James Boswell – “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (excerpts)

Johnson once, when the conversation turned to the evils of gaming, argued that there are other far more dangerous and ruinous habits, like for instance “adventurous trade”, but nobody attacks that. In fact, very few people are ruined by gaming, and when his interlocutor says “well, maybe not totally ruined, but a great deal of people lose money”, Johnson argued people lose money over other things as well, but for some reason everybody is up in arms against gambling. Boswell takes this opportunity to observe that Johnson was a contrarian and loved disputing the generally accepted pieties just for fun, so much so that when he started “Why, Sir, as for the good or evil of card playing”, Garrick commented that in this very moment he was deciding which side he was going to take. Of course, since Johnson was a deeply religious man, his irreverence had its clearly delineated limits. Boswell quotes Lord Elibank, who said that Johnson perhaps not always convinced him, but at least always showed him that he had good arguments for whatever view he chose to uphold.


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

Gulliver admits he also has some doubts about the purpose of the whole colonial enterprise, which seems to be just to exploit other nations. He adds (of course Swift means it ironically) that Britain is the best when it comes to ruling the colonies and sends only its best men there. But since the countries Gulliver visited don’t seem to want to be vanquished, and have no precious natural resources, it’s best to leave them alone. But if anyone asks, Gulliver is ready to affirm under an oath that he was the first European to visit them. In the last paragraphs Gulliver describes his life now: he spends it on contemplaiton at home. Recently he started to allow his wife to dine with him, provided that she sits on the other end of a long table, speaks only when she is spoken to, and then only briefly, while Gulliver still has to stop his nose. But he hopes with time and training he may even be ready to suffer a neighbour to come to him. On the whole, he doesn’t even mind that the Yahoos are so nasty, naming here a long list of various criminals, but what really gets him when he sees such a deformed creature puffed up with pride. The Houyhnhnms, the most perfect of creatures, are never proud because for them to be proud of their virtues would be as silly as for us to be proud of having two legs and two arms. For that reason Gulliver asks any Yahoo who is at least a little bit proud not to appear in his sight.

And thus end “Gulliver’s Travels”. I remember it was a stomach punch for me when I read it as a teenager, and it had a similar effect on many readers, so much so that people in the 19th century believed that Swift was mad when he was writing it. Now I am a bit older, read a bit of criticism which taught me not to identify the narrator with the author and also not to take at face value everything Gulliver says. Some of his behaviour, like him considering himself to be a kind of honorary Houyhnhnm, is more understandable in the context of the previous parts: when he returned from the Lilliput, he thought everyone was huge, and when he returned from the Brobdignag, he thought everyone was tiny, so I think it’s logical that the Houyhnhnm land, where he stayed (if I remeber correctly) the longest, should have a similar effect on him.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 4 (ctd.)

in the last chapter of his book Gulliver devotes a lot of space to convince his readers that everything he wrote is strictly and factually true, and thus he can’t see how anybody could be offended. He claims his only purpose was to instruct his countrymen. He also addresses the question whether he should submit an official report to the government, because any land discovered by an Englishman should become a part of the British Empire. Conquering the Lilliput is not worth the effort, and fighting the Brobdignag and the Laputans, who can squash anything with their Flying Island, too dangerous. The Houyhnhnm, who don’t know what war is, might be considered an easy target, but Gulliver believes that with their unity and bravery, twenty thousand kicking Houyhnhnms would be a terrible opponent for any army. Instead, he’d rather they sent some of their representatives to teach the British their various virtues.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 4 (ctd.)

This is the part in which everybody is very kind to Gulliver and Gulliver treats everyone like a jerk, because they are all stinking Yahoos. First the sailors make him promise he won’t run away, or they will have to hold him by force. He figures resistance is useless, so he promises them that. The two sailors who went back to the ship, return with the captain’s orders to bring Gulliver and they put him by force in the boat. The captain, Don Pedro, is very kind to Gulliver: he puts him in his own cabin, offers him food and his own clothes. Gulliver disdainfully rejects the clothes, because he won’t put on anything that a Yahoo had on his back (all that while wearing Yahoos’ skins), but he accepts two newly washed shirts, which he changes and washes everyday. He attempts to jump overboard and swim back to the shore, but he is stopped. When they arrive in Lisbon, Don Pedro puts him up in his own home and gradually manages to encourage him to move from the room on the top floor at the back to the front, and finally even to walk the streets with him, even though Gulliver always has to stick rue or tobacco in his nose. He also makes a gift of a suit of new clothes, but Gulliver won’t suffer to be touched by a tailor, so Don Pedro, being more or less of the same size, stands in his place for the measurements. He also manages to convince Gulliver to go back home to his family, because it’s impossible to find a desert island he dreams about and at home he can regulate himself how much he wants to see other people. When Gulliver leaves, he lends him twenty pounds. Gulliver, who so obsequiously mentioned any sign of favour from royals or his Houyhnhnm master, takes it for granted and the best he can do for the kind Portuguese is to refrain from wincing when he embraces his at parting. His family in England are much surprised, because he’s been gone for five years and they thought he was dead. He, for his part, is mortified to find out that his family are disgusting Yahoos and that he contributed to increasing their number. When his wife kisses him, he faints. Now it’s been five years since his return and he at least got used to the presence of his wife and children, but they still can’t touch him or his food. He bought two stallions, who are his favourite members of the household (the second best is the groom, because he smells like them) and he spends at least four hours a day in the stable conversing with them (nobody every rides them). The horses live in great friendship with Gulliver and each other, and I didn’t exactly imagine two stallions not trying to fight each other, but what do I know.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 4 (ctd.)

Gulliver sails off, while the horses stay on the shore as long as he could see them, with the sorrel nag calling after him “Take care of thyself, gentle Yahoo”. Well, maybe they are capable of emotional attachment, after all. He wants to find a desert island and live there, as he has not intention of going back to Yahoos. He finds an island, too tiny to live on, but enough to spend the night. The next day he arrives to what he believes is the shore of New Holland. The NAEL footnotes again fail me here – in other places they assumed their readers didn’t know who Orpheus was, and now they assume it’s common knowledge that New Holland was the historic name for Australia. He spends a few days there, eating only raw clams because he is afraid of starting a fire and attracting the attention of the locals. On the fourth day he goes farther than usual and notices a group of Aborigines at a distance around a fire. Unfortunately they notice him too. He gets into his canoe and sails off as fast as he can, but one of their arrows wounds him in on the inside of his left knee. Fearing it might be poisoned, Gulliver sucks it and dresses as well as he could. Then he notices a sail at a distance and after some deliberation he actually turns his boat back, because he prefers to be at the mercy of “these barbarians” than to live with European Yahoos again. He returns to the place he left from. But the ship arrives there too, because it seems to be one of their customary watering spots (there is a creek with good water nearby). The sailors are sent in a longboat to fetch water, and finding the canoe, they look for and find Gulliver. They are amazed at his strange dress, which indicates he is not one of the natives (it’s interesting he doesn’t mention the physical appearance). One of them addresses him in Portuguese, and Gulliver, who knows that language, tells him that he is a poor Yahoo, banished from the Houyhnhnms and asks to be left alone. The sailors are even more amazed at the fact that he speaks Portuguese, but with a funny accent, like the neighing of a horse, and of course they don’t get who Yahoos and Houyhnhnms are. They ask him more questions about where he came from and he says he is an Englishman, last time he checked England and Portugal were not at war, so again he asks them not to treat him as an enemy and leave him alone.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 4 (ctd.)

One morning Gulliver’s master calls him earlier than usual and, visibly confused, says that during the last assembly of the Houyhnhnms, when they started to discuss the Yahoo question, some accused him of keeping a Yahoo in his household and treating him almost like a Houyhnhnm. He should either make him live like other Yahoos or makes him swim back where he came from. But others argue that sending Gulliver to Yahoos’ kennels would not be a good solution, because he with his superior intellectual capability (superior for a Yahoo) could become their Spartacus, leading them to live in the wild and raid Houyhnhnms’ cattle herds. So his master is exhorted to send Gulliver away – “exhorted”, says Gulliver, is the closest translation of the Yahoo word, because in their language there is no such word as “command” – if all their decisions are rational, any rational being can agree with them and they need no commands. Apparently, there’s a chink in logic here, because Gulliver’s master somehow not being convinced about the rationality of this decision, put it off as long as he could, but he has been exhorted by so many of his friends, he can’t put it off any longer. When Gulliver hears about it, he faints. When he comes to his senses, his master says he thought Gulliver was dead, because the Houyhnhnms with their superior physique and health have no idea what fainting is. Gulliver is heart-broken and says it’s as good as a death sentence to him, because he can’s swim far enough, and even in a boat he doubts he will be able to reach any land on his own. And even if he survives, what sort of life can he expect among other Yahoos? But he promises to comply, asks just for reasonable time to build his own boat. His master gives him two months and the help of his fellow servant, the sorrel nag.

The first thing Gulliver does is to go with the sorrel nag to the place where he was left by his sailors, and having climbed on a hill, he manages to spot a small island about five leagues away. He decides to try and reach this island, and then he’ll see what comes next. With the help of the sorrel nag, he builds a kind of Indian canoe made of young oak trunks and Yahoo skins (ugh), with a sail made of the hides of the youngest Yahoos (double ugh), because those of the older ones are too tough. He test-floats it in a pond, stops any leaks with Yahoo tallow, and then has it carried on a sledge pulled down by Yahoos to the shore. He takes a tearful goodbye of his master and his family, but then his master, out of curiosity, but perhaps because of some fondness for Gulliver, decides to see him off on the shore, together with some of his neighbours. There Gulliver waits for about an hour for the tide to change. When he is ready, he takes his leave for the second time, but as he was about to prostrate himself on the ground to kiss his master’s hoof, his master did him the great honour to raise it to his mouth. Gulliver speaks of it as such a great honour that he anticipates some of his haters may not believe it. For my part, I’m not quite sure how horses had an idea that kissing one’s hoof was a sign of respect. Then Gulliver gets in his boat and sails away.

P.S. As I am writing this, New Statesman has just published a rather acid review by John Gray of Stephen Pinker’s latest book, which seems to deal with the same limitations of reason that Swift had in mind.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 4 (ctd.)

Gulliver describes the practical details of his life on the island, which are a bit reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe (the book which Swift strenuously, but perhaps disingenuously, denied to have read): he built himself a little house, replaced his clothes, when they were worn out, with others made of animal skins, and chillingly, his shoes with others made of wooden soles and Yahoos’ skins. He lives there in perfect happiness, surrounded by the examples of virtue, as opposed to various nasty people in his own country, of which he gives a long list. He has no desire to return home, because even his family and friends are now in his eyes only Yahoos, whose small amount of reason just serves to multiply their vices. He is often invited to wait on his master when he has guests or he accompanies him on visits. The subjects of the Houyhnhnm conversations are, as he claims, infinitely improving, although they sound like a snoozefest: general friendship and benevolence, order and economy, sometimes “visible operations of nature”. I wonder how it went: “Friendship is a wonderful thing.” “Yes, it is”. The Houyhnhnms apparently value highly pauses in conversations, because they give room for new interesting thoughts, and with topics like these, I’m sure they occurred quite often. Gulliver himself also often serves as a subject for conversation, when his master relates what he learnt from him on the customs of his country, and other Houyhnhnms can criticize. His master often guesses correctly what Gulliver didn’t tell him, just by extrapolating about what he knows about the behaviour of the Yahoos in his own country. These virtuous Houyhnhnms come across like middle-class watchers of reality shows about people from disadvantaged environments, such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, just for the pleasure of seeing and criticising people who are more stupid than they are.