My first encounter with Gulliver’s Travels was a cheesy 90’s movie that did even less justice to the original story than director Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 movie Noah did to the Biblical story of Noah.
In the minds of many without an adequately wide reading of classic literature, Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a children’s story. However, Irish writer Jonathan Swift wrote it as a satire of English and Irish society, largely its governance – though it is easy to see from its fanciful adventures why children love it (or at least its adapted plot in the movie).
Both content and form of the original Gulliver’s Travels clearly mark it as reading for informed adults. To belabor the point only a little, it’s original title was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. Quite a mouthful! (This type of descriptive titling was common in the 18th century.)
Commonly listed among the greatest novels of all time, Gulliver’s Travels (its modern title) is both loved and hated. It is a work of genius, but also a bane to modern (often high school) readers. Personally, I loved each of the four journeys within the book, but hated the staccato nature of the book by its division into discrete parts.
There are many ideas to pull out of its pages, but the one that most stuck out to me was the book’s emphasis on perspective. Much in the book deals with how Gulliver views the big, small, cultured, and uncultured peoples throughout his journeys. In fact, I believe that the central point of the book is a satirical critique at society’s lack of proper perspective.
What is Perspective?
Perspective is defined as “a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view”, and this is a fine definition for its use in this post. More loosely, I use it as our attitudes in relation to other people.
Perspective is both how we see those close to us (friends and family) as well as those far from us (celebrities, social media “friends”, and historical figures). And, rather than refer to the abstraction of “perspective” here, I am much more concerned with practical questions: How does our perception of others affect us? How do we obtain a holistic picture of another person?
Distance Begets Perfection
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkdIn, Snapchat, and a plethora of other digital phenomena have revolutionized the way family, friends, acquaintances, and even complete strangers interact on a daily basis. While the positive spin on the development of social media goes something like “connecting the world”, the downside is increased envy, online bickering, cyber-bullying, and a reduction of people’s lives to the “About Me” section of their profile, perhaps accompanied by several photos showing a perfect, happy life.
The social media sites are not really to blame with most of these negatives. I place the vast majority of criticism on the users of said platforms (myself included). The problem is not really what we post on the platforms, either. Rather, it’s the lens through which we interpret others’ lives through these platforms that I believe is most harmful. When we look to the Facebook and Twitter accounts of friends or celebrities as “evidence” of their success, their happiness, their problem-free life that we envy, we create an unrealistic standard by which we compare our own lives. Social media sites present a beautified, yet distorted, picture of other’s lives. “Friendships” through such platforms are thus inherently shallow, and hence not real.
The same applies to those whose lives we intersect only tangentially, obtaining only curated snapshots of their lives . There is a valid need for privacy, of course, but good friendships only really develop when a hole breaks through the wall of privacy.
Swift alludes to this perceiving only perfection in others’ lives from a distance in Part I (A Voyage to Lilliput), writing “I remember when I was at Lilliput, the complexions of those diminutive people appeared to me the fairest in the world: and talking upon this subject with a person of learning there, who was an intimate friends of mine, he said that my face appeared much fairer and smoother when he looked on me from the ground…”.
Even in a time when reading/writing, word-of-mouth, or face-to-face conversations were the sole means of communication, Swift recognized how social distance begot a familiarity only with the “good” in others’ lives, leaving out the “bad”. I must admit, however, I doubt the problem was ever as acute as it is now with the rise of the internet and social media.
Under the Magnifying Glass
To really know someone, we have to get up close. Much can be said about a person from their home, their family, and the ugly parts of their lives.
Swift recognized the need to get up close and personal in another’s life to see these ugly parts of their lives. During Part II (A Voyage to Brobdingnag), when Gulliver lived among giants, he noted how grotesque the giants were when he came close. Swift then writes, “This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their defects not to be seen, but through a magnifying glass, where we find by experiment, that the smoothest and whitest skins look rough and coarse, and ill coloured.”
“…their defects not to be seen, but through a magnifying glass…”Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
Swift also writes in Part I (A Voyage to Lilliput) to the same effect, “I took him up in my hand, and brought him close; which he confessed was at first a very shocking sight. He said, he could discover great holes in my skin; that the stumps of my beard were ten times stronger than the bristles of a boar; and my complexion made up several colours altogether disagreeable…”
The first statement describes that when Gulliver (the protagonist) observed the features of the miniature Lilliputians up close, he discovered all the imperfections invisible to him from afar. The second statement is a reverse of point-of-view. When a friend comes close to Gulliver, the friend discovers our protagonist’s “shocking” imperfections.
In our lives, a “giant” may be a celebrity, whose life may look perfect from afar (from the news, social media, television). In their real lives, they suffer the same iniquities of many other people: failing marriages, addictions, inter-family drama, their own sins, and all the worries that come with wealth. The “giants”, in a broader sense, are those whose lives we view from afar. They all appear perfect until we get up close, just as the imperfections of one’s handiwork emerge upon close inspection.
It’s an odd happenstance that I am writing this piece as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds worldwide, leading to the rapid circulation of a new phase called “social distancing”. While certainly effective for mitigating the spread of the virus, I find our society has been, in a sense, practicing “social distancing” for quite some time.
Friends are now a list of people associated with our social media accounts, and face-to-face interactions are on the decline with online banking, online shopping, online dating, online fill-in-the-blank. The result is a society losing its interpersonal skills and true friendships, leading to increased rates of depression and suicide.
When the virus is gone, let’s not be afraid to get close to someone else, to see the ugly truth along with the good.
“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”Elbert Hubbard