Episode 3: Blakey Vermeule on Gulliver’s Travels

“Swift I think is basically the great diagnoser of the human modern condition…Swift was writing at the time basically of the invention of the modern political party…and he was very, very shrewd about what that was likely to mean and what it looked like.”
—Blakey Vermeule

In our third episode, we got to speak with Professor Blakey Vermeule on our Gulliver’s Travels—our most canonical text so far, and one with special insights into the formation of the modern Western political states.

Transcript: Episode 3, Blakey Vermeule

Key passages:

     There is likewise another Diversion which is only shewn before the Emperor and Empress, and first Minister, upon particular Occasions. The Emperor lays on the Table three fine silken Threads of six Inches long. One is Blue, the other Red, and the third Green. These Threads are proposed as Prizes for those Persons whom the Emperor hath a mind to distinguish by a peculiar Mark of his Favour. The Ceremony is performed in his Majesty’s great Chamber of State, where the Candidates are to undergo a Tryal of Dexterity very different from the former, and such as I have not observed the least Resemblance of in any other Country of the new or old World. The Emperor holds a Stick in his Hands, both Ends parallel to the Horizon, while the Candidates advancing one by one, sometimes leap over the Stick, sometimes creep under it backwards and forwards several times, according as the Stick is advanced or depressed. Sometimes the Emperor holds one end of the Stick, and his first Minister the other; sometimes the Minister has it entirely to himself. Whoever performs his part with most Agility, and holds out the longest in leaping and creeping, is rewarded with the Blue coloured Silk; the Red is given to the next, and the Green to the third, which they all wear girt twice round about the middle; and you see few great Persons about this Court, who are not adorned with one of these Girdles. (Book I, pp. 32-33)


     My Reconcilement to the Yahoo-kind in general might not be so difficult if they would be content with those Vices and Follies only, which Nature hath intitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the Sight of a Lawyer, a Pick-pocket, a Colonel, a Fool, a Lord, a Gamester, a Politician, a Whore-master, a Physician, an Evidence, a Suborner, an Attorney, a Traitor, or the like: This is all according to the due Course of Things: But when I behold a Lump of Deformity, and Diseases, both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my Patience; neither shall I be ever able to comprehend how such an Animal and such a Vice could tally together. The wise and virtuous Houyhnhnms, who abound in all Excellencies that can adorn a Rational Creature, have no Name for this Vice in their Language, which hath no Terms to express any thing that is evil, except those whereby they describe the detestable Qualities of their Yahoos, among which they were not able to distinguish this of Pride, for want of thoroughly understanding Human Nature, as it sheweth itself in other Countries where that Animal presides. (Book IV, p. 249-50)
     —Jonathan Swift, (New York: Norton, 2002). Originally published 1726