Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

In the next excerpt Gulliver describes his visit to the Academy of Lagado, which is Swift’s spoof of the Royal Society. He sees there an engine which consists of hundreds of dice hanged on wires within a huge frame. Each piece is covered on all sides with labels on which all the words of the Laputan language are written; when his students turn at the same time forty handles attached to the ends of the wires, the blocks turn, creating new word combinations. Then some students read the lines and others take notes whenever anything resembling a meaningful sentence comes up. There are already many volumes filled with these broken phrases and the professor dreams of getting a grant for setting up five hundred such frames, so that the process may be speeded up. Thanks to this, he believes, everyone can write books on all subjects, even if they have no talent whatsoever.

Gulliver is very impressed with this and promises the professor to describe his machine when he comes back home, giving him full credit. Then he is introduced to other professors who try to reform language. Some suggest cutting down all polysyllables and getting rid of verbs, because actually all words are nouns. Others go even further and suggest we should get rid of speech at all, because every word we say has some small corrosive effect on our lungs. Instead, we should just carry all the thing we want to talk about and just produce them. The only drawback of this ingenious plan is that, while for a short discourse you can carry everything you need in your pockets, for longer conversations you need huge bags, and even one or two servants to carry them. The scheme was never implemented due to the protests of women and common people, but some radical philosophers do practise this method, carrying all the signifieds on their backs in huge bags, like pedlars in England.

Finally Gulliver meets some mathematics professors who try to teach their pupils by making them consume wafers covered with formulas written in sepia ink. They need to be eaten on an empty stomach and nothing can be eaten but bread and water for three days afterwards. The idea is that as the wafer is digested, the vapours of knowledge contained on it should go to the pupil’s head. However, this scheme doesn’t quite work, partly because, as the professors claim, most students find the wafers so disgusting they throw up immediately after eating them, or they do not adhere to the prescribed diet.

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Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

The Laputans are extremely preoccupied by their fears of various cosmic catastrophes and it’s the first thing they talk about when they meet in the morning, like boys who love to hear and tell scary stories. Their women have high libidos and they often take lovers from among the people who arrive from the bottom part of the country. They can do so with impudence, because their husbands notice nothing as long as they have their paper and writing implements, and their flappers do not wake them up. The women of Laputa often complain that they are confined to the island and long for the metropolitan life of Lagado, even though the island is a very pleasant place and they lack for nothing. They must not go down unless by a special permission of the King, which is very rarely granted, because they know how hard it is induce a woman, once she gets down, to come back. As an example Gulliver quotes the story of the wife of the prime minister, who had children, palace, and all the luxury she could wish for. She asked for a permission to go down for health reasons and then disappeared. When she was found, she was in an inn, where she has pawned all her clothes to support her lover, an old disfigured footman who beat her. She had to be dragged from him by force and even though her husband took her back and didn’t reproach her, on the first opportunity she ran away again, taking with her all her jewels, and was never found. Gulliver says it’s a story that sounds similar to many European ones, because the whole womankind shares this capricious nature. After a month, when he became more fluent in their language, he was invited by the King to tell him about other countries, but the King is interested only in their mathematical achievements and is rather bored by everything else Gulliver has to say.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

There is a passage about the etymology of the name “Laputa”, with the local scientists suggesting one etymology, and Gulliver another, but this is of course a joke about them missing  the most obvious origins of the name. Gulliver needs new clothes and the tailor sent to him doesn’t take his measure as tailors do in Europe, but he measures his height using a quadrant and calculates his other dimensions by using some advanced maths. When he brings his clothes, they turn out to be very ill-fitting, because he made a tiny mistake in his calculations. This, however, doesn’t worry Gulliver, since a lot of people in this country seem to have the same problem. Similarly, their houses are very clumsily built, because they despise practical geometry.

The King ordered his island to fly to Lagado, the capital of his country located on the stable land. On his way he stops over several places and collects petitions from his subjects, which they tie to the ends of packthreads rolled down for that purpose. They look like kite strings, observes Gulliver, which is according to the Helpful Footnote an allusion to they saying “go fly a kite” and also to George I’s frequent absences when he went to Hannover. On his way there the King organizes a concert lasting three hours, in which he participates. Gulliver finds it very noisy, but it’s explained to him that native Laputans are accustomed to hearing the music of the spheres in any music they listen to. The Laputans are very fond of talking about politics, in this way reminding Gulliver about mathematicians in his own country, perhaps because, as he observes, people are most fond of talking about the things they are least qualified for. They are also extremely afraid of things which don’t bother people elsewhere, like that the sun may go out, or the earth is going to be hit by a comet. (Well, the sun indeed is going to go out one day, so…) They are so obsessed with mathematics that they praise “the beauty of a woman, or any other animal” (!) in geometrical terms.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3

Part 3 is only excerpted in the NAEL, probably because it’s the least interesting for the modern reader. Maybe it’s because Swift missed his mark so widely, choosing as the object of his satire modern science as engrossed with fruitless speculation. Sure, a lot of 18th-c. science, just like a lot of modern one, was a dead-end, but in the end it’s the greats who are remembered centuries later. Gulliver, this time not shipwrecked, but set adrift on the sea by pirates, is rescued by the inhabitants of Laputa, a flying island. (If the name of the island sounds rude to you, perhaps Swift meant it to be. Martin Luther called reason a whore.) They all marvel at him and he at them: they all cock their heads to one side, with one eye looking at the sky ant the other down, and their clothes are all ornamented with the images of geometrical figures and musical instruments. All the wealthier people are also accompanied by special servants carrying sticks with bladders full of peas or small pebbles, with which they hit their masters periodically on the mouth and on the ear during any conversations. The Laputans are the prototypical absent-minded scientists and without this device they are quite prone to forget who they are talking to and what about. They take him to their king, who is deep into solving a mathematical dilemma and doesn’t notice them until he’s done with it, and then only when one of his pages hits him. The king then notices Gulliver, about whose arrival he’s already been informed and addresses him. The page then hits Gulliver, but he signs to them that he doesn’t need this device. As he learns later, this lowered him very much in the estimation of the Laputans. When the King realizes they can’t find a common language, he sends Gulliver to another room to have his dinner, because the King is very hospitable to strangers. (The Helpful Footnote interprets it as a barb against George I, a patron of science and art, who filled his court with people from Hannover, but this allusion seems rather vague to me.) At dinner Gulliver is accompanied by several noblemen, whom he asks about the names of various objects and gets the hang of the language. After dinner, a special man is sent with books, paper and ink to teach Gulliver their language. With his help, Gulliver compiles a rather sizeable dictionary, including also (of course) the names of various geometrical figures and musical instruments. He also notes down some sample sentences and within a few days starts to manage basic communication. On a side note, it only struck me now how funny the title of Part 3 is, putting side by side the names of several fictitious countries and ending with “… and Japan”. As far as I remember, Japan is mentioned only in passing at the end of this part.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 2 (the end)

Gulliver tells then his whole story to the captain and when you are really telling the truth, people will believe you, so the captain believes him. That’s somewhat naive. But then Gulliver corroborates his story by showing all the artefacts he made or collected in Brobdignag, so at least we get a kind of pay-off after he listed them in all the previous chapters. He wants to make the captain a present of the golden ring, which the Queen used to wear on her little finger and which he can put over his head, but the captain refuses. The only gift Gulliver manages to induce him to accept is a giant’s tooth, formerly belonging to one of Glumdalclitch’s servants and drawn by an inexpert surgeon – inexpert, because the tooth turned out to be completely healthy. The captain notices that Gulliver always speaks too loud, and Gulliver explains it’s because he had to shout for the past two years; conversely, it seems to him that all the sailors speak in whispers. They have some banter with the captain about how all his men and all the equipment seems to Gulliver tiny and puny, while the captain says he wished he had seen Gulliver being carried in his box by the eagle and then thrown down into the sea like Phaeton.

The ship is sailing from Vietnam to England via the Cape of Good Hope, and after several months it reaches England. The good captain again refuses any offers of payment and even lends Gulliver a few shillings so that he can rent a horse to travel home. He promises to come and visit Gulliver at his home. During his journey Gulliver continues to think he’s a giant; he is afraid he can tread on some passers-by, and when he gets home, he leans down too low trying to kiss his wife, he tells her she must have been too frugal because she and their daughter seem to be starving etc. so that his family again, like the sailors, think he’s gone mad. But gradually things smooth down and his wife doesn’t want him to go to sea anymore, but as we know, it was not meant to be.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 2 (ctd.)

Gulliver is very distraught, not only because of his, as he thinks, impending death (either his box will crack or he will die of hunger), but he also imagines Glumdalclitch’s grief and her being dismissed from the court. In this state he spends about four hours until he can hear some scratching on this side of the box where there are staples for putting a belt through when he was carried by a servant on horseback. Then he can feel being towed and can hope he is rescued. He unscrews one of the chairs, puts it near the top on the hole and cries out as loud as he can and in as many languages as he can, but nobody can hear him. He also ties his handkerchief to a stick and puts it through the whole to make signals to his rescuers. Finally he can feel his box is pulled up and he cries for help again, and much to his relief he can hear an answer in English. The captain of the ship says the ship carpenter is going to saw a hole in the box to get him out, but Gulliver says there’s no need for that, somebody should just put his finger through the ring on top of his box and put him on the captain’s table. People think he is mad, but he just still thinks in Brobdignag scale. When they saw a hole in his box and put a ladder in, he emerges and is surprised to be surrounded by pygmies. The captain kindly offers him some cordial and his own bed, and Gulliver sleeps for a few hours.  Before he goes to bed, he says that there are good things in the box which could be retrieved, like his furniture and clothes. The sailors get some of them, but ruin the furniture which was screwed to the floor and which they tried to take off by force. They take some usable planks from the box for the ship’s needs and toss everything else into the sea. When Gulliver wakes up, the captain orders supper for him and tells him how they found him: he saw his chest through his glass, thought it might be a ship which could sell him some biscuits, sailed in this direction and sends some of his men in a boat, but they returned scared, reporting they had found a swimming house. He went with them, taking some strong cable and you know the rest of the story. Gulliver continues to act in the way which disconcerts the good captain. He asks him whether they saw any unusually big birds, and he answers some sailors saw regular-sized eagles, which Gulliver attributes to them flying so high they appeared smaller. He also asks the captain how far they are from the nearest land, and the captain calculates about at least an hundred leagues (about 555 km), but Gulliver tells him it was just two hours before he was cast into the sea (he refrains from explaining the details).

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 2 (ctd.)

Gulliver dreams about getting back to England and his family, but he sees no chance. His ship was the only one that ever arrived on these shores, and should the second one appear, the King gave strict orders to bring it, the ship and all the whole crew, to the city. The King dreams about finding a female mate for Gulliver and starting breeding tiny people, but Gulliver would sooner die than beget children who are going to be kept in cages for amusement of the rich, like canaries. One day he accompanies the King and Queen on the royal progress around the southern shores. They stay in one of the royal castles. Glumdalclitch is unwell and Gulliver also has a bit of cold. He says sea air would really help him, although he really wants just to gaze wistfully at the sea. Glumdalclitch unwillingly agrees a trusted page to carry Gulliver in his box to the beach. On the beach Gulliver goes to sleep in the hammock in his box and the boy wanders off in search of bird eggs. Gulliver is woken up by a big jolt and he realizes his box has been snatched by an eagle, who probably means then to crash it against the rocks in order to get to the meaty inside, like they do with tortoises. But the eagle meets other eagles, starts to fight with them and in the course of the fight drops the box into the sea, where it drifts quite safely thanks to its sturdy construction.