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George Orwell > Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels > Essay

Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels


In GULLIVER'S TRAVELS humanity is attacked, or criticized, from at least
three different angles, and the implied character of Gulliver himself
necessarily changes somewhat in the process. In Part I he is the typical
eighteenth-century voyager, bold, practical and unromantic, his homely
outlook skilfully impressed on the reader by the biographical details at
the beginning, by his age (he is a man of forty, with two children, when
his adventures start), and by the inventory of the things in his pockets,
especially his spectacles, which make several appearances. In Part II he
has in general the same character, but at moments when the story demands
it he has a tendency to develop into an imbecile who is capable of
boasting of "our noble Country, the Mistress of Arts and Arms, the
Scourge of France", etc., etc., and at the same time of betraying every
available scandalous fact about the country which he professes to love.
In Part III he is much as he was in Part I, though, as he is consorting
chiefly with courtiers and men of learning, one has the impression that
he has risen in the social scale. In Part IV he conceives a horror of the
human race which is not apparent, or only intermittently apparent, in the
earlier books, and changes into a sort of unreligious anchorite whose one
desire is to live in some desolate spot where he can devote himself to
meditating on the goodness of the Houyhnhnms. However, these
inconsistencies are forced upon Swift by the fact that Gulliver is there
chiefly to provide a contrast. It is necessary, for instance, that he
should appear sensible in Part I and at least intermittently silly in
Part II because in both books the essential manoeuvre is the same, i.e.
to make the human being look ridiculous by imagining him as a creature
six inches high. Whenever Gulliver is not acting as a stooge there is a
sort of continuity in his character, which comes out especially in his
resourcefulness and his observation of physical detail. He is much the
same kind of person, with the same prose style, when he bears off the
warships of Blefuscu, when he rips open the belly of the monstrous rat,
and when he sails away upon the ocean in his frail coracle made from. the
skins of Yahoos. Moreover, it is difficult not to feel that in his
shrewder moments Gulliver is simply Swift himself, and there is at least
one incident in which Swift seems to be venting his private grievance
against contemporary Society. It will be remembered that when the Emperor
of Lilliput's palace catches fire, Gulliver puts it out by urinating on
it. Instead of being congratulated on his presence of mind, he finds that
he has committed a capital offence by making water in the precincts of
the palace, and

I was privately assured, that the Empress, conceiving the greatest
Abhorrence of what I had done, removed to the most distant Side of the
Court, firmly resolved that those buildings should never be repaired for
her Use; and, in the Presence of her chief Confidents, could not forbear
vowing Revenge.

According to Professor G. M. Trevelyan (ENGLAND UNDER QUEEN ANNE), part
of the reason for Swift's failure to get preferment was that the Queen
was scandalized by A TALE OF A TUB--a pamphlet in which Swift probably
felt that he had done a great service to the English Crown, since it
scarifies the Dissenters and still more the Catholics while leaving the
Established Church alone. In any case no one would deny that GULLIVER'S
TRAVELS is a rancorous as well as a pessimistic book, and that especially
in Parts I and III it often descends into political partisanship of a
narrow kind. Pettiness and magnanimity, republicanism and
authori-tarianism, love of reason and lack of curiosity, are all mixed up
in it. The hatred of the human body with which Swift is especially
associated is only dominant in Part IV, but somehow this new
preoccupation does not come as a surprise. One feels that all these
adventures, and all these changes of mood, could have happened to the
same person, and the inter-connexion between Swift's political loyalties
and his ultimate despair is one of the most interesting features of the

Politically, Swift was one of those people who are driven into a sort of
perverse Toryism by the follies of the progressive party of the moment.
Part I of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, ostensibly a satire on human greatness, can
be seen, if one looks a little deeper, to be simply an attack on England,
on the dominant Whig Party, and on the war with France, which--however
bad the motives of the Allies may have been--did save Europe from being
tyrannized over by a single reactionary power. Swift was not a Jacobite
nor strictly speaking a Tory, and his declared aim in the war was merely
a moderate peace treaty and not the outright defeat of England.
Nevertheless there is a tinge of quis-lingism in his attitude, which
comes out in the ending of Part I and slightly interferes with the
allegory. When Gulliver flees from Lilliput (England) to Blefuscu
(France) the assumption that a human being six inches high is inherently
contemptible seems to be dropped. Whereas the people of Lilliput have
behaved towards Gulliver with the utmost treachery and meanness, those of
Blefuscu behave generously and straightforwardly, and indeed this section
of the book ends on a different note from the all-round disillusionment
of the earlier chapters. Evidently Swift's animus is, in the first place,
against ENGLAND. It is "your Natives" (i.e. Gulliver's fellow-countrymen)
whom the King of Brob-dingnag considers to be "the most pernicious Race
of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the
surface of the Earth", and the long passage at the end, denouncing
colonization and foreign conquest, is plainly aimed at England, although
the contrary is elaborately stated. The Dutch, England's allies and
target of one of Swift's most famous pamphlets, are also more or less
wantonly attacked in Part III. There is even what sounds like a personal
note in the passage in which Gulliver records his satisfaction that the
various countries he has discovered cannot be made colonies of the
British Crown:

The HOUYHNHNMS, indeed, appear not to be so well prepared for War, a
Science to which they are perfect Strangers, and especially against
missive Weapons. However, supposing myself to be a Minister of State, I
could never give my advice for invading them. . . . Imagine twenty thousand
of them breaking into the midst of an EUROPEAN army, confounding the
Ranks, overturning the Carriages, battering the Warriors' Faces into
Mummy, by terrible Yerks from their hinder hoofs. . .

Considering that Swift does not waste words, that phrase, "battering the
warriors' faces into mummy", probably indicates a secret wish to see the
invincible armies of the Duke of Marlborough treated in a like manner.
There are similar touches elsewhere. Even the country mentioned in Part
III, where "the Bulk of the People consist, in a Manner, wholly of
Discoverers, Witnesses, Informers, Accusers, Prosecutors, Evidences,
Swearers, together with their several subservient and subaltern
Instruments, all under the Colours, the Conduct, and Pay of Ministers of
State", is called Langdon, which is within one letter of being an anagram
of England. (As the early editions of the book contain misprints, it may
perhaps have been intended as a complete anagram.) Swift's PHYSICAL
repulsion from humanity is certainly real enough, but one has the feeling
that his debunking of human grandeur, his diatribes against lords,
politicians, court favourites, etc., has mainly a local application and
springs from the fact that he belonged to the unsuccessful party. He
denounces injustice and oppression, but he gives no evidence of liking
democracy. In spite of his enormously greater powers, his implied
position is very similar to that of the innumerable silly-clever
Conservatives of our own day--people like Sir Alan Herbert, Professor G.
M. Young, Lord Eiton, the Tory Reform Committee or the long line of
Catholic apologists from W. H. Mallock onwards: people who specialize in
cracking neat jokes at the expense of whatever is "modern" and
"progressive", and whose opinions are often all the more extreme because
they know that they cannot influence the actual drift of events. After
CHRISTIANITY, etc., is very like "Timothy Shy" having a bit of clean fun
with the Brains Trust, or Father Ronald Knox exposing the errors
of Bertrand Russell. And the ease with which Swift has been forgiven--and
forgiven, sometimes, by devout believers--for the blasphemies of A TALE
OF A TUB demonstrates clearly enough the feebleness of religious
sentiments as compared with political ones.

However, the reactionary cast of Swift's mind does not show itself
chiefly in his political affiliations. The important thing is his
attitude towards Science, and, more broadly, towards intellectual
curiosity. The famous Academy of Lagado, described in Part III of
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, is no doubt a justified satire on most of the
so-called scientists of Swift's own day. Significantly, the people at
work in it are described as "Projectors", that is, people not engaged in
disinterested research but merely on the look-out for gadgets which will
save labour and bring in money. But there is no sign--indeed, all
through the book there are many signs to the contrary--that "pure"
science would have struck Swift as a worth-while activity. The more
serious kind of scientist has already had a kick in the pants in Part II,
when the "Scholars" patronized by the King of Brobdingnag try to account
for Gulliver's small stature:

After much Debate, they concluded unanimously that I was only RELPLUM
SCALCATH, which is interpreted literally, LUSUS NATURAE, a Determination
exactly agreeable to the modern philosophy of EUROPE, whose Professors,
disdaining the old Evasion of OCCULT CAUSES, whereby the followers of
ARISTOTLE endeavoured in vain to disguise their Ignorance, have invented
this wonderful solution of All Difficulties, to the unspeakable
Advancement of human Knowledge.

If this stood by itself one might assume that Swift is merely the enemy
of SHAM science. In a number of places, however, he goes out of his way
to proclaim the uselessness of all learning or speculation not directed
towards some practical end:

The learning of (the Brobdingnaglans) is very defective, consisting only
in Morality, History, Poetry, and Mathematics, wherein they must be
allowed to excel. But, the last of these is wholly applied to what may be
useful in Life, to the improvement of Agriculture, and all mechanical
Arts so that among us it would be little esteemed. And as to Ideas,
Entities, Abstractions, and Transcen-dentals, I could never drive the
least Conception into their Heads.

The Houyhnhnms, Swift's ideal beings, are backward even in a mechanical
sense. They are unacquainted with metals, have never heard of boats, do
not, properly speaking, practise agriculture (we are told that the oats
which they live upon "grow naturally"), and appear not to have invented
wheels. [Note, below] They have no alphabet, and evidently have not much
curiosity about the physical world. They do not believe that any inhabited
country exists beside their own, and though they understand the motions of
the sun and moon, and the nature of eclipses, "this is the utmost progress
of their ASTRONOMY". By contrast, the philosophers of the flying island of
Laputa are so continuously absorbed in mathematical speculations that before
speaking to them one has to attract their attention by napping them on the
ear with a bladder. They have catalogued ten thousand fixed stars, have
settled the periods of ninety-three comets, and have discovered,
in advance of the astronomers of Europe, that Mars has two
moons--all of which information Swift evidently regards as ridiculous,
useless and uninteresting. As one might expect, he believes that the
scientist's place, if he has a place, is in the laboratory, and that
scientific knowledge has no bearing on political matters:

[Note: Houyhnhnms too old to walk are described as being carried on
"sledges" or in "a kind of vehicle, drawn like a sledge". Presumably these
had no wheels. (Author's note.)]

What I . . . thought altogether unaccountable, was the strong Disposition
I observed in them towards News and Politics, perpetually enquiring into
Public Affairs, giving their judgements in Matters of State, and
passionately disputing every inch of a Party Opinion. I have, indeed,
observed the same Disposition among most of the Mathematicians I have
known in EUROPE, though I could never discover the least Analogy between
the two Sciences; unless those people suppose, that, because the smallest
Circle hath as many Degrees as the largest, therefore the Regulation and
Management of the World require no more Abilities, than the Handling and
Turning of a Globe.

Is there not something familiar in that phrase "I could never discover
the least analogy between the two sciences"? It has precisely the note of
the popular Catholic apologists who profess to be astonished when a
scientist utters an opinion on such questions as the existence of God or
the immortality of the soul. The scientist, we are told, is an expert
only in one restricted field: why should his opinions be of value in any
other? The implication is that theology is just as much an exact science
as, for instance, chemistry, and that the priest is also an expert whose
conclusions on certain subjects must be accepted. Swift in effect makes
the same claim for the politician, but he goes one better in that he will
not allow the scientist--either the "pure" scientist or the ad hoc
investigator--to be a useful person in his own line. Even if he had not
written Part III of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, one could infer from the rest of
the book that, like Tolstoy and like Blake, he hates the very idea of
studying the processes of Nature. The "Reason" which he so admires in the
Houyhnhnms does not primarily mean the power of drawing logical
inferences from observed facts. Although he never defines it, it appears
in most contexts to mean either common sense--i.e. acceptance of the
obvious and contempt for quibbles and abstractions--or absence of
passion and superstition. In general he assumes that we know all that we
need to know already, and merely use our knowledge incorrectly. Medicine,
for instance, is a useless science, because if we lived in a more natural
way, there would be no diseases. Swift, however, is not a simple-lifer or
an admirer of the Noble Savage. He is in favour of civilization and the
arts of civilization. Not only does he see the value of good manners,
good conversation, and even learning of a literary and historical kind,
he also sees that agriculture, navigation and architecture need to be
studied and could with advantages be improved. But his implied aim is a
static, incurious civilization--the world of his own day, a little
cleaner, a little saner, with no radical change and no poking into the
unknowable. More than one would expect in anyone so free from accepted
fallacies, he reveres the past, especially classical antiquity, and
believes that modern man has degenerated sharply during the past hundred
years. [Note, below] In the island of sorcerers, where the spirits of the
dead can be called up at will:

[Note: The physical decadence which Swift claims to have observed may have
been a reality at that date. He attributes it to syphilis, which was a new
disease in Europe and may have been more virulent than it is now. Distilled
liquors, also, were a novelty in the seventeenth century and must have led
at first to a great increase in drunkenness. (Author's footnote.)]

I desired that the Senate of ROME might appear before me in one large
chamber, and a modern Representative in Counterview, in another. The
first seemed to be an Assembly of Heroes and Demy-Gods, the other a Knot
of Pedlars, Pick-pockets, Highwaymen and Bullies.

Although Swift uses this section of Part III to attack the truthfulness
of recorded history, his critical spirit deserts him as soon as he is
dealing with Greeks and Romans. He remarks, of course, upon the
corruption of imperial Rome, but he has an almost unreasoning admiration
for some of the leading figures of the ancient world:

I was struck with profound Veneration at the sight of BRUTUS, and could
easily discover the most consummate Virtue, the greatest Intrepidity and
Firmness of Mind, the truest Love of his Country, and general Benevolence
for Mankind, in every Lineament of his Countenance. . . . I had the honour
to have much Conversation with BRUTUS, and was told, that his Ancestors
himself, were perpetually together: a SEXTUMVIRATE, to which all the Ages
of the World cannot add a seventh.

It will be noticed that of these six people, only one is a Christian.
This is an important point. If one adds together Swift's pessimism, his
reverence for the past, his incuriosity and his horror of the human body,
one arrives at an attitude common among religious reactionaries--that
is, people who defend an unjust order of Society by claiming that this
world cannot be substantially improved and only the "next world" matters.
However, Swift shows no sign of having any religious beliefs, at least in
any ordinary sense of the words. He does not appear to believe seriously
in life after death, and his idea of goodness is bound up with
republicanism, love of liberty, courage, "benevolence" (meaning in effect
public spirit), "reason" and other pagan qualities. This reminds one that
there is another strain in Swift, not quite congruous with his disbelief
in progress and his general hatred of humanity.

To begin with, he has moments when he is "constructive" and even
"advanced". To be occasionally inconsistent is almost a mark of vitality
in Utopia books, and Swift sometimes inserts a word of praise into a
passage that ought to be purely satirical. Thus, his ideas about the
education of the young are fathered on to the Lilliputians, who have much
the same views on this subject as the Houyhnhnms. The Lilliputians also
have various social and legal institutions (for instance, there are old
age pensions, and people are rewarded for keeping the law as well as
punished for breaking it) which Swift would have liked to see prevailing
in his own country. In the middle of this passage Swift remembers his
satirical intention and adds, "In relating these and the following Laws,
I would only be understood to mean the original Institutions, and not the
most scandalous Corruptions into which these people are fallen by the
degenerate Nature of Man" but as Lilliput is supposed to represent
England, and the laws he is speaking of have never had their parallel in
England, it is clear that the impulse to make constructive suggestions
has been too much for him. But Swift's greatest contribution to political
thought in the narrower sense of the words, is his attack, especially in
Part III, on what would now be called totalitarianism. He has an
extraordinarily clear prevision of the spy-haunted "police State", with
its endless heresy-hunts and treason trials, all really designed to
neutralize popular discontent by changing it into war hysteria. And one
must remember that Swift is here inferring the whole from a quite small
part, for the feeble governments of his own day did not give him
illustrations ready-made. For example, there is the professor at the
School of Political Projectors who "shewed me a large Paper of
Instructions for discovering Plots and Conspiracies", and who claimed
that one can find people's secret thoughts by examining their excrement:

Because Men are never so serious, thoughtful, and intent, as when they
are at Stool, which he found by frequent Experiment: for in such
Conjunctures, when he used meerly as a trial to consider what was the
best Way of murdering the King, his Ordure would have a tincture of
Green; but quite different when he thought only of raising an
Insurrection, or burning the Metropolis.

The professor and his theory are said to have been suggested to Swift by
the--from our point of view--not particularly astonishing or disgusting
fact that in a recent State trial some letters found in somebody's privy
had been put in evidence. Later in the same chapter we seem to be
positively in the middle of the Russian purges:

In the Kingdom of Tribnia, by the Natives called Langdon. . . the Bulk of
the People consist, in a Manner, wholly of Discoverers, Witnesses,
Informers, Accusers, Prosecutors, Evidences, Swearers. . . It is first agreed,
and settled among them, what suspected Persons shall be accused of a
Plot: Then, effectual Care is taken to secure all their Letters and
Papers, and put the Owners in Chains. These papers are delivered
to a Sett of Artists, very dexterous in finding out the
mysterious Meanings of Words, Syllables, and Letters. . . . Where this
method fails, they have two others more effectual, which the Learned
among them call ACROSTICS and ANAGRAMS. FIRST, they can decypher all
initial Letters into political Meanings: Thus: N shall signify a Plot, B
a Regiment of Horse, L a Fleet at Sea: Or, SECONDLY, by transposing the
Letters of the Alphabet in any suspected Paper, they can lay open the
deepest Designs of a discontented Party. So, for Example if I should say
in a Letter to a Friend, OUR BROTHER TOM HAS JUST GOT THE PILES, a
skilful Decypherer would discover that the same Letters, which compose
that Sentence, may be analysed in the following Words: RESIST--A PLOT IS
BROUGHT HOME--THE TOUR (Note: tower). And this is the anagrammatic method.

Other professors at the same school invent simplified languages, write
books by machinery, educate their pupils by inscribing the lesson on a
wafer and causing them to swallow it, or propose to abolish individuality
altogether by cutting off part of the brain of one man and grafting it on
to the head of another. There is something queerly familiar in the
atmosphere of these chapters, because, mixed up with much fooling, there
is a perception that one of the aims of totalitarianism is not merely to
make sure that people will think the right thoughts, but actually to make
them LESS CONSCIOUS. Then, again, Swift's account of the Leader who is
usually to be found ruling over a tribe of Yahoos, and of the "favourite"
who acts first as a dirty-worker and later as a scapegoat, fits
remarkably well into the pattern of our own times. But are we to infer
from all this that Swift was first and foremost an enemy of tyranny and a
champion of the free intelligence? No: his own views, so far as one can
discern them, are not markedly liberal. No doubt he hates lords, kings,
bishops, generals, ladies of fashion, orders, titles and flummery
generally, but he does not seem to o think better of the common people
than of their rulers, or to be in favour of increased social equality, or
to be enthusiastic about representative institutions. The Houyhnhnms are
organized upon a sort of caste system which is racial in character, the
horses which do the menial work being of different colours from their
masters and not interbreeding with them. The educational system which
Swift admires in the Lilliputians takes hereditary class distinctions for
granted, and the children of the poorest classes do not go to school,
because "their Business being only to till and cultivate the Earth. . .
therefore their Education is of little Consequence to the Public". Nor
does he seem to have been strongly in favour of freedom of speech and the
Press, in spite of the toleration which his own writings enjoyed. The
King of Brobdingnag is astonished at the multiplicity of religious and
political sects in England, and considers that those who hold "opinions
prejudicial to the public" (in the context this seems to mean simply
heretical opinions), though they need not be obliged to change them,
ought to be obliged to conceal them: for "as it was Tyranny in any
Government to require the first, so it was weakness not to enforce the
second". There is a subtler indication of Swift's own attitude in the
manner in which Gulliver leaves the land of the Houyhnhnms.
Intermittently, at least. Swift was a kind of anarchist, and Part IV of
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS is a picture of an anarchistic Society, not governed
by law in the ordinary sense, but by the dictates of "Reason", which arc
voluntarily accepted by everyone. The General Assembly of the Houyhnhnms
"exhorts" Gulliver's master to get rid of him, and his neighbours put
pressure on him to make him comply. Two reasons are given. One is that
the presence of this unusual Yahoo may unsettle the rest of the tribe,
and the other is that a friendly relationship between a Houyhnhnm and a
Yahoo is "not agreeable to Reason or Nature, or a Thing ever heard of
before among them". Gulliver's master is somewhat unwilling to obey, but
the "exhortation" (a Houyhnhnm, we are told, is never COMPELLED to do
anything, he is merely "exhorted" or "advised") cannot be disregarded.
This illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is explicit in
the anarchist or pacifist vision of Society. In a Society in which there
is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is
public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to
conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of
law. When human beings are governed by "thou shalt not", the individual
can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly
governed by "love" or "reason", he is under continuous pressure to make
him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else. The
Houyhnhnms, we are told, were unanimous on almost all subjects. The only
question they ever DISCUSSED was how to deal with the Yahoos. Otherwise
there was no room for disagreement among them, because the truth is
always either self-evident, or else it is undis-coverable and
unimportant. They had apparently no word for "opinion" in their language,
and in their conversations there was no "difference of sentiments". They
had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organization, the
stage when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a
police force. Swift approves of this kind of thing because among his many
gifts neither curiosity nor good-nature was included. Disagreement would
always seem to him sheer perversity. "Reason," among the Houyhnhnms, he
says, "is not a Point Problematical, as with us, where men can argue with
Plausibility on both Sides of a Question; but strikes you with immediate
Conviction; as it must needs do, where it is not mingled, obscured, or
discoloured by Passion and Interest." In other words, we know everything
already, so why should dissident opinions be tolerated? The totalitarian
Society of the Houyhnhnms, where there can be no freedom and no
development, follows naturally from this.

We are right to think of Swift as a rebel and iconoclast, but except in
certain secondary matters, such as his insistence that women should
receive the same education as men, he cannot be labelled "Left". He is a
Tory anarchist, despising authority while disbelieving in liberty, and
preserving the aristocratic outlook while seeing clearly that the
existing aristocracy is degenerate and contemptible. When Swift utters
one of his characteristic diatribes against the rich and powerful, one
must probably, as I said earlier, write off something for the fact that
he himself belonged to the less successful party, and was personally
disappointed. The "outs", for obvious reasons, are always more radical
than the "ins". [Note, below] But the most essential thing in Swift is his
inability to believe that life--ordinary life on the solid earth, and not
some rationalized, deodorized version of it--could be made worth living. Of
course, no honest person claims that happiness is NOW a normal condition
among adult human beings; but perhaps it COULD be made normal, and it is
upon this question that all serious political controversy really turns.
Swift has much in common--more, I believe, than has been noticed--with
Tolstoy, another disbeliever in the possibility of happiness. In both men
you have the same anarchistic outlook covering an authoritarian cast of
mind; in both a similar hostility to Science, the same impatience with
opponents, the same inability to see the importance of any question not
interesting to themselves; and in both cases a sort of horror of the
actual process of life, though in Tolstoy's case it was arrived at later
and in a different way. The sexual unhappiness of the two men was not of
the same kind, but there was this in common, that in both of them a
sincere loathing was mixed up with a morbid fascination. Tolstoy was a
reformed rake who ended by preaching complete celibacy, while continuing
to practise the opposite into extreme old age. Swift was presumably
impotent, and had an exaggerated horror of human dung: he also thought
about it incessantly, as is evident throughout his works. Such people are
not likely to enjoy even the small amount of happiness that falls to most
human beings, and, from obvious motives, are not likely to admit that
earthly life is capable of much improvement. Their incuriosity, and hence
their intolerance, spring from the same root.

[Note: At the end of the book, as typical specimens of human
folly and viciousness, Swift names "a Lawyer, a Pickpocket,
a Colonel, a Fool, a Lord, a Gamester, a Politician, a Whore-master,
a Physician, an Evidence, a Suborner, an Attorney, a Traitor, or the
like". One sees here the irresponsible violence of the powerless.
The list lumps together those who break the conventional code, and those
who keep it. For instance, if you automatically condemn a colonel, as
such, on what grounds do you condemn a traitor? Or again, if you want to
suppress pickpockets, you must have laws, which means that you must have
lawyers. But the whole closing passage, in which the hatred is so
authentic, and the reason given for it so inadequate, is somehow
unconvincing. One has the feeling that personal animosity is at work.
(Author's footnote.)]

Swift's disgust, rancour and pessimism would make sense against the
background of a "next world" to which this one is the prelude. As he does
not appear to believe seriously in any such thing, it becomes necessary
to construct a paradise supposedly existing on the surface of the earth,
but something quite different from anything we know, with all that he
disapproves of--lies, folly, change, enthusiasm, pleasure, love and dirt
--eliminated from it. As his ideal being he chooses the horse, an animal
whose excrement is not offensive. The Houyhnhnms are dreary beasts--this
is so generally admitted that the point is not worth labouring. Swift's
genius can make them credible, but there can have been very few readers
in whom they have excited any feeling beyond dislike. And this is not
from wounded vanity at seeing animals preferred to men; for, of the two,
the Houyhnhnms are much liker to human beings than are the Yahoos, and
Gulliver's horror of the Yahoos, together with his recognition that they
are the same kind of creature as himself, contains a logical absurdity.
This horror comes upon him at his very first sight of them. "I never
beheld," he says, "in all my Travels, so disagreeable an Animal, nor one
against which I naturally conceived so strong an Antipathy." But in
comparison with what are the Yahoos disgusting? Not with the Houyhnhnms,
because at this time Gulliver has not seen a Houyhnhnm. It can only be in
comparison with himself, i.e. with a human being. Later, however, we are
to be told that the Yahoos ARE human beings, and human society becomes
insupportable to Gulliver because all men are Yahoos. In that case why
did he not conceive his disgust of humanity earlier? In effect we are
told that the Yahoos are fantastically different from men, and yet are
the same. Swift has over-reached himself in his fury, and is shouting at
his fellow-creatures, "You are filthier than you are!" However, it is
impossible to feel much sympathy with the Yahoos, and it is not because
they oppress the Yahoos that the Houyhnhnms are unattractive. They are
unattractive because the "Reason" by which they are governed is really a
desire for death. They are exempt from love, friendship, curiosity, fear,
sorrow and--except in their feelings towards the Yahoos, who occupy
rather the same place in their community as the Jews in Nazi Germany--
anger and hatred. "They have no Fondness for their Colts or Foles, but
the Care they take, in educating them, proceeds entirely from the
Dictates of REASON." They lay store by "Friendship" and "Benevolence",
but "these are not confined to particular Objects, but universal to the
whole Race". They also value conversation, but in their conversations
there are no differences of opinion, and "nothing passed but what was
useful, expressed in the fewest and most significant Words". They
practise strict birth control, each couple producing two offspring and
thereafter abstaining from sexual intercourse. Their marriages are
arranged for them by their elders, on eugenic principles, and their
language contains no word for "love", in the sexual sense. When somebody
dies they carry on exactly as before, without feeling any grief. It will
be seen that their aim is to be as like a corpse as is possible while
retaining physical life. One or two of their characteristics, it is true,
do not seem to be strictly "reasonable" in their own usage of the word.
Thus, they place a great value not only on physical hardihood but on
athleticism, and they are devoted to poetry. But these exceptions may be
less arbitrary than they seem. Swift probably emphasizes the physical
strength of the Houyhnhnms in order to make clear that they could never
be conquered by the hated human race, while a taste for poetry may figure
among their qualities because poetry appeared to Swift as the antithesis
of Science, from his point of view the most useless of all pursuits. In
Part III he names "Imagination, Fancy, and Invention" as desirable
faculties in which the Laputan mathematicians (in spite of their love of
music) were wholly lacking. One must remember that although Swift was an
admirable writer of comic verse, the kind of poetry he thought valuable
would probably be didactic poetry. The poetry of the Houyhnhnms,
he says

must be allowed to excel (that of) all other Mortals; wherein the
Justness of their Similes, and the Minuteness, as well as exactness, of
their Descriptions, are, indeed, inimitable. Their Verses abound very
much in both of these; and usually contain either some exalted Notions of
Friendship and Benevolence, or the Praises of those who were Victors in
Races, and other bodily Exercises.

Alas, not even the genius of Swift was equal to producing a specimen by
which we could judge the poetry of the Houyhnhnms. But it sounds as
though it were chilly stuff (in heroic couplets, presumably), and not
seriously in conflict with the principles of "Reason".

Happiness is notoriously difficult to describe, and pictures of a just
and well-ordered Society are seldom either attractive or convincing. Most
creators of "favourable" Utopias, however, are concerned to show what
life could be like if it were lived more fully. Swift advocates a simple
refusal of life, justifying this by the claim that "Reason" consists in
thwarting your instincts. The Houyhnhnms, creatures without a history,
continue for generation after generation to live prudently, maintaining
their population at exactly the same level, avoiding all passion,
suffering from no diseases, meeting death indifferently, training up
their young in the same principles--and all for what? In order that the
same process may continue indefinitely. The notions that life here and
now is worth living, or that it could be made worth living, or that it
must be sacrificed for some future good, are all absent. The dreary world
of the Houyhnhnms was about as good a Utopia as Swift could construct,
granting that he neither believed in a "next world" nor could get any
pleasure out of certain normal activities. But it is not really set up as
something desirable in itself, but as the justification for another
attack on humanity. The aim, as usual, is to humiliate Man by reminding
him that he is weak and ridiculous, and above all that he stinks; and the
ultimate motive, probably, is a kind of envy, the envy of the ghost for
the living, of the man who knows he cannot be happy for the others who--
so he fears--may be a little happier than himself. The political
expression of such an outlook must be either reactionary or nihilistic,
because the person who holds it will want to prevent Society from
developing in some direction in which his pessimism may be cheated. One
can do this either by blowing everything to pieces, or by averting social
change. Swift ultimately blew everything to pieces in the only way that
was feasible before the atomic bomb--that is, he went mad--but, as I
have tried to show, his political aims were on the whole reactionary ones.

From what I have written it may have seemed that I am AGAINST Swift, and
that my object is to refute him and even to belittle him. In a political
and moral sense I am against him, so far as I understand him. Yet
curiously enough he is one of the writers I admire with least reserve,
and GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, in particular, is a book which it seems
impossible for me to grow tired of. I read it first when I was, eight--
one day short of eight, to be exact, for I stole and furtively read the
copy which was to be given me next day on my eighth birthday--and I have
certainly not read it less than half a dozen times since. Its fascination
seems inexhaustible. If I had to make a list of six books which were to
be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS among them. This raises the question: what is the
relationship between agreement with a writer's opinions, and enjoyment of
his work?

If one is capable of intellectual detachment, one can PERCEIVE merit in a
writer whom one deeply disagrees with, but ENJOYMENT is a different
matter. Supposing that there is such a thing as good or bad art, then the
goodness or badness must reside in the work of art itself--not
independently of the observer, indeed, but independently of the mood of
the observer. In one sense, therefore, it cannot be true that a poem is
good on Monday and bad on Tuesday. But if one judges the poem by the
appreciation it arouses, then it can certainly be true, because
appreciation, or enjoyment, is a subjective condition which cannot be
commanded. For a great deal of his waking life, even the most cultivated
person has no aesthetic feelings whatever, and the power to have
aesthetic feelings is very easily destroyed. When you are frightened, or
hungry, or are suffering from toothache or sea-sickness, KING LEAR is no
better from your point of view than PETER PAN. You may know in an
intellectual sense that it is better, but that is simply a fact which you
remember: you will not FEEL the merit of KING LEAR until you are normal
again. And aesthetic judgement can be upset just as disastrously--more
disastrously, because the cause is less readily recognized--by political
or moral disagreement. If a book angers, wounds or alarms you, then you
will not enjoy it, whatever its merits may be. If it seems to you a
really pernicious book, likely to influence other people in some
undesirable way, then you will probably construct an aesthetic theory to
show that it HAS no merits. Current literary criticism consists quite
largely of this kind of dodging to and fro between two sets of standards.
And yet the opposite process can also happen: enjoyment can overwhelm
disapproval, even though one clearly recognizes that one is enjoying
something inimical. Swift, whose world-view is so peculiarly
unacceptable, but who is nevertheless an extremely popular writer, is a
good instance of this. Why is it that we don't mind being called Yahoos,
although firmly convinced that we are NOT Yahoos?

It is not enough to make the usual answer that of course Swift was wrong,
in fact he was insane, but he was "a good writer". It is true that the
literary quality of a book is to some small extent separable from its
subject-matter. Some people have a native gift for using words, as some
people have a naturally "good eye" at games. It is largely a question of
timing and of instinctively knowing how much emphasis to use. As an
example near at hand, look back at the passage I quoted earlier, starting
"In the Kingdom of Tribnia, by the Natives called Langdon". It derives
much of its force from the final sentence: "And this is the anagram-made
Method." Strictly speaking this sentence is unnecessary, for we have
already seen the anagram decyphered, but the mock-solemn repetition, in
which one seems to hear Swift's own voice uttering the words, drives home
the idiocy of the activities described, like the final tap to a nail. But
not all the power and simplicity of Swift's prose, nor the imaginative
effort that has been able to make not one but a whole series of
impossible worlds more credible than the majority of history books--none
of this would enable us to enjoy Swift if his world-view were truly
wounding or shocking. Millions of people, in many countries, must have
enjoyed GULLIVER'S TRAVELS while more or less seeing its anti-human
implications: and even the child who accepts Parts i and n as a simple
story gets a sense of absurdity from thinking of human beings six inches
high. The explanation must be that Swift's world-view is felt to be NOT
altogether false--or it would probably be more accurate to say, not
false all the time. Swift is a diseased writer. He remains permanently in
a depressed mood which in most people is only intermittent, rather as
though someone suffering from jaundice or the after-effects of influenza
should have the energy to write books. But we all know that mood, and
something in us responds to the expression of it. Take, for instance, one
of his most characteristic works, The Lady's Dressing Room: one might add
the kindred poem, Upon a Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. Which is
truer, the viewpoint expressed in these poems, or the viewpoint implied
in Blake's phrase, "The naked female human form divine"? No doubt Blake
is nearer the truth, and yet who can fail to feel a sort of pleasure in
seeing that fraud, feminine delicacy, exploded for once? Swift falsifies
his picture of the world by refusing to see anything in human life except
dirt, folly and wickedness, but the part which he abstracts from the
whole does exist, and it is something which we all know about while
shrinking from mentioning it. Part of our minds--in any normal person it
is the dominant part--believes that man is a noble animal and life is
worth living: but there is also a sort of inner self which at least
intermittently stands aghast at the horror of existence. In the queerest
way, pleasure and disgust are linked together. The human body is
beautiful: it is also repulsive and ridiculous, a fact which can be
verified at any swimming pool. The sexual organs are objects of desire
and also of loathing, so much so that in many languages, if not in all
languages, their names are used as words of abuse. Meat is delicious, but
a butcher's shop makes one feel sick: and indeed all our food springs
ultimately from dung and dead bodies, the two things which of all others
seem to us the most horrible. A child, when it is past the infantile
stage but still looking at the world with fresh eyes, is moved by horror
almost as often as by wonder--horror of snot and spittle, of the dogs'
excrement on the pavement, the dying toad full of maggots, the sweaty
smell of grown-ups, the hideousness of old men, with their bald heads and
bulbous noses. In his endless harping on disease, dirt and deformity,
Swift is not actually inventing anything, he is merely leaving something
out. Human behaviour, too, especially in politics, is as he describes it,
although it contains other more important factors which he refuses to
admit. So far as we can see, both horror and pain are necessary to the
continuance of life on this planet, and it is therefore open to
pessimists like Swift to say: "If horror and pain must always be with
us, how can life be significantly improved?" His attitude is in effect
the Christian attitude, minus the bribe of a "next world"--which,
however, probably has less hold upon the minds of believers than the
conviction that this world is a vale of tears and the grave is a place of
rest. It is, I am certain, a wrong attitude, and one which could have
harmful effects upon behaviour; but something in us responds to it, as it
responds to the gloomy words of the burial service and the sweetish smell
of corpses in a country church.

It is often argued, at least by people who admit the importance of
subject-matter, that a book cannot be "good" if it expresses a palpably
false view of life. We are told that in our own age, for instance, any
book that has genuine literary merit will also be more or less
"progressive" in tendency. This ignores the fact that throughout history
a similar struggle between progress and reaction has been raging, and
that the best books of any one age have always been written from several
different viewpoints, some of them palpably more false than others. In so
far as a writer is a propagandist, the most one can ask of him is that he
shall genuinely believe in what he is saying, and that it shall not be
something blazingly silly. To-day, for example, one can imagine a good
book being written by a Catholic, a Communist, a Fascist, pacifist, an
anarchist, perhaps by an old-style Liberal or an ordinary Conservative:
one cannot imagine a good book being written by a spiritualist, a
Buchmanite or a member of the Ku-Klux-KIan. The views that a writer holds
must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power
of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is
probably another name for conviction. Swift did not possess ordinary
wisdom, but he did possess a terrible intensity of vision, capable of
picking out a single hidden truth and then magnifying it and distorting
it. The durability of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS goes to show that, if the force
of belief is behind it, a world-view which only just passes the test of
sanity is sufficient to produce a great work of art.

Index Index

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> Charles Darwin
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> William Shakespeare

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