Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Lemuel Self-Translated; or, Being an Ass in Houyhnhnmland

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Lemuel Self-Translated; or, Being an Ass in Houyhnhnmland

Article excerpt

Lemuel Self-Translated; or, Being an Ass in Houyhnhnmland by Michael J. Franklin.

This article addresses Part Iv of Gulliver's Travels as a critique of representation, exploring Gulliverian and Houyhnhnm theories of classification Gulliver's realization that he does in fact belong to the same species as the Yahoo is contrasted with the remarkable lack of species-cognition displayed by the Houyhnhnm towards their close relatives, the asses. Gulliver, on the other hand, displays his close relationship with the asinine as he adapt, the classical metamorphic archetype of man as ass by psychologically translating himself into Houyhnhnm The onomastics and paronomasia of the name Lemuel are developed into an examination of hybridity as applicable to Gulliver, Swift, and genre.

A long-ear'd Beast give me, and Eggs unsound, Or else I will not ride one Inch of Ground. (Jonathan Swift)' (1)

An ass and an addled egg provide, in the playful 'Probatur', a saddle, so necessary for the therapeutic riding which Swift advocated. (2) Indeed, Swift seemed to share the reverence of a Gio. Pietro Pugliano, or even a Walt Whitman, for 'a four-legged friend', despite his being regularly and vertiginously let down by unsatisfactory mounts.' The inches of ground I propose to ride in this article concern aspects of the relationship between asses and addled thinking in the cold ratiocinative pastoral that is Book IV of Gulliver's Travels This intervention in the continuing debate between 'hard' and 'soft' interpretations of Gulliver's Fourth Voyage (whether four legs are indeed good, or Houyhnhnm society is characterized by austerity and lack) will attempt to explore the dangers of hippophilia, the inadequacies of Gulliverian horse sense, and the advantages of hybridity. (4)

Something is rotten in the state of Houyhnhnmland; it has a certain sulphurous niff about it. Perhaps it is simply Yahoo excrement, perhaps the mortal remains of skinned relatives, or might it be the noisome odour of decaying asses' flesh? Donkey regularly appeared on the Yahoo menu as a welcome addition to weasel and rat. It might be argued punningly that there is something inherently fitting about a piece of ass being proffered as the reward to the Yahoo Leader' favourite for licking 'his Master's Feet and Posterior[sections] 'Gulliver, of course, is privileged by Houyhnhnm condescension only to kiss his Master's hoof (IV 10. 282), and had earlier refused a stinking piece of ass's flesh from the solicitously attentive Sorrel Nag, who 'threw it to the Yahoo' (IC. 2. 230).

It is somewhat striking that the Sorrel Nag appears to have no vegetarian qualms about 'handling' a lump of decomposing meat; a certain repugnance might have been expected, especially as it had been torn from the limb of an unfortunate member of a most closely related species of the horse family (Equidae). Considering that the Sorrel Nag, in his faithful affection for Gulliver, has been taken to represent a comparative paragon of imagination among his kind, such insensitivity towards a fellow equid would seem to demand some scrutiny within the context of species (mis) recognition.

In that it offers a critique of representation, it is significant that Gulliver's Travels contains no fewer than twenty-seven instances of the word 'species' (thirty-one, if the prefacing 'Letter to his Cousin Sympson' of the 1,735 Faulkner edition is included), all but five of which occur, unsurprisingly, in Book IV. This almost phylogenetic concentration upon distinguishing characteristics, sameness, and otherness is, of course, integral to the narrative, particularly as it concerns Gulliver's adjustment of his own classification from human to Yahoo. At first Gulliver, on encountering the creatures he later learns are called Yahoos, describes them as especially disagreeable 'animals', and the actual individual he strikes with the flat of his sword is termed an 'ugly Monster' (IV. …

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