Postmodernity is obsessed with the Eighteenth Century. As an example of how our nostalgia for that period manifests itself, Hans Kellner has pointed out that a genre of novels and films set in Eighteenth century has exploded in popularity: Lempriere’s Dictionary, Perfume, “The Madness of King George III.” We could also point to the ongoing revision of scholarship on the period, of which GEMCS itself is an example. In considering what generates this contemporary fascination I have given some thought to the aesthetic and political issues surrounding the beginnings, and perhaps also the end, of the bourgeois social sphere.
A conviction, argued most aggressively by Jean Baudrillard, is beginning to take hold, in and out of the academy, that this sphere, after an almost totalizing expansion, is now in decline. The panic over the loss of the social, whether supportable or not, offers a possible explanation for the contemporary nostalgia for the period in which Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels. In this age of dissolution, what do we see when we look back at the age of our creation? One thing we observe is the development of a peculiar kind of irony which we can’t help but distinguish from our experience of this trope in the age of its dominance. The satirical effect of the irony in Gulliver’s Travels read by the Postmodern will be precisely what it was not at the time of its production.
The historical distance between Eighteenth Century and Contemporary readers can be understood by way of Hayden White’s use of the master tropes in “Foucault Decoded.” White assigns one of the master tropes to each of the four archeological periods described by Foucault in The Order of Things. In White’s system, Foucault’s Renaissance was metaphorical, locating truth in similarity. Swift wrote in what Foucault considered the Classical Period, which, for White, had metonymy as its overriding mode of reason, because a new transparency of representation made it possible to organize knowledge by a standard and represent it symbolically on a table. The Modern period was characterized by synecdoche, in that the subject of knowledge, Man, was now included in the study of the world, in a part-whole relationship. Finally, the Contemporary or Postmodern mode is ironic, characterized by a questioning of the foundations of knowledge and a Dionysian disappearance of the subject of that knowledge.
Satirical Patterns in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
Gulliver’s Travels: Satirical Patterns
Jonathan Swift wrote a novel in 1776 called Gulliver’s Travels. This novel along with all of his other writing followed a satirical pattern. Because of Swift’s vast knowledge in politics he was capable of creating a masterpiece completely ridiculing the government found in England. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift brings us, the readers, to join him on journeys to worlds of complete nonsense. These worlds are different ways that allow for Swift to mock the old European government. In our reading, we followed him to a land called Lilliput, and then later to a land known as Brobdingnab. Swift uses humor and knowledge to completely ridicule European politics in these two imaginative worlds. Although Swift wrote this novel to satirize politics in his time, we are able to understand the matters presented because of their over-abundance in today’s governmental world.
Political divisions have been taking place all through history, no matter where, or when. In the first book, Swift describes two types of Lilliputians, those who wear high heels, and those who don’t. In the text it describes how the high-heeled Lilliputians are very much in favor of absolutely no change in the constitution. And accordingly, the low-heeled favored change in the constitution. This type of situation is still going strong in America. We are blessed with two types of people as well, those who favor donkeys, and those who favor elephants. Now those elephant lovers go right along side those who wore the high heels in Lilliput. Both of the high heels and republicans had achieved dominance and wanted to preserve their position. They didn’t want anything to do with a change in their go…
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…any holes in the scheme that make it impossible to support a so-called perfect government.
Swift successfully completed his goal in completely and utterly belittling the political aspects of government in his day. He has proven to us that the government has gone unchanged (except for a few bills here and there) for some two hundred years or so. The same problems back then are still present now which causes for the same ideas as Swift. The reader is able to leave his or her seat after reading the novel and understand all of the little annoyances there were about the political scheme in society in those days and compare them to today’s world. After those comparisons, the reader finds that the problems are the same as they were in Swift’s time.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: The new American Library Inc., 1983.