October 15, 2006

Gulliver's Travels

As a precursor to the 18th Century lit course I'm to take in the new year, I recently perused Jonathan Swift's 1726 masterpiece, the brutally honest sendup of the British superiority complex called Gulliver's Travels.

Most of us know it only through a single image: the everykid fantasy of suddenly finding oneself a giant amongst little people. After his ship is ripped asunder, a victim of the sea, Gulliver wakes up on a beach, prisoner of the Liliputians, a race of people barely 10 centimetres tall. Since the mid-18th Century, this is the image we've all grown up with, that we've all identified with, that we've all taken for granted:

The sad, joyous, tragic and compelling part is that Gulliver's Travels is so much more than a single child's play painting. What starts as an exercise in Swift's hatred for travel books soon moves out of mere sarcastic disdain for self-absorbed writing. The author uses the monstrously large Brobdingnagians to ridicule human illusions of grandeur; the misshapen Laputians (whose name literally translated from Spanish means "the whores") to mock navelgazers, artists, religious zealots and psychologists; the Chicken Little-esque Balnibarbians to skewer both sides of the British-Irish conflict; the form-over-function Luggnaggians to spank both Asian traditions and those in the west who refuse to respect them; the immortal Struldbruggs to shame dreamers who refuse to grow old gracefully; and the equestrian Houhnhums to out-and-out name humankind -- henceforth known as Yahoos, a term still used today for people whose actions are neither appropriate nor explicable -- as the single greatest scourge to slither, crawl, swim or walk the face of the earth.

Even paintings rendered fairly early on decided to run in unintended directions with Swift's work; every representation has Gulliver wearing his hat while being staked to the ground by tiny creatures. If you read with even the slightest care, you'll find that the cap was actually recovered and returned to its owner days later by a scouting party. Notes in my Penguin edition bear out Swift's claims, even centuries later: from the very first, publishers edited, rewrote, renamed and otherwise bastardized Gulliver and his Travels for fear of reprisals from politicians and readers alike. Since then, the holier-than-everythou scholars have spent nigh on three hundred years arguing over which pronouns are preferred, what chapters ought be renamed, and how many lines may have been redone by Swift himself or a jealous compatriot. Some of these debates have, in their utmost importance, brought academics to tears, shouting matches and even bloodshed.

That may sound silly, but today our problem is worse. It's truly unfortunate that our soundbite-driven modern society has reduced such an opus as GT to a single image. (Even more saddening when such a biting portrayal of colonial missteps is so wholly ruined by association with an American C-list actor such as Ted Danson.) Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is an aptly simplified look at how we juxtapose all the information we encounter: we are so bombarded with imagery and popular culture minutiae, we're forced to take even the most pointed message and flatten it for easier placement in our cerebral filing system. No longer do we roll phrases around our mouths to find hidden meanings, or labour to read up on an author's influences. Instead we reiterate half-baked conspiracy theories handed us by writers of The X-Files and memorize inconsistencies between episodes of CSI: Miami; we look up quotes on the internet, sans context, often sans citation or even accuracy.

As a culture, we've stripped & sold parts of hundreds of amazingly detailed pieces of historical commentary rather than take time to study them in detail. This is why our modern runaway hits are so bland by comparison; The Da Vinci Code is already flat, uncomplicated pageturning that has spoonfed the masses a two-thousand-year-old mystery unravelled in a weekend by a middle-aged college prof and his twenty-something love interest. Rich Dad, Poor Dad is fast food for the financially illiterate: complete with its large print, oversimplified repetitions & numerous typos, it's pre-digested pablum that's more improbable for success, but much easier to swallow than, say, the semester or two of Intro to Financial Management that should be mandatory in junior high school.

Even the sacred tomes of Harry Potter are simply watered down Norse, Greek & random collected myth. Boy-child vs unimaginable arch villain: David & Goliath, anyone? Child pulls magic sword out of... well, you pick: a hat for Harry, or a stone for Arthur. JK Rowling is an astute pupil of reshaping myth; so was her countryman Shakespeare, as was Ovid in Rome, and Homer for the Greeks. They've all created stories that look great on the surface and invite voracious first reads. What the mother of the Harry Potter franchise has managed to do, however, is decidedly different: she's pre-flattened the story for easy entry into the mental hard drive, and by doing so, removed the meaty, subtextual flesh that makes for good study.

Jonathan Swift compared his melodramatic travelogue to the song of Sinon, the Greek who sold the Trojan Horse like a car salesman with a good-looking lemon. Both Vergil and Swift, but by a few staid classicists, have long since been dumbed down. Only time will tell if or how Harry Potter and the Overhyped Ending will fare with audiences three centuries down the road. If Rowling's hero is still in the collective memory by then, here's betting it'll be in a single pictograph and an advertising catchphrase.