Cave Hill looms over Belfast and its surrounding area like the naturally occurring idol to an ancient three headed, Celtic god.
Three distinct faces can be seen in Cave Hill. This rocky outcrop, frequently referred to as Napoleon’s Nose, is a distinctive feature of each of them, but in only one does it form the nose.
In the top picture it is possible to see two of the faces. In the first the outcrop forms the nose, in the second it forms the hair of a high browed man seen in profile. It is this second face that was probably the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver. (See below for another view of Gulliver.)
The third face of Cave Hill is formed by exactly the same rock formations that cause the Gulliver optical illusion, when looked at from the other direction. In this illusion the rocky outcrop forms, not the hair, but the ridged eyebrow of a rather baboonish looking face.
This face matches the description of the Yahoo, the enslaved, degraded and brutalised human beings, which Gulliver encounters in the last part of his travels, on the island of Houyhnhnmland. Here is how Jonathan Swift records Gulliver as describing one of the Yahoos:
My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure: the face of it indeed was flat and broad, the nose depressed, the lips large, and the mouth wide….
Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels 1726
If you can see the face at all, and as it exists only as an optical illusion, it is possible that you do not, you will note that the third image does indeed have the depressed nose and large lips that Gulliver is recorded as having observed. The fact that Gulliver and the Houyhnhnm – the intelligent horse overlords of Houyhnhnmland – find themselves surprised by the similarities between Gulliver and the Yahoo and have to check to see that he and they are the same species, matches my experience with the second and third faces of Cave Hill. I have travelled many times between Belfast and Carrickfergus, and seen the face of Gulliver morph into the Yahoo, and yet the apparent differences between the two faces are such that I still find it difficult to believe that both illusions are caused by the same rock formations. The young Jonathan Swift was rector of St Colman’s Kilroot, just outside Carrickfergus, from 1695 to 1696, and would have been able to experience this disorientating optical illusion at that time.
Jonathan Swift objected to the notion that humans exist as essentially rational beings, and his comparison between Gulliver and the Yahoos is frequently understood to demonstrate Swift’s idea of the difference between what we think we are – rational and enlightened, and what we really are – lust driven beasts. This is a mistake. All of the faces of Cave Hill are illusions. The face of Gulliver is an optical illusion, a trick of the mind, but so is the face of the Yahoo. Both Gulliver’s opinion of his own nature, but also his opinion of the nature of the Yahoo are delusions. The comparison illustrates rather a point that Swift had already made more than twenty years before the publishing of Gulliver’s Travels.
“partial judges that we are of our own excellencies and other men’s defaults.”
Jonathan Swift Meditations on a Broomstick 1703
What Swift is satirizing is our human capacity for seeing the good in ourselves and the evil in the other. With the Yahoo representing the ultimate other, those seen only through the eyes of prejudice and judgementalism.
From the time he first sees the Yahoos right until the end of the book, Gulliver constantly uses only the language of disgust to describe them. He expresses nothing but admiration for the horse persons of Houyhnhnmland – the Houyhnhnm. The Houyhnhnm, understand themselves as being rational beings and have no word for evil, but yahoo. Gulliver accepts this at face value, as evidence that no evil exists in the Houyhnhnm. The Houyhnhnm have no word for lying, which makes sense because the Yahoos, who are the embodiment of evil, have no language and are therefore incapable of lying. Gulliver accepts this as evidence that everything that the Houyhnhnm say is true. He identifies himself so completely with the Houyhnhnm that he believes that he has taken on their perfect nature, at least to a degree.
The Houyhnhnm account for the presence of the Yahoo on their island by the following story. Two Yahoos by a method unknown once appeared on a mountain. They reproduced and their numbers grew so quickly that the Houyhnhnm found it necessary to take action to destroy the evil infestation. They hunted down the adult Yahoos and killed them, and they separated the young and reared them in kennels, so that they could be used as beasts of burden.
There are elements in this account which could explain why the Humans/Yahoos of Houyhnhnmland are without language, but none that justify the assertion that the evil lies only in the Yahoos.
Jonathan Swift understood himself as a champion of liberty, and he stood up for the rights of the poor and downtrodden. Did he also understand that those who abused the rights of others, or supported those who did were frequently, like Gulliver, or indeed the Houyhnhnms, “good!” persons: good persons who were the victims of self-deception, able to see the evil only in the other? And hence able to their own satisfaction, to rationally justify anything, because they were the good guys.
Did he believe that this self-deception acts as an evil necromancer, causing the self-deceived to behave in ways that they would not otherwise have done, all the while believing that their actions were dictated by rational necessity? Did he see this innate deceiver as the ultimate destroyer of human liberty?
Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity,
Dean of this cathedral Church,
Where fierce indignation can no longer
Rend his heart.
Go, traveller, and imitate if you can
This earnest and dedicated
Champion of Liberty’