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Thursday, April 04, 2013


First sentences: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

This site is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of first sentence posts can be found here

Somewhere on my shelves there still rests a slim picture-book from my childhood, adorned on the cover with a familiar scene: the giant Gulliver bewilderingly tied down by a regiment of swarming Lilliputians. The story explained itself to me in simple terms: at first they were very afraid of him but then they let him go; they saw themselves as normal and him as a giant; once the palace caught on fire and Gulliver helped put it out. Being a book for children, it didn't add the true Swiftian detail: that he 'helped' extinguish the fire by pissing on it - and in so doing, igniting a bizarre political debate about as sane as Swift was prepared to consider the real world.

How do we view Gulliver's Travels - or, to give it its full original name, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships? Most of us are raised on it as a children's tale of whimsy, the undoubted imagination of its calmer waters being the only things we hear about. But it is, in fact, a book of satire, pointed and specific: an undergraduate can pick their way through it making charts that match whimsical diversion to historical controversy in a neat line. If we're going to talk about it on its own terms, this must not be forgotten: Swift had points to make and axes to grind and heads to sever, and that is what Gulliver does. From a writing aspect, though, it seems wrong to abandon entirely the child's eye perspective. To ignore the history and see only the fantasy is obtuse, yes, but reading the book as a mere game of spot-the-satire misses the wild excess of imagination that made it so unforgettable a read even centuries after the controversies it lambasts are forgotten by all but the historians. Jane Eyre reads Gulliver as a child quite unaware of its parodic edge ('I considered it a narrative of facts,' she remarks dryly): Usborne and the modern publishers are not to blame here. There's something in its virulent profusion of fancy that has outlasted its political relevance. It's not just a long pamphlet. Swift was a politicker, but he was also a writer. Gulliver is a novel - more so than it needed to be, maybe even more so than it intended to be, and even more so than contemporary culture expected to to be, the novel itself being a form still in its infancy. Its elements are not easily separated even as they strain against one another.

And so, characteristically for such a bundle of opposed forces, it's actually difficult to know what's the first sentence. We've seen this problem before, of course - Umberto Eco capers to mind - but here it's even worse: even different editions disagree about which elements of the beginning to include. Going through the Kindle store to find a copy, I was appalled to find that not all of them began in the same place. There are historical reasons for this: Swift was a novelist, yes, and also a poet, but he was also a pamphleteer. Imagine a commentator on the Internet nowadays, and you have something of the flavour: a political writer producing text as part of an ongoing war of words, with anonymity something of an issue - it's thought, for instance, that Swift may have had his manuscript copied before sending it to press so he couldn't be identified as its author through his handwriting. There is, too, more than one edition: there is the first edition published by Benjamin Motte, who cut some of the most inflammatory material, and the 1735 edition published by George Faulkner, restoring what he could based on notes from 'a friend of the author' (probably not Swift himself, though it's generally thought that Swift may have reviewed Faulkner's edition before going to press).

The trouble is, this was all done secretively. Faulkner's edition is considered more authoritative than Motte's, but because Swift was writing satire, at a time when it was dangerous to do so, his agency and intentions were deliberately kept off the record. Authorial intention is hard to prove even in a well-documented case, but here, it's almost impossible. We simply have to take what we can get - and different modern editions draw on Faulkner to different degrees.

This is, in short, an issue that professional academics and editors could have a real argument over. The copy I chose in the end was the Penguin Kindle edition, Penguin being about as safe a pair of hands as you're going to find: this edition includes a 'first' that was part of Faulkner's text but not Motte's - indeed, was a reaction to Motte's, a letter supposedly by Gulliver complaining that 'I do hardly know my own work' after the alterations his 'Cousin Sympson' made to a previous edition.

A complaint from Gulliver, we note, not a preface from the author. Gulliver's Travels is a cavalcade of authorial thimble-rigging, and what we hear of Gulliver's complaints mixes in as much madness as sense - lamenting not only that his text had been altered, but that he lives in a world where 'I see these very Yahoos carried by Houyhnhnms in a Vehicle, as if these were Brutes, and those were the rational Creatures' - throwing in minor quibbles about whether it should be spelled 'Brobdingnag' or 'Brobdingrag' alongside the self-righteous declaration that 'I still improve in some Virtues' by talking to the horses in his stable, and the crazed lament that the publication of the previous volume has not put 'a full Stop to all Abuses and Corruptions, at least in this little Island, as I had Reason to expect.' This is an introduction that pokes fun at itself for expecting any serious good to result from pamphleteering even as it indirectly complains that the pamphlets were censored. It begins - our first first sentence - thus:

A Letter from Capt. Gulliver, to his Cousin Sympson 
I hope you will be ready to own publicly, whenever you shall be called to it, that by your great and frequent Urgency you prevailed on me to publish a very loose and uncorrect Account of my Travels; with Direction to hire some young Gentlement of either University to put them in Order, and correct the Style, as my Cousin Dampier did by my Advice, in his Book called, A Voyage round the World

No address to this letter, no 'Dear Sir', but a blunt, aggressive challenge: you're responsible for the faults of this volume. Gulliver sidesteps criticism from the beginning, so absolute in his judgement that we immediately run into the problems of interpretation. So problematic is Gulliver's voice that there are actually two contending schools - something it's hard not to feel would have given Swift further tinder - known as the 'hard school', believing that Gulliver's view of human nature as irreparably depraved accurately resembles Swift's, and the 'soft school', believing that Gulliver is as much an unreliable narrator when he decries all human beings as revolting 'Yahoos' (the name for the savage humans in the land of the Houyhnhnms, sentient horses devoted to reason) as he is when he recounts without comment the Lilliputian courtiers' tradition of seeking advancement by 'leaping and creeping' over and under a stick. The latter is obviously a satire - 'Sometime the Emperor holds one end of the Stick, and his first Minister the other; sometimes the Minister has it entirely to himself,' Gulliver explains deadpan, and the swipe at the courtier's need to balance the favour of king and government is obvious to all. How much are we to trust Gulliver when he does express an opinion? It depends who you ask.

The reference to Dampier is a telling indication. William Dampier was a real author, and his travel writing very successful: one of the multiple, inextricable purposes of Gulliver's Travels was to satirise that popular genre. The Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians and the Laputans and all the rest are good opportunities to point up political grievances of the day, but they're also parodies in their sheer outlandishness: by referring directly to 'my cousin Dampier', Swift makes us aware that at least one of his arrows is aimed at the excesses or implausibilities of travel stories. But if we look at one of his most direct shots at that target, it shows up just how hard it is to be sure how much Swift, or Gulliver, mean what they say.

The incident is simple one: under the care of a Brobdingnagian family, Gulliver finds himself in dire need of relieving himself, and describes in detail how he was 'pressed to do one more Thing, which another could not do for me', and has to pantomime his desire for privacy before, carried out, 'I hid myself between two Leaves of Sorrel, and there discharged the Necessities of Nature' - wittily delaying naming those necessities, struggling to preserve his modesty before the reader as before the Brobdingnagian until he can finally let both go. But having done so, he then turns and addresses us:

I hope the gentle Reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like Particulars, which however insignificant they may appear to grovelling vulgar Minds, yet will help a Philosopher to enlarge his Thoughts and Imagination, and apply them to the Benefit of public as well as private Life, which was my sole Design in presenting this and other Accounts of my Travels to the World ... I did not omit one material Circumstance: However, upon a strict Review, I blotted out several Passages of less Moment which were in my first Copy, for fear of being censured as tedious and trifling, whereof Travellers are often, perhaps not without Justice, accused. 

It's a sharp attack: even weeing behind a leaf is not as 'trifling' as the 'Passages' he imputes to travel writers. So the incident is a parody of Dampier and his ilk for including exhaustive minutiaie, right? Well, in isolation, perhaps. But at the same time, this is the 'Celia, Celia, Celia shits' author - a line so pleasing to Swift that he employed it not just in the poem 'The Lady's Dressing Room' but in 'Cassinus and Peter' as well. Therein lies one of Swift's paradoxes: while he lambasts Strephon in the former for failing to see the 'Order from Confusion sprung, / Such gaudy Tulips rais'd from Dung,' he dwells, in this and other poems, with prolix, graphic fascination on the shit and sweat and grease and filth of physicality, and female physicality at that. It's 'dung' that ends the poem, not 'order from confusion sprung', and the yuckier word ends every equivocating couplet in that poem's conclusion - 'ooze' has final say over 'refuse', and 'quean' over 'scene'. Swift denies that a man should think too disgustedly on such matters, but disgust animates his writing to such a degree that even nowadays, calling someone's disgust 'Swiftian' carries an immediate meaning. Whether he was really disgusted and dwelled on that disgust, whether he saw disgust as the inevitable punishment of excessive expectation, or whether he simply found excrement interesting in and of itself, is characteristically impossible to say: do we side with Strephon or Celia, and how much does he mean any of it? It's hard not to think of the modern vulgarism, 'Are you shitting me?' In Swift's case, the question is actually easier to answer literally than metaphorically: yes, he is, but it's hard to be sure exactly how. To assume that Swift included Gulliver's ablutions solely for the sake of poking fun at excessively detailed travel writers is - let's say, difficult to sustain when one thinks of the rest of his work.

Dampier is thrown at us in the preface, in other words, but he's not the whole explanation: when one reads the book itself, it just doesn't cover it. Nothing does. It's too complicated.

So, there we see two immediate effects in this first first sentence: the poke at Dampier that doesn't explain everything in the book, and Gulliver's confusingly aggressive tone, opening at the pitch that, once the voyages themselves start, it takes an entire book to work up to. Too, there's the parodic sense of verisimilitude: while Swift had ample reason to complain that Motte had censored him, there's also a sense of fun in treating Gulliver as an ongoing character who would have opinions about the public reception of his work - and indeed, Swift himself wrote a sequel called Memoirs of the Court of Lilliput, continuing to play with the idea. Gulliver isn't quite inert on the page: he turns and complains about how it represents him, leaving us even less certain, even less safe, than before. He's watching us, with angry opinions about how we interpret him - even when this is not an easy book to interpret.

This opening sentence is prolonged, making no modern concessions to the reader's attention span, but there's also the quality of a rant about it. The following first sentence - 'The Publisher to the Reader', the fictional cousin Sympson's mild comment on the whole situation - is altogether more temperate and urbane:

The Author of these Travels, Mr. Lemuel Gulliver, is my ancient and intimate Friend; there is likewise some Relation between us by the Mother's side.

There's no such frantic accusation in Sympson's voice; instead, the confident assumption that the public will care to know who Sympson is and how he's involved in this whole situation. Interestingly - which might perhaps be taken in support of the 'hard school' of interpretation - he has plenty to say in Gulliver's favour, that he's held 'in good Esteem among his Neighbours' even though he's apparently spending his time talking to horses, and that he is 'so distinguished for his Veracity, that it became a sort of Proverb among his Neighbours at Redriff, when anyone affirmed a Thing, to say, it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoke it.' Sympson's brief introduction builds on the sense of verisimilitude, sounding very sane while testifying to the truthfulness of this mad crank.

What do we have, then, going into the book proper? A knowledge that both literary and political parody are in question, and that while the book is going to play it absolutely straight - and indeed, the book's narrator will be furious if we disbelieve it - we will have to keep our wits about us because we are being absolutely, thoroughly messed with, by an author deeply fascinated with mess.

And, just to make things more complicated, really full editions like my Penguin one include something else as well, an 'Advertisement' from the 'publisher', beginning with the mild assertion that 'Mr. Sympson's Letter to Captain Gulliver, prefixed to this Volume, will make a long Advertisement unnecessary. Those Interpolations complained of by the Captain, were made by a Person since deceased, on whose Judgment [sic] the Publisher relied to make any Alterations that might be thought necessary...' - in other words, blaming a safe target off-stage for any reflections that might offend 'her late Majesty.' Motte actually died in 1738, a few years after the Faulkner edition; in any event, the effect of a book under dispute both by its author and its characters is heightened. We aren't just reading a book here. We're jumping into an argument.

So, how does the first chapter begin?

The Author gives some Account of himself and Family, his first Inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his Life, gets safe on shore in the Country of Lilliput, is made a Prisoner, and carried up the Country.
My Father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of Five Sons.

Like Sympson, Gulliver is capable of a conventional opening, a kind of self-identifying letter of introduction to the reader, when required. The brief summary at the beginning of each chapter is likewise conventional for the time, and Gulliver's social position, too, the middle son of a respectable if not wealthy man - in other words, a son obliged to work for his living - is easily comprehensible: he is, socially at least, a gentleman. It's quite similar to Dampier's introduction, in fact:

I first set out of England on this voyage at the beginning of the year 1679, in the Loyal Merchant of London, bound for Jamaica, Captain Knapman Commander.

Chapter summary and practical beginning are present and correct; Dampier waits a few paragraphs before referring to his own 'small estate in Dorsetshire,' but the similarities are obvious. It may also be worth noting, if we're trying to assess Gulliver, that the 'soft school' of interpretation could make some advance by pointing out that Dampier was, at one point, court-martialled for cruelty and 'deemed unfit to command any of HM's ships': he continued to make voyages, but he was not an unblemished character. Gulliver's discovery of 'The Country of the Houyhnhms' follows a mutiny of his crew ('debauched' by new members who 'had been Buccaneers'); Dampier's second voyage ended in mutiny.   Parallels with Dampier may give the book a certain literary familiarity, but they aren't an unmixed endorsement. So much, at least, the 'soft school' may argue, though the 'hard school' may interpret piratical mutineers as support of Gulliver's disgust for Yahoo humans: in any even, in literary terms, the Dampier-like beginning feels recognisable. People who had read contemporary travel books would know the style, have some sense of what was being parodied, some expectations of structure, if not of content or tone.

What's the effect? Mostly, to lull us into a sense of security that the rest of the book smashes up. The inclusion of Gulliver's angry correspondence at the beginning gives modern readers some kind of warning, but then we lack the advantage of contemporary readers in that we are not, unless we are professional academics, automatically familiar with the events and controversies brought in willy-nilly. 

Talking about Swift in the light of this first-sentences method of mine is really something of a challenge. For most books, the first sentence does cast a lot of light, even when it's difficult to pin down exactly what the first sentence is, but with Gulliver's Travels, it starts to feel like a gimmick - or else, like a magnifying glass that excludes more than it enlarges. The thing about Gulliver's Travels is that we can't understand it through single sentences, because we never know which way it's going to jump next. Satire strives against imagination: take, for instance, the 'leaping and creeping' moment in Lilliput mentioned above. Gulliver starts talking about the contortions of court in the middle of a paragraph that dwells with simple fascination on the kind of detail that gets the story trimmed down into children's picture books:

I would sometimes lie down, and let five or six of them dance on my Hand. And at last the Boys and Girls would venture to come and play at Hide and Seek in my Hair. I had now made a good Progress in understanding and speaking their Language. The Emperor had a mind one day to entertain me with several of the Country Shows, wherein they exceed all Nations I have known, both for Dexterity and Magnificence. I was diverted with none so much as that of the Rope-Dancers, performed upon a slender white Thread, extended about two Foot, and twelve Inches from the Ground. Upon which I shall desire liberty, with the Reader's Patience, to enlarge a little. 
This Diversion is only practiced by those Persons who are Candidates for Great Employments, and high Favour, at Court...

Bang: one minute we're at a curious little festival, replete with vivid images of children hiding in a giant's hair and adults jigging around an upturned palm, and then suddenly the local colour turns into a blunt satire of contemporary politics. Is this a book of politics, or a book of imaginative festivity? Both at once, Swift's sheer talent for picturing the peculiar outlasting the political issues that drove so much of his writing, and it can lurch from one to the other without ceremony. Add to this the fact that there's an element of randomness to some of the satire: at one moment the Lilliputians are exemplars of virtue in treating breach of trust as a more serious crime than theft or for rewarding the law-abiding as well as punishing the guilty, and at another, they're performing these ridiculous corrupt circus-acts. Other races such as the Laputa scientists are more consistent - the name, 'la puta' for 'the whore', is a pretty big hint - but even there, flashes of wit, such as the famous scheme for 'extracting Sunbeams out of Cucumbers', have an imaginative beauty that makes them, like so many other details of the book, objects that we enjoy contextless, flourishes of whimsy that take on their own life. And come to that, even the clear moments of satire have just that quality: clarity. Jung Chang, in her autobiography Wild Swans, describes encountering Gulliver's Travels for the first time after the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution and comments, 'When I first read in Gulliver's Travels about the emperor who "published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penalties, to break the smaller End of their Eggs," I wondered if Swift had been to China.' (Page 604 in this edition.) Chang may have been in no position to assess the analogy's relevance to the issues of Catholic-Protestant fighting in eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland, but she didn't need the reference to understand Swift's attack on needless suffering inflicted over doctrinal differences. Swift's writing brims with moments that stand alone. It's just that they stand so alone that sometimes it can be hard to know where they stand in relation to reality at all. 

Holden Caulfield famously loves books that make you wish the author was 'a terrific friend of yours'. Swift feels like an author you never want to meet: a man whose wrong side is a terrifying place to be - and who, like a dropped diamond, looks like a whirling flash of nothing but wrong sides. The details are so charming, so funny and clever and inventive, that small children are fed them like illicit treats out of the literary cupboard - and this is not a new phenomenon; John Gay wrote to Swift in 1726 that 'It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery' - and yet professional academics cannot agree on whether this is a book that concludes in damning all mankind. It's a pretty disquieting mixture. Even today with the issues he sided on long gone, Swift feels like a dangerous read: so brilliant, so aggressive, so fast-moving in his thoughts and inventions, that sometimes you fear that if you tilt the book wrong, it might explode in your hands. And if you just picked up and started reading from the first page, you'd never know it. You never do, until the next storm blows up, and suddenly you don't know where you are. 

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