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In Book Four of Jonathan Swift s Gulliver s Travels, the protagonist Gulliver goes to visit a strange land in which the ruling class is composed of a race of intelligent horse-like beings, known as Houyhnhnms. The casual reader of Swift, who has approached Gulliver s Travels under the assumption that it is nothing more than a children s book, will doubtless view this as an amusing episode of fantasy, and read nothing more into it. However, Gulliver s Travels was never intended as a children s book in the first place; Swift wrote it as a satire on the British society of his day. And seen in this light, we can see the society of the Houyhnhnms as a satire on rationalism, the intellectual movement that had taken the early eighteenth century by storm. To begin with, what is rationalism?
J. A. Cuddon defines it as, The theory or doctrine that human reason can provide a priori knowledge without intermediary sense data; the theory or doctrine that reason can pursue and attain truth for its own sake (769). Cuddon further points out that, The eighteenth century is referred to as a period of rationalism (769). What this means is that during Swift s lifetime, people were coming to conclude that revealed knowledge as in, such and such is true because that is what our people have always believed, or such and such is true because Plato said so was empirically inadequate, and human beings had within them the intelligence and the rational faculties to figure out the real answers for themselves. Emotion and intuition were very much distrusted during this era, because they so often boiled down to a reliance on unsubstantiated beliefs.
Rationalism was first employed extensively in the physical sciences, but by the eighteenth century it had spread into fields as diverse as economics, sociology, politics, and philosophy, which at that point were all considered pretty much the same thing. The use of rationalism in these fields played an essential part in the development of the form of democratic government we now have in the United States, as well as contributing to the rebellion of France against its monarchy: a rebellion which precipitated the French revolution. However, it is also in these soft fields that we see rationalism s weaknesses, which can be summed up in the pejorative connotation we have given to rationalize today. We can rationalize away the fact that worldwide, million of people die of hunger and preventable disease every year by compiling statistics on the high birth rate in third world countries, as if this alone were the problem.
For far too long, we tried to rationalize away the threat of AIDS by showing statistics that tied it to the supposedly closed communities of gay men and intravenous drug users. Neither of these rationalizations cured AIDS, fed the hungry, or prevented disease, and in the long run, they explained nothing. Because rationalism precludes emotional response, it becomes too easy to overlook the human element. Swift grew up in with rationalism forming his knowledge base; it was the way he habitually thought, because it was the way his society thought. However, he was uniquely aware of rationalism s limitations, and he demonstrates these in Gulliver s Travels.
Swift brings us into a series of societies which on the surface differ very much from that of England, but through the vehicle of satire, he shows us that they do not differ so much at all. Satire is a vehicle uniquely capable of poking fun at rationalism, because it itself is a rationalist form of thought; it presents an argument very logically, while simultaneously showing us that despite the soundness of the argument s structure it violates common sense. This is what he has done in Book Four of Gulliver s Travels. Here Gulliver, who is a seaman on a series of voyages, visits a country in which the intelligentsia are horses. Horses, as we all know, would have a very difficult time performing the functions of day-to-day human life because they have no hands.
Gulliver assures us that they somehow manage to build structures and use rudely crafted tools; for example, hard flints which by grinding against other stones, they form into instruments (322). Nonetheless, without hands we know that horses can t really make these objects, nor could they use them once they are made. Neither do the intelligentsia of Swift s owns England actually build or create anything they do no useful work at all, they merely talk. And it is no accident that this is something at which the Houyhnhnms excel as well. The Houyhnhnms favorite action seems to be the composition of poetry and the discussion of politics and philosophy, which not coincidentally were the favorite activities of eighteenth-century rationalists. Swift notes that the Houyhnhnms poetry, excel [s] all other mortals; wherein the justness of their similes and the minuteness, as well as the exactitude of their descriptions, are indeed inimitable (321).
But this is not really what good poetry is, despite Gulliver s assertions to the contrary. The eighteenth century, most scholars feel today, produced rather uninspired poetry, precisely because it was so technically correct. Because poetry was so important to the Houyhnhnms, and also to the intelligentsia of Swift s own day, a few observations should be made about literary technique in the eighteenth century. Literature of this period tended to be very elegant and aristocratic, copying French manners and attitudes. Depending upon the type of literature being written, it also could be satirical or witty, and Swift himself was a master at satire. Audiences admired classic form and ease as exhibited in French literature of the period, and serious poets carefully cultivated a style that would achieve the maximum of clarity, precision, energy, and rationalism.
Writers of this era disdained as vulgar the Elizabethan taste for wild imagination and outpourings of passion, preferring logic, conformity, and propriety what came to be called Taste. J. B. Priestly explains this phenomena: Though a general reading public came into existence and rapidly increased during this period. Most successful authors depended upon royal or aristocratic patronage, were members of this ruling society if only on humble and insecure terms, or if still outside it were determined to please it. So with Reason, the triumph of consciousness, came taste, not private but public, concerned with what reasonable cultivated persons could enjoy together (55).
Thus what could be written and published was necessarily limited to what could be read aloud in the politest of company. The gentle reader might not agree with the satire of Swift, for example, but he need not fear it would offend his grandmother s delicate ears. Nothing, Priestly notes, could be less suitable [to the eighteenth century sensibility] than the kind of poetry that is like a secret whispered by the poet to the reader (56). It is not too surprising, then, that while Swift s era produced an abundance of scintillating wit, it produced not a single inspiring poet. This is not to say that poetry was not written and published during this period, for it was. But it ultimately fails as poetry.
Priestly explains that This age did not want what we now consider great poetry, and it dictated its terms to men of talent very clearly and sharply. Consciousness must appeal directly to consciousness; the unconscious, where the magic words lie hidden, must be excluded. The general must be preferred to the particular, the abstract to the concrete, the allegorical to the symbolical. Everything must be written and then read in the clear light of reason (56 - 57).
Gulliver is obviously won over by the Houyhnhnms intellectual poetry, just as Swift s peers were impressed by the technical perfection of the poetry of there own age. But underneath we see the joke; poetry can t be written that way. It is a contradiction in terms. This obsession with rationalism affects not only the Houyhnhnms philosophies about literature but about themselves as well. Sarah Larratt Keefer defines it as, Houyhnhnms live under the government of Reason and their name for themselves signifies horse (210). They regard the Yahoos as the most filthy, noisome, and deformed animal, which Nature ever produced.
Thus nature... has been appropriated by Houyhnhnm ethics for self-definition and self-justification. But since individual identification of anything other than superior degrees of virtues has been abandoned, the friendship and benevolence that hallmark Houyhnhnm society must in fact be seen as the result of a chauvinistic xenophobia that is extended to everything that does not resemble a horse. Basically, the only love of which the Houyhnhnms are therefore capable is absolute preference of their own kind to the exclusion of all else. Xenophobia, or the hatred of those ethnically or racially different than oneself, was an extremely sore subject with Swift. He had at one point in his life been the Dean of the Protestant Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland a position he may have been given to punish him for his virulent and very public defense of Irish rights (Foster, 155).
In Swift s era much of Ireland was controlled by absentee British landlords, who pillaged the Irish economy and drove its people to the brink of starvation. The British rationalized this behavior (that word again! ) by their conviction that the poor, uneducated, Catholic Irish were a completely different branch of the human species than the English. In other words, in the eighteenth century they looked at the Irish in much the same was, as they would come to regard Africans and East Indians in the nineteenth. Swift lived with these people and he saw their pain; he wrote hundreds of pamphlets and tracts denouncing the British treatment of the Irish people. Most of these pamphlets have perished. But his virulent condemnation of xenophobia and the rationalist rhetoric that supported it lives on in Gulliver s Travels.
Earlier in my discussion on the poetry of the Houyhnhnms, I hinted at the fact that Gulliver s views of the Houyhnhnms cannot always or actually, cannot ever be accepted as the views which Swift hopes the readers will have themselves. Gulliver is presented from the beginning as a typical Englishman, with typical English attitudes, and as we have seen Swift feels that many of the typical English attitudes were wrong. Thus the fact that Gulliver clearly idolizes the Houyhnhnms and thinks they are admirable in every way should not lead the reader to do so also. Tommaso Sciortino observes that, In presenting the Houyhnhnms as Gulliver s role-models Swift invites the reader to fall into the trap of thinking that the Houyhnhnms are the perfect form of being (221).
In this respect one would think that they would have the most open minds, yet that is the sticking block. By providing this one friction point between the reader and the Houyhnhnms, Swift opens the door of Houyhnhnm criticism. Once through this small door of disagreement one can see what pathetically empty lives they lead. One example of their close-minded government is their treatment of the different breeds. There is no way for a horse of a particular color to advance through the ranks. There is no way for any advancement whatsoever.
The head horses will always be just that, and the minor horses, no matter how cunning or wise they may become, because their society has already made up their minds, will always be minor (Sciortino, e 01. htm). Obviously, Swift did not have to look long or far for a model for such an unfair arrangement, for it replicates exactly the government structure of Britain. The people with the political power in his time were those born into the aristocracy. Nothing a poor man could do could make him an Earl or a Duke or a King. During Swift s day, many people were beginning to seriously question this system, and Swift was clearly among them.
But the point here is that Gulliver did not. He thought the political system of the Houyhnhnms was purely democratic because they themselves thought it was; he did not see the inherent injustices in their political system because the Houyhnhnms didn t see them themselves. In fact, Gulliver s infatuation with Houyhnhnm society reflects exactly the infatuation of the British with rationalism. Angela Michelle Demel notes, [Gulliver] is so blinded by this beautiful, perfect utopia that, in his pride, he tries to throw off all that is human in himself and become like the Houyhnhnms (thesis. htm). Of course we see that the land of the Houyhnhnms is not a Utopia.
There is no emotion, which means there is no love; there is no sense of family because one mate is as good as the other. The way that the Yahoos are treated is unconscionable, and the fact that horses of the wrong color or lineage are unable to advance up the social ladder regardless of ability is equally wrong. But Gulliver is infatuated with this society because it is so peaceful and stable, and because it replicates so exactly the precepts of rationalism, which the intelligentsia back in England so passionately extolled. Brad Cawn states his position: [According to Gulliver] the Houyhnhnms practice what they preach, philosophically speaking, and so show the realization that reason alone can govern the rational creature that seeks the cultivation of reason and no other. Swifts horse people, then, are the true practitioners of platonic virtue, lacking the knowledge of vice or understanding of unnatural appetite that undermines our capacity to reason and corrupts our very nature (16. html).
We know that this is not truly Swift s argument, but Gulliver s misguided perception of it. Swift really wanted people to look at the Houyhnhnms and see how empty and vapid their lives are; how lonely they must be in their aloofness; how devoid of meaning their lives must be without the warmth of love and human affection all things which are not taken into consideration by rationalism. Consequently, Jonathan Swift s task in Book Four of Gulliver s Travels was indeed a difficult one. On the one hand he had to present a society which would seem admirable to a man of fairly refined tastes but not great discrimination; but he had to effectively convey to the readers that actually living in such a society would be unbearable. This he does through his postscript to the story the tale of Gulliver s return to his home and family in England.
Gulliver tells us that upon returning to his native land, he could no longer bear the society of his wife and children. They smelled; they were unrefined; to his mind they were Yahoos. He preferred going out to the stable and talking to the horses, who, even though they did not take an active part in his conversations the way his friends in the lands of the Houyhnhnms would have, at least bore the outward form of those people he loved and missed so much. There is a tremendous amount of insight, as well as political and social commentary, couched in the satire of the fourth book of Gulliver s Travels. In this book Swift created a compelling argument against the rationalism of his day, and an equally compelling plea for the expression of a truly human nature.
What is Swift trying to tell us? In no uncertain terms, he is trying to say that we were never intended to be rationalists, just as Gulliver was never intended to be a horse. In trying to emulate the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver is cutting himself off from his own species, just as pure rationalists cut themselves off from their own hearts. To try to pretend that we have nothing but intellect, that our spiritual and emotional selves are somehow vestiges of the primitive parts of our personalities that need to be put down so the intellect can shine, is just like Gulliver going out and trying to carry on an intellectual conversation with the ordinary horses in his stable. Works Cited: Cawn, Brad. Swift, Book 4, and Human Nature.
web Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. (London: Penguin Group, 1991). Demel, Angela Michelle. Government and Gulliver's Travels. web Foster, R.
F. Modern Ireland, 1600 - 1972. (London: Penguin Group, 1988). Keefer, Sarah Larratt. Houyhnhnms on Malacandra: C. S. Lewis and Jonathan Swift. (1994).
ANQ, October, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 210. Priestly, J. B. Literature and Western Man. (New York: Harper 038; Brothers, 1960). Sciortino, Tommaso. Gullivers Gavels.
web Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985).
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