Jonathan Swift's Voyage to Laputa (Draft Lecture)

Jonathan Swift's Voyage to Laputa
April 7, 1998
Russell McNeil

Of the four parts of Gulliver's Travels, the third, the Voyage to 
Laputa, is for many the least satisfying and least understood.  The 
conventional critical take on Part Three is that the entire series of 
episodes is fundamentally pointless and artless in comparison. It 
does of course satirize the new trends in mathematics and theoretical 
science and politics -- but does so with less finesse than Swift does 
in his accounts of Gulliver's three other voyages. 

The centre for these criticisms focus on the episodic character of the 
third voyage, the multiplicity of themes and the lack of clear 
philosophical intuition in the voyages to Lilliput and Brobdingnag -- or 
the savage attacks on the human condition in the voyage to the 

The three themes that critics find distasteful are the curious 
combinations of mathematics and music displayed by the Laputans, 
the lack of unity displayed by the Balnibarians -- especially the series 
of experiments at the Grand Academy of Lagado, and the so-called 
magical apparatus -- the Flying Island -- a device Swift borrowed 
from other sources.

The simplest defense I think of these charges that Swift does not 
equal in Part III the standards of the rest of the voyages -- is to argue 
that this structure is quite deliberate. The word Laputa is derived -- 
as out text reminds us in a footnote on p.135 --   from the Spanish La 
Puta -- the whore. It is about a people and a place that deals 
unnaturally with its physical nature. 

If the structure and themes in this part of the story strike as 
unnatural, fragmented  and incoherent -- it might well be that this is 
what Swift intends.  Unnatural and disjointed and impractical 
philosophies make for unnatural, fragmented and impractical social 
structures.  The third voyage I argue is meant not as a blanket 
condemnation of new sciences or new philosophies but as a warning 
to this imprudently over optimistic era to keep its eye on the past and 
its head out of the clouds.

We need to notice too that the work here is not purely fanciful, even 
though on first reading it may not seem so. Swift draws nearly all of 
his satirical material from the genuine articles. Most of the ideas he 
presents are based on real experiments reported in the literature of 
his day -- and particularly on reports published in the Philosophical 
Transactions of the Royal Society during the last third of the 17th 
century and the first quarter of the 18th up to and including material 
published in 1726 -- the year Swift composed Part III.

Swift uses this material -- extrapolated of course to ludicrous 
extremes - which he then blends with the then prevalent attitude that 
all mathematical and theoretical learning was "useless," to weave his 
underlying message that the "virtuosi" of his day had lost sight of the 
world at large.  Modern society is not entirely unfamiliar with this still 
persistent view. Public perception still portrays absent minded 
unworldly scientists sporting pocket protectors pursuing unrealistic 

Whether Swift intends this as a viscous attack on the new science or 
a call for balance depends on how we read the text.  One of his 
sources for his satire on the Laputan fusion of geometry and music, 
to the exclusion of everything else,  was the celebrated scientist 
Christiaan Huygens. In 1677 Huygens had written that, "no matter 
how inhabitants of other planets might differ from man in other ways, 
they must agree in music and geometry, since [music and geometry] 
are everywhere immutably the same, and always will be so."

As satisfying as such a "universal" idea might seem -- and it is 
intriguing -- the role of the satirist is to make sure such ideas are 
seen in proper relief.  Worshipping circles, ellipses, parabolas, oboes 
and violins and praising the beauties of the world in like fashion is 
after all an unbalanced response.  Furthermore, the "new 
philosophies" of Swift's time - political, moral and natural - might not 
last - and history has shown this. New philosophies do not always 
endure. Everything has its fashion - everything has its day.  Lucian - 
a satirist living in the second century who Swift greatly admired had 
done the same thing on the "old" philosophies 1,500 years earlier. 
Lucian had once written a work called "Philosophies Going cheap." In 
it, Pythagoras and Socrates, among others, were parodied with wit 
equal to that of Swift in his day.  

Swift's astounding "discovery" of the two moons of Mars -- known 
now as Phobos and Deimos -- 150 years before they were first 
discovered by Hall in 1877 -- was nothing more than a lucky guess: 
but the guess was a good one and showed that Swift was no slouch -
- he did careful research and based his other speculations in the third 
voyage on real evidence.  As for Mars, Swift knew that earth had one 
moon -- and Jupiter four --Galileo has demonstrated that in the 
"Starry Message." In his day Cassini had reported 5 moons around 
Saturn. What about Mars?  Well, the sequence ran one for Earth, 
blank for Mars, four for Jupiter, and five for Saturn. For Mars, the 
"blank," he might have guessed 2 or 3.  He guessed two. Swift was 
not a mathematician but he could handle Kepler's laws, so he 
devised orbital periods for those two moons with simple to handle 
times of 10 and 20 hours -- which placed them at the distances he 
used in the story -- these are a fair guess but far from an exact 
approximation to the 9,300 and 23,500 km distances they actually 
are.  Those moons are by the way quite small -- if you placed the 
largest, Deimos, in downtown Nanaimo, its outer edge would extend 
only to the Departure Bay Ferry terminal.

The Laputans fear of the sun and of comets was rooted in some very 
real anxieties. That the earth might be swallowed by the sun or that 
the sun would be "encrusted by its own effluvia" was a general and 
genuine concern. No less than the mighty Newton himself had, in his 
Principia, noted that the balance between the earth's orbital velocity, 
and its fall toward the sun, was extremely delicate. Any disturbance 
in that, Newton had said, would be disastrous.  Although Newton 
concluded that any slowing of the earth as it moved about the sun 
through whatever was in its way was indeed small -- others were not 
so sure.  This fear was tied up in the seemingly unrelated 
discussions about the nature of light. If light was some kind of a wave 
motion, it would require some sort of medium to get from the sun to 
the earth -- all waves known then needed something to be waves in! 
However, if light was made of particles or corpuscles -- as Newton 
called them -- no medium was necessary. Newton -- an advocate of 
the particle or corpuscular theory needed no medium -- but Robert 
Hooke -- an opponent of Newton -- believed light was wave like. If 
Hooke was right, the earth was in trouble -- the stuff -- whatever it 
was that light needed to move through would slow the earth down 
and we would fall into the sun! History has shown that Newton was 
half right for the wrong reason and that Hooke was also half right -- 
also for the wrong reason -- light is both a particle and a wave but 
requires no medium to get from the sun to the earth. 

The concern over the sun's demise was also genuine, in the context 
of the times. Galileo had discovered those embarrassing spots on the 
sun in the beginning of the 17th century. By Swift's day speculations 
on the nature of the spots centered on the possibility that they were 
caused by sub-solar volcanic eruptions -- a form of smoke -- 
indicating that the sun was consuming itself up at a prodigious rate. 
Modern calculations confirm this. The sun's mass is reduced by 
something like four million metric tonnes every second! Had Swift's 
contemporaries known that they would have freaked. They knew 
nothing of course about nuclear energy in 1726.  Lucky they did not -
- a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The sun's gradual loss of 
mass through nuclear conversion, means that the gravitational 
attraction weakens over time - heralding a widening orbit and 
perhaps a spiraling away from the sun.

The fear of comets was yet another source of genuine social anxiety. 
Employing Newton's newly expounded theory of universal gravitation 
Edmund Halley has forecasted that the comet of 1682 -- known now 
as Halley's comet -- would return in 1758. Remember Swift is writing 
here in 1726 and projecting in his reference to a Laputan comet 31 
years in the future.  That comet did, by the way, return -- spotted first 
on Christmas day in 1758 -- and became a source of universal 
amazement of the exactitude of Newton's science.  In fact, it was a 
bit late, caused we know now, by the perturbing effects of the planets 
Uranus and Neptune which were undiscovered in Newton's day.

The social anxiety around the comet's return was occasioned by 
none other than Halley himself who in 1694 had written a paper 
speculating that the biblical flood described in Genesis might have 
been occasioned by the shock from a near miss from a comet.  
Halley noted in his writing that a near miss could indeed reduce the 
earth to its "ancient chaos." It was nail biting time in Europe. Is there 
any wonder Swift enjoys playing on those fears?

Swift has most of his fun playing with the work of the projectors at the 
Academy of Lagado. Their work is in the main drawn from real stuff 
but he takes real experiments a step beyond their original intent -- or 
combines -- cleverly -- work reported in two different experiments.

The conversion of human excrement back into the original food was 
not one of those. That example was based on a work written by 
Rabelais called "Archasdarpenin." 

The novel building methods Swift talks about -- building from the roof 
down --was loosely written around architectural ideas advanced by 
Christopher Wren the designer of St. Paul's Cathedral. 

Surprisingly, the example of the blind projector who was able to feel 
colours was based on a real paper. In a condensed version of Robert 
Boyle's Philosophical Works published the year before Swift wrote, 
there is a report of a blind man at the city of Maestrict who could 
distinguish colours by the touch of his fingers. A careful series of 
experiments in which the man was given a collection of colored 
ribbons and blindfolded -- don't ask (he was supposed to be blind) -- 
confirmed the man's ability to identify the primary colors: red, blue, 
green and yellow, as well as black, white and gray.  He described the 
feeling as being particularly acute in his right thumb and described 
the effect as due to "aspirations" from the material. Black felt like 
tingly points. Red felt smooth. There was actually some credible 
"science" here. Or there may have been. Boyle is skeptical about the 
feeling bit -- and ventured that the ability was due to the man's 
sensitivity -- not to colour -- but to the scents in the dyes used to 
colour the ribbons. He noticed that the blind man's capacity to detect 
colour was  affected by eating. Dogs -- he also noticed had their 
sense of smell reduced after eating too.

The story about spiders spinning naturally colored silk stockings also 
has some basis in fact but is a classic blending by Swift of two 
unrelated reports. In 1710 Emile Pons published an account called 
"The Silk of Spiders" in the Philosophical Transactions. His paper 
described how he actually made gloves and stockings from the 
threads that short legged spiders used to wrap around their eggs - 
not the webs used to weave their webs. He also offered that this 
spider material easily "took colour."  The second source Swift uses 
here was one by a Dr. Hall who described in a 1708 paper how 
pismires (ants) in the East Indies could convert tree saps and natural 
gums into excrement - excrement that retained the natural colors of 
those saps. This conversion, Hall noted, was unique in nature and 
probably caused by a chemical conversion involving formic acid.  It 
was Swift who tied the two ideas - spider silk to ant "poop," -- into 
the novel method for weaving naturally colored silk stockings.

The story about converting calcine ice (hailstones) into gunpowder 
was based on a 1693 description, again in the Transactions, of 
investigations on the explosive noises made by the bursting of 
hailstones after being thrown into fire. The bursting was caused by 
the sudden fractures in the crystal structure of the ice, and I'm sure 
the original investigations were learning that - but Swift decided to 
place another spin -- due perhaps to an allusion in that same paper 
that some hailstones had dark matter at their centers. Swift decided 
to infer that the bursting and dark matter was connected - possibly a 
natural source of gunpowder?

The wonderful research on sunbeams and cucumbers was derived 
from a 1693 paper by Halley on the "Circulation of Watery Vapours" 
and also a lot of other pioneering work at the time on the nature of 
light, heat and the respiration of plants. As satiric as that episode 
may have seemed to his 18th century audience, we know now that 
cucumbers do work like that - store solar energy through 
photosynthesis as plant material and release it as heat and food 
energy when it is consumed. Perhaps Swift knew this intuitively at 
the time?

Swift's idea for using 600 hogs simultaneously furrowing and 
manuring a field was drawn from a 1702 paper on the Culturing of 
Tobacco in Zeylon where Buffaloes were used in a similar fashion.

Swift's universal artist whose designs included the propagation of 
naked sheep may be directed at Robert Boyle.

There's lots of other great stuff. One of my favorites is the random 
sentence fragment generator shown on p. 157. This marvelously 
clever computing device is eerily prophetic of a time - our time 
perhaps -- when society would place more value on "instrumental 
reason" than the more natural forces of reason at our disposal.

The bits in Chapter VI on the political researches are clearly directed 
at Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan and the natural resemblance between 
- in Swift's words on p.160, the "strict universal Resemblance 
between the natural and political body." What better justification for 
carrying out political experiments drawn from this analogy? My 
favorite bit there was a proposal to sever and exchange the half 
brains of quarreling politicians leaving them to debate matters 
"between themselves within the space of one Skull!" Swift's 
description of experiments designed to analyze the odor, color, 
consistence, and taste! of human excrement as a means of detecting 
threats to the state is exquisite madness - Swift at his piercing best. 
"Men are never so serious, and intent, as when they are at Stool."

Swift's visit to Glubbdubdrib - the island of sorcerers and magicians -
-  where he is able to call back the dead - is a transparent copy of 
Lucian of Samosata's True Histories where similar encounters with 
the dead were described. In his story Swift describes Homer - who 
legend had always treated as blind -- as having the most quick and 
piercing eyes I ever beheld." Lucian in his story written 1,500 years 
earlier says that he had no need to ask Homer if he was really blind 
for, "I could see for myself that he was nothing of the sort." Lucian - 
in this same episode also describes a fanciful voyage to the moon - 
a voyage that involved encounters with moon men every bit as 
strange and metamorphic as Swift's. Swift most certainly based 
much of his style on his.

Whatever the validity of the criticisms of the Voyage to Laputa, its 
lack of unity, and multiplicity of themes, this adventure does paint a 
picture of an age which although optimistic and heady over its recent 
achievements, is clearly anxious about the future. Swift is clearly 
wistful for ancient virtues and solid values, and indicates so often, but 
I don't see this story as an injunction to regress. 

What he offers us is a series of cautions and warnings about modern 
times. The human project is off and running - Swift knows that - as 
much as a parent knows that the child who finally leaves the nest is 
not going to return. But like the young adult - incautious and fearless 
about taking on the world, Swift is shaking a finger at his age - be 
prudent - keep your head out of the clouds - look both ways before 
crossing the street - and above all -- remember your parents and 
those virtues we taught you!