Friday, March 8, 2013

on Violence, Essay the 1st

            I would never have guessed that Gulliver's Travels would have led to Lenten musings.  But then, Lent is a fascinating time of year for Christians.  All this talk of guilt.  And now we have the more modern psychologizing of sin, which I am not necessarily opposed to; I only know that I have seen and felt evil cut to my heart, and describing it as the result of depression or mom-and-dad-issues doesn't seem to speak for the reality.  At peregrinations with st. chad, Dale Caldwell posted some thoughts on nostalgia in religious practice which I found very convicting — I suppose you can probably even see my little comment at the end of his post — and, well, murder is in the air.
            It's probably always in the air, but of course we now have the Newtown massacre, the still-hasn't-dawned-upon-America realization that we are actually owned by the likes of the NRA, and our supposedly liberal president's wanton use of drones to kill whoever conveniently places themselves in their path.  Financed by us.

            Before reading Gulliver's Travels, I had never heard anyone mention Lemuel Gulliver's voyage to Brobdingnag.  Brobdingnag, for those Northwesterners who didn't know it, is actually a large peninsular region extending westward from what we know as "Washington," and going as far north as maybe the southern quarter of "British Columbia."  The people of Brobdingnag are giants in comparison with our typical height, and their trees, horses, pigs, birds, rats, etc., are respectively enormous.  While in Brobdingnag, Gulliver works dilligently to curry favor with the King and the land's other inhabitants, to a great degree of success.  One day, however, he has an audience with the King where he perhaps goes too far.  I realize this section is fairly long, but I think it would be harder (not to mention less entertaining) for me to summarize Swift's tone:

            In hopes to ingratiate myself farther into his Majesty's favour, I told him of an invention discovered between three and four hundred years ago, to make a certain powder, into an heap of which the smallest spark of fire falling, would kindle the whole in a moment, althoug it were as big as a mountain, and make it all fly up in the air together, with a noise and agitation greater than thunder.  That a proper quantity of this powder rammed into an hollow tube of brass or iron, according to its bigness, would drive a ball of iron or lead with such violence and speed, as nothing was able to sustain its force.  That the largest balls thus discharged, would not only destroy whole ranks of an army at once, but batter the strongest walls to the ground, sink down ships, with a thousand men in each, to the bottom of the sea; and, when linked together by a chain, would cut through masts and rigging, divide hundreds of bodies in the middle, and lay all waste before them.  That we often put this powder into large hollow balls of iron, and discharged them by an engine into some city we were besieging, which would rip up the pavements, tear the house to pieces, burst and throw splinters on every sides, dashing out the brains of all who came near.  That I know the ingredients very well, which were cheap, and common; I understood the manner of compounding them, and could direct his workmen how to make those tubes of a size proportionable to all other things in his Majesty's kingdom, and the largest need not be above an hundred foot long, twenty or thirty of which tubes, charged with the proper quanity of powder and balls, would batter down the walls of the strongest town in his dominions in a few hours, or destroy the whole metropolis, if ever it should pretend to dispute his absolute commands.  This I humbly offered to his Majesty, as a small tribute of acknowledgement in return of so many marks that I had received of his royal favour and protection.
            The King was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made.  He was amazed how so impotent and grovelling an insect as I (these were his expressions) would entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and desolation, which I had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines, whereof he said some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver.  As for himself, he protested that although few things delighted him so much as new discoveries in art or in nature, yet he would rather lose half his kingdom than be privy to such a secret, which he commanded me, as I valued my life, never to mention any more.
            A stronge effect of narrow principles and short views! that a prince possessed of every quality which procures veneration, love, and esteem; of strong parts, great wisdom, and profound learning, endued with admirable talents for government, and almost adored by his subjects, should from a nice unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception, let slip an opportunity put into his hands, that would have made him absolute master of the lives, the liberties, and the fortunes of his people (Swift 120-121).

            At first glance, this section struck me as just another instance of Swift satirizing his own fellow humans' penchant for mass murder.  And it is that, of course.  In this passage Swift so successfully conveys horror to the reader that we must fall in line with him.  He makes it easy for us to see, yes, we do this, and yes, it is wrong.  The reader must, with the King, conclude that the inventor of gunpowder was an "enemy to mankind."
            All well and good.  But on second thought, there seemed to me something disingenuous about the King's response.  For, after all, the Brobdingnagians have military capabilities.  Their army is based on the old peerage system of England — landowners conscripted their tenants to fight when the King demanded an army — and as such is far from being a standing army or even a professional one, as the soldiers are clearly not paid.  (Killing for money clearly bothers Swift more than killing because your homeowner will kick you out of your home if you don't.)  While they are not a technical standing army, however, the men are regularly compelled to perform military drills and exercises.
            So if they have military capabilites, but the King is uncomfortable with gunpowder, presumably they have other weapons:  swords, maces, spears, bows and arrows, etc.
            Now I am more than permissive when it comes to little boys and girls fighting.  I wouldn't quite say that I encourage it, but I certainly don't stop them.  And while I let them go at it with all the imaginary swords and gadas they can conjure, I do let it be known that none of the real gods or heroes would ever sink to such cowardly depths as to use a gun.  The kids' own little bodies must strike the blows, and I want them to see the look of pain on their victims' faces.  Also, I want the assailant close enough that they run the risk of getting hit back; none of this Distinguished Warfare Medal bullshit.  So I get that the King of Brobdingnag sees a difference — an immense difference — between explosive weapons and weapons which rely on non-chemical mechanics for their force and velocity.
            And if we start talking about the differences between types of weapons and warfare, we can easily get into the subject of how many more people we can kill with explosive weapons, and isn't that really so much worse?  At least the old broadsword kept the number of dead much lower; it simply wasn't efficient enough.
            But as soon as the word "efficiency" comes up, I remember an argument in favor of the atomic bombs used on Japan:  that, yes, all those poor Japanese people died, and isn't it tragic that their children were dealing with the nuclear fallout for years to come, but if we hadn't used the bombs, then the war would have dragged on so much longer and then, actually, in all truth, experts are quite sure more people would have ended up dying.  So we were saving Japanese people by killing Japanese people.
            Ah.  I see.
            My point is, our violence knows no bounds, and we will find ways to justify our violence.  I am probably revealing my age a bit when I say I have never believed that world peace was possible; I was sort of shocked when I found out the creators of the UN had that as their goal.  Striving for world peace strikes me as similar to trying to wipe out human beings altogether.  I have never hoped or prayed or wished for it because, I confess, I think humans are very inventive apes, and apes show little inclination towards pacifism, the oversexed Bonobo notwithstanding.  We like war.  I am of the opinion that men like it slightly more than women do, but a mother who has lost her child to the other side can become an agent of vengeance in a heartbeat.
            The King of Brobdingnag deceives himself if he thinks that he does not "entertain such inhuman ideas," and isn't himself an enemy of mankind.  While I don't think this is where Swift meant us to go — his description of the old peer-based system of warfare is too nostalgic — it is where my thoughts have gone.  And I offer no resolution.  It is, after all, Lent.  And therefore a good time to confront the blower-upper of men, women, children, animals, and whatever else we feel like, within.

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver's Travels.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2010.  Print.



  2. That's a very interesting video. I don't know much about the history of news reporting, although I can well believe that the media don't know what to do without good guys and bad guys.