Thousands of Dubliners will soon be reading a novel by one of their city’s strangest literary sons. An unsettling fable of power, corruption and lies, it was an immediate bestseller when originally published and has been translated into countless languages. Filmed, set to music and adapted for theatre, it has also been so heavily expurgated that it has been appropriated as a children’s classic when its author intended it as a ruthless satire in which evil triumphs over hope. Written 300 years ago by an angry priest, it has never been out of print since.
Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World has entered the iconography of Western culture as perhaps no other single novel, giving words to the English language and inspiring remarkably diverse acts of homage. Alexander Pope wrote fulsome verses in its praise, and the scriptwriters of Doctor Who produced a 1968 episode in which all of one character’s dialogue is borrowed from Swift’s dark masterpiece. Gulliver’s Travels is now Dublin City Council’s brave choice for April’s ‘One City One Book’ promotion, an award-winning annual campaign to encourage everyone in the city to read the same novel simultaneously. A political comedy, an existentialist meditation, a bleak thriller about an outsider caught between worlds, Gulliver is also a powerful reminder that size does matter after all.
Orwell, who loved the novel, claiming it among ‘the six indispensable books in world literature’, nevertheless misunderstood one aspect of its game, finding Gulliver’s obsequiousness to authority made him ‘an imbecile’. But in fact Swift’s anti-hero, a born survivor, has a politician’s ability to speak and purpose not. This is a novel about language’s ability to conceal, a handbook of ideological manoeuvring.
Lemuel Gulliver is English, a graduate of Cambridge, a surgeon by profession, an adventurer by inclination. Like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the most famous slave-trader in literary history, a character Gulliver resembles and at least partly satirizes, Swift’s protagonist believes in geographies, charts, inventories, travelogues, statistics, measurements. The imperialism of veracity is mocked in the book, which is decorated with phoney maps and translations from fictional languages, but Gulliver has an 18th century Englishman’s unquestioning attitude that the world exists to be colonized. But interestingly, he has other, more private motivations, and they bubble through the murk of the text. Married with two children, we meet him as he is about to enter his forties, an era when the midlife crisis expressing itself as wanderlust is still not entirely unknown. These days, you feel, he might set out to climb Everest, probably in leather trousers and an earring.
Shipwrecked, he famously finds himself in Lilliput, where the natives are tiny, ruled by a diminutive emperor, and later in Brobdingnag, where the indigenes are giants who regard him as a celebrity, a plaything. Further voyages are chronicled, principally into the country of the Yahoos, bestial, degraded, pitiful savages who wander their wasteland naked, utterly devoid of fellow feeling, shitting on their enemies and grunting like apes. Much critical energy has been expended in wondering who Swift had in mind when he imagined these Neanderthal troglodytes. One answer might be suggested by an 1862 editorial in Punch magazine, which I found while researching my own novel Star of the Sea: ‘A creature manifestly between the gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages: the lowest species of Irish Yahoo’. What an irony that Swift, the onetime Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the genius who took his readers on an Odyssey beyond the wildest frontiers of imagination, may simply have been venting about his troublesome neighbours, wishing they would act more English.
Ultimately Gulliver washes up in the territory of the horse-like Houyhnhnms who live by the precepts of rationality alone and ‘have no Word in their language to express anything that is Evil, except what they borrow from the deformities or ill Qualities of the Yahoos.’ Here he collapses into an inertia that could well be madness but may also be merely a striking instance of the invader going more native than the natives. His attempted inculturation has cost him dearly. Returning to England, he cannot bear to be among his own species any more. Even his wife and children he finds repulsive, malodorous. By now, all humanity he regards as irredeemably Yahoo, with the exception, of course, of himself. Gulliver’s ultimate tragedy is his lack of self-knowledge, a vacuum which is filled by his deranged desire to be President of a republic of one. If no man is an island, as Donne hopefully claimed, Gulliver’s self-insularization renders him lonely as a hostage, crippled by a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that makes him worship the Houyhnhnms despite their fascist hauteur.
Michael Foot once wrote, ‘Everyone standing for political office…should have a compulsory examination in Gulliver’s Travels.’ And politicians have long been among those most interested in the book’s chillingly pessimistic vision. Yet the novel is scathing about all ideologies, and vicious towards those who propound them. Swift incarnates a world where politicians advance their careers by performing public limbo-dances in the presence of their patrons, ‘by leaping and creeping’, toadying and cavorting. Readers might be forgiven for thinking they have strayed into the matrix of Mandelsonian New Labour with its semantic and ethical gymnastics. Certainly, Doctor Gulliver is not the last Cambridge graduate to sex up a document in the hope that things can only get better.
Swift conjures a milieu in which wars are caused by differing interpretations of the same passage of scripture, where disagreements about the proper method of opening a boiled egg have caused the deaths of millions. Solidarities are meaningless, friendship an illusion, nationhood a matter of caste superiorities. If Gulliver is a story for children it is more Horrid Henry than Just William. As a fairytale, it is unendingly Grimm.
Freudian critics have been animated by the book’s obsession with bodily functions. Certainly, Swift’s preoccupation with notions of sublimation seems to anticipate later explorations. Neuroses about body image and inadequate sexuality punctuate and interrupt the text. There is even an outbreak of communal penis-envy when the Lilliputian males, marching under Gulliver’s spread legs, gape upward in awe at the giant’s genitalia, affording ‘opportunities for laughter and admiration.’ (One version of the book is available in pop-up format, a possibility that boggles the mind.)
But what strikes a modern reader most forcefully is the book’s metafictional quality, its constant awareness of its own textuality; that it has been mediated and is now being read. Like Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, it presents itself as having been edited. We know parts of Gulliver’s story have been omitted or disguised. What can be so terrible that we must be spared exposure? And just how unreliable is the narrator? As in Orwell’s Room 101 and Kafka’s unspecified trial, we are invited to confront the worst of all terrors – the one we can only imagine. Thus, the reader becomes a central character, facing the magistracy of conscience, rather than being the passive recipient of a yarn.
But it’s also a book about shock, the effect of trauma on its narrator. Swift, who was fascinated by mental illness, left money in his will for the establishment of Dublin’s first psychiatric hospital, an institution still in existence. (He is said to have added, in a pithy codicil, that he would have endowed the building of a wall around the entire island of Ireland had only his wealth been sufficient.) The Travels, with its relentless atmosphere of disorientation, is an album of nightmares, a bestiary. His fictive islands are terrifying, Beckettian in their fearfulness; we enter the territory of the gulag, the rendition. Tied-up, paraded, vilified and eroticized in equal measure, Gulliver has echoes of the Guantanamo detainee onto whom fantasies of submission are projected. An exotic to some, a terrorist to others, banished from the kingdom when suspected of treason, he ends as the Enemy Within. The public discourse of every community he comes to inhabit swirls around the centrifuge of his presence. An illegal immigrant, an asylum-seeker accused of sponging, he is scapegoat for the desires of the local powerful, who would clearly treat everyone the way they treat their refugee if only they could away with it. And there are other resonances of the 24-hour media culture into which the book has survived to transmit its unique warnings. An early instance of what happens to all celebrities with purely physical charms, Gulliver falls so quickly from being VIP to persona non grata that his plummet is dazzlingly vertiginous. If the tabloid press had existed in Lilliput, you suspect he would have been the frequent subject of its hypocrisies.
This voyeurism and scrutiny is both means of communal bonding and method of public punishment. One of the worst of the many torments to befall Swift’s anti-hero is his public exposition as a freak. It is an ordeal he experiences as sexually abusive, in which the gaze of the viewer (and the reader, too) might stand for the Abu Ghraib lens. Basted in humour of the broad kind that always camouflages unease – Gulliver is used as a sort of sex-toy by Brobdingnag’s supersized girls – this is a drama of invasions, infractions and conquests, of political and psychological battlegrounds. Driving everything is the proto-Sartrean notion that all human relationships predicate themselves on power, that Hell is other people. Images of restraint and chastisement are everywhere in this novel of threatened personal space. Perhaps only Poe has written more anxiously of confinement, restriction and rebuke. For Yeats, who admired Swift greatly and wrote a poem based on his epitaph, to live in a body was to be ‘fastened to a dying animal’. Swift’s savage indignation is not so exculpatory. His humans are little better than insects.
But it is not merely a text about the small being bullied by the big. Gulliver is a meditation on moral downsizing, how the world is changed by violence. Another Irish classic, Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation, is a story that recounts the terrible execution of two British soldiers during the Irish War of Independence. Perhaps Swift’s ghost was at Frank O’Connor’s shoulder as he penned his closing lines: ‘Noble [one of the killers] says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it, but with me it was as if the patch of bog…was a million miles away…and I was somehow very small and very lost.’
Shock alters perspectives, dimensionalities, setting ethical compasses askew. Many will recall a certain Lilliputian on a battleship in May 2003, announcing his project in Iraq was ‘mission accomplished’, bigging himself up as he swaggered for the cameras, when to others he seemed so small. Midget Goliaths still haunt the latitudes of our morality, insisting on the blackness of white.
This pungent, dirty, hilarious, gloomy, thunderous rant of a book has long divided critical opinion. In 1847, Thomas De Quincey claimed that ‘the meanness of Swift's nature, and his rigid incapacity for dealing with the grandeurs of the human spirit…is absolutely appalling.’ And in 1851 Thackeray denounced the book as ‘horrible, shameful, unmanly [and] blasphemous,’ its author as ‘a monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind - tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of…shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.’ And modern readers have been repelled by the book’s misogynist stances (although it is notable that women and girls show far more uncomplicated kindness to Gulliver than do men.) Certainly, the smoke of Swift’s fury arises from every page, and, if it often intoxicates, it sometimes obscures. As such, it is not an easy or comforting book. Its vision makes Beckett’s look cheery. And its author himself did not plead innocent to the frequently levelled charge of misanthropy. Writing to his friend Thomas Sheridan in 1725, Swift remarked, ‘Expect no more from man than such an animal is capable of, and you will every day find my description of the Yahoos more resembling.’ It is a novel by a genius who despaired of his species yet wrote ‘for their approbation’.
But at the heart of Swift’s masterwork is an ennobling sadness, a lament for a world gone mad. This reaches its hallucinogenic climax in an inventory of the technology of war, which has none of Wilfred Owen’s sometimes anesthetizing portrayal of soldiers as always innocent victims. ‘I gave him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, sea-fights; ships sunk with a thousand men; twenty thousand killed on each side; dying groans, limbs flying in the air: smoak, noise, confusion, trampling to death under horses feet: flight, pursuit, victory: fields strewed with carcases left for food to dogs, and wolves, and birds of prey; plundering, stripping, ravishing, burning and destroying….When a creature pretending to reason, could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded, lest the corruption of that faculty, might be worse than brutality itself.’ In an era when warfare is once again portrayed as a game of statistics, collateral damage and ‘mopping-up operations’, we need these stark reminders that war is finally, fundamentally, a set of euphemisms for the destruction of the body. Gulliver’s Travels is a howl of maddened grief, a threnody for a species whose accomplishments in mass destruction have so utterly outclassed its achievements in morality that language itself has been diseased.
It is perhaps this universality of preoccupation that can explain the book’s quite so numerous filiations. From Animal Farm to Alice in Wonderland, from Peter Shaffer’s Equus to Bram Stoker’s shape-shifters, Gulliver is the colossus who haunts the pages, lost in his culpabilities, his evasions. He shadows world literature, an Easter Island embodiment of our capabilities and our deepest fears. That those two seeming opposites are so profoundly connected is the most astonishing realization of this radically destabilizing vision, and the reason it is still needed by our age. For Gulliver speaks to us across the bloodstained centuries, broken, abused, unflaggingly human, a fragment of the problem he wrestles with. In a world of toppled towers and vanquished kingdoms, where death is a matter of solved problems on maps, his bleak, funny, sometimes ludicrous voice tells us we are not alone. ‘A book,’ wrote Franz Kafka, Swift’s greatest inheritor, ‘is an axe to the frozen sea around us.’ Literature has had a pantheon of lost and wrecked mariners, but the most poignant of all is Lemuel Gulliver, still alone on the ice-floe of the frightened self, desperate to find a way home.