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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

SWIFTBOATING

A number of persons have posted comments on this blog that call for responses from me, which I hope to provide today or tomorrow. John S. Wilkins suggests that I try my hand at a satire, but I must confess that re-reading Gulliver’s Travels does not encourage me in that direction, any more than listening to Itzhak Perlman inspires in me a desire to play the violin! If there are any among you who have not read Gulliver’s Travels, or perhaps have forgotten much of the detail, as I had, let me remind you of the central conceit in the first two books. Swift very carefully works out the contrast between Gulliver and the Lilliputians on the one hand and the Brobdingagians on the other. Lemuel Gulliver is twelve times as large as a man of Lilliput, and one-twelfth the size of a man of Brobdingnag. Thus, the Lilliputians appear tiny, precious, lovely, and exquisite to Gulliver, but also small and petty. The Brobdingnagians appear large and gross and ugly to him – the pores of their skin are so large that they seem like great holes – but also as generous, great-hearted, and large-spirited. The Lilliputians, recall, are torn by a religious dispute, as violent and irreconcilable as that between Catholics and Protestants in England, over the question whether a soft-boiled egg should be cracked open at its big end or its little end. The king of the Lilliputians is six inches tall, of course. Here is how he is described in the Preamble to a Proclamation declaring the conditions under which Gulliver is to be set free:



“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:”



There is one odd error in Swift’s text, which could be deliberate, but perhaps not. The Lilliputians are ordered by the king to provide Gulliver with 1724 times as much food each day as one of their number would consume, and Gulliver, the narrator, explains to the reader that this reflects the precision and advanced state of Lilliputian mathematics. But twelve cubed is of course 1728, not 1724. Is there a scholar of eighteenth century English literatgure out there with some wisdom on this minor matter?



Well, if I were to reproduce all of the deliciously funny satirical passages in which Swift ridicules the English monarchy, I would, I fear, be reduced to copying out the entirety of Book One.

3 comments:

John S. Wilkins said...

I wasn't suggesting you aim at Swiftian heights. Just exceed Tom Wolfean depths...

Modern Hermeneut said...

Looks like human error. But if it's something more, then it might be worth revisiting Swift's entire corpus for similar numerical "errors."

This reminds me of an essay by Julian Barnes about mistakes in literature (logical, empirical, and otherwise). The essay found its way into Barnes' novel "Flaubert's Parrot." Here is a link to the relevant page from Google books: http://bit.ly/uiZImV

john c. halasz said...

Just a guess here on "1724", but, on the one hand, Swift first attained literary fame in 1724, while in the midst of writing "Gulliver's Travels", and, on the other, the idea that the Lilliputians would calculate that they should feed their giant guest 12^3 their own diet sounds like the kind of joke about rationalism that Swift was wont to make. (If one is 12 times as tall, it doesn't follow that one is 12 times as wide, nor 12 times as "deep").