Sunday, October 09, 2005



Houyhnhnms (2005)

On Sundays, I post new images. Today's abstractly depicts the super-intelligent horses in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Wikipedia explains the term:

Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses described in the last part of Jonathan Swift's satiric Gulliver's Travels. The name can be pronounced Whin-hin-ems, as if "whinny" were linked to the -nym element of, for example, "synonym."

Houyhnhnms contrast strongly with the Yahoos, savage humanoid creatures: whereas the Yahoos represent all that is bad about humans, Houyhnhnms have a stable, calm, and rational society. Gulliver much prefers the Houyhnhnm company over the Yahoo's, even though the latter are biologically closer to him.

This may be veiled criticism by Swift of the British Empire's treatment of non-whites as lesser humans, even though in many aspects their societies were equal or higher than the British.

Some of Jonathan Swift's dark vision affects the subtext of the Planet of the Apes movies.

While Swift may have been satirizing colonial inequalities, I tend to think he was more interested in lampooning human pride and exposing the hypocrisy of "The Age of Reason." The good cheater-enabling people at Spark Notes seem on the right track to me:

The Houyhnhnms represent an ideal of rational existence, a life governed by sense and moderation of which philosophers since Plato have long dreamed. Indeed, there are echoes of Plato’s Republic in the Houyhnhnms’ rejection of light entertainment and vain displays of luxury, their appeal to reason rather than any holy writings as the criterion for proper action, and their communal approach to family planning. As in Plato’s ideal community, the Houyhnhnms have no need to lie nor any word for lying. They do not use force but only strong exhortation. Their subjugation of the Yahoos appears more necessary than cruel and perhaps the best way to deal with an unfortunate blot on their otherwise ideal society. In these ways and others, the Houyhnhnms seem like model citizens, and Gulliver’s intense grief when he is forced to leave them suggests that they have made an impact on him greater than that of any other society he has visited. His derangement on Don Pedro’s ship, in which he snubs the generous man as a Yahoo-like creature, implies that he strongly identifies with the Houyhnhnms.

But we may be less ready than Gulliver to take the Houyhnhnms as ideals of human existence. They have no names in the narrative nor any need for names, since they are virtually interchangeable, with little individual identity. Their lives seem harmonious and happy, although quite lacking in vigor, challenge, and excitement. Indeed, this apparent ease may be why Swift chooses to make them horses rather than human types like every other group in the novel. He may be hinting, to those more insightful than Gulliver, that the Houyhnhnms should not be considered human ideals at all. In any case, they symbolize a standard of rational existence to be either espoused or rejected by both Gulliver and us.

It's no coincidence that our science fiction characters that are super-smart aliens (Vulcans) or unfeeling machines (Cylons) are never more "human" than when they are feeling rather than thinking. Data, late of Star Trek -- The Next Generation, wanted one upgrade more than any other: an emotion chip. While computers like Deep Blue can now kick our all-too-human ass in chess, I'd feel better if the machine had gloated after ousting grandmaster Kasparov.

...and if you break a leg, I'll have to shoot you.  Nothing personal...

Take solace, you inferior yahoo, that at least you'll one day have a search engine named after you.
[Book Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1900]

Well, it's past my bedtime. I'm off to the stable to hit the hay...


pk said...

My compliments to the chef. Beautiful meal you serve here!

Anonymous said...

Never say Nay
To a filly in the hay
Simply bray
Huhm huhm huhm hey!

Never say Nay
To a flag on display
Salute and say
Huhm huhm huhm hey!

Never say Nay
To minimum pay
Stoop and sashay
Huhm huhm huhm hey!

Never say Nay
To a preacher's way
Kneel and pray
Huhm huhm huhm hey!

Never say Nay
To a leader's sleigh
Prance and play
Huhm huhm huhm hey!

Never say Nay
Or else you're gay
And jailed far away
Huhm huhm huhm hey!

cruelanimal said...

To pk,

Thanks for coming by. I appreciate your kind words.

I certainly enjoy your blog, too, and I've added it to my blogroll.

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