Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Week 12 Samuel Pepys and Jonathan Swift

Samuel Pepys, Diary

Pepys’ entries convey nicely the basic personal and historical truth that we don’t process real-time events immediately. An “event” is to the impersonal, collective realm what an “experience” is to the personal realm—something that has to be processed before we can really say, “such and such happened.” In other words, we attach meanings to occurrences only in this way. Consider, for instance, how people responded to the attacks on September 11th—the events themselves took a little while to process. When we first saw them on the television screen, they looked like Hollywood contrivances—they probably seemed that way to people who saw them with their own eyes, too. Consider, also, what we mean by the term “experience”—you can experience a breakup or an accident, but not your own death. Why? Because you aren’t there to interpret it to yourself or relate it to anyone else.

Life-writing like that of Pepys is one of the most important ways to learn about the past—you get a sense of how things were that goes beyond simple narration, even though in this case Pepys is generally providing us with a reportorial account, mixed in with some personal reactions. I don’t suppose he’s trying to let us in on his “inner self” but rather to retain his impressions—it doesn’t seem that he intended them for publication at all; they were private accounts for his own benefit. But maybe that’s what makes them so interesting—they’re the private musings of a very important individual.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

On making comparisons, utopian-style. To compare one thing with another, there must be some similarities and some dissimilarities. Otherwise there would be nothing in common between the two things, and therefore nothing to say. Lemuel Gulliver’s travels always result in appropriate comparisons between English/European ways and the customs and mores of other societies.

Perspective is central to the results Swift obtains: either he’s standing close-up to giants and feeling tiny (as if viewing himself from a great distance), or seeing himself from the perspective of tiny Lilliputians so that he appear gigantic. We notice that somehow the result is always to our discredit. Viewed as puny or gigantic, we come out looking dreadful—our vices and roughness magnified or our virtues and beauty trivialized.

What is the difference between Swift’s comparison technique and that of, say, Thomas More in Utopia and Francis Bacon in The New Atlantis? One major difference is that More and Bacon compare European institutions and morals with those of people rather similar to ourselves, only less corrupted. The Utopians and Atlantians are “just people” who arrange their affairs better than we have managed to do. But Swift is closer to science fiction than to traditional utopian literature, from Plato onwards: he compares Europeans to giants and little people, to outrageous parodies of certain mental tendencies as with the Laputans, and finally and most bizarrely, to horses endowed with a reasoning capacity far more genuine than we can honestly claim to possess.

So what’s the upshot of all this comparison-making? It’s probably similar to that of other utopian fiction—namely, first to understand human nature and practices, and secondly, to offer suggestions on ameliorating the human condition, whether one believes that can be done just now or not. Generally, utopian fiction is what Francis Bacon calls an experiment of light rather than an experiment of fruit or immediate use. (Similarly, dystopian fiction like Orwell’s 1984 might be called an experiment of darkness, a prophecy of the worst that could happen based on what we seem capable of doing to one another.) The genius of Swift is that it’s difficult to classify his work as either dystopian or utopian—the utopia he projects is too “horsy” for us to achieve since we can’t turn ourselves into horses. The Yahoos may seem pretty dystopian, but they aren’t the only human-like creatures Lemuel Gulliver meets—there are the Lilliputians who behave more or less like miniature “Euro-trash” (excuse the term), and the huge denizens of Brobdingnag, who are somewhat like humans, with their good and bad traits. In sum, Swift keeps his utopia very distant from us, and his dystopian vision isn’t the only option, though it must be admitted that neither the Lilliputs nor the Brobdingnagians are anywhere near satisfactory destinations for us.

What’s unsettling here is that we aren’t far from Yahoos, and poor Lemuel finds it very hard to come back home to his own kind; he’s alienated from humanity for good. The reacclimation process proves painful, more painful perhaps than the one that Plato’s philosopher who has seen the truth and then has to go back down into the Cave to tell benighted fools something they don’t want to hear. They would prefer the unexamined life, however worthless Plato says it is, to painful self-examination and permanent alienation from their assumptions about human nature and beliefs. To me, it seems that Swift has offered us not “food for thought” but rather a cup of hemlock, an intensely bitter dose of humility. What keeps us going is simply Rabelaisian laughter—Swift’s ability to expose and send up the utter ridiculousness of human pretensions to dignity and security, an ability that links him to authors like Aristophanes, Apuleius, Rabelais, Erasmus, and others. But in Swift, the laughter is somewhat less than permanent. A reference to Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove is also appropriate: we laugh at that film, but the laughter is tinged with anxiety because the world it conjures up and then annihilates just isn’t worth preserving. And it seems too much like the real one we live in.

Addendum--Presentation byAdriana Perez, on Samuel Pepys

3. Optional: for further information about the Great Fire of September 1666, visit The Pepys Home Page or some other site on the web and set down what you find most interesting about this historical event.

Answer: Well, by reviewing Pepys home page I found out some very interesting things that happened after the tragedy. Before the fire in 1666 there were very flammable materials all over the city (hay, wood ). There were some complains about this but nobody listen to them. After the tragedy, the houses were rebuilt under more strict regulations to prevent another tragedy. I also found that thanks to the fire the Black Plague declined. The Black Plague which had been going around in Europe since 1664 was transferred through blood. Fleas infested and flea infested rats carried the plague from place to place. During the Great Fire many infested rats were killed because they failed to escape the flames. This helped reduced the plague.