Context: Finished this off at a friend’s house in Hertford, UK.
Liechtenstein was my 57th country and so I could fairly claim to have travelled a lot. One of the privileges that travel brings me is the ability to get some perspective on British culture. In this book, Swift demonstrates this as Gulliver heads out to ever more distant and distinctive lands. In his closing comments, he reflects on the purpose of travel: “a traveller’s chief aim should be to make them wiser and better, and to improve their minds by the bad as well as good example of what they deliver concerning foreign places.”
If I’d read this before, I would have written this in my passport on one of those useless pages entitled “Notes.”
Whilst in each culture, he observes firstly what he sees. Then, and this is where his genius lies, he comments on what his observers see. This ability to give a range of perspectives on a whole gamut of human characteristics and behaviour is what has made the book a classic and gives it a relevancy today that few works of his time have.
Consider just how relevant, for example, this is nearly 300 years after it was written:
If a prince sends people into a nation where the people are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to death and make slaves of the rest, in order to civilise and reduce them from their barbarous way of living.
This biting wit could be an observation of current world politics. At the very least it was a prophetic damnation of what would come to be the British political mandate for the next two centuries after it was written.
The only downfall that this book has in my eyes is that, whilst it so cleverly details the human condition, particularly through his descriptions of the infamous Yahoo people, it really has no remedy for it than simply not being bad. As each one of us knows, it’s pointless to make resolutions to avoid doing Yahoo-like things. We do them anyway despite our best intentions. That we’re no further on in our behaviour 300 years on is proof enough of this.
But, despite not offering us any concrete solution to the problem of our Yahoo natures, Swift’s masterpiece deserves a read by anyone interested in clarifying the problem. For the solution, see Christ.
My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons.
I dwell no longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the society of an English Yahoo by any means not insupportable; and therefore I here entreat those who have any tincture of this absurd vice, that they will not presume to come in my right.
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb