Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Traveling with Gulliver

I’ve just been looking on IMDB at summaries of various filmed versions of Gulliver’s Travels. Many only cover his first trip, to Lilliput. And when people hear Gulliver mentioned, I suppose most of them immediately think of the image of Lemuel Gulliver laid out on the grass, pinned down with hundreds of tiny threads and his hair staked to the ground. But Gulliver had three other adventures that fewer filmed versions treat. Most of those, I see, are marked as being in the family genre and rated, at most, PG. One summary of Jack Black’s recent portrayal says that in the end people finally look up to him. Awww, isn’t that a nice ending? Yet the point of Swift’s account of his hero’s journeys is satirical indictment of the physical, moral, and intellectual weakness of the human race. And some of the scenes, while readable by mature children, probably wouldn’t work on screen in a family film.

I reread the first two sections of Gulliver’s Travels on my own recent travels. After Gulliver escapes from Lilliput, where he towers over the other people, he is shipwrecked in Brobdingnag, where everyone else is a giant, and Gulliver is the tiny one. Each section puts humanity in a new light by changing the perspective of the observer. Through Gulliver’s eyes, readers see themselves in new ways.

The key to Part I, the sojourn in Lilliput, is found in a royal letter that begins this way:
Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue, most mighty Emperor of Lilliput, delight and terror of the universe, whose dominions extend five thousand blustrugs (about twelve miles in circumference) to the extremities of the globe; monarch of all monarchs, taller than the sons of men; whose feet press down to the centre, and whose head strikes against the sun; at whose nod the princes of the earth shake their knees; pleasant as the spring, comfortable as the summer, fruitful as autumn, dreadful as winter . . . .
Gulliver gives us the altered perspective with his note that five thousand blustrugs don’t really reach all that far in our terms. Clearly the emperor’s boasting is a pipe dream made possible only by his ignorance of the size of the world. But don’t human emperors talk this same way? For that matter, doesn’t each one of us at one time or another think his own accomplishments the delight and terror of the universe? But what excuse do we have? We have a dim conception of the vast size of the universe. And we know, if we would only pause to think about it, that if we were to travel but one percent of one percent of the way to even the nearest astronomical body, our moon, almost none of the works of our species could be seen. (City lights on the dark side of the earth, I believe, would provide the only exception.) None would be heard or felt, and none would make any appreciable difference in our lives.

The key to Gulliver’s second voyage, to the land of the giant Brobdingnagians, comes when his first hostess uncovers her breast to feed her baby, and Gulliver, close by on the kitchen table, gets a close look at it. That’s a shot you couldn’t include in a family film, and children wouldn’t totally understand the point anyway. What from Gulliver’s new point of view he now finds repulsive and nauseating is that part of human anatomy he would normally consider the most attractive. What he assumed to be uniform in color is actually mottled with blue and yellow, and what he once thought of as smooth he sees to be in reality riddled with unsightly bumps and cavities. The checkout-aisle tabloids like to show celebrities without make-up. They could instead just take grossly magnified photos of the starlets’ skin, make-up and all.

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