the Corruption of Judges, and the Malice of Factions. How many Villains had been exalted to the highest Places of Trust, Power, Dignity, and Profit: How great a Share in the Motions and Events of Courts, Councils, and Senates might be Challenged by Bawds, Whores, Pimps, Parasites, and Baffoons: How low an Opinion I had of human Wisdom and Integrity, when I was truly informed of the Springs and Motives of great Enterprizes and Revolutions in the World, and of the contemptible Accidents to which they owed their Success.”

At the end of the diatribe, Gulliver reflects on his love for kind and simple people that deal justly and kindly with their peers and live a simple, modest, and virtuous life. He certainly holds himself among this group but I will show you he descends well below that after the last travel he undertakes where he meets the Houyhnhnms.

An Enlightening and Defeating Visit to the Houyhnhnms

It is a little difficult to write about Gulliver’s visit to the Houyhnhnms. It starts out very interesting and enlightening and becomes deeply emotional as Guliver’s disdain for the leaders of the world (from which he stands apart) descends into deep loathing of himself and all humans in general.

The Houyhnhnms are a race of horses that has developed intelligence, grace, logic, and near perfection in Gulliver’s opinion. I suspect that Gene Roddenberry stole many attributes of the Houyhnhnms attributes for the Vulcan characters in Star Trek. The Houyhnhnm society is ruled by logic and is utterly devoid of emotion. All concerns are practical. There is a certain breed of subhumans called Yahoos which are sort of treated as livestock, but embody all the negative in the Houyhnhnm society.

Gulliver spends months and months with them and slowly begins to venerate the Houyhnhnms and takes on the Houyhnhnm view of the Yahoos (both of himself and of all humans). He eventually concludes that all humans are no better than beasts and finds himself and all other humans repugnant forever more. It is sad to see him give up on humanity and descend into depression and self loathing.

The Houyhnhnms are certainly not perfect (no more than the Vulcans in Star Trek). One the best dichotomies in Star Trek is the journey that Spock (and Data for that matter) undertake to learn and incorporate the best qualities of humanity which include a yearning to improve and the mastery of emotion.

Conclusion

It is interesting that Swift writes Gullliver as a typical Englishman with deep pride of his country and people. It takes many travels and out-of-the-box experiences to help him see the many faults and hypocrisy to which we as humans and myself are subject.

Our emotions can be truly sublime and able to bring us closer together while at the same time serve as the motivating force for evil, pride, hate, and destruction of others. It is important to learn to identify our emotions and make sure they are not causing us to act independently of our other mental faculties. Balance is the key and is excruciatingly difficult achieve.

This is a common theme in Star Trek where humanity has surpassed the use of money, banished poverty, and created an egalitarian society in which merit is the chief attribute to advance your position. Clearly Swift does not share Roddenberry’s optimistic outlook on the advancement of the race as he writes Gulliver into depression and self loathing.

The end of the novel is sad and depressing but still a fascinating read. Gulliver descends too far by dwelling constantly on the faults of human kind. In the end he can’t stand the presence of his wife, his children, himself, or any human. Gulliver closes the book with the following words, “I dwell the longer upon this subject (the Houyhnhnms) from the Desire I have to make the Society of an English Yahoo by any Means not insupportable; and therefore I here intreat those who have any Tincture of this absurd Vice, that they will not presume to appear in my Sight.”

Let’s instead work to improve ourselves and rid ourselves of hypocrisy, greed, and hatred of others. We really are all just people and brothers and sisters. We can create an egalitarian society where we work to live kindly and lovingly with our fellow humans. We can learn to feel empathy for others and learn to balance and control the negative emotions that lead to ambition, greed, and eventually the destruction of all others in pursuit of our goals and need to satisfy our lusts.

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