I believe a loss of good satire is a great hindrance to the literature of the present day. Chesterton may have been correct when he stated that “there seems to be serious indication that the whole high human art of scripture or writing began with a joke.” This absence of satire may be a direct result from the increase of technology. Nobody today understands tone or sarcasm — I speak of the good sarcasm — unless we thrust an “lol” at the end of our speech. Today’s joke has to be obvious, clear, overt. For subtlety goes right over everyone’s head. And this is because subtlety makes one think whereas the overt joke can be taken at face value but has no real lasting impact. This “loss” of satire regarding social commentary results in the increase of emotionalism to make a point. The new reader must get upset about social injustice whereas satire allows for laughter which leads itself to reflection. As satire strips down the issue to its base in an objective way, emotionalism relies on one experiencing all that is happening. When you are emotional, you rarely think. When you are happy and enjoying life, the capacity is there.
Concerning satire, I decided it was best to read Gulliver’s Travels seeing as how I was supposed to have read it fall semester had it been properly placed on the syllabus; though at the time, the absence was quite alright with me. In any case, I decided to give it a go and found it to be a delightful read. In comparison with Candide, a very similar story, I found I enjoyed Gulliver’s take best. Candide certainly goes for the shock factor while Gulliver lulls you into a very random story before pulling out the satire.
The first obvious observance to be documented is the fascinating difference between the inhabitants of Gulliver’s first two lands he visited. The Lilliputians being small and the Brobdingnags being quite large, it was all but too ironic that the former were found violent and the latter peaceful and loving. Gulliver, of course, even makes the distinction between how the two creatures look in respects to their size.
I remember when I was at Lilliput, the complexion of those diminutive people appeared to me the fairest in the world; and talking upon this subject with a person of learning there, who was an intimate friend of mine, he said that my face appeared much fairer and smoother when he looked on me from than ground, than it did upon a nearer view, when I took him up in hand, and brought him close, which he confessed was at first a very shocking sight.
And this heightens the irony and brings up an issue of humanity — what may look good from a great distance may be deceiving when viewed up close. Even so, the Brobdingnags conclude that it is the Europeans who are a much more hideous a people as was told to our narrator.
I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl up the surface of the earth.
The irony is that the Lilliputians looked to be without blemish from Gulliver’s perspective, yet it was they who had the barbaric laws, were in a feud, and who eventually drove off our author by way of threatening to gouge out his eyes. In contrast, the Brobdingnags looked so hideous from a close vantage point (as may be the case of humanity according to Swift), yet it was they who were shocked at Gulliver’s society. All to which I say, “Extraordinary!”
The third and fourth sections of Gulliver’s travels were not as interesting in light of there being a story, but they produced the best social commentary and led me to concur on why I read as I do. For upon reaching the fourth section of this fascinating novel, I was all the more convinced of my leanings toward the New Historicist position in literary criticism. Take for example Swift’s joke concerning the causes of wars among the rational Yahoos of Europe.
Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire; what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; many more. Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.
As we analyze this quote, I notice that the knowledge of church history enhances this little joke to a greater level than had I merely been ignorant. Now the reader response critic recognizes this as something I bring to the novel. I say this is contextual information that I had to learn to better enlighten my reading. The reader response critic assumes he brought this little tidbit to the table thus placing more glory upon himself while taking away that which rightfully belongs to Swift. Stealing another man’s joke is a great sin. The reader response critic is reading a mirror, the new historicist a telescope.
Furthermore, I discover that the critic prone to contextualization — both historical and authorial — finds himself to be less liable to embarrassment. It is altogether embarrassing and shameful to find out you have been laughing at a joke for completely wrong reasons. The seven year old may laugh at bread being flesh and juice being blood because it is nonsensical. The educated individual laughs at the irony of a theological difference leading to a war between two groups of people who worship the King of Peace. Inside jokes are only funny to those on the inside. To be on the outside is to remain ignorant while reading your mirror.
And ignorant I was of a great deal of the social commentary Swift may have been making. One last story I found to be quite intriguing was Gulliver’s occurrence with the Struldbrugs in part 3 who were immortal. In his own ignorance, the author answers the questions of what he would do if given an immortal life. His answer: obtain riches and be the wealthiest man alive, excel all others in learning, document everything so as to be the wisest and subsequently become the oracle of the nation. However, his answer is met with laughter at his expense as the poor Struldbrugs, though alive forever, aged just as well.
That the question was not, whether a man would choose to be always in the prime of youth, attended with prosperity and health; but how he would pass a perpetual life under all the usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it.
And so we see that even death can be viewed much differently in regards to perspective, a theme which definitely highlights a good portion of the novel bringing to our attention, of course, the issue of cultural relativism which is undoubtedly true to a point. And though there is much to comment on and to ruminate about, my time here is done. I must take what I have learned from this thrilling read and live my life so as not to be the most obnoxious Yahoo that ever lived.