December 17, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Schumann’s “Humoreske” involves all emotions – sometimes more than one at a time. It wonderfully demonstrates humor’s power to draw from all emotions. Likewise, Dvorzak moves from one emotion to the next without pause. Dvorzak’s music has some consistency which makes me think of the emotions which hover just under humor’s surface for longer spaces of time. Are these musical compositions meant to be playful? Silly? Humorous? According to tradition, a “humoresque” intends to express something good-natured and not necessarily funny, but really, who is to say how they differ. Though the dictionary provides a reasonable definition of humor, the music pieces feel like a better introduction to ideas of comedy. It has been said that comedy is incredibly hard to write, but I would argue that it might be even harder to read, or at least read well. Particularly by yourself.
Merriam-Webster offers any number of definitions for comedy, including: “a literary work written in a comic style or treating a comic theme;” “a drama of light and amusing character and typically with a happy ending;” or “a ludicrous or farcical event or series of events.” From these, it sounds like it should be easy to write, easy to read, easy to interpret. Funny. Light. But what the heck does it mean to say that something is funny? Also, humor is fickle, for what makes one person laugh may not strike another in the same way. Shared experience is sometimes a necessary foundation for humor, so if I have no experience in common with the text, it may not strike my funny bone. All of these elements add up to a confusing soup from which we must try to strain the threads of comedy.
Recently, our faculty discussed Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and we had an awesome time of it. It redeemed this work’s importance for me. Like many teenagers, I first encountered Swift’s writing in high school. I thought it was supposed to be an adventure tale equivalent to Swiss Family Robinson. However, this is not a tale of man against nature, or at the very least, it’s much more than that. Unfortunately because of my inability to access the text, I left high school with a negative taste in my mouth. Yet, as I reread Gulliver’s Travels in conversation with the HMU faculty, as always, I gained much more from our discussions than I did on my own. I have provided a few passages from the story to demonstrate the ways in which tone and context might alter the meaning. I offer a bit of analysis, though I am aware that it is far from complete.
In the final book of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver is abandoned on a land of horse-people who act more civilly than any peoples he has ever met. This civilized culture attracts Gulliver’s attention so much that he decides to remain forever. His reasons for this decision are a bit contrary and confusing, however. In the land of Houyhnhnms, I like to imagine the Houyhnhnms, with all their elements of reason, as compared to a world run by Apollo. The Yahoos, on the other hand, appear as if illiterate and dirty Bacchic followers in a world overrun by Dionysus. Throughout this book, we find holes in what appears to be an ideal society. For example, Gulliver throws in mention of the Yahoos’ creation story, which alludes to a mass genocide by the Houyhnhnms. After this genocide, the Houyhnhnms then treat the Yahoos as inferior, as slaves, and they make the laws which support this supposition. After this short aside, Gulliver reiterates what he knows about the beastly nature of the Yahoos. He says:
“By what I could discover, the Yahoos appear to be the most unteachable of all animals, their capacities never reaching higher than to draw or carry burthens. Yet I am of opinion, this defect ariseth chiefly from a perverse, restive disposition. For they are cunning, malicious, treacherous and revengeful. They are strong and hardy, but of a cowardly spirit, and by consequence insolent, abject, and cruel. It is observed, that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whome yet they much exceed in strength and activity.
“The Houyhnhnms keep the Yahoos for present use in huts not far from the house; but the rest are sent abroad to certain fields, where they dig up roots, eat several kinds of herbs, and search about for carrion, or sometimes catch weasels and luhimuhs (a sort of wild rat) which they greedily devour. Nature hath taught them to dig deep holes with their nails on the side of a rising ground, wherein they lie by themselves; only the kennels of the females are larger, sufficient to hold two or three cubs.”
This can be read in a straightforward manner: the Yahoos are dirty, dig burrows to live and are much closer to wild nature than to reason. It can also raise questions about what Gulliver means by their natural tendencies. He says that the Yahoos were taught by natural tendencies alone (in comparison to the more civilized Houyhnhnms), yet, the previous passage tells us that the Houyhnhnms have forced the Yahoos into their lifestyle. So, a contradiction exists here at the very least. He says that the Yahoos appear unteachable, but as of yet, he has only cowered in fear from them. The irony is that Gulliver is, in fact, a Yahoo, but has come to admire the Houyhnhnms moreso than his own race. He goes so far as to speak like, walk like, and behave like a Houyhnhnm rather than a human, which paints a fairly ridiculous (and unnatural) portrait of Gulliver.
This passage is couched between the story of the Yahoos’ persecution by the Houyhnhnms and a passage extolling the virtues of the Houyhnhnms’ reason. In this latter section, Gulliver swoons over their amazing mental abilities. He claims:
“As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with a general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions or ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is, to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it. Neither is reason among them a point problematical as with us, where men can argue with plausibility on both sides of the question; but strikes you with immediate conviction; as it must needs do where it is not mingled, obscured, or discoloured by passion or interest.”
First, this section might be straightforward: as in, they are an excellent race. Or, it might poke fun at reason’s more inflexible nature. The Houyhnhnms have a black and white view of the world. On the other hand, humans may find more than one reasonable answer to a question, which Gulliver mentions with annoyance. The paragraph also makes us question reason itself, which we assume is based on logic and deduction, but Gulliver recognizes that it is often actually based upon emotion. The humor here might arise from the fact that really, there is no right answer (though there are some wrong ones!), and the passionate defense of any system will simply demonstrate its flaws.
It also strikes me as important that this wholly rational creature, the Houyhnhnms, appear to be devoid of emotion, empathy, and love. Furthermore, as Gulliver notes, they have no concept of evil, but that does not mean that they do not participate in evil, or produce bad deeds. In fact, they do commit heinous crimes. Gulliver’s glowing praise, and childlike devotion to these creatures may be humorous. It may also be dangerous. I believe that Swift uses Gulliver to send the message that while human passions often present themselves as ludicrous, outrageous and awkward, they are, in fact, purposeful. Or at the very least, emotion is a relevant piece of human nature. However, based on the satirical tone of the text, one could easily argue against me and I would welcome that conversation.
After the final discussion, I asked why this particular book might fit into a canon of great literature. Most answers revolved around the fact that it is a book with many layers. Peel back one idea and it comes with a few more. In addition, the humor adds an element of unknowability. Swift used Gulliver as a way to poke fun (and poke serious holes) into society. (We also noted that many of those holes still apply.) Another faculty member claimed that Swift “skewers human nature” in all of the right spots. Swift knows (and pokes fun at) humans for being fickle, illogical, and hypocritical. However, Swift’s satirical tone makes it incredibly slippery to know which thing he is actually making fun of. Therefore, the humor, satire, and layers make Swift’s book an excellent choice for discussion.
No matter what your thoughts on Gulliver’s Travels, this is a book best read in a group. In fact, our understanding of any satirical work will undoubtedly be enhanced when read together because the variety of responses really helps develop the comedic elements.
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