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GULLIVER'S TRAVELS: Mizzou English professor looks at fabled story-teller

He invented the word "Yahoo" and other reasons 17th century author/poet Jonathan Swift is relevant today more than ever

COLUMBIA, 10/27/12 (Op Ed) -- A University of Missouri English professor has received a 6-figure grant to study and edit Jonathan Swift, a 17th century Stephen Colbert known for his pointed wit and readiness to skewer the foibles of the powerful.

The three-year, $225,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant will support Stephen Karian's tremendous task: compiling, editing, and archiving several hundred satirical poems Swift wrote, and a study of his creative processes.

Most people think of Swift as the author of that book about little people, the Lilliputians.

That was my thinking until I pulled the book -- Gulliver's Travels -- down from a shelf after packing it dozens of times, carting it around the nation, and looking at it my entire life (it was part of an old Classics Club series my mom bought before I was born, for my "proper education" in the humanities.)

The book about little people turned out to be four different novellas that take protagonist Lemuel Gulliver, a ship's doctor, on sea-bound adventures to mythical places that combine creepy realism with wicked witticism.

Gulliver's Travels has been too often treated like a cartoon, given the tiny average size -- about 6 inches -- of the Lilliputians and the gargantuan average size of their counterparts (70 feet tall) in the second novella -- the Brobdingnagians. They are human, but as large as the largest dinosaurs (Brontosaurus was 75 ft. long; T. Rex was smaller than a Brobdingnagian, coming in at about 45 feet).

Swift describes these humanoid characters with near-perfect proportion and scale: how Gulliver matches up alongside a Lilliputian ship, for example, or how he lives in a 12 foot doll house carried about by a Brobdingnagian girl named Glumdalclitch.

The creepiness comes as you imagine actually confronting such creatures and having to live among them, as Gulliver does, while they wade through human corruption and political pettiness, favorite targets of Swift. A great film maker could capture it all with the realism of J.J. Abrams in Cloverfield and the genius of Johnny Depp as Gulliver.

The 3rd novella in Gulliver's Travels, Voyage to Laputa, finds Dr. Gulliver cast adrift amidst a giant flying island, and both mortal and immortal characters Swift uses to satirize the Academy run amok.

The smartest and best educated people are without vision or leadership. Their high tech inventions waste time on trite amusements, despite their potential power (sound familiar?)

They have a technology, for instance, that brings any deceased historical figure back to life long enough to ask a question. Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Aristotle, and Homer appear. But instead of talking about the great ideas of their age, they get embroiled in trivia, like whether it was a fever or drunkenness that killed Alexander.

Reminds me of much of the Presidential race (and plenty of other political campaigns).

The Yahoo was another Swift invention, appearing in Gulliver's 4th and final adventurer, to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of super-intelligent talking horses forced to contend with hirsute, ape-like creatures -- Yahoos. 

Dull, dirty, and generally worthless, Yahoos are Swift's final jab at the body politic, a precursors to Planet of the Apes that serves as both condemnation of humanity's general stupidity and observation about the gross injustices done non-White races under European empires.  

At his final adventure's conclusion, Gulliver is convinced he can never return to human-kind after living around the Houyhnhnms, whose philosophical valor and faith in logic make mankind seem atrocious by comparison.  


S
wift even writes of something akin to "death panels," a worrisome idea right-leaning pundits have attached to Obamacare.

In Gulliver's Travels, the "struldbrugs" -- rare immortal beings -- are victims of 17th century death panels.  They are immortal, but with an eerie twist: they age but never die. Feeble after 80 years, the struldbrugs become society's discards.

Decrepit after 200 years, but still very much alive, struldbrugs subsist on a watered down version of Social Security and oppressive laws that prohibit their participation in society.

Be careful what you wish for, Swift seems to say.  Even immortality has a gray lining.  Eternal life is not the same as eternal youth, and human frailty befuddles even the most advanced societies.

 

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