I hadn’t remembered anything about part III of Gulliver’s Travels other than that there was a land floating in the air. After about twenty years, I’ve read it again, and now I might see why I put it out of my memory: in this book Swift’s satire comes too close to home. The Laputians, who live on the gravity-defying island, are solely intellectual. Like their country, they aren’t grounded. And their favorite speculative topics are geometry and – wait for it – music theory. Ouch!
Each Laputian has one eye pointed to his breast and one eye pointed to the heavens. (What might Swift thought about Kant and “the starry skies above me and the moral law inside me”?) Almost completely unaware of the world around them, they have servants who slap their ears with balloons when someone is speaking and slap their mouths when it is time to respond. Do others really see music theorists as so detached from all meaningful life as this? Do my freshman?
This society of dreamy philosophers does have a practical side. The Laputians sponsor academies on the ground that work on “practical” problems. One teacher, for instance, has a scheme whereby any weak-minded ignoramus can write books of erudition. The method involves a large machine that randomizes words. Any time a sequence of words anywhere in the result shows grammatical logic, it gets written down. Then these workable sequences get strung together into longer sentences. I’m actually, truly surprised I haven’t heard of any present-day professor of poetry working to actualize this machine. (Now that I think of it, the project would much more likely come from someone in art or music.) I also must admit that I wouldn’t see the enterprise as totally frivolous. But then, as a professor of music theory, I am at the very pinnacle of the Laputian hierarchy.