For many years now I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to the classics. I don’t really understand the reverence they get in our society. What they actually are is incredibly niche. If you are interested in learning about a few certain things, they are incredibly useful. For everyone else they are not. That is not ‘classic’ by anyone use of the word.
Guliver’s Travels is an early novel about a person who goes off and by accidents of fortune ends up in some strange lands: one where he is a giant, one populated by giants, one populated by intelligent horses, etc. Largely, it is meant to be a satire, making fun of the actual society Jonathan Swift lived in. Blink and you will miss it.
I don’t know if anyone actually follows this blog post per post. I hope they do, because there is something of a method to all this madness. I read things in a certain order. I have been saving this for some time, partially because I wanted to get through Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder. These two are not all that related, but there is something of a link. Swift takes a few jabs at the Royal Society in this, and certainly takes a jab or two at the general spirit of wonder that existed in those times. I do think reading that helped me feel what it was that Swift was satirizing. And yet…
The prose is wooden and the jokes don’t work. I don’t think I can say it any more simply than that. This was part of my university curiculum, and so I had known what to look for. But that didn’t help. I knew that I was meant to chuckle at Laputa, and was meant to read it as La Puta, and I didn’t laugh. Lilliputian soldiers passed through Gulliver’s legs and looked up at his (comparatively) massive genitalia. I didn’t laugh there either. The high minded citizens of Laputa are so high minded that they carry all their realia with them, so that they can communicate with them, while their neglected wives cheat on them. And I am still not laughing. In some places I get why: when Gulliver relieves himself on the Lilliputian palace in order to put out a fire, there is no bite for me. I don’t have any all that significant tie with royalty. The relationship is not there. No scandal, no shock, and no humor.
And then I have to wonder, I caught the cues from all that from a class I took almost fifteen years ago. The class phoned it in, and I am sure there was a lot I missed. I am sure some one can illuminate the chapter on Laputa, which would be interesting for me for its philosophical criticism of the time. I felt like I missed a lot reading this, and that is with my going in with a lot already under my belt. From a strict pleasure of the text feel the whole novel just seems to fail for me.
I mentioned above that the prose is wooden. Prose is a technology, and like any other it grows with the passing of time. We have gotten better at writing prose as time has gone on. You really feel it when reading this. In terms of the modern conception of the novel (or at least the novel in the Western tradition (I know, I know, Tales of the Genji and all that)) this is up there among the first.