“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Lockian subject in Lilliput

I'm recycling this post from 2005. It is certainly pertinent to my character under capitalism theme.

There’s a tradition in the literature about Gulliver’s Travel that extracts the Lockean Gull in Gulliver. The argument goes back to a very fine essay by W. B. Carnochan entitled, Gulliver’s Travels: An Essay on the Human Understanding?

Carnochan’s argument is straightforward: “Lemuel Gulliver, like the mad projector of the Modest Proposal, appears to be a version of the Lockean man.” Carnochan is probably on solid ground in thinking that the perceptual changes on which Swift plays like a jazz xylophonist are suggested by Locke’s theory that the human mind is shaped by sensation – ideas themselves being the end product of an experience that begins
externally (mysterious as that beginning may be) with the encounter of a sense instrument and an object. As is well known, this theory leads elsewhere in the empirical tradition – that moment of non-experience hardening into a thing that can’t be, logically, experienced, meaning that the perceived object must be usurped by the philosopher and put in the mind – some mind. Berkeley suggested God’s. This is a theory that a writer like Swift is bound to squeeze all the absurdities out of. Which is why Denis Donoghue takes the Lockean suggestion one step further,
and claims that what we are seeing, in Gulliver’s Travels, is how easily the Lockean subject falls prey to the Stockholm syndrome. He is continually captured, and continually acclimated so to the point of view of his captors that he begins to adopt it. Historically, there's also warrant for this -
Swift lived in a time when English men and women were always getting captured, by Moors, Indians and other heathen, and were continually shocking their countrymen by converting to pagan or Islamic ways.
In other words, Gulliver’s typical peripeteia is that of a man who goes from one ‘brainwashing” to another – and he gets to it by going through funk, animal fear, and his own tradesman’s capacity for fawning, with the power of the mind, here, being wholly in the power of the powers that be.

Donoghue’s thesis seems to explain a larger pattern in Gulliver’s Travels, until one notices that Gulliver seems much too aware of his brainwashing to be merely one of the brainwashed. At least in the Lilliput section, where Gulliver is critical enough of thread dancing and the like. He is not, however, critical of titles – and no matter how small the Liliputians are, the emperor carries a title as big as Louis XIV’s.

To my mind, the way to get a-hold of Gulliver is to see him as the double of M.B. Drapier.

In the first Drapier letter, the narrator (who is, after all, a fiction) says this:

“I will therefore first tell you the plain story of the fact; and then I will lay before you how you ought to act in common prudence, and according to the laws of your country.”

This is in the clear as water style of Gulliver himself. And yet, Drapier’s
letters are all warnings, and the satire runs to that point. Whereas what is
Gulliver writing for? In the letter from Captain Gulliver that prefaces the
book, he does claim that the book is intended as a warning:

“I do in the next Place complain of my own great Want of Judgment, in being prevailed upon by the Intreaties and false Reasonings of you and some others, very much against mine own Opinion, to suffer my Travels to be published.

Pray bring to your Mind how often I desired you to consider, when you
insisted on the Motive of publick good; that the Yahoos were a species
of Animals utterly incapable of Amendment by Precepts or Examples: And so it hath proved; for instead of seeing a full Stop put to all Abuses and
Corruptions, at least in this little Island, as I had Reason to expect:
Behold, after above six Months Warning, I cannot learn that my Book hath
produced one single Effect according to mine Intentions: I desired you
would let me know by a Letter, when Party and Faction were extinguished;
Judges learned and upright; Pleaders honest and modest, with some Tincture of common Sense; and Smithfield blazing with Pyramids of Law-Books; the young Nobility's Education entirely changed; the Physicians banished; the female Yahoos abounding in Virtue, Honour, Truth and good Sense; Courts and Levees of great Ministers thoroughly weeded and swept; Wit, Merit and Learning rewarded; all Disgracers of the Press in Prose and Verse condemned to eat nothing but their own Cotten, and quench their Thirst with their own Ink. These, and a Thousand other Reformations, I firmly counted upon by your Encouragement; as indeed they were plainly deducible from the Precepts delivered in my Book.”

This is a mixture of the satirist’s targets since Aristophanes and Swift’s
fictitious creatures, the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, who are very close to making any system of virtue and vice absurd by embodying it in impossible extremities of the disgusting and ... well, it is hard to find one term to describe the Houyhnhnms, although the idea of these equine stoics is both alarming and funny. It is like the most impossibly inbred English aristocracy. And Swift adds a sentence that seems pointed at his own self: “And, it must be owned that seven Months were a sufficient Time to correct every Vice and Folly to which Yahoos are subject, if their Natures had been capable of the least Disposition to Virtue or Wisdom.”

Is this Gulliver sticking out his tongue at Mr. Drapier?
And is Mr. Drapier Jonathan Swift as tradesman?

The satirist needs a preliminary sketch, acquaintance with the primogenitive caricature. And that caricature happens to be the self.

But Mr. Drapier, too, exists – in fact, his fictiveness is oddly blurred by his entrance into the all too real exploitation of Ireland, which is forever locked in Swift’s unwavering field of vision, a thing to see, a raree show of instituted vice. He feels about it … well, as LI feels about Bush’s America. Bush’s America degrades my mockery by casting itself into forms of such pitiful tastelessness, hypocrisies that have been exposed for so long that the exposures are growing moss, bluster that wouldn’t frighten a sheep, that mockery has to seek restraint – has to seek other tangents to make indignation feel-able. If not to reform the Yahoos, at least to relieve the writer's own spleen.

Mr. Drapier’s way is simply to tell the plain story of fact.
The meta-story is that the British Prime Minister, out of every venal motive, conspires to allow William Wood the right to coin money for use
in Ireland. The contract costs Wood money, and he proposes to make up
that money and make a profit by chiseling on the composition of the coin
– in other words, creating half pence on the cheap, which could be exchanged for good coin. This was at a time when the matter of the coin
was important – a penny should contain a penny’s worth of metal. A gold coin should contain an amount of gold equal to the worth of the coin.
Of course, the coins were routinely shaved, by everybody. But to coin them
pre-shaved, so to speak, was to go one step beyond. The intro to the edition of the Drapier’s Letters on the Gutenberg site says this:

“The patent was really granted to the King's mistress, the Duchess of Kendal, who sold it to William Wood for the sum of £10,000, and (as it was reported with, probably, much truth) for a share in the profits of the coining. The job was alluded to by Swift when he wrote:

"When late a feminine magician,
Join'd with a brazen politician,
Expos'd, to blind a nation's eyes,
A parchment of prodigious size."

Coxe [a Swift commentator] endeavors to exonerate Walpole from the disgrace attached to this business, by expatiating on Carteret's opposition to Walpole, an opposition which went so far as to attempt to injure the financial minister's reputation by fomenting jealousies and using the Wood patent agitation to arouse against him the popular indignation; but this does not explain away the fact itself. He lays some blame for the agitation on Wood's indiscretion in flaunting his rights and publicly boasting of what the great minister would do for him. At the same time he takes care to censure the government for its misconduct in not consulting with the Lord Lieutenant and his Privy Council before granting the patent. His censure, however, is founded on the consideration that this want of attention was injudicious and was the cause of the spread of exaggerated rumours of the patent's evil tendency. He has nothing to say of the rights and liberties of a people which had thereby been infringed and ignored.”

If you have not read the Drapier’s letter, go to the intro to get some sense of the controversy, and then go to the fourth letter. That’s the hair-raising letter – a blow against the colonial system, a cry against the infamy, a rush at the system that’s truly in rare company. I suppose Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is the American counterpart, except that King is never bitter. Swift’s letter begins like this:

“Having already written three letters upon so disagreeable a subject as
Mr. Wood and his halfpence; I conceived my task was at an end: But I
find, that cordials must be frequently applied to weak constitutions,
political as well as natural. A people long used to hardships, lose by
degrees the very notions of liberty, they look upon themselves as
creatures at mercy, and that all impositions laid on them by a stronger
hand, are, in the phrase of the Report, legal and obligatory. Hence
proceeds that poverty and lowness of spirit, to which a kingdom may
be subject as well as a particular person. And when Esau came fainting from the field at the point to die, it is no wonder that he sold his
birthright for a mess of pottage.”

Every blow in this letter lands. Gulliver’s Travels – with its Gull for a mockery – plays a double game with its moral points, making them and denying them in the same gesture. One remembers that the point is the wholesale reformation of Yahoo nature in seven months time. This is Jonah waiting for the fire to consume Ninevah, and being bitterly disappointed that it never comes. Or rather, this is taking that spirit of Jonah and both inhabiting the prophet’s disgust and taking up a position outside it to observe with clinical precision the prophet’s vanity. But Drapier is a character who has been transported beyond vanity. In a passage that was considered treasonable, Swift considers that Ireland is no ‘depending kingdom’ with England, but equal in its freedoms. This casts doubt on the charnel foundation of colonialism, which is currently being implemented in Iraq on just the ground that the Iraqis are incorrigible children and the Americans are paragons to be mimicked. Ireland, after all, was the template for all English colonial ventures to follow. This is the Drapier at his most intense. One wants to say that this is the crescendo of the letter, but the rhythm, here, disallows crescendos:

“For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the
very definition of slavery: But in fact, eleven men well armed will certainly
subdue one single man in his shirt. But I have done. For those who have used power to cramp liberty have gone so far as to resent even the liberty
of complaining, although a man upon the rack was never known to be refused the liberty of roaring as loud as he thought fit.”

No comments: