Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

 

Kids are often introduced to classics by giving abridged versions to read. I thought I had read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens in high school, only to realize later when I grew up that the actual novel is not about a school guy who ran into a convict in some wheat fields (or was it a neighbourhood forest) but rather a complicated tale about social stratification and class system.

If there is one classic that can be abridged to a nursery rhyme and yet merits multiple readings as a grown up, it is Gulliver’s travel.

There are many major themes in the book. Most of them are well documented elsewhere on the net. However, there is one theme that is of particular significance (at least according to me). Let us start by going over the more run of the mill themes.

The second part mocks the notion of beauty humans have developed in their minds (I am a little tired of writing at this point so won’t get into the details). The third part mocks the pursuit of knowledge which does not have any practical application (think business school professors). Now the savvy reader will notice a pattern here. The book is quite misanthropic and cynical since the first three parts end up satirizing most of humanity.

It is the fourth part where the book makes its most profound statement. Gulliver after being fed up of humanity lands up in an island filled with most rational creatures. They have heads like horses and are called homonyms,( I do not want to type homonyms again and again, so let is just call them Spocks, reminding the readers of the super rational Spock TV series Star Trek, the one who is free of all biases and super objective). After being disgusted with humans, Gulliver falls in love with the very rational and logical Spocks. So much so that after he returns from his journey, he refused to socialize at all with the lowely humans, and spends his time in his stable, as the horses remind him of Spocks.

So what is the moral of the fable? If you fall in love with a rational ideal of a gregarious, far sighted, intelligent and logical person, you would end up hating most of the people. There is no need to do that. It is not going to change those people anyhow. They will remain irritating unless you cultivate some tolerance in yourself. Just like all people would not be in the top 1 percentile of IQ (somebody has to make rest of the 99), similarly all people would not be in the top one percentile of other qualities (say sensitivity).

 

Sounds simple doesn’t it, cultivate tolerance. However, it is remarkably difficult to do.

I actually ended up writing about this book while reminiscing on the “Nevermind” album of Kurt Cobain. Now Cobain had genuine artistic instincts. He could feel life and its whirl wind of emotions at a level most people would not.  If you are more sensitive than most people, you would find most people shallow. But those people have to exist to make up the remaining 99 percentile. If you go through a quote list of Kurt Cobain, you will notice how often he uses the word hate – I hated the jocks in high school and I hated the cheer leaders and I hated Paul McCartney although I loved the Beatles and I hated Robert Plant although I loved Zeppelin. Well it is true that Paul McCartney and Robert Plant can be irritating. They are also relatively shallow as compared to John Lennon or Jimmy Page. But somebody always will be relatively shallow. You don’t have to hate them for that.

 

–          Amaresh

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