Wednesday, February 10, 2010

There is no Heaven on Earth

Swift has a problem with the Houyhnhms, and so do I: they are emotionless and truly inhuman. While Gulliver delights in this extreme employment of reason to practice the “highest virtue”, Swift satirizes Gulliver’s acceptance of it. Although Gulliver says, “their Language expressed the Passions very well” (212) and the note that accompanies this line declares, “The Houyhnhms may be austere but they are not presented as passionless”, I think that Swift disagrees, and I do too. They “have no Fondness for their Colts or Foles” but their care derives from “the Dictates of Reason” (250). They trade children so that each family can have one male and one female child. They do not grieve death, and they marry based on eugenic principles. We have discussed in class how the other books show a perversion of Gulliver’s reason, but I believe that Swift displays the ultimate perversion of reason: when reason becomes a god that dispels other good qualities. Reason is a good and proper thing as long as it informs correctly. Is eugenics correct? From a moral standpoint, not at all. The Houyhnhms’ use of reason is devoid of moral checkpoints that allow reason to correctly inform the conscience. Swift gives the Houyhnhms great faculty of mind but leaves them devoid of spirit. I believe this is to remind us that humans are not simply brains but hearts and souls as well: a person would not be considered complete without one or the other. In fact, we tend to label people “psychopaths” when they lack a moral conscience and seem to lack an inner spirit or emotions. We label them “gluttons” or “idiots” when they allow themselves to be driven by pure desire, unrestrained by reason or “common sense.” Gulliver’s Travels, then, points out what is wrong with a society when it is governed simply by the heart (desire) without the employment of the brain (reason) and what is wrong with a society that is simply governed by the brain without being tempered by the heart. There is no utopia because on earth there is no perfect balance between head and heart—man is an imperfect creature who cannot maintain the balance every moment of his life. Swift encourages men to search after this balance and try to live it out. This will lead to a better society—one in which selfish balls of desire nor emotionless, inhuman creatures reign, but instead one in which people strive to use their heads and hearts to attain as perfect an enjoyment of humanity as can exist on earth.


  1. Kathryn,
    I really enjoyed reading this and found it to be a very fresh insight into the story, a theme that I sort of picked up on, but this post explains everything so well. I especially thought you made a great point about how the Houyhnhnms are so rational that they cannot love with their heart, and that a world without love is just as bad, if maybe worse, than a world without reason. Great post!

  2. Kathryn, I agree with you that Swift is really satirizing the idolatry of reason and its separation from emotion, but I think he does more than encourage us to seek balance between the two. We spoke about this in class, but I think he is really pushing us to question the rational of institutions and other people. I don't think Swift feels that there is one perfect combination of the two; instead it seems that it is defined by the individual. The confusion caused by Swift's contradictory satire and sharp reversals of attitude allow each reader to take from it what they will and focus on the criticism that seems most important. Doesn't this allow each reader to individually question there own environment? You claim that eugenics is wrong (I don't disagree) but there are, for example, many scientists who think it would be beneficial to eradicate genetic diseases from the population. So I agree that Swift wants us to find balance between emotion and rationality, but I also think you can take it one step farther.

  3. The first part of your post points to the importance of the act of naming and language in Gulliver's Travels. By quoting the passage about the Houyhnhms's language: “their Language expressed the Passions very well," you draw attention to the role that words and language play in creating reality. This was an interesting moment in the text for me - usually an author (as a crafter and manipulator of words) is constantly highlighting the impact that word and naming can have on the physical world, or the absolute failure of words in being able to describe such abstracts as emotions. In this case, however, Swift seems to be suggesting that the agency one normally associates with the act of naming has broken down -- the Houynhnhms have the language to describe their passions, but this is not enough to create the passions in them. Reason carried to its extreme has supplanted the transformative power of language in this society.