Mark's Reviews > Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
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Aug 03, 08

bookshelves: recentlyread
Read in July, 2008

I read this about half a century ago in my freshman year of college. I think I need to reread most of the stuff I “read” back then—it seems completely new and fresh now, for some reason. All my lit-nerd friends already know this, of course, but for those who’ve never been forced to read it or much other literature that predates, say, 1975, let me state first: Gulliver’s Travels is not children’s lit. Yes, stripped down to its basic plot elements, put into simpler language and larger print, edited of all its literary and political allusions, in short turned into a different book, GT would make a fun kids’ story—and has, for much of its existence (I think the most recent such version being a TV miniseries with Ted Danson in the title role). It has that Alice In Wonderland appeal: Gulliver is repeatedly going down rabbit’s holes (in his case, calamities at sea) into alternative realities (one island makes you smaller, one that makes you tall, and there’s one that doesn’t do much at all…). People who haven’t actually read Swift may not realize that this book was powerful satire, acerbic and witty criticism of just about everything in Swift’s early-18th-century Britain. On the surface, it’s a parody of travel books, which were very popular, often extremely detailed and incredibly dull (especially from our modern reading sensibility), and quite arrogantly, unreflectively jingoistic. They described the heroic, if routine, adventures of sea captains and the funny customs of savages, or any foreigners whatsoever. GT, however, does so to propose the central point that “travel” is crucial and that real perspective on one’s own society and its absurdities can only be gained at a distance. One needs to somehow get outside, assume a foreign, skeptical or naïve, inquiring point of view. The ethnographic eye can be turned inward, trained on one’s own culture and customs, though it may take the fantasy of imagining oneself an alien, or of creating an extreme contrast that ironically shows the true nature of the people and places you have taken for granted. So, tiny people or giant people, horses as people with humans as farm animals, etc. Only such "reductio ad absurdam" as Swift's can jolt such gullible simpletons as Gulliver (and we are all Gullivers) from their complacency and blindness...
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