Thursday, February 4, 2010

Arbitrary Authority

One theme I found both in Gulliver's Travels and also in Defoe's Plague novel is that of the government's use of arbitrary authority.

In the Plague journals, orders came for people to be shut up in their houses, and each figure of authority in turn answered to a higher authority. But from where does power originate? From a Parliament that has fled to the country? Foucault proposed the Panopticon idea to explain the plague as an "omniscient and omnipresent" force that can be used by the government to legitimize their own power. They are legitimized because, apparently, they know best. But even then, the idea that they "knew best" was also called into question at this time. The church was a central figure of authority, and yet people were directly challenging this power by seeking out witches and fortunetellers to help them survive the plague.

This is what reminded me very much of Swift, for he even has a quote about the government of the Lilliputions, stating that "the disbelief of a Divine Providence renders a man uncapable of holding any public station ; for, since kings avow themselves to be the deputies of Providence, the Lilliputians think nothing can be more absurd than for a prince to employ such men as disown the authority under which he acts."

So for some it was fear of the Plague and for some it was Divine Providence that inspired people to believe in the power of authority figures. So now I'm actually a bit confused, because power still seems to work in weird ways. It's not exactly "might makes right," for if that were true, Gulliver could have been a God among the Lilliputians.

Not to jump around too much, but maybe it goes back to the Lilliputian idea that fraud is worse than theft because it is the cunning that can take advantage of the honest. Power is in the hands, then, not of the most strong, but the person willing to manipulate others through the control of ideas (and I guess this would apply to Satan in Paradise Lost as well). If this at all makes sense.

1 comment:

  1. Your moment of confusion seems really important: Gulliver seems much more "humane" when he is a giant in Lilliput than when he brags about Britain to the King of Brobgingnag. Might seems not so much to make right but to be right, in the sense of having "largess."

    I like very much your sense of power as being able to manipulate people's perception. We might want to consider Gulliver's level of manipulation of the text: does he make attempts to empower himself through manipulation? How does this shift between parts I and II?