Reynaldo 1 Kristine Marie T.

Reynaldo Professor Jurilla English 125 17 October 2008

The Question of Humanity in Gulliver’s Travels: Book IV Gulliver’s Voyage to Houyhnhnmland presents us with two extremes: pure reason, embodied by the horse-like Houyhnhnms, and primal appetites and passions, embodied by the brutish human-shaped Yahoos. Into these two poles, the qualities of man, characterizing his dual nature, are dissociated. What disturbed me about the fourth book is that the Houyhnhnm is held to be the paragon of virtue, the kind of creature that man ought to be, while the Yahoo, treated with deep disgust and symbolic of complete moral degradation, is identified with man. A great part of the book is devoted to proving the equation Man = Yahoo correct, and a great part of it is likewise given to extolling the Houyhnhnms. But how justified are Gulliver’s idealization of one extreme and his categorization of man as the other? How far should we believe him? Too often and too simplistically, Swift has been identified with Gulliver, and the latter’s misanthropy heaped on Swift (Monk 287), leading to conclusions that Swift means to say, as Gulliver says, that Man is Yahoo—sometimes even worse than Yahoo—and that

the Houyhnhnm is the human ideal. However, though Gulliver may sometimes serve as nothing more than Swift’s mouthpiece, he does not always speak for Swift. Behind the mask of the fictional persona Gulliver, Swift’s “controlling intelligence … leaves open the possibility that he may re-enter the argument when he finds re-entry expedient, and that he may re-enter as either enemy or friend” (Sams 343). Indeed, Gulliver sometimes speaks, ironically, against Swift’s own opinions, and in such cases, Swift makes him the butt of satire. For example, upon leaving Houyhnhnmland, Swift mocks his unhinged behavior in reacting to what he deems a society of Yahoos: he trots like a horse; his speech sounds like a horse’s neighing; he talks with his horses, and even maintains that they understand each other! These may come off as laughable, but underlying the absurdity is a grim picture: that of a once amiable man, driven to what may be called madness by his experience of “perfection” and his abhorrence of anything that falls short of it. The result is a distressing misanthropy that fills him with “hatred, disgust, and contempt” (2569) at the sight of even those people he once loved—his family—and causes him to scorn the close affinity he had with them, to suffer them not to take him in their arms, nor hold his hand, nor eat with him, nor touch his food—to be nauseated at the very smell of them. We may attribute such callous behavior to the trauma of being banished from the utopia he had dwelled in for five years, but his inability to adjust we may not so easily excuse when already several years have passed since he left Houyhnhnmland. A deeper reason —one that Swift is sure to decry—may be that Gulliver, for all his railing against it, is himself smitten with pride. When he first came upon the Portuguese sailors, for example, he was surprised that they were capable of speech, which to him seemed “monstrous” and “unnatural” (2467). He even wondered that Captain Pedro de Mendez, whom he recognized as “a very courteous and generous person” (2467), should be capable of

civilities, “Yahoo” that he is. It even took some time before Gulliver “descended to treat him like an animal which had some little portion of reason” (2467), which implies that he thinks himself superior for being more Houyhnhnm-like—and in his mind, perfect—than his fellow-men. However, his aspiration to become more Houyhnhnm-like to escape that terrible alternative, that of being Yahoo, renders himself unfit for human society. Indeed, one has to commend Captain Pedro for not throwing the contemptible Gulliver out. However, for all his pride, it is questionable whether he indeed picked up much virtue from the Houyhnhnms. For instance, though he professed that he had almost forgotten what falsehood meant, he pretended to be sick in his voyage back to England to avoid interacting with people. When he treats his family with contempt, he is contradicting the Houyhnhnm doctrine of benevolence and friendship to all members of one’s species. Furthermore, as Sherburn points out, “The captain is a teller of tall tales. He protests his truthfulness too often” (vi). That he swore his honesty by a quote about Sinon, the ultimate liar of Virgil’s Aeneid, is perhaps enough reason to keep us on our guard. What should we watch out for? It seems to me to be primarily Swift’s distorted “limited vision”, through which he inclines the argument in his favor by selecting the most significant details in a situation (while ignoring the others) and exaggerating them (Hunting 111). Usually, these details are the negative ones, and are thus biased and often illogical. As Quintana notes, “Through artistry the idea is intensified, charged with emotions, and thrust home in a manner that shocks the nerves before it arouses the mind” (302), and which “may well numb the critical sense of certain readers” (Monk 295). This is apparent in Gulliver’s accounts of war, lawyers, and physicians. He seems to be relating them as they are, but his explanations are too simplistic and prejudiced. One may argue that perhaps that is the point, that the reasons for the situations he describes are really simple, but that man complicates matters and attempts to rationalize them to

make them more palatable, and that this sort of rationalization is precisely what Swift scorns as perverted reason. But this is also a product of Swift’s distorted vision—of seeing only the bad, the unforgivable, and magnifying it, and making it stand for the whole, ignoring the subtleties of the matter. This, admittedly, is justifiable, for Swift, as a satirist, must ignore those aspects that make an evil endurable; he “cannot pardon, so he must decline to understand and explain all” (Willey 348). The aim of his satire is not to reason dispassionately, but to persuade or at least to disturb emotionally, and in so doing, effect change. Thus, “the ghastly imagery … ceases to sound like satiric exaggeration, and appalls us with the sense of actuality. Man, we feel, really is brutal and sordid as this” (Dyson 313)—this, perhaps, is the reason why many readers are readily convinced to equate Man with Yahoo. However, if we, as readers, are to make more informed conclusions, we must transcend this limited vision. Thus Gulliver’s judgment cannot be fully trusted. His pronouncements should not always be taken at face value, but must be interrogated and evaluated by the reader. How then, should we take it, when Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms conclude that Man is Yahoo? The brutish aspect of Man must of course be highlighted for the attack on pride and other sugar-coated vices to be effective, but if we were to accept that Man is by nature Yahoo, then Man would inescapably be a beast; his crime would simply be that he is a human being—it would not matter whether civilized or not (Eddy 187). But Swift, for all his alleged pessimism, as a humanist would not want this negative aspect to rule out the more positive alternative: that of exercising one’s reason (Quintana 321). That Swift, unlike Gulliver, does not deem all men Yahoo is evident in the person of the kindly Captain Pedro. Besides, what are the main grounds upon which Gulliver is indicted of being Yahoo, despite his demonstrations of reason? He is deemed a Yahoo because he looks like them; he concludes that he is indeed a Yahoo in that climactic scene when a

female Yahoo tries to couple with him. What are these but physical evidences? Man is more than body, more than appetite. We may, rather, take these as attacks against that brutish aspect of man, not against his whole being. One may contend: What then of the moral degradation of man that the conversations between Gulliver and his master Houyhnhnm expose? Perhaps the judgments of the Houyhnhnm are much too severe, owing to Gulliver’s satirically skewed version of events. But ultimately, the fact that Swift wrote a satire proves that he could not have really thought of his readers—and all of humanity—as Yahoos, if only because Yahoos could not have understood, nor would be affected, by satire (Dyson 318). Since irony and satire by nature presupposes intelligence and moral awareness, the assumed readers are definitely not Yahoos (Dyson 319), proving that Swift’s view of mankind is not as terrible as that of Gulliver, who professes, in his letter to Sympson, that he has “now done with all such visionary schemes [for reforming his fellow ‘Yahoos’] for ever” (2333). Just as Man is not Yahoo, so he cannot be as Houyhnhnms, with their pure reason and physical impossibility. Watkins states, “The Houyhnhnms are not so successful an imaginative creation as the Yahoos … they become at times ridiculous in a way which Swift could hardly have intended” (340). But what if Swift did intend it? The inconceivability and absurdity of horses performing human tasks like threading needles, milking cows, putting their hooves to their mouths, alighting from a carriage hind feet first, and so on underlines their physical impossibility and, figuratively, their wholly being creatures of the mind. As Dyson puts it, “They are mental abstractions disguised as animals” (316); they are not human, their standards far removed from the realities of human life, and thus are inaccessible to Gulliver. Even if it were possible for Gulliver to be like the Houyhnhnms, its desirability is questionable. The Houyhnhnms may appear more agreeable because Gulliver loves

them, and indeed they probably are. But are they truly ideal? Put another way, would anyone (aside from Gulliver) want to live in a Houyhnhnm society, with their “limited vocabulary, limited interests, and an attitude of life that seems wholly functional” (Dyson 315)? Would anyone want to live in a society so dull and devitalized, whose citizens know no passions—not love, not grief, not ambition—who know nothing of the follies of human emotions, perhaps, but also know nothing of human sublimity? The Houyhnhnms are not ideal and Swift did not intend them to be so, or he probably would have represented them as something other than horses. “Virtues may be convincingly personified; but, if any degree of sophistication is desired, they cannot be convincingly ‘horse-ified’” (Hunting 113). First, on the matter of their “virtue”: they are creatures naturally governed by reason; they have no conception of evil. Thus, their reason, their “virtue”—which, I think, cannot be called such if it is untried—is not something attained and worked hard for; it is not a triumph over base instinct and passion, but an immunity from these things—an immunity that also means the absence of vitality (Dyson 316). They who are so positive that they are the “Perfection of Nature” (2436) are blind to their own shortcomings. The Houyhnhnms are ethnocentric: they deem themselves “the Perfection of Nature” (2436), and their shape, ideal; yet pasterns, I should think, are not as good as hands in carrying trays and in milking cows. They also insist that “whatever share of reason the Yahoos pretend to, the Houyhnhnms are [their] masters; [they] heartily wish [their] Yahoos were so tractable” (2439). They are narrow-minded as well: though acknowledging his reason, they immediately classify Gulliver as a Yahoo, basing their judgment on his physical resemblance to those creatures. Despite Gulliver’s protestations, the Houyhnhnms dismiss him as a Yahoo, and if he differed from those brutes, he differed for the worst. Is this the mark of expansive souls? Similarly, when in

Chapter 3, Gulliver tells of his voyages, his Houyhnhnm master says he “knew it was impossible that there could be a country beyond the sea, or that a parcel of brutes could move a wooden vessel whither they pleased upon the water. He was sure no Houyhnhnm alive could make such a vessel, or would trust a Yahoo to manage it” (2436). During the grand assembly, it is said that “the representatives had taken offense at his keeping a Yahoo (meaning [Gulliver]) in his family more like a Houyhnhnm than a brute animal” [italics mine] (2462). Why are they insulted by this? Because they cannot accept that a creature so Yahoo-like in appearance could be Houyhnhnm-like in reason. Is this not a manifestation of narrow-mindedness, ethnocentricity, and pride, that they should want to be the only creatures acknowledged as possessing reason? Likewise, the Houyhnhnms’ deep and malicious distrust of Gulliver, despite evidence of his love and admiration for them, belies their “magnanimous” and “benevolent” nature. They are also capable of cruelty, though perhaps they do not recognize it as such. Their proposition of castrating the Yahoos for instance, is an example of cruelty to animals that some modern-day animal activists are protesting against. Moreover, even in their supposedly ideal society, social stratification still exists: they employ slaves, and a class of servants is specially bred. There is also evidence that Swift could not have approved of the Houyhnhnms as human ideals. The Houyhnhnms are clearly stoics and are similar to the Cartesians. That Reason, for them, is not “a point problematical … where men can argue with plausibility on both sides of a question; but strikes you with immediate conviction” (2455) is reminiscent of Descartes’ “rational intuition of clear and distinct ideas” (Monk 296), and Swift was anti-Cartesian, because he thought that Descartes was self-deluded and that man’s reason was incapable of the achievements Descartes credited to it (Monk 296). In his Thoughts on Various Subjects, Swift writes: “The Stoical Scheme of supplying our

Wants, by lopping off our Desires, is like cutting off our Feet when we want Shoes” (qtd. in Monk 296). I also cannot fully agree to the sort of reason, embodied by the Houyhnhnms, that Gulliver advocates, which call for no contention or opinion, but rather for affirmation or denial only with certainty. Though there are some things—like facts— that demand definite knowledge, there are also many other, important things that we cannot be certain about, but perhaps, we, as rational creatures, need to think about and discuss—like subjects such as morality. In the end, we are left with the impression that “the clean skin of the Houyhnhnms … is stretched over a void; instincts, emotions and life, which complicate the problem of cleanliness and decency, are left for the Yahoos with the dirt and the indecorum” (Leavis 351), and that the Houyhnhnms are not as admirable as they seem to be. In the fourth book, Swift explores the dangers of isolating the two opposing elements of human nature—reason and appetite—and calling one good, the other evil. He allows Gulliver to contemplate each in its essence (Monk 295). What we realize is that neither one nor the other by itself is ideal for Man, and that is impossible to live in happiness by only one of them. In revealing the deficiencies of a purely rational entity like the Houyhnhnms, Swift also hits on the principal weakness of the Age of Enlightenment (Dyson 18). The conclusion is clear: that to deem reason the sole key to man’s improvement is, to a great degree, illusory. The point is not to make Man Yahoo or Houyhnhnm, for he is neither—he is a bit of both; he is somewhere in between. Rather, the point is to judge him for what he is—a human, a creature capable of passions, but also of reason. As Swift said, it is not right to judge humans by an impossible ideal. To expect more from them than their natures allow, to assume that they are “reasonable animals” (qtd. in Quintana 301) would lead to anger

and misanthropy out of disappointment. Thus, Swift rejects that definition and made his own—that of man as a creature capable of reason (rationis capax) but not necessarily one of reason (animal rationale) (Quintana 301). To do otherwise, to attribute to the human race qualities it does not possess, is fallacious—it is pride, “the besetting sin of man and angels, the sin that disrupts the natural and supernatural order of God’s creation” (Monk 286)—and we know how important order was for their age. I would, moreover, like to think that it is not merely our middle state, our dual nature, that distinguishes us from brutes and angels. Swift “believed that man is actuated not by noble motives he professes but by sordid ones” (Quintana 302). I think the challenge of being human is to try to transcend such selfish, base motives, to curb inappropriate desires, to aspire to something nobler, perhaps—and it is culture, with its concern with morality, the sublimity of its art, its nurturing of our capacities to love, to dream, to marvel at a sunset, to worry about such concepts as purpose and meaning—that makes us human. —Just as Swift spent his life endeavoring to reform mankind with his savage indignation given lasting life and voice by such masterpieces of human civilization as Gulliver’s Travels.

Works Cited Dyson, A.E.. “Swift: The Metamorphosis of Irony.” Gulliver’s Travels: Annotated Text with Critical Essays. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961. 307-320. Eddy, William A. Gulliver’s Travels: A Critical Study. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1963. Hunting, Robert. Jonathan Swift. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967. Leavis, F. R. “Swift’s Negative Irony.” Gulliver’s Travels: Annotated Text with Critical Essays. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961. 348-353. Monk, Samuel Holt. “The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver.” Gulliver’s Travels: Annotated Text with Critical Essays. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961. 281-299. Quintana, Ricardo. The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1953. Sams, Henry W. “Satire as Betrayal.” Gulliver’s Travels: Annotated Text with Critical Essays. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961. 342-344. Sherburn, George. Introduction. Gulliver’s Travels. By Jonathan Swift. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950. v-xv.

Swift, Jonathan. “Part 4: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. Abrams, M.H., et al. Vol. 1c. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000. 2331-2473. Watkins, W.B.C. “Sense of Tragedy in Book IV.” Gulliver’s Travels: Annotated Text with Critical Essays. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961. 339-342. Willey. Basil. “The Limitations of Satire.” Gulliver’s Travels: Annotated Text with Critical Essays. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961. 347-349.

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