«AMATORY CONVENTIONS, LUXURY TRADE, AND THE CULTURE OF EXCESS IN THE RAPE OF THE LOCK, ROXANA, AND GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by DAVID VINSON LILA GRAVES, ...»
In his seminal study of Eurocentric conceptions of barbarism, Claude Rawson posits in God, Gulliver, and Genocide (2001) a link between Swift and Montaigne, the sixteenth century French essayist and philosopher. Montaigne, like Swift, was extremely curious about other cultures and relied heavily on acquiring knowledge by reading, though he did, as Rawson observes, travel to Italy and to Protestant cities in Germany;
For an excellent survey of scholarship concerning what is commonly referenced as “the battle of the books,” see: Levine, Joseph M. “Ancients and Moderns Reconsidered.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 15.1 (1981): 72-89.
Rawson also observes that the work of both men contain “political thought and ethnographic observation which go back to Plato and More, and to a vast body of classical and Renaissance writings from Homer onwards which is preoccupied with the idea of the barbarian or savage” (2). The idea, for instance, of the “savage in all of us” goes back to Plato’s musings on the tyrant whose brutalities are equated to cannibal barbarism (Rawson 4). The beliefs of Montaigne and Swift regarding to the nature of man and his capacity for grievous moral crimes were no doubt influenced by their classical leanings; their studies subsequently informed their indignation towards acts of imperialism, plunder, and the vulgar cruelties of racism.
II. Imperial Conquest and the Lockean Concept of “Real Essences” During the Age of Discovery (otherwise known as the Age of Exploration) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Spain and Portugal spearheaded European exploration around the globe and established large overseas empires. As William J. Bernstein observes, other nations like the Netherlands, France, and England were envious of that wealth and began to establish colonies and trade companies of their own41. From the perspective of the ambitious explorer-capitalist in Britain, a series of fortunate events unfolded in rather swift succession: the Turks’ failed 1683 siege of Vienna provided an opportunity for travel to distances previously impossible; the Revolutionary Settlement of 1689 boosted England’s economy; and a number of wars harmed the status of the Netherlands and France as global powers, which in turn left England as the remaining dominant colonial power—particularly in India and North America. Gulliver’s Travels See Berstein’s chapter called “The Coming of Corporations” in A Splendid Exchange (New York: Grove Press, 2008): 215-240.
was constructed in this particular context, a period in which the acquisition of property (national, cultural, material, and so forth) was very much on the collective minds of British citizens.
Similarly fluent in this society were notions about British superiority and the “savagery” of the colonized native. J.A. Downie looks to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding as a possible influence on Swift’s expressed ideas about the “real essences” of the human. Specifically, he argues that Swift is not satirizing Locke but is instead “playing with ideas” to which Locke gave currency (457). Locke made shape and rationality signs of the human and Swift does the same through his irrational Yahoos and rational horses in Book Four. Gulliver initially fails to recognize them as human—a perhaps deliberate subversion of one of Locke’s assumptions. What is apparent is that Swift perceived the potential savage in everyone, regardless of culture, nationality, or race; moreover, he vehemently derided the modern humanistic notion that humanity was improving upon the past.
III. Amatory Tropes and Gulliver as a Modern: A Preface to Lilliput Swift’s deployment of amatory tropes in Gulliver’s Travels enables him to expose the absurd hypocrisy of modern values which posit Britain as a kind of divine hegemonic power somehow deserving of all it desires, no matter the consequences; such selfentitlement serves as false justification for the mercantile capitalism, the excessive consumption of luxury goods, and the cruelties of colonial conquest. Barbara Benedict’s ideas about the trope of inquiry in amatory fiction are enormously useful because travel—an activity based upon the most basic idea of inquiry—is so central to the text. As mentioned previously in Chapter Two, Benedict identifies two modes of inquiry in amatory fiction: curiosity and the desire to be aroused (194). Swift is certainly well aware of both: even on the first page of “A Voyage to Lilliput” he provides ample references to mercantile travel (to the Levant, to the East and West Indies) and makes a series of masturbation puns. The reader is given a brief but vital history of Gulliver’s lineage: as a farmer, his father comes from an agricultural background, which links him to the ancients. Gulliver however is apprenticed to a wage-earning job, and he trains to become a surgeon, a modern profession. The name of his teacher, Master Mr. Bates, is a thinly veiled allusion to masturbation, which implies that the capitalistic underpinnings reduce modern professions to sterile forms of self-indulgence or self-pleasuring. What Swift presents is a parody of the amatory trope of inquiry while he simultaneously attacks modern values.
Very early in the narrative, Swift also establishes a motif in which Gulliver, who has a wife and children, is constantly drawn from home towards the promised commerce of the sea. Of course, it is nothing unusual for the male in this society to cultivate an identity in public space, but Gulliver’s absence from home is astonishing due to the duration of his absences: two years after being married, he “made several Voyages, for six Years” as a surgeon onboard two ships (16); he returns home for three years, only to then depart again for a voyage to the South-Sea. It is at this point in which Gulliver’s ship encounters a storm and he awakes in Lilliput, where he remains for close to three years.
After Lilliput he returns home and stays for two months, “for [his] insatiable Desire of seeing foreign Countries would suffer [him] to continue no longer” (66). In June 1702 he boards a merchant ship bound for Surat, an Indian seaport42; after a series of mishaps near the Cape of Good Hope, they do not set sail for nearly a year. When they do, they encounter a “Southern Monsoon” (69), become rather lost, and then unknowingly discover the land of Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is accidentally left behind. Gulliver spends three years there, totaling four since his initial departure.
In June 1706 he arrives in England, is offered more work aboard a traveling vessel just ten days after his arrival, which he accepts and departs for the East Indies two months later. Part III features Gulliver’s imprisonment by pirates and his travels to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan; he does not return home for five years and six months. He arrives home in April 1710, stays home for just five months, and leaves his wife “big with Child” (187); he does not return home from the land of the Houyhnhnms until November 1715. Gulliver claims he has traveled for sixteen years and seven months, but the math is inconsistent. If his timeline is to be taken seriously, he has spent approximately twenty-three years abroad and just five years and nine months at home, covering a period of nearly three decades. Swift’s rhetoric is unambiguous: Gulliver’s desire for inquiry trumps any duty he feels towards his family, which reinforces the notion that modern values are sterile and self-serving. Gulliver has all but missed the development of his children and has left his wife to care for them alone. Perhaps most baffling is his repeated returns to the sea, especially in light of the multiple traumas he experiences as a cultural and physical monstrosity in foreign lands.
Albert J. Rivero, the editor of the Norton critical edition of the text notes that Surat was the first English settlement in India in 1612: Gulliver’s Travels (New York: Norton & Company, 2002): 66.
While the amatory trope of inquiry is most obviously staged in Gulliver’s many disastrous sea voyages, the theme of curiosity surfaces on multiple occasions and reinforces Swift’s implicit condemnation of the modern values of commodification and consumption. Gulliver’s arrival at Lilliput is one such example, for he is perceived with great curiosity by the natives. A giant in a land of tiny Lilliputians, Gulliver is a grotesque, foreign commodity, and they fasten him to the ground because they instinctively fear him. The image of his “Arms and Legs [being] strongly fastened on each side to the Ground” conjures the amatory trope of sexualized force (17), especially in consideration of Swift’s prolific deployment of other amatory tropes. For instance, in order to stress Gulliver’s commodification, Swift provides an itemized catalogue of Gulliver’s body: his “long and thick” hair, his armpits, thighs, legs, breast, chin, and eyes (17). Swift also parodies the amatory seduction scene by alluding to hot weather: “The Sun began to grow hot, and the Light offended [his] Eyes” (17). Such details provide a perverse element of sexual objectification to his shackling, which Swift builds upon in his descriptions of other forms of physical invasion. Gulliver feels “several slender Ligatures across [his] Body” (17); the Lilliputians are also equipped with phallic weaponry (bows and arrows), which they shower over him and cause tremendous pain. The entire scene of Gulliver’s capture at Lilliput is a brilliant parody of the amatory template; moreover, as a colonial representative, Gulliver’s imprisonment and the pain he suffers from physical violation play out like a revenge fantasy for the colonized persons who seek retribution against the oppressive (and in this case, much larger) hegemonic force. The Lilliputians, however, are colonizers themselves, so their imprisonment of Gulliver is more a demonstration of how such cultures react when encountering an outsider.
Of both Part I and Part II of Gulliver’s Travels, Margaret R. Grennan argues that Swift is partly responding to a Celtic preoccupation with the very little and the very big43.
Swift was of course Irish and many of his works pointed to a preoccupation with Irish poverty, particularly during the 1720’s44. Grennan’s reading of Gulliver’s Travels is an interesting one. She posits a relationship between Irish folk tales and what she calls “Lilliputian lineage” (189). While her claim that there is a “certain pleasure derived from seeing ourselves in miniature” may be true in some ways, her assertion that the Lilliputians are “not sub-human... but nature on a tiny scale” is perhaps missing the point of Swift’s satire and rhetoric (190). Lilliputian values are a satirical amplification of modern Britain; more to the point, their characterization as a hyper-militaristic, antiindividualistic, and violently antagonistic society is Swift’s means of demonstrating how the very worst of humanity is no better than the most base animal.
Certainly, the Lilliputians are intelligent, but they apply all of their skills towards battle and colonial conquest—they have no interest whatsoever in cultivating a nonviolent, democratic society. Their mathematical and mechanical skills are applied for the construction of war instruments, enormous “Machines fixed on Wheels” (21). They will wage war for the most inane reasons, such as the right way to break an egg. Swift stages a rift between the Tramecksans (high heels) and the Slamecksans (low heels), one followed by violence and eventually genocide, in order to satirize the existing conflicts between
See: Grennan, Margaret R. “Lilliput and Leprecan: Gulliver and the Irish Tradition.” ELH 12.3 (1945):
Consider Swift’s Proposal for Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), Drapier's Letters (1724), and A Modest Proposal (1729), all of which arguably earned him the status of an Irish patriot.
the Tories (High Church) and Whigs (Low Church)—the effect is to show that modern Britain is no more civilized than the barbarous Lilliputians; moreover, this topical allusion makes yet another mockery of the pride displayed by those who believed their own age to be supreme.
Gulliver’s colossal size establishes his status as a grotesque emblem of virility but also as an enormously valuable commodity for the Lilliputians, who perceive him as an unstoppable weapon perfectly designed for war and colonial conquest. Covertly, this is another means for Swift to stage the many ways in which a modern society commodifies the individual only on the basis of material appearances. Of course, it is worth noting that Gulliver’s size is also a comical exaggeration of the all-powerful amatory male schemer who possesses the power to wield his authority if he so chooses. Swift, however, parodies this amatory trope just as he inverts it in many ways. Gulliver, for instance, plays along in the Lilliputian “mock skirmishes” or war-play in which he is commodified as their wartime mascot: “[The Emperor] desired I would stand like a Colossus” (35), and between his legs would be a marching army equipped with colored flags, horses, beating drums, and pikes advanced. Later Gulliver urinates on the Emperor’s apartment in order to extinguish a fire; with his phallus on full display, he lewdly demonstrates the full power of his inflated masculinity. Swift subverts the amatory trope of the lascivious male by rendering Gulliver’s sexual potency cartoonish and absurd. The fire itself is started by the carelessness of a maid of honor “who fell asleep while she was reading a romance” (46), a textual detail that is hardly a coincidence. Not only does it play into the amatory trope of the empty-headed female, it also explicitly highlights Swift’s familiarity with a genre from which he is borrowing in many ways to accomplish his satirical goals.
Just as Gulliver is a comical exaggeration of the all-powerful amatory male schemer, he is also an inversion of that very idea. In spite of his obvious physical superiority, he does not retaliate against the Lilliputians who attempt to harm him with arrows. More significantly, he also refuses to enslave the Blefuscus, against whom the Lilliputians are waging an absurd war. The Emperor reveals his voracious appetite to become “the sole Monarch of the whole World” (44), an obvious example of how colonialism is yet another form of commodification and consumption. The assertion that the Emperor’s consumptive desires can never be satisfied is significant, for it points to the severity of capitalism on the modern psyche; it is the capitalist who attempts to fill the bottomless void in his soul—not with spirituality or domestic felicity—but with immaterial and material capital. Gulliver’s philosophical discourse with the Emperor is fascinating for several reasons; he “plainly protested, that [he] would never be an Instrument of bringing a Free and Brave People into Slavery” (44). This early version of Gulliver, one just starting what will prove to be a long series of travels, is wellintentioned even if he does by nature of his birth represent a modern, hegemonic Britain.
His moral code is actually a vivid reminder on Swift’s part of how easily modern society commodifies an individual based solely on material evidence—just because he is giant does not make him cruel; the fact that he is British does not render him insensitive to the inhumanity of violent imperialism. Also, by Part IV, his early sensibility serves as a vivid reference point in his transformation from a man with the self-confidence to assert his moral will to a dehumanized, self-loathing subaltern.