Jonathan Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1955
Time and again, the English doctor of medicine, Lemuel Gulliver finds himself at sea and time and again, he is cast away in a foreign country. His first shipwreck brings him to Liliput, the country of small people. After a second calamity, he is cast upon Bobdingnag where the giants live. Both times, Gulliver is treated like an oddity by the inhabitants of the countries and both times he describes the structure and conditions of the foreign countries to the reader and – upon the giants' and dwarfs' request - the political situation of his home country. After some time though, he always gets into trouble and inevitably has to find his way back to England. His third journey takes him to the islands Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan. During one last final trip, Gulliver ends up in the country of the Houyhnhnms, where horse-like creatures, called Houyhnhnms, have all authority and human-like creatures, called Yahoos, are treated like livestock. In contrast to the humans, the Houyhnhnms live without war, disease or evil. All these journeys ultimately make Gulliver see his home county with different eyes...
Although "Gulliver's Travels" (whole title: "Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships"), published in 1726, has received most attention in its abbreviated form as an adventurous children's book and audio drama, the book is actually a biting satire, arguing against the English oppression of Ireland, as well as a pessimistic take on human co-existence as a whole.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was born in Ireland and lived both in England and Ireland. He was a well-educated man, who started criticising the English crown for their exploitation of Ireland quite early on. In one of his most famous satirical essays, "A Modest Proposal" from 1729, for instance, he suggests that all of Ireland's problems could be solved by exporting Irish babies to England as food.
"Gulliver's Travels" is a multifaceted description of the European crisis during the early stages of the Enlightenment at the beginning of the 18th century. The individual islands and countries in the book tend to have real counterparts and the absurd actions of the king of Liliput or Brobdingnag mirrors those of Swift's contemporaries. But it is also on a more general level, that "Gulliver's Travels" display recurring patterns in politics and history that should give every reader something to think about. Gulliver's time with the Houyhnhnms in particular, shows how much the world of the humans is dominated by greed, envy and incompetence.
While it was truly exciting, reading the adventures of the seaman Gulliver as a child, it is even more worthwhile to occupy oneself with the original book as a teenager or a grown-up. Using the structure of a utopia more than 100 years after Campanella and Bacon, Swift creates a variety of worlds worth exploring. Because no matter how absurd all of these may seem – in the end they inevitably lead to a critical reflection of our own deficits. And it is just this kind of reflecting that needs to be reestablished in our 21st century "society of Yahoos".