Monday, February 11, 2013

Hipsters Did Not Invent Irony

            I recently finished Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.  I sort of wish it had inspired me in the same writer-oriented fashion that Cervantes and Bunyan did.  Both of those writers led to research and LOTS of writing, which obviously translates well to blog format.  Gulliver's Travels, on the other hand, has led to a quite different project.  I've actually started making a little book that will be something along the lines of Gulliver and Bell's Travels.  I might make a couple versions, but roughly speaking I'll end up with a small accordion book that includes pictures, postcards, collage-work, and words relating to places Gulliver went, places I've gone, and thoughts on travel in general.  If I ever master the art of scanning things or taking pictures, I might post some of it here.  But in general, it's not a bloggy project.
            However, there still remains my obvious duty of convincing you that you should also read Gulliver's Travels.  For one thing, it's short and could be read very quickly if, unlike me, you are capable of reading without taking pages and pages of notes and looking up dozens of references every hour or so.
            Also, it's hilarious.  And so, in lieu of sharing my own literary thoughts and responses to Gulliver's Travels, I thought I'd instead share some excerpts over the next couple of weeks.  And trust me:  there is so, so much more where this came from.
            And so, without further ado, here is a section from the first Book, A Voyage to Lilliput.  For those who don't already know, Lilliput is an island roughly equidistant from India and Australia, inhabited entirely by people who stand about three inches high.  Gulliver, having spent some time in their illustrious though tiny company, is struck by the wisdom of many of their social institutions:

            Their notions relating to the duties of parents and children differ extremely from ours.  For since the conjugation* of male and female is founded upon the great law of nature, in order to propagate and continue the species, the Lilliputians will needs have it, that men and women are joined together like other animals, by the motives of concupiscence**; and that their tenderness towards their young proceeds from the like natural principle:  for which reason they will never allow, that a child is under any obligation to his father for begetting him, or his mother for bringing him into the world; which, considering the miseries of human life, was neither a benefit in itself, nor intended so by his parents, whose thoughts in their love-encounters*** were otherwise employed.  Upon these, and the like reasonings, their opinion is, that parents are the last of all others to be trusted with the education of their own children:  and therefore they have in every town public nurseries, where all parents...are obliged to send their infants of both sexes to be reared and educated when they come to the age of twenty moons...Their parents are suffered to see them only twice a year; the visit is to last but an hour.  They are allowed to kiss the child at meeting and parting; but a professor, who always stands by on these occasions, will not suffer them to whisper, or use any fondling expressions, or bring any presents of toys, sweetmeats, and the like.

The nanny in me sighs happily.  Finally, someone had the courage to say it.  And just to be sure you're also building your vocabulary...

conjugation:  a.  The inflection of a particular verb...  b.  Chromosome pairing in the first meiotic division...  c.  Getting it on.

concupiscence:  a.  Sexual desire; lust; sensuality.  SOMEONE PLEASE USE THIS WORD SOON!

love-encounters:  Okay, okay.  You get it.


  1. Well, you've given us all a word to use tomorrow on Concupiscence Day.

    I love the paragraph you are quoting, partly because it reminds me of Swift's ultimate zinger, A Modest Proposal. There is nothing quite so mirthful, and at the same time instructive, as a skilled satirist taking things to their logical, if draconian, extremes.

    We need satire, and its expert practitioners, so desperately. For about 8 years, Jon Stewart was saving our lives.

    You were just talking about Voltaire, and the horrible things he was poking at, and afterward I had the thought that if he DIDN'T do that, we'd be left with a world in which horrible things just happened, with no answer. So thank God (ironic in Voltaire's case, I know) for the writers who keep us entertained and reasonably civilized.

    1. Voltaire is intense, because he carries it so far it kind of stops being funny. I can't speak to Swift and Voltaire's work as an "expert," but so far it feels like Swift takes a little detail from real life - like childrearing, or war, or education - and spins it out to show the logical conclusion of what we're doing. Voltaire appears to take *all* of real life and carry it to that extreme. It's somewhat terrifying, but exhilarating too.

      Oh, and your mention of "thank God" being ironic with Voltaire... Voltaire was pretty unequivocal in his criticisms of religion, but my reading so far seems to show he was a staunch believer in God. It might have been more the way I believe in God, which is wiggly; but he definitely doesn't seem to have been an atheist.

  2. Hipsters indeed did not, as you say. But there is a disease of irony that involves mistaking it for a main course instead of a spice, to which they are woefully susceptible.

    Top-of-my-head best use of "concupiscence" is in Steven's "Emperor of Ice-Cream."

    Thank you for reminding us of all the lascivious possibilities latent in the inflections of verbs. Je suis, tu es, elle est, nous sommes.... Rrrrrrow.

    1. "There is a disease of irony that involves mistaking it for a main course instead of a spice." That is the clearest and most useful way of putting it I have come across. Thank you!