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.

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