Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
Does anybody write satire anymore? Oh, I don’t mean satire of the Saturday Night Live ilk. I mean the really writing a good tale that is part parable, part morality play, and a hundred percent tongue in cheek. Did satire come to an untimely end with the likes of Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift?Let’s look at “Gulliver’s Travels,” shall we? Let’s see what a miracle of satire it really was, and then maybe one or two of you, gentle readers, can tell me about any comparable satire written by our own contemporaries. I’d sure like to know about it if it’s still being written. Okay, here’s the story of Gulliver in a nutshell, in case you haven’t read this since you were 12 (it deserves an adult reading, for sure): Lemuel Gulliver, a failing businessman and surgeon, is shipwrecked. He awakens to find himself tied to the ground by tiny threads. His captors are the itty bitty Lilliputians and are prone to violence, scurrying all over him to secure him. They feed him at great expense (he consumes more than a thousand Lilliputians could) and he is presented to the emperor as a form of entertainment. Despite his captivity, the Lilliputians use him as a weapon against the enemy during a war about a silly principle (the proper cracking of an egg). Gulliver is convicted of treason when he urinates to put out a fire in the royal palace. The emperor pardons him at the last minute and he trots off to the land of the enemies, where he builds a boat and sets sail for home.After a short visit with his wife and children, Gulliver sets sail again, this time ending up in the land of Brobdingnag where the residents are giants. Again, he is treated as an amusement for royalty and here he makes music for the queen. The Brobdingnagians are crude and unrefined and Gulliver is repulsed. During a joy ride, a bird snatches his cage and drops it into the sea. He manages to get rescued and returns to England again.In his third journey, Gulliver is attacked by pirates and ends up in Laputa, where a floating island is inhabited by theoreticians and academics who oppress the nearby continent, called Balnibarbi. Residents seem whimsical and random, and using magic, they conjure up legendary historical characters who seem ludicrous out of context of their own times. The aged and senile immortals living nearby convince Gulliver that age and experience do not necessarily impart wisdom. Once again, he returns home.On his fourth journey, Gulliver is the captain of a ship, but his crew mutinies and confines him in his cabin. They set him on land in Houyhnhnm, where sentient horses rule and where humans—the Yahoos (yup, Swift coined the term)—serve the horses. He learns the language of the Houyhnhmns and tells them about his voyages and the constitution of England. They treat him well, but when his physical resemblance to the crude and repulsive Yahoos is revealed, he is banished. He leaves by canoe reluctantly, and is picked up by a Portuguese ship captain from a nearby island. He can’t help but see the captain and all other humans as brutish, like the Yahoo, ever after. Gulliver concludes his narrative by saying that although he isn’t sure that colonialism is a good idea, his presence in these foreign lands claims them for England by default.Okay, now that you remember the story (you’d forgotten all but the Lilliputians, didn’t you? Even Microsoft Word’s spelling checker knew that word but none of the other names except Yahoo. Makes you wonder about the naming of the Yahoo Web site, doesn’t it?) let’s look at Swift’s life. Swift lived from 1667 until 1745. He grew up in Ireland, was educated there at Trinity College, and later became the secretary of a politician in England. At age 27, he took religious orders in the Church of Ireland (Anglican). He became a country parson and returned to Ireland, where he began to write political satire. He bounced back and forth from Ireland to England during the middle of his life and soon published “A Tale of a Tub,” directed at political critics of the Anglican church, and “The Battle of the Books,” that argues the superiority of the classics over books of modern thought and literature. He poked around in politics for a while and finally joined the conservative Tory party because of their strong allegiance to the church.The Tories fell out of power in 1714 and the 47-year old Swift fell out of favor despite his fame. He returned to Ireland, where he became the dean of St. Patrick’s. He’d begun writing Gulliver’s Travels while in England when he associated with other famous satirists, like Alexander Pope, but he did not complete book until 1726, back in Ireland. He became a loud and vocal supporter of the Irish fight for autonomy, including writing the still shocking “A Modest Proposal.” (Read that right away, if you haven’t already read it. That’s an order.) Swift had what appears to be a stroke and was deemed unable to care for himself in the last three years of his life. Many said that he became so convinced that mankind was all the horrible things he observed in “Gulliver’s Travels” that he lost his sanity and then he died.It’s fun to see how blatantly Swift parodies what was going on in the real world. When you look at that (I’ll try to give it some context as I go), you can see how directly Swift made his point. From the distance of the 21st century, “Gulliver’s Travels” just seems like an entertaining tale. Okay, so the Anglican break with the Catholic church was about 130 years old when Swift was born. The Saint James edition of the Bible was only about 60 years old. Galileo got in deep trouble with the Catholic church when he proposed the heliocentric version of the planets and sun’s arrangement about 30 years before Swift’s birth and Descartes and Pascal made their great contributions around that same time. The English civil war ended about 20 years before Swift was born, and Cornwall crushed the Irish rebellion about three years after Swift’s ancestors moved to Ireland and 17 years before he was born. Gulliver, Swift’s most famous fictitious character, was born about seven years before Swift himself (heh), and the plague and the great fire of London happened in the two years before Swift actually appeared on the scene. His father died a few months before he was born, and Swift lived in Dublin with an uncle while his mother and sister moved back to England. John Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” the same year (1667) Swift was born. When Swift was four, Sir Isaac Newton invented the reflecting telescope and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz made a calculating machine. When Swift was seven, sperm was described for the first time and Benedict de Spinoza wrote and published “Ethics.” The speed of light was calculated for the first time in the following year. The year after he entered Trinity College, when Swift was 16, the same guy who described sperm described bacteria. Peter the Great became emperor of Russia and the Turks besieged Vienna. At 21 (1688), Swift left Ireland due to political unrest and visited his mother in England. He became ill while working for that Whig politician and returned briefly to Ireland. When he came back, he received his MA from Oxford and was published for the first time. James II’s troops were defeated in Ireland and the Salem witch trials happened in that same year. Queen Mary II died when Swift was 27, and he returned to Ireland and was ordained. He went back to England and the first practical steam engine was invented when Swift was 32, in 1696. (Gulliver was stranded on Lilliput in 1699.)Swift was appointed vicar and then prebend (a stipended clergyman) in Dublin the same year John Dryden and Charles II of Spain died and the Great Northern War began (1700). (Gulliver landed in Brobdingnag in 1703.) In 1706, Edmond Halley predicted the return of “his” comet, and Benjamin Franklin was born. Swift returned to London to lobby for the church and the first accurate map of China was made in 1708. The following year, Bartolomeo Christofori invented the piano (and Gulliver departed on his third voyage, to the land where academics and magicians rule). In the next year, Swift’s mother died and he returned to England yet again, this time as a recruit for the Tory party. In 1712, when Swift was 45, George Friedrich Handel came to England and stayed.Queen Anne died in 1714, changing which party had political power and, with a price on his head, Swift returned to Ireland. Alexander Pope wrote his famous “Rape of the Lock” and Bernard de Mandeville wrote “Parable of the Bees” in that same year, and King George dismissed Bolingbroke and reinstated Marlborough. In the following year, Louis XIV of France died. Shortly thereafter, Halley declared the movements of the stars independent, Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe,” and Ireland was declared inseparable from England. In 1720, Swift began writing Gulliver and a plague in France killed 40,000 people. Six years later, Gulliver was published anonymously in England. In 1728, Vitus Bering discovered the strait and the next year, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote “St. Matthew’s Passion.” In 1731, John Hadley invented the navigational sextant and in the following year, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” In the next two years, Alexander Pope’s most famous work, “Essay on Man” and Carl Linnaeas’s “System Natural” were published (that’s the whole family/phyla thing you struggled with in biology).In 1741, Bering discovered Alaska and the following year, Swift was declared unsound of mind and memory. Handel’s “Messiah” was written and performed that same year. Swift died in 1745, the same year as Walpole and three years later, Bach wrote “Art of the Fugue.” In 1749, Henry Fielding wrote “Tom Jones,” and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born. The following year, Bach died. In1752, England adopted the Gregorian calendar, losing 11 days that year. We’re still using that calendar. In 1756, Wolfgang Mozart was born and the Seven Years War began. In 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was born, the Boston Massacre occurred, Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense,” Adam Smith wrote “Wealth of Nations,” and America declared its independence.Okay, now go back and read the synopsis of “Gulliver’s Travels,” or, better yet, read the book. It’s amazing stuff. I’d love to know if anybody’s still writing like this. Oh, I suppose Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale” and some of Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction pieces fill the bill, but tell me about what you’ve read, would you? Although I have read “Gulliver’s Travels” many times, I’ve read a lot in the meantime, so I cribbed some of the synopsis for this blog from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gulliver/ and much of the chronology from http://www.jaffebros.com/lee/gulliver/chron.html.