Oct 282018

Gulliver’s Travels, a.k.a. Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships by Jonathan Swift was first published on this date in 1726. Swift claimed that he wrote Gulliver’s Travels “to vex the world rather than divert it”. The book became popular as soon as it was published. John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.” I first read it when I was 12 as a set book in my 2nd year of high school, and to this day I cannot fathom what the South Australian education department was thinking when they assigned it to children of that age. I imagine they thought it was a children’s book of tall tales and nothing else. I grasped the broad idea, but had no clue about the satire, nor any clue why Swift was at such pains to describe physical features and bodily functions in alarming detail.

These days, I might describe the book as proto-anthropology. Swift is obviously raising questions about the nature of humanity and society, setting out his answers in marked contrast to the opinions of his contemporaries, such as Defoe and Hobbes. Gulliver’s Travels is quite obviously not anthropology in the sense that the cultures Gulliver encounters are not real cultures, but, rather, parodies of English culture of his day. I might call the book “imagined ethnographies” – a genre that in some respects other authors have continued, notably through science fiction, but also fantasy. In Swift’s time, actual travelogues published by the likes of William Dampier https://www.bookofdaystales.com/william-dampier/ were popular, as were fictional tales of travel, prompted primarily by Robinson Crusoe, which was enormously successful when it was published (and believed by many readers to be a genuine account of a castaway).

In modern times, the voyage to Lilliput is probably the best known, more because of its imagery of people who are six inches tall than anything else. I have always been captivated by the voyage to Laputa, which is much less well known. Laputa is a floating island kingdom that uses magnetism to hover above the land below. The island of Laputa is described as being exactly circular and 4.5 miles (7.2 km) in diameter, giving an area of 10,000 acres (4,000 ha). The island is 300 yards (270 m) thick, comprising a bottom plate of adamant 200 yards thick, above which lies “the several minerals in their usual order”, topped with “a coat of rich mould 10 or 12 ft deep”.

In shape the upper surface slopes down from circumference to center, causing all rain to form rivulets into the center where four large basins half a mile in circuit lie 200 yards from the absolute center. In the center of the island itself is a chasm 50 yards in diameter continuing down into a dome extending 100 yards into the adamantine surface. This dome serves as an astronomical observatory, and also contains the lodestone which enables the island to fly and move above the realm.

Laputa’s population consists mainly of educated people, who are fond of mathematics, astronomy, music and technology, but fail to make practical use of their knowledge. Servants make up the rest of the population. The Laputans have mastered magnetic levitation. They also are very fond of astronomy, and discovered two moons of Mars. (This is 151 years earlier than the recognized discovery of the two moons of Mars by Asaph Hall in 1877.) However, they are unable to construct well-designed clothing or buildings, because they take measurements with instruments such as quadrants and a compass rather than with tape measures.

The clothes of Laputans are decorated with astrological symbols and musical figures. They spend their time listening to the music of the spheres. They believe in astrology and worry constantly that the sun will go out. The Laputan houses are badly built, without accurate right angles. Due to their fervent intellectual pursuits, Laputans are also depicted as becoming so lost in thought that they cannot function in everyday life unless constantly struck by a bladder full of pebbles or dry peas, for which every one of them is escorted by one or two servants,  called “clappers”. Many of their heads have become stuck reclined to one side, and they often suffer from strabismus: one eye turns inward and the other looks up “to the zenith.” The Laputans’ oddly-focused eyes are Swift’s parodies of the microscope and telescope. The Laputans are so intent on their scientific studies that they cannot function in the everyday world, or even perceive it, and without their clappers, are in constant danger of running into a tree or a ditch when walking.

Laputa is a male-dominated society. Wives often request to leave the island to visit the land below; however, these requests are almost never granted because the women who leave Laputa never want to return. The Laputan women are promiscuous and adulterous, and, whenever possible, take on lovers out of visitors from the lands below. The Laputan husbands, who are so abstracted in mathematical and musical calculations, might discover that their wives are adulterous, but as long as they have no clapper around, they don’t notice the adultery even should it occur right before their eyes.

Laputa is primarily a satire of the members of the Royal Society who, in Swift’s day, were making great strides in the sciences and mathematics, yet were not putting these advances to practical use. The primary technological applications did not occur until a century later when the Industrial Revolution cranked up. The reason that Swift’s depiction of Laputa appeals to me is that, with suitable adjustments, he might well be describing people in the modern world who are so fixated on their smartphones, video games and other technology that they lose track of the world around them. Go to YouTube to see compilations of people walking into lampposts or falling down potholes because they are riveted to their phones and oblivious to their physical environment.

Here is Swift’s description of a meal on Laputa:

My dinner was brought, and four persons of quality, whom I remembered to have seen very near the king’s person, did me the honour to dine with me.  We had two courses, of three dishes each.  In the first course, there was a shoulder of mutton cut into an equilateral triangle, a piece of beef into a rhomboides, and a pudding into a cycloid.  The second course was two ducks trussed up in the form of fiddles; sausages and puddings resembling flutes and hautboys, and a breast of veal in the shape of a harp.  The servants cut our bread into cones, cylinders, parallelograms, and several other mathematical figures.

This ought to give you plenty of scope. Have a Laputa-themed dinner party, and be creative with the shape of the food.



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