One of the benefits of teaching a book for many years is noticing how your own reading of it changes with time. I have taught Gulliver's Travels every spring for the past 17 years and it remains as fresh and relevant a rumination on the human condition as any statement you can find.
The genius of Swift's critique is his nimble use of satire and irony to unfold the lie of human progress. By transplanting Gulliver, his 18th century Everyman, to a series of bizarre societies he is able to contrast a representative European sensibility with other sets of values and ideals.
Readers see these strange worlds through Gulliver's eyes, but at times they also see Gulliver's hypocrisy in criticizing customs and beliefs that are little better than his own. In fact, as Gulliver passes judgment on the people he meets, we in turn pass judgment on him and by extension ourselves.
Take politics, for instance. While Gulliver is touring the Academy of Lagado, an institution filled with obtuse theorists and barking mad inventors, he meets some social scientists who claim to be able to discern political inclinations by examining people's stool samples. It's satire, but not by much when you can turn on any TV or radio today and find ostensibly serious journalists parsing the spin and the intentions behind the spin that everyone knows is a bowl of shite.
Maybe it's because I'm older, too, but I often find myself thinking about the Struldbrugs, a group of immortal people that at first Gulliver can't wait to meet. Think of the wisdom they must have, he exclaims. But then someone points out to him that they just keep aging despite their immortality and this makes them so thoroughly disagreeable that no one will have anything to do with them. Swift writes,
As soon as they have completed the term of eighty years, they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge. After that period, they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit; they cannot purchase lands, or take leases; neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal...When I first read the novel I thought Swift was making a bitter commentary on the failure of humanity to progress. Imagine having to watch human beings repeating the same stupidities year after year, decade after decade, endlessly watching what Gibbon called the "crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." Nearly three hundred years after Swift penned Gulliver's Travels, can we honestly say we are better human beings for all our material and technological progress? Do we love our neighbors more? Are we any less greedy or self-serving? Are we more moral? More virtuous? Not really, although perhaps a little more destructive.
Now when I read this same section I simply see the Struldbrugs as a pretty straightforward portrait of old age. In the past two years I've had to watch my parents gradually lose authority over their own lives. They've lost health, memory, homes, continence. I've had to wrest some of that authority away from them, too. It's something I hate this as much as I know they do. As Phillip Roth once said, old age isn't a battle. It's a massacre.
Gulliver's Travels is by no means the greatest work of literature ever written, but damn if isn't on the money about the human condition.