Everyday Semiotics

Friday, August 31, 2007

Swift's blind spot

Further regarding Gulliver's Travels:

Reading this has brought to mind again a question I could never satisfactorily answer, namely, how to criticize works of centuries gone by? Is it possible? appropriate? fair? to extend my own familiar critical modes to a book published in 1726?

Swift's purpose is obviously to poke fun at all English society of his day, yet he never touched social stratification. Granted, he was working before Hegel and before Marx and Engels; his satire did not have at its disposal their dialectic vocabulary.

Even so, it's perplexing that with an imagination so great as his that Swift never could imagine a society without lords and nobles separate from the commoners. Even the Houyhnhnms, praised by Lemuel Gulliver above all other creatures and societies for their reason and geniuneness, had a caste system in place, and further made slaves of the Yahoos. The Lilliputians and Brobdignagians had monarchies not very dissimilar from England's, and even the Luggnaggians had a ruler who quite literally lorded over them from the floating island of Laputa.

The mode of satire is turn the status quo on its ear; but as regards social class, Gulliver's Travels fails in this mission. The satire has, to this modern reader, a huge blind spot.

Is that a fair criticism? By the measure of its own time Gulliver's Travels was surely the acutest satire. Class stratification, while certainly an extant phenomenon, was evidently not much thought about or questioned. Is it reasonable, then, to apply a Marxist reading to the novel? A Lacanian reading? A feminist or queer reading?

I don't think a queer reading of Gulliver's Travels would be terribly illuminating; but then again, like the Marxist reading, it could ask why there is no opposite presented to the male-female relationship. There's plenty of trafficking in sex and hints of communism in the social order of the Houyhnhnms. Swift probably did not think in these terms while writing, but the categories are there to find.

I want to say it probably is reasonable, in all the above cases and more, to apply modern critical modes to old texts. The problem is always context; yet responsible criticism can observe context in applying new modes of explication or deconstruction. It is useful, I think, to discover a text's deficiencies, especially when it is satire or science fiction; for if a text is to probe, or lay bare, or question, it shouldn't probably be taken at face value but pushed further, probed, questioned, and laid bare itself.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Gulliver's travels in sci fi

The birth of science fiction is routinely found at the creation of Frankenstein's monster; yet it seems to me the tradition is a good deal older than that.

Frankenstein was written in 1816 by an author who set out merely to write a compelling spine tingler (sez NYU prof. Walter James Miller in the introduction to my edition of the novel). That Mary Shelley used a novum in the furtherance of this goal is is circumstantial evidence: not, I think, enough to prove the inherent scientifictionicity of her novel under the accepted rules of genreprudence.

I would submit science fiction was born with the publication of Gulliver's Travels in 1726, a solid 90 years ahead of Frankenstein.

Far from being merely an early glimmer of what would later become the solidified modes of the genre -- what we adherents of Darko Suvin recognize to be the sine qua non of sf, estrangement and the cognition effect -- Gulliver's accomplishes both without doing so too selfconsciously (as any good but of sf must).

It's surprising to me that, having studied the genre a little bit, I'm the first person I know of to have made this claim. Gulliver's Travels seems to be mentioned often enough in the discourse, but always superficially, in passing, or as an example of "proto" sf. This may have something to do with the frames or contexts of each novel, or perhaps the circles in which they tend to be read. Dr. Frankenstein is of course a doctor, a scientist. His first act is the creation of new life -- this novel's novum -- and only later does his tale become a continent-spanning adventure narrative. Gulliver is also a doctor, though it is not a mad science experiment that sets his tale in motion. It is a series of accidents that land him in one improbable new country after another. And instead of his learnedness creating the novum and pitching him into the adventure, it is instead his learnedness that acts as the normalizing force -- the cognition effect through which he rationalizes the strange new worlds and reveals them to the reader.

The novum, in other words, is out of his hands. It is the world outside, hitherto unknown and discovered by accident. This makes Gulliver's Travels altogether more like mythology than science fiction -- or so I suppose other critics' reasoning goes. Certainly science fiction contains within pallet of tropes the discovery of new worlds; yet one always gets to these worlds with a space ship or teleporter.

Arguments could of course be made that neither work is science fiction; that they are both fantasy. Giants and dwarfs and talking horses and reanimated corpses are all the domain of the latter, to be sure. In Frankenstein, all that might be cognitionable by the reader is oblique; the scientific process by which the corpse is brought again to life is shrouded in dreamy, quasi-sexual language, with nothing like the almost-plausible operating table and lightning tower of the movies.

On the other hand, Gulliver often theorizes on how such fantastic races as he encounters might have come into being. There's no fully articulated theory, but it is evident different parts of the world give lease and are suitable to life on different scales, and the dramatic shifts in the size of beings from one locale to the next -- from Liliputians to Europeans to Brobdignagians -- may be a natural law.

Gulliver's Travels, while undoubtedly informed by the exploits of the wandering Argonauts, Achaeans, et alii, is most assuredly not mythology. Science fiction is not the same as mythology because there is no estrangement and no cognition in mythology. Mythological monsters are fearsome, yet they do not boggle the mind.

Science fiction happened when stories began to blink at the weird, when narratives began to other the beasts and nymphs they portrayed. Gulliver's Travels begins to do this. Its exotic civilizations, while markedly different in custom and organization from Europe, still bear all Europe's touchstones, like kings and armies and bowing and good manners. The other is not completely othered, and therefore it is fairly easily cognitionable once the language barrier is breached.

This, I note with sadness, is still true of science fiction almost three centuries later. So little in the genre attempts to take the reader into truly estranging realms, constrained as it is by imaginations rooted in the world as it is. But I've gotten off the topic of Gulliver's Travels.

What, for me, finally clinches the argument that this novel is the real wellspring of sf is that it pairs the estrangement/cognition apparatus with satire. Satire, of course, is what Swift was all about. (And indeed, the world that heeded Swift's "A Modest Proposal" would have made a good setting for an sf novel.)

To widely varying extents, satire is what science fiction is about too. Picture satire as one point on a rhetorical continuum that also includes parody, farce, allegory, utopian and distopian writing, even political and socioeconomic agendas. What each of these points, serious or farcical as they may be, has in common is they suppose an alternative to consensus reality; they each posit a different status quo. Each work of science fiction relies on one or more of the points along the continuum to contain its universe. Even a piece of sf set in the present "real world" must suppose something outside the quotidian realm of the reader -- a supernature never glimpsed, conspiracies only imagined. In the case of Gulliver's, this alternative outside the explored world happens to be quite silly at times.

With introductory warnings that anticipate the multi-framed narrative of Frankenstein, Gulliver's Travels insists on its belonging to the real world. Gulliver seeks to quiet in advance the doubts that readers will inevitably find and also distances himself from errors in the manuscript; then his cousin and publisher, Richard Sympson, hastens to add a note about Gulliver's widely-regarded veracity. This connection to the real is a further proof of its scientifictionicity; for rather than existing time out of mind, as in Homer, or in an alternate reality, as in Tolkien, it exists here and now (or rather, there and then, in 1726).