Jonathan Swift on reason and madness

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A note on re-reading Gulliver’s Travels:

I’m struck again by the fact that it’s always fun to read the first three books, and always deeply unsettling to read the fourth. In Lilliput, Brobdignag, and Laputa, Lemuel is a pleasant enough travel guide, even if we’re always laughing at his stupidity and pomposity. But by the end of his Voyage to the Houyhnhnms, he is a broken man and insane.

What to make of this? You can (if you try hard enough) believe that Swift saw in Houyhnhnm society a rational utopia; Gulliver lost his marbles because he couldn’t bear witnessing the gulf between the Reason of the Houyhnhnms and the brutality of human nature. But this makes Swift a dull writer, and he’s just too smart for that to be plausible. I’m with Orwell all the way on this: just as the first three books allow for a blistering attack on human arrogance, meanness, cruelty, short-sightedness and every other kind of Yahoo-like folly, so the last book can be (should be) read as an even more blistering attack on the Rationalist Utopian alternative. Houyhnhnm society isn’t admirable – it’s appalling. These are creatures with no close emotional ties, no imagination, no art or literature, no inventiveness or capacity for dreaming or joy or grief or humor. (They live in families. But they’re not really families, just convenient administrative units.) And Gulliver’s madness is the madness of the rationalist utopian who violates his own nature in persuading himself that theirs is the way to go. His behavior on returning to England is what happens when Reason trumps ordinary decency – Swift could have been writing about the Soviet Union.

Thinking about how to read the Voyage to the Houyhnhnms makes me think about The Merchant of Venice. There’s so much to say, and yet you could boil the whole debate down to this: either Merchant is an anti-Semitic play (and Shakespeare was not only prejudiced, and stupid, but also a boring playwright), or else he was a brilliantly clever playwright who messed with our heads in order to get us to think about the nature of anti-Semitism. (I note that the novelist Howard Jacobson, who is Jewish, utterly dismisses the view that Merchant is anti-Semitic.)

In Gulliver, Swift wants us to be properly appalled by our unreason – but then mess with our heads by showing us that the cure can be far worse than the disease.  Shakespeare makes Shylock a horrible person precisely in order to give the Christians’ (and by extension his audiences’) prejudices something to bite on; look what happens to him at the hands of self-righteous Christian virtue.