Gulliver's Travels

Michelle Imber

I have not read Gulliver's Travels in its entirety, but I did watch the majority of the four-hour television dramatization of the work on Sunday and Monday nights. Based upon this presentation alone, I can see several parallels with Abbott's Flatland. One of the most striking is the role of the narrator in the satirical-instructional-propogational-science-fiction medium. It can be dangerous for a writer to openly expose his or her views in plain words; additionally, that sort of "personal philosophy" writing tends to attract only a small and scholarly audience. Far better to be insidious about the matter, disguising your inflammatory views as an amusing tale of fiction. A further way the author can distance him or herself from potentially incendiary statements is by seeming to condemn the character he chooses as narrator, to somehow make him suspect by portraying him as a madman or fool. Abbott accomplished that most cleverly with his characterization of A Square, having the poor confused figure locked up in an asylum and chanting such inane slogans as "Upwards, but not Northwards!" until his entire tale comes into question by all the characters around him. The creators of the Gulliver movie embellished the depraved aspect of Lemuel Gulliver's character as well. As we discussed in class, their clever method of unraveling Gulliver's yarn was via a series of mania-induced flashbacks which frequently involved hallucinations and bizarre behavior on the part of the traumatized ship's doctor. Such devices often lend a striking element of authenticity to the very words the author seems to be renouncing; "true," we think, "this character may be mad--but now that I think of it, his statements may have some merit... " And so we begin to see a few grains of truth in their words.

Using this tricky tactic, the author is somewhat freer to poke fun at such sacred institutions as government, religion, popular culture and society, and the scientific process--all cleverly veiled so as to make it more digestible and less blatantly offensive. In particular, complex scientific ideas can be neatly packaged for public consumption. Flatland is an obvious example of this device, which allows Abbott to present in parable form complicated ideas about dimensionality. Gulliver's Travels presented a comical view of the scientific world in its parodic description of Laputa, the floating island society controlled via manipulation of the giant lodestone within its bowels. The king of Laputa, professing to be a great scientist, turns out to be a fool merely spouting bombastic language in a vain attempt to sound intelligent. At another point in the tale, Gulliver, seeking the answer to his question "How do I return to England from here?", is sent to the Room of Answers to find the truth. On the way, he meets a nuty soporific scientist deeply engaged in the soporific task of extracting the sunlight from cucumbers. "I've almost got it," he crows, promising a solution sometime in the future. He implores Gulliver to wait with him, to experience the joy of scientific discovery whenever it should occur, but the ship's doctor recoils in wide-eyed flight. Noting the total self-absorption of the scientists in their tasks, to the exclusion of external reality, Gulliver remarks, "They are all mad!" Here Swift was doubtless poking fun at the image of the "mad scientist," of the laboratory-bound worker who loses himself in the tiniest details of hypothetical models and incorrectly interpreted data. Seen through the eyes of Gulliver, do these supposedly wise folks not seem to have lost their grounding in reality?

In Book VII of The Republic, Plato displays a remarkable acumen for the predicament of the narrator who has seen something extraordinary and inexplicable, then returns to the common man to explain ineffectually what he has learned. Using the analogy of a fettered society living in a cave, Plato illustrates the example of a man who is allowed to glimpse more than merely the two-dimensional, colorless shadows reflected on the cave wall. Like A Square, this hypothetical narrator in the story-within-the-story is shunned upon his return, considered a mad fool, and, furthermore, feels unable to return to the former flat, dull existence that he once knew. Plato's analogy is extended not to explain a mathematical concept so much as a philosophical belief system. Here, he refers to the illumination of man's soul. A further point Plato makes in this narrative which I found interesting is the difficulty of the transition from ignorance, or darkness (in his metaphor), to knowledge or light. Like A Square who cannot comprehend "Upwards, but not Northwards," until he is forcibly lifted from his plane, the hypothetical caveman faces the difficulty of understanding where to look for the knowledge he is to gain (i.e., that he must turn around). Plato's description:

...our reasoning indicates...that this power [to understand] is already in the soul of each, and is the instrument by which each learns; thus if the eye could not see without being turned with the whole body from the dark towards the light, so this instrument must be turned round with the whole soul away from the world of becoming until it is able to endure the sight of being and the most brilliant light of being: and this we say is the good...this instrument must have its own art, for the circumturning or conversion, to show how the turn can be most easily and successfully made: not an art of putting sight into an eye, which we say has it already, but since the instrument has not been turned aright and does not look where it ought to look--that's what must be managed. (Plato, Book VII)

I find these issues of the gifted, misunderstood narrator and his hard-earned prize of extraordinary knowledge (and where to seek it) most engaging. Far more fascinating is the fact that these three great authors, Swift, Plato, and Abbott, were cognizant and expressive of the same timeless issues over which audiences of today are still puzzling.