Embracing Gulliver

I first read Gulliver’s Travels when I was 11 years and a few months old, and by the time I had finished the book I thought Gulliver was a very silly man; and because I did not distinguish between character and author, I thought the same of Jonathan Swift.

For most of the book I accepted Gulliver as a fairly accurate  narrator of what was going on, although some of his attitudes surprised me: for instance how unembarrassed, even proud, he was in Lilliput,  when urination, or the king’s orders meant that his penis was on public display. (His breeches were somewhat worn when soldiers, at the king’s orders marched between his legs, and he interpreted their laughter as a sign of admiration.)

I was also surprised at his apparent belief, that little people carrying away his turds in wheelbarrows proved that he was clean.  Those who  tidied up after me certainly didn’t regard it as proof of my cleanliness.

I admired the courage with which he dealt with his change of circumstances in Brobdingnag, the land of the giants, and thought their belief in Gulliver’s cowardice and their willingness to mock him did them no credit.  I was especially shocked by the behaviour of the young ladies of the court, who were in the habit of stripping him completely and laying him on their bare breasts, and in the case of one, placing  him astride her nipple. I was aware that they were taking pleasure in humiliating him, although it was sometime later before I realised the possible effect of what they were doing on the male anatomy, or why Gulliver might have been concentrating on how smelly their breasts were.

I struggled my way through the third voyage, and didn’t get much from it. I noted that Gulliver made a fool of himself, by his enthusiasm for the idea of eternal life, in the eyes of those who knew the  reality of Struldbrug existence. The horror of getting older and increasingly infirm, and never dying.

Perhaps it was the perception that others saw him as a fool, that in the fourth section of the book, made me less willing to take his opinions at face value . Certainly when he first described the yahoos I was willing to accept that they were fairly disgusting looking creatures, and to appreciate that he wouldn’t like being pooped on from a tree.  When he later describes a yahoo kept captive, by the dominant life form, the intelligent horses, as having a perfect human figure; this is when I lost patience with him.  Why didn’t he notice that they were human earlier?

As a farmer’s daughter, I was  aware that where captive animals are filthy, as he claimed the yahoos were, the fault lies with the keepers not the captives.  I also noted that he would have been  filthy, when he was chained up  in Lilliput if the little people hadn’t  given him a reasonable length of chain, and carried his poop away.

When Gulliver later tells us that the unchained yahoos spent a lot of their time in the water, I realised that filthiness could not be their native condition. Given that he had only one set of clothes, and didn’t have the yahoos’ easy access to water, I thought that the master houyhnhnms claim, that Gulliver was cleaner than the yahoos of his country, must be false.

It wasn’t until I was studying the history of World War II, that  I a ran across Nazi anti- Jewish propaganda and the use of  filthy/dirty as an abstract concept or metaphor.

I was rather surprised at Gulliver’s claim, when undressing in front of his master houyhnhnm, that nature taught him to keep certain parts of his body concealed. It  hadn’t been teaching him that when he was in Lilliput. It was only much later when I had become aware of the adult human male’s obsession with penis size, and had understood that there is good reason to believe that it is instinctive, that I appreciated the joke being made here. The master houyhnhnm  says that neither he nor his family are ashamed of any part of their bodies, but in this context a stallion has no reason to be ashamed.

I was not over impressed with the houyhnhnm claim to rationality. The master houyhnhnm told Gulliver that what made the yahoo truly odious was that they would devour everything that came their way, and that they would eat until they were ready to burst. He then said that nature (instinct) had pointed out to the yahoos a certain plant which gave a general evacuation. Then two paragraphs later “Gulliver” tells us, that the houyhnhnm forced a mixture of the yahoos’ own dung and urine down their throats to cure them of diseases caused, allegedly, by their nastiness and greediness.

I was disgusted with this irrational cruelty to the yahoo.  Why would you force something down the throat of a sensate creature, when there is an alternative cure that he/she will take willingly.  I was disgusted with Gulliver who hadn’t liked being force fed by the giant monkey in Brobdingnag, but was yet willing to see something much worse forced down the throat of others of his species. (By this stage in the book he is identifying yahoos and humans as the same species.) My disgust at Gulliver’s double standards reached a peak with his interaction with a three year old yahoo boy. He caught hold of the child, who fought to escape.  This Gulliver regarded as a fault in the child.  The frightened child also piddled on him.

I forgot another circumstance (and perhaps I might have the readers pardon, if it were wholly omitted), that while I held the odious vermin in my hands, it voided its filthy excrements of a yellow liquid substance, all over my cloaths; but by good fortune there was a small brook hard by, where I washed myself as clean as I could; although I durst not come into my master’s presence, until I were sufficiently aired.

Swift Jonathan  Gulliver’s Travels  1726

This is the same Gulliver who felt aggrieved because the queen of Lilliput was disgusted at how he put out the fire in her palace, the same man who when he was tied up by the Lilliputians  could well have drowned a large number, if they hadn’t seen what he was doing and jumped out of the way. Here he was making a fuss about infant piddle.

Shortly afterwards an incident is described where Gulliver has, with the permission of his sorrel nag keeper,  stripped and is cooling himself in a stream. A young female yahoo jumps into the water beside him.

It happened that a young female Yahoo standing behind a bank, saw the whole proceeding; and inflamed by desire, as the nag and I conjectured, came running with all speed, and leaped into the water within five yards of the place where I bathed.  I was never in my life so terribly frighted; the nag was grazing at some distance, not suspecting any harm; she embraced me after a most fulsome manner;

Swift Jonathan  Gulliver’s Travels  1726

I was askance at Gulliver’s truly ridiculous claim that he had never been more frighted in his entire life.  This is after all a man who had been captured by giants, fought off giant rats, and wasps, been bounced maybe forty feet from the ground on the nipple of a giantess. I thought his claim, that he was more frighted by the close presence of a young woman of human size and a hug from her, than any of these things, was completely ridiculous.

I was even more certain that Gulliver was truly ridiculous, when at the end of the very next paragraph, after a lot of gibberish, about how this young female hugging him, proved that he and she were the same species, he put in the following detail.

and her countenance did not make an appearance altogether so hideous as the rest of her kind; for, I think, she could not be above eleven years old.

Swift Jonathan  Gulliver’s Travels  1726

This yahoo whom Gulliver was professing such fear of wasn’t a woman. She was a little girl, younger than I was, and as he was saying,  he thought she could not be above eleven years,  maybe considerably younger.

When I first read this book, I had no understanding of what was meant by the accusation, that the young female Yahoo was inflamed by passion, so I just ignored it.   As an adult I am horrified, at the appalling attitude to female sexuality that this accusation reveals, not in Jonathan Swift: but in all those commentators, that have accepted this dark haired little girl as the personification of female lust.

In Gulliver’s Travels the target of Swift’s satire is the human pretension of rationality, our tendency to self-delude, and our use of double standards.  He has Gulliver end his travels, comfortably well off, and in a happy fugue of self – delusion, able to see yahoo evil in everyone but himself; and despising especially the vice of pride.

Ironically given that his target was self- delusion and irrationality posing as rationality, I think it is probable that Swift did not take sufficiently into account the effects of confirmation bias; our tendency to interpret what is occurring in line with our first impressions.

I think it probable that he intended the reader to react to the idea that the young female yahoo was a child by reassessing what they had just read; seeing instead the deeply unedifying spectacle of a socially embarrassed adult male, accusing a child of lust, while  excusing (possibly) his own arousal as due to fear .  (As the popularity of BDSM shows us, humans of both sexes can have their loins stirred for reasons other than sexual attraction; but only in the male is this obvious from a distance.)

The fact that in nearly 300 years of this book being read, this has not become the major interpretation of this incident terrifies me, for the young of my sex.  The accusation that the young female foreigner was sexually inflamed, is sufficient even still, to drive out a rational assessment of what Swift meant by this incident. (1)

Swift wrote to his friend Alexander Pope that he intended Gulliver’s Travels to demonstrate that man is not a rational animal.  It has been achieving this task for almost 300 years.

Gulliver’s Travels is a treatise on human nature.  Swift spent his life in England and Ireland, and you can find references in this book to the place and time in which he lived, but his target is much larger than this.

One thing that is being targeted is double standards.  Not just the way that we judge our own behaviour less harshly than the behaviour of others, but also the very different standards we use to judge the behaviour of the powerful and the powerless, our own society and the socially excluded other. Note Gulliver’s description of the young giantesses of the Brobdingnag court, girls who were in the habit of stripping and sexually humiliating him, as excellent ladies. Now compare that to his attitude to the significantly younger female yahoo, who merely gave him a hug.

Gulliver’s Travels demonstrates the power of propaganda.  The information we are given about the yahoo, is insufficient to tell us even  whether  or not they are human. They could be, as I thought at 11, possibly a kind of human looking dog. Yet there are no shortage of commentators willing to express their disgust at the yahoo, in a way that I suspect most of us would regard as ridiculous if directed at the dog. (Dogs are voluntary coprophages.  Dung had to be forced down the throat of  the yahoo, by that self-styled perfection of nature, the houyhnhnm.)

The houyhnhnm held councils where they discussed what to do with the yahoo, including proposing taking steps to bring about their extinction – that most final of solutions.  I see in this a historical reference to the attitude of the 17th Century English authorities to the Irish problem, and to the plantation of Ulster. But I see more than this in the parable of the yahoo.  It demonstrates the horrendous ability of propaganda and slander to affect our attitudes to other people. (The attitude of disgust towards the yahoo, only makes sense if we regard them as human.)

It makes people unable to see that when they do bad things to others, they are the bad guy.

Any feature which isolates a group or an individual can be used to label them. And if they are relatively powerless, then they become easy targets for the disgust and blame; that vindicates in their own eyes anyway the righteous persecutors.

It happened to Irish Catholics in Swift’s Ireland.  It happened to Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews  in Nazi Germany. Plato recorded it as happening to the philosopher Socrates. It can happen to the perceived religious; or irreligious; it can happen to those who just look religious, e.g. the crime of travelling while  looking like a Moslem; it can be used to blame girls, including the very young, for the crime of being sexually attractive or abused; it can be used to racially profile,  to target immigrants or the poor. And any other group or individual that can be identified as different.

It is a boon for those who wish to maintain or acquire power by encouraging paranoia among their followers.


P.S. That Gulliver identifies the language of the horses as similar to German, the language of  the Nazi’s, who with their ideas of the  Aryan as a  perfection of nature, really did attempt a final solution; probably shouldn’t be taken as evidence that Jonathan Swift was a time traveller. This is true even when you take into account that the claim, that Swift has the astronomers of the floating island make,that Mars had two moons; wasn’t discovered to be true until 1877.  Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726.

  1. Amanda Knox’s Blog
  2. Giles Fraser on Lent and self Delusions of Moral Superiority (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2014/mar/07/secular-lent-pale-imitation-real-thing)