Depressing News? Read Gulliver

J. J. Grandville, illus. of "Gulliver's Travels" (1856)

J. J. Grandville, illus. of “Gulliver’s Travels” (1856)

How are we supposed to respond when we pick up a newspaper (or, increasingly, open it on our laptops or tablets) and see multiple articles about human evil? Yesterday’s New York Times left me deeply depressed by its stories of a terrorist massacre in a Kenyan shopping mall (68 dead) and a suicide bombing in a Pakistani Christian church (78 dead). And this after America’s own Navy Yard shooting rampage the week before (12 dead). My impulse was to throw up my hands and wash my hands of humanity.

What does washing one’s hands of humanity look like? It so happens that there is a book that shows us.

In Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver gradually finds his enthusiasm for his native land eroding as he contrasts the filthy Yahoos with the perfect Houyhnhnms. By the end of the book, he sees humanity as nothing more than a debased life form. How he behaves after having reached this conclusion is not pretty.

Let’s first look at how he regards humanity. Here’s a passage that touches on the inhumane slaughter described in yesterday’s New York Times. Gulliver is describing warfare to his Houyhnhnm master, who thinks he is lying when he talks about all the deaths in European battles:

I could not forbear shaking my head, and smiling a little at his ignorance.  And being no stranger to the art of war, I gave him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, battles, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, sea fights, ships sunk with a thousand men, twenty thousand killed on each side, dying groans, limbs flying in the air, smoke, noise, confusion, trampling to death under horses’ feet, flight, pursuit, victory; fields strewed with carcases, left for food to dogs and wolves and birds of prey; plundering, stripping, ravishing, burning, and destroying.  And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, “that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators.”

Gulliver hasn’t yet gone over to the Houyhnhnm point of view at this juncture and so sees himself describing the superiority of his countrymen, as he does in Book II when he boasts of gunpowder to the giant king. But he’s rapidly reaching the point where his pride of country will give way to abhorrence.

That abhorrence becomes so total that, when he returns to England at the end of Book IV, Gulliver swoons when his wife embraces him, canters around London like a horse, and speaks only to the two steeds in his stable. In other words, he has washed his hands of humanity by going mad.

This madness can also be seen in the casual way, when preparing to leave the Houyhnhnms, that he makes a boat out of human skin, including the sails out of the skin of baby Yahoos. In seeking Houyhnhnm perfection, he has divested himself of his humanity in ways similar to concentration camp commanders.

Incidentally, Swift’s account of the Europeans has other lethal consequences for the Yahoos. The Houyhnhnms are so struck by Gulliver’s depiction that they feel they must take drastic action. If the Yahoos were to combine Gulliver’s brain with their own craven natures, they could pose a real threat. Therefore the Houyhnhnms banish Gulliver and plan a genocidal slaughter of the Yahoos.

Swift is not Gulliver. Although he may satirize humans in his works, he also does not wish a plague on the entire race. Indeed, Gulliver’s blanket condemnation of humans fails to account for the Portuguese captain, Pedro de Mendez, who picks him up at sea, cares for him, gives him money, and returns him to England. Where Gulliver sees only another Yahoo, Swift sees a good Samaritan.

In other words, when you feel overwhelmed by the depravity of humankind, remember the Pedro de Mendezes amongst us. Hold on to them tightly in the face of despair.

In fact, act like Pedro yourself. You won’t only save occasional Gullivers, who may or may not be appreciative of what you’ve done. You will also save your own humanity.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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