Ad effigiem

The strawman fallacy in Utopian fiction

Of all the habitual fallacies and prejudices that have poisoned the wells of reason in our time, none, perhaps, has been so destructive as what Owen Barfield christened ‘chronological snobbery’. This is the strange belief that modern ideas and habits, simply because they are modern, are inherently superior to those of former times. This belief has become so prevalent that it is now recognized as a category of informal fallacy in itself.

This snobbery is perhaps the last remaining vestige or outcrop of the once formidable massif of Victorian optimism. The belief in the inevitability of progress was dealt a crushing blow by the First World War, and even the belief in progress itself was drastically undermined by the rank flowering of cultural and moral relativism that took its shallow root in the decades after 1960. The Victorians were chronological snobs because they thought themselves the first geniuses on the earth, the evolutionary apex of a long history of fools. Modern relativists, in my experience, are chronological snobs because they believe we are all fools. Denying even the possibility of genius, they refuse to take lessons from a lot of uppity dead white men who think they have something to teach.

But whether you arrive at this position by the high road of egotism or the low road of relativism, the result is the same, and fatal to the reasoning faculty. Any other fallacy can be disproved by argument and evidence. Chronological snobbery will not hear the arguments, because they are the arguments of dead men. It will not look at the evidence, because the evidence is old. At bottom I suppose it is a cognitive disorder, somewhat akin to paranoia. The paranoiac believes everyone is conspiring against him, and cannot be persuaded otherwise, because everyone who tries to talk him out of his delusion is obviously part of the conspiracy. The snob believes everyone who disagrees with him is stupid, and cannot be persuaded otherwise, because everyone who tries to talk him out of it is a fool by definition.

If you read ancient or mediaeval books with real attention, or even look at ancient artefacts in a museum, you will quickly realize how little human beings have changed in the last five thousand years. Last Saturday, for instance, I went to see an exhibit of Egyptian art at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. It contained many second-rate or merely utilitarian pieces, which is the common fate of museum exhibits in provincial market towns, but that gave it a peculiar strength that could easily be lost in a first-class display. It was not in the least striking; in fact, it was striking for not being striking. It was fantastic in its ordinariness, like a Chestertonian Mooreeffoc turned inside-out.

People commonly go to Egyptian exhibits to see all the uncanny things the Egyptians did with their dead, stuffing sarcophagi with mummies and canopic jars with their entrails. The exhibit at the Glenbow was lacking in mummies, though it had some jars still said to hold the residue of their ancient contents. What it had instead, and that in abundance, was an assortment of bowls, jars, bottles, mirrors, board games, jewellery, knick-knacks, and impedimenta, such as you might find in any high-toned department store or curio-shop. Unlike a lot of later civilizations, the Egyptians had a taste for simplicity in small household items. Many of the things they made were indistinguishable from modern articles, except that they lacked the queer hieroglyphic inscription, MADE IN CHINA.

Likewise, when I went to the Field Museum in Chicago last July, and set eyes upon the string-seated chair from the tomb of Yuya and Tjuya, I felt myself in the awful presence of the Grandfather of Bauhaus. Apart from the gilding and the carvings on the side and back panels, I could probably order a virtually identical chair from this year’s IKEA catalogue. The materials and the manufacturing process have changed, but in three thousand years we have made no improvement at all in the art of supporting the human bum.

But chronological snobs do not look at Egyptian furniture and housewares. If they go to such exhibits at all, it is to goggle at the burial gear and snigger at the superstitious fools who believed such queer things about the afterlife. This is only human, after all. The human nervous system is designed to notice change before continuity and differences before similarities. From a merely practical standpoint, a moving tiger is an object of much more immediate importance than a stationary tree. But the tree is more useful in the long run. We tend to see the tiger and ignore the landscape; and we see the showy and meretricious differences between Egyptian culture and our own, while being inexcusably blind to the limitless background of similarity.

It is this peculiar historical blindness that lets us ignore the obvious lessons of the past, even when put in plain English by the genius of Jonathan Swift. Some of Swift’s criticisms of humanity seem very modern indeed: and we, snobs that we are, pay him the patronizing tribute of calling him ‘ahead of his time’. In truth his time had nothing to do with the case. There were millions of human beings in the eighteenth century who were incapable of seeing Man as Swift saw him, and there are millions today. There was only one Swift then, and today there is none. We have thousands of derivative thinkers who think Swift’s views are childishly obvious, because they read Gulliver’s Travels as children, or saw the book traduced on film, or — most likely of all — were influenced by still other thinkers who had read Swift. His ideas have become the common property of our culture, and we can appreciate them without having the genius to invent them.

Among his other talents, Swift was a past master of what is sometimes called the fallacy of the straw man. He could use it to make a point or bamboozle an audience, and he could also see through it. Indeed, he seems to have had an intuitive understanding of a larger class of fallacies of which the straw man is only the most obvious example. This is from Part III of Gulliver, a shot at the ivory-tower savants of Laputa:

What I . . . thought altogether unaccountable, was the strong Disposition I observed in them towards News and Politics, perpetually inquiring into Public Affairs, giving their judgements in Matters of State, and passionately disputing every Inch of a Party Opinion. I have, indeed, observed the same Disposition among most of the Mathematicians I have known in Europe, though I could never discover the least Analogy between the two Sciences; unless those People suppose, that, because the smallest Circle hath as many Degrees as the largest, therefore the Regulation and Management of the World require no more Abilities, than the Handling and Turning of a Globe.

George Orwell, who quotes this passage in ‘Politics vs. Literature’, makes it out as an attack on scientists in general, and actually accuses Swift of lacking imagination. But it is a shrewd and honest observation on Swift’s part. The world is full of would-be Technocrats. Half the political theorists one hears of are themselves neither politicians nor political scientists, but monists turned monomaniacs, cranks peddling panaceas. They construct their own globes and turn them prettily, and imagine that this qualifies them to regulate the world. Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Tolstoy, Rand, Chomsky, and a hundred others made their names this way. Each one comes up with one great Idea, and pretends that it can explain everything else. Every ideologue, as such, is a prey to this weakness, and every ideology is a ghastly oversimplification. The Marxist says that everything is class struggle, and produces the Gulag. The Nazi says that everything is racial struggle, and produces the Holocaust. The Wahhabist says that everything is religious struggle, and produces suicide bombers and blood-soaked ruins. Every Utopian scheme of the world is a pyramid scheme, and its natural product is a pyramid of corpses.

Of course, every one of these ideologies works brilliantly on paper. Class struggle cannot make the world go round, but it can make a globe go round. And the globe, or the paper Utopia, is itself a kind of straw man; more precisely, a straw world. The object is not to demolish it, as we do with the straw men we make of our opponents’ views, but to perfect it; but the fallacy is exactly the same. It accounts for the weakness of the opposing case, but not for its strength. The most important thing about a globe is not that it resembles the earth, but that it is not the earth. The most important thing about a Utopia is not that the world might have been Utopian, but that it is not Utopian. The globe, or the Utopia, accounts for everything about the world, except for the qualities that make it real.

In Swift’s time, Latin was still the language of the philosophers, so I find it fitting to give this class of fallacies a Latin name. I shall call it the argumentum ad effigiem — the argument to the effigy. When we burn a man in effigy, we are quite literally burning a straw man. The fallacy lies in believing that the real man is as combustible as the straw man, or, after the effigy is burnt, that the real man is as dead as the straw man.

You might think that even human beings would be clever enough to see the silliness of these beliefs, but you would be mistaken. The clichéd apparatus of the voodoo doll is an exercise in arguing to the effigy. The magician sticks pins in his straw man, and expects the real man to double over in pain. I have heard that this practice does not occur in the genuine religion or magic of Vodoun. In one way, this does not matter, for the idea exists somewhere. In another way, it is the strongest evidence for the power of the idea. The conception of the voodoo doll has such a grip on our imagination that we have to father it onto a lot of unoffending Haitians, and so absolve ourselves of inventing it. But in fact human beings of every culture have some form of belief in sympathetic magic. It seems to require a special effort of the intellect not to believe in it. We feel that in some mystical sense the voodoo doll exemplifies the way things ought to work. And as soon as we transport this idea into the abstract realm, we are apt to imagine that it really does work. Otherwise we could not believe that demolishing the straw-man argument has any effect on the real one.

Another classic form of the argumentum ad effigiem is what Northrop Frye calls the ironic mode in literature. Ironic fiction depends upon the conceit that the characters in the story are inferior in kind, or at least in mental capacity, to the author and his audience. In other words, it depends on making one’s characters into straw men, instead of making them behave like real people. The fact that ironic writers (and the critics who worship them) think of themselves as the only true realists under the canopy, and dismiss everyone else as romantics and escapists, merely shows what nonsensical meanings have become attached to the word realism. It is somehow ‘realistic’ to write about ugliness, but not about beauty; about cowardice, but not courage; about villains, but not heroes. Yet everyone with a normal aesthetic sense and a little inclination to travel (instead of seeing the world through the distorting eye of television) can see that nature contains far more beauty than ugliness; and everyone who has a nodding acquaintance with human beings knows that genuine villains are as rare as genuine saints.

Catch-22 is a famous example of the ironic novel, and it answers neatly to the charge of ad effigiem. It captures (and very well, too) the empire-building, favour-currying, shallow and stupid and officious side of army life; but it leaves out the bravery, the selflessness, the patriotism and public spirit without which no army would ever fight. It is true that armies have sometimes been composed largely of mercenaries; but no mercenary force ever put up with the malicious incompetence of Heller’s generals. A man who fights for a noble cause will endure all kinds of hardships that he would not tolerate for a moment if he were fighting for money. In the end Yossarian runs away, because he, like every other character in the book, is not a man but a mannequin. He has been stripped of every noble human quality, and has no will to fight for anything but his own personal survival. He is, in fact, what C.S. Lewis called a man without a chest; and soCatch-22, comic masterpiece though it is, is a novel without a heart.

When fantasy first became established as a commercial genre, it was solidly grounded in Frye’s category of the romantic. This is one of many reasons why critics of the Moorcock school hate Tolkien and all his imitators. In one sense, all their calls for subversion in fantasy are really calls for the ironic, because what they most want to subvert is the idea of human dignity. Elric is an ironic hero, a classic anti-hero in fact: a spiritual (and almost literal) vampire, devoid of morals; motivated by selfishness, a consuming hatred of his own people, and mere contempt for everyone else. Miéville’s New Crobuzon is notoriously ironic, a city where everything is ugly, everyone acts from the crassest motives, and from which nature itself has been so thoroughly expunged that no green and growing thing has ever been found there. The irony of their school is the deliberate antithesis to the romance of Tolkien and his followers.

It is no accident that Moorcock and Miéville set up Mervyn Peake as the anti-Tolkien, the principal god of their degraded pantheon. Much as I admire the technical skill Peake showed in Titus Groan, and to a lesser degree in Gormenghast, I cannot help but see that all his work is disfigured by the relentless irony that those others so admire.

The tone is set on the very first page. Titus Groan begins with a description of the room where the prize-winning works of the Bright Carvers gather dust, unseen and unappreciated, century after century. The Carvers are ironic: we snigger at them for wasting their lives making art for the denizens of Gormenghast, which nobody cares about or even looks at. The people in the castle are ironic: we shake our heads at the blatant philistines who are anaesthetic to the very best of the Carvers’ work, and wilfully burn the rest. And the Earl of Groan himself is immediately established as an ironic figure, carrying on the whole ridiculous procedure for no reason of his own, but only because it is written in a book of protocol that he thoroughly resents and hardly understands.

All this is red meat and strong beer to the Moorcock school; or perhaps I should say that it is raw fish and goblin-flesh, prized because it is not ‘leaves out of the elf-country, gah!’ There are no heroes in Titus Groan, and the most vivid of all the weird and monstrous characters is Steerpike, as frank a villain as Snidely Whiplash. All the characters are monsters, and most are monsters of the same kind: their entire personality is based on a single characteristic, and a character flaw at that. For Irma Prunesquallor, the flaw is vanity; for Barquentine, slavish traditionalism; for Gertrude Groan, indifference; for Sepulchrave, Earl of Groan, depression. Cora and Clarice are pure malicious selfishness. It is all very Dickensian, or rather sub-Dickensian, because Dickens at least sometimes gave his characters good qualities, and he nearly always gave them some scope to exercise their natures for good or ill. Most of Peake’s monsters are comically ineffectual; they are comical precisely because they are ineffectual. Irma cannot find anyone to feed her voracious appetite for flattery; Barquentine cannot stop things from happening that do not occur in the book of rituals; Cora and Clarice are so imbecilic that they cannot even think of setting fire to their brother’s library without Steerpike’s help. Steerpike himself is a straw man, but he at least is stuffed with a better grade of straw. His defining flaw is ambition, and he finds scope for it by exploiting the other straw men’s weaknesses, and so makes the entire plot go.

Some critics have said that the ruinous castle of Gormenghast is a metaphor for the human mind, and the vivid monstrosities that inhabit it are the urges of the primitive id, dragged into the light of at least minimal self-consciousness. This kind of Freudian analysis is out of style nowadays, and in any case Peake was not writing a straightforward allegory of human psychology. The best of his characters — Steerpike, Alfred Prunesquallor, Gertrude in her rare moments of furious energy — rise above the status of mere hypostatized qualities, and almost become persons in their own right.

Other commentators see Gormenghast as a parody of modern civilization. This interpretation is favoured strongly in the BBC miniseries. Warren Mitchell, who turned in a brilliantly grotesque performance as Barquentine, suggested that the endless rituals of Gormenghast were equivalent to the nonsensical traditions and religious superstitions of Europe at the opening of the twentieth century. Sebastian Peake, the author’s son, says that the resemblance is rather with the decaying and ritual-encrusted Confucian society of imperial China. Mervyn Peake was born in China in the very month when the last Emperor was overthrown, and saw the disintegration of that society at first hand. Whatever the source, the ‘thinning’ (to borrow John Clute’s term) of Gormenghast reflects the dissolution of traditional societies all over the world during Peake’s lifetime. During or after the First World War, people all over the industrialized countries woke up, in a sense, from their post-Victorian dream, and realized that many of the things they had been telling themselves about the world were lies. Some went further and thought they must all be lies. These became Surrealists, or Dadaists, or nihilists. Some clung to this or that apocalyptic would-be prophet, and became Marxists, Fascists, Anarchists, and so ad nauseam. Others retreated into vulgar hedonism, or ‘art for art’s sake’, or — the most common response of all — tried to ignore what was happening around them and cling to their traditions as best they could. And all these kinds of people have their counterparts in Gormenghast.

But there is something strange in holding up Gormenghast as a mirror of contemporary society. It is at best a distorting mirror, a funhouse mirror. A funhouse mirror exaggerates the ugliness of a face, and turns even beauty into ugliness by robbing it of its proper proportions; and so it is with Gormenghast. There is no hint in the books that the endless rituals of the castle ever had any practical purpose or justification, or that anyone was better off for observing them. This is a curiously one-eyed view of tradition. Christianity began as a desperate campaign to save human souls from their own worst impulses, and for all the faults of the churches, it serves that function still. The rule of law, for all its byzantine absurdities and blatant injustices, still protects people against the worst caprices of private vengeance and public tyranny. Confucianism at its best provided a government of royal philosophers, who are one degree better than philosopher-kings, because the king was not required to be a philosopher himself. If it later degenerated into a make-work scheme for self-seeking academics, it was an indictment of human weakness and not of Confucius’ maxims of government. Gormenghast lived and died by straw rituals — empty of content and purpose, and stuffed with implausible rubbish to plump them out and give them the shape of real ones. A society of straw men would naturally have straw rituals, but there is no particular reason why such a society should exist at all.

This is the cardinal weakness of Gormenghast, as of every ad effigiem model of human life. Warren Mitchell likes to fancy that the rituals of Gormenghast are empty because all ritual is empty. In fact, they are empty because Gormenghast itself is empty. If straw men worship straw gods, that does not invalidate worship; at most, it invalidates straw, at least as a material for men and gods. You can knock the stuffing out of a straw world, but that does not prove that you can knock the stuffing out of the real world. The analogy breaks down precisely because the real world is not stuffed. The resemblance of a straw man to a real one is merely formal; and while form is important, it is not everything. The content of a human being, or a ritual, or a world, matters at least as much as its shape.

For after all, there are worse things than straw men. There are also hollow men. T.S. Eliot wrote about hollow men, and as Orwell said in ‘Inside the Whale’, achieved ‘the difficult feat of making modern life out to be worse than it is’. An argument, or a character in a novel, or a globe, can be filled with nothing but hot air. Some of Ayn Rand’s most characteristic productions could be demolished by sticking a pin in them. These kinds of arguments are especially dangerous, not because they themselves are likely to take anyone in, but because they may persuade the inexperienced that all argument consists of exactly the same kind of humbug. This is a real danger, as the history of Postmodernism has shown.

It is, after all, the most natural thing in the world, if you have tested half a dozen apparently solid objects and found them to be nothing more than balloons, to assume that every object of that kind is a balloon, and to disbelieve in the very idea of solidity. The Amazing Randi has constructed an entire ideology of his own on this belief. CSICOP has dwindled in stature since its heyday in the 1970s, when there really was an astounding amount of hot air filling out the forms of supernatural belief; and that is partly because some of the balloons Randi tried to prick really were solid objects, and blunted the point of his pin.

The essence of Randi’s method is to show that a thing can be falsified, and take this as proof that it wasfalsified. He ‘proved’ that Uri Geller’s spoon-bending trick was a fake by showing how he could fake it himself. Since Geller did happen to be a fake, this earned Randi an unjustified reputation as a debunker. In fact, Randi’s method is merely the elementary logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. The fallacy takes this form:

If Uri Geller bends a spoon with his hands, the spoon will be bent.
The spoon is bent.
Therefore, Geller bent it with his hands.

So far, so good. Now let us apply the same method to other premises.

If you induce hallucinations in a subject’s brain, he will have a religious experience.
John has had a religious experience.
Therefore, John was hallucinating.

If you make a subject act on post-hypnotic suggestion, she will attribute the act to her own free will.
Anne attributes her actions to her own free will.
Therefore, Anne has been acting on post-hypnotic suggestions.

These arguments are in fact in daily use to discredit religious experience and the notion of free will. It is now fashionable among skeptics to claim that there is a ‘God gene’ which causes people to believe in a deity; and there is a whole school of psychologists who eagerly propound the idea that free will is an illusion manufactured by the brain after it performs a predetermined action.

Now consider these arguments:

If you induce visual hallucinations in a subject’s brain, he will see a light.
Paul sees a light.
Therefore, Paul is hallucinating.

If you make a counterfeit of a $20 bill, it will look like real money.
This $20 bill looks like real money.
Therefore, the bill is a counterfeit.

These arguments are obviously bogus. We all know that there are in fact such things as real lights and real money. The fact that they can be counterfeited or hallucinated is no proof that they do not exist. Indeed, it is strong evidence that they do exist. If there were no real lights, we should be unable to recognize the hallucinations as appearances of light; we would not even have a word for light. If there were no real twenty-dollar bills, nobody would have any reason to make false ones. Counterfeiters do not commonly try to pass banknotes worth seven grizzles or fifteen grozzles. Someone did once successfully pass some Canadian twenty-dollar bills with the portrait of the Queen replaced by a topless picture of Claudia Schiffer. This is not evidence against the existence of money, but rather for the existence of human stupidity. The boy who accepted the bogus bills tried to pass them on to someone else on the midway where he worked, and chose a victim less idiotic than himself — such persons being easy enough to find. He was arrested, charged, and fired from his job. But there are no monetary skeptics building a theory of amonetism on such incidents, as theological skeptics build theories of atheism.

Affirming the consequent is only valid in logic when the conditional statement takes the form, not of If P then Q, but of If and only if P, then Q. A twenty-dollar bill may look like money because it is money. Paul may see a light because the sun is shining on him. Joan of Arc may have had religious experiences because God or an angel really did talk to her. Even poor Uri Geller may have bent the spoons without using his hands. There are plenty of other ways to bend spoons without invoking telekinetic powers to explain them. For all we know, it may actually be possible to bend spoons by telekinesis; at any rate, we could not disprove it by Randi’s argument. He simply assumes, without any kind of proof, that the way he did it is the only way it can be done.

It is really rather amazing how many logical errors Randi packs into that one demonstration. He affirms the consequent. He constructs a straw man, or if you will allow me the conceit, an argumentum ad effigiem. He is guilty of petitio principii, better known as ‘arguing in a circle’, because he brings to his case the very assumption (that telekinesis is impossible) which he professes to derive from it. He typically presents his case with all kinds of rhetorical handwaving, including the appeal to ridicule and the abusive argumentum ad hominem. His whole method is a tissue of lies, made plausible by one poor thread of truth: that Geller is in fact a charlatan. He wants you to come out of his rhetorical maze convinced that Geller is a phony, without ever noticing the far more important and striking fact that Randi himself is a phony.

The ad effigiem attack in Titus Groan and Gormenghast, being looser and more rhetorical, does not easily lend itself to being expressed in a syllogism, even a faulty one. It boils down roughly to this:

All rituals have resemblances to the rituals of Gormenghast.
The rituals of Gormenghast are pointless.
Therefore, all rituals are pointless.

The first premise is true by definition, or we should not apply the word rituals to what went on at Gormenghast. But the premises in no way justify the conclusion, for nobody has established how the rituals of Gormenghast resemble others. It is only assumed that pointlessness must be one of the points of resemblance. This is partly the fallacy of converse accident — assuming that what is true of one example is true in all cases. Cats are mammals, and cats have kittens, but that does not mean all mammals have kittens.

When the example itself is fictitious, it does not prove that the ‘accidents’ are true even in one case. I could say that zeffles are mammals, and zeffles eat gwermwims. That does not prove that all mammals eat gwermwims, or even that any mammals eat gwermwims. It does not prove anything at all, because I just made it up. Likewise, Peake just made up Gormenghast and its meaningless rituals, and from it you cannot infer anything about real rituals. The error of converse accident is combined with the fallacy of the straw man. Peake’s misguided admirers pile a fictitious Pelion upon a bogus Ossa, and think they have overtopped the real and solid rock of Olympus. All Utopian literature (and anti-Utopian literature, for that matter) is essentially a game of feeding fictitious gwermwims to imaginary zeffles. We are meant to draw inferences about real things and people from examples that do not even exist, or much resemble the real things they are supposed to be patterned after.

When I mention anti-Utopian literature in this connexion, you will probably think of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and wonder where it fits in. In fact there is very little of the straw man in Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece. The mindless worship of Big Brother was derived from Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’ and the equally grotesque Führer-worship in Nazi Germany. The tortures and inquisitions of the Thought Police were based on his real experiences in the Spanish Civil War. The Ministry of Truth was based on the Ministry of Information, in which Orwell worked during the Second World War, and its grotesque output of lies and forgeries was patterned after the impossible gyrations that loyal Communists were expected to perform with every change of Party line. Even the dreary details of life in a bombed-out London were extrapolated, almost without exaggeration, from the dreary London of the post-war years, when the damage of the V1 bombs had not yet been repaired, and the wartime rationing of necessities was still largely in place. Even something as fantastic as the Party’s claim that two and two could make five if they wished it was based on a real event: the alleged fulfilment by the U.S.S.R. of the First Five-Year Plan in only four years, for which the Soviets made ‘2+2=5’ a celebratory slogan.

But even Orwell sometimes left hollow places in his work, or stuffed the interstices with straw. His work is weakest where it is most imaginative. He did an impressive job of welding together the disparate totalitarianisms of Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain, and the Nosey-Parker officiousness of wartime England, to produce an apparently monolithic composite. But it is only an apparent monolith, for the cracks are hastily papered over with the vague and incomplete ideology of Ingsoc. We are told that the Party desired power purely for its own sake, and consequently had none of the liberal illusions that were the undoing of earlier tyrants. In fact, nobody ever built a mass movement on the pure lust for power.

In Russia, to take the best example, people would work for the dictatorship of the proletariat only because they did not understand that it would be a real dictatorship, with a real dictator who was even less inclined than the Tsars to share his power. Stalin said in public that he was working for international Socialism and brotherhood and the betterment of the Russian people. The nomenklatura knew better, but that does not mean that they shared or even understood Stalin’s real motives. When he died, Stalin left behind a massive system of total oppression, and no particular reason to use it. None of his successors wanted that power to exist for its own sake; at minimum, they wanted to possess it for themselves. In the old Communist phrase, it was a question of WHO did WHAT to WHOM; and Stalin’s heirs had no intention of becoming the WHOM. But that meant that they let parts of the Stalinist machine rust, and even dismantled those that were most likely to be dangerous to themselves. There were no more great Party purges after Stalin died. In the end the nomenklatura lost their devotion to the Party, and at last even their ruthlessness, and the breakup of the system became inevitable. Orwell misses all that, because he replaces the real motives of a ruling class with the straw motive of pure power.

As I said at the beginning of this essai, Jonathan Swift was a past master of the argumentum ad effigiem, three hundred years before I gave it that name. Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels is a massive straw man, or straw Yahoo, and it is also a parody of the straw Utopias that were already infesting the literary and political landscape. Like so many others, Swift’s argument can be simplified into a cracked syllogism:

All men look like men.
All Yahoos look like men.
Therefore, all men are Yahoos.

The Yahoos are a gross and obscene distortion of humanity, with all the human vices and none of the human virtues. Of course, in pointing this out, I am simply inviting an ad hominem attack. It will be said that I am a Yahoo myself, and ashamed of the fact, and trying to cover it up by attributing nonexistent virtues to myself. I have seen exactly the same attack made upon others, and have no reason to expect that I will be spared. Suffice it to say that if I were a Yahoo, I would not be ashamed of it; because shame is not an emotion that the Yahoos were represented as having.

In fact this attack is based squarely, but not soundly, on an ad effigiem argument. The Yahoos are like men, but they are not men; Swift makes this explicit, though the Houyhnhnms, blinded by prejudice, are unable to see the difference. Yahoos have no art, no science, no philosophy, no morality, no altruism, no finer emotions, no architecture, no technology, no trade, and apparently not much in the way of language. In these things they rather resemble baboons. But no baboon is ambitious, or avaricious, or manipulative; baboons do not fight wars or set up tyrannical governments. The Yahoos do. They are a vicious engraftment of human follies onto a merely animal intelligence, and the offence is compounded by putting the resulting hybrid in an apparently human body. In fact an animal as stupid as a Yahoo would be incapable of conceiving the higher forms of human wickedness. Avarice arises from trade, lying arises from language, war and tyranny arise from the art of government. I do not mean that these evils are inevitable growths; I mean that they cannot grow at all without the good things upon which they depend. Language is a necessary but not a sufficient precondition for lying: an animal without language has nothing to tell lieswith. In short, the sins attributed to the Yahoos are beyond their ability to perform or even to comprehend.

On the other hand, or hoof, we have the straw Utopia of the Houyhnhnms. Their lives are governed by a ‘Reason’ as rigid and meaningless as the rituals of Gormenghast. They seem to have no desires or emotions at all. They practise eugenics in a purely negative sense, not rearing any offspring that is not a perfectly representative Houyhnhnm. They have no word for lie, but also no word for argument. They have no hate, but also no love, except for a sort of abstract goodwill towards everything in nature (except the Yahoos). They are, in fact, very like Vulcans, because they derive their philosophy from the same shallow Continental rationalism that Roddenberry mined for his curious notions of ‘logic’. The Utopia of the Houyhnhnms would be a dreary place indeed, impossible for human beings to live in (and not only because of their physical resemblance to Yahoos). It is inhuman in every sense of the word, except that of being inhumane.

But half the intellectuals of Europe in Swift’s time had visions of some such Utopia dancing in their heads. It was the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, the age of neoclassicism, self-restraint, distrust of the emotions, and appalling poetry made up of perfectly balanced clauses set in heroic couplets. Pope’s Essay on Man, with its endless vista of bumper-sticker mottoes, as monotonous as telegraph poles along a prairie railway, was not a typical product of Augustan poetry; it was the very best the Augustans had to offer. Gulliver was taken in by the ‘reason’ of the Houyhnhnms, and considered himself a Yahoo because he could not live by it, as much as for any merely physical resemblance. In the end he reacted by going mad, which in those extreme circumstances was probably the only sane thing to do. Many critics and commentators have thought that Swift was every bit the misanthrope that he caused Gulliver to become, that he really did regard all humans as Yahoos, and believed that the society of the Houyhnhnms was a model of perfection. I do not believe this for a moment. Swift did himself go mad in the end, but his insanity had fairly obvious physical causes; his mind did not die of Weltschmerz.

To my mind, Swift leaves the clearest cues in the concluding pages of Part IV. When Gulliver is picked up from his foundering canoe by a Portuguese ship, he is quite obviously insane, and the men who rescue him are quite obviously not Yahoos — though their kindness and concern for Gulliver’s health and safety would be utterly incomprehensible to the Houyhnhnms as well. Here is a short extract:

When they began to talk, I thought I never heard or saw any thing so unnatural; for it appeared to me as monstrous as if a Dog or a Cow should speak in England, or a Yahoo inHouyhnhnm-Land. The honest Portuguese were equally amazed at my strange Dress, and the odd Manner of delivering my Words, which however they understood very well. They spoke to me with great Humanity, and said they were sure their Captain would carry me gratis toLisbon, from whence I might return to my own Country. . . . They were very curious to know my Story, but I gave them very little Satisfaction; and they all conjectured, that my Misfortunes had impaired my Reason.

A very shrewd conjecture. They take Gulliver to meet the captain:

His Name was Pedro de Mendez; he was a very courteous and generous Person; he entreated me to give some Account of my self, and desired to know what I would eat or drink; said, I should be used as well as himself, and spoke so many obliging Things, that I wondered to find such Civilities from a Yahoo. However, I remained silent and sullen; I was ready to faint at the very Smell of him and his Men. At last I desired something to eat out of my own Canoo; but he ordered me a Chicken and some excellent Wine, and then directed that I should be put to Bed in a very clean Cabbin. I would not undress my self, but lay on the Bed-cloaths; and in half an Hour stole out, when I thought the Crew was at Dinner; and getting to the Side of the Ship, was going to leap into the Sea, and swim for my Life, rather than continue amongYahoos. But one of the Seamen prevented me, and having informed the Captain, I was chained to my Cabbin.

A man who would rather try to swim across the ocean than accept a lift from the friendly crew of a passing ship is not, I should venture to say, possessed of his full complement of marbles. And the ‘Reason’ of the Houyhnhnms, which would drive a man to such an extreme, is no very rational thing. Swift is quite capable of making Gulliver behave like a perfect idiot at times, as in his absurd bragging speech to the King of Brobdingnag; and quite obviously this is one of those times.

The edition of Gulliver that I have at hand has an appendix with a number of critical essays on the work. In one of these, Basil Willey says:

Bentham, says Mill, habitually missed the truth that is in received opinions; that at any rate, I suggest, is what the satirist does and must do. He must, whether deliberately or no, miss precisely those aspects of the ignoble thing which in fact make it endurable to the non-satiric everyday eye: that is, he must ignore the explanation of the thing satirized — how it came to be, its history. It is a fact of experience that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, and the satirist ex officio cannot pardon, so he must decline to understand all and explain all. Satire is by nature non-constructive, since to construct effectively — to educate, for example, to reform, or to evangelize — one must study actual situations and actual persons in their historical setting, and this kind of study destroys the satiric approach.

There is a good deal of wisdom packed into those few sentences. Science fiction fandom in particular is full of Benthams, of poorly socialized antinomians who ‘habitually miss the truth that is in received opinions’. If a commonplace belief is not immediately obvious to them, they are all too likely to reject it out of hand instead of trying to follow or reconstruct the reasoning behind it. Such persons as Moorcock and Miéville have developed this pernicious habit to a high degree. But if Swift is a satirist ex officio, they are satirists by vocation. Where he merely suppressed, for satirical effect, his commonsense knowledge that humans are not Yahoos, Moorcock and his friends refuse to accept any such knowledge in the first place. The grotesques who people New Crobuzon are not human, but a kind of urban Yahoo. The denizens of Gormenghast are not Yahoos, but they are almost as distorted as Yahoos, each one stretched to the breaking-point along his own axis of lunacy.

It would serve us very ill to take the distortions of Peake and Swift as truthful portraits of humanity, or to base our philosophies and politics on the conclusions they draw. Karl Marx invented a political system quite suitable for bees and ants, who had no need of it, but disastrously unsuitable for human beings; and the result, when others tried to put his theories into practice, was the hundred million corpses so gruesomely tallied in the Black Book of Communism. Taking Steerpike’s attitude towards ritual, or Gulliver’s attitude towards Yahoos, would be just as fatal to our sanity and well-being.

The appalling fact remains that many critics take Swift’s attack on humanity at face value, and some are even convinced by it. ‘Yahoo’ has often been used as a term of abuse, and some people have flung it at all human beings indiscriminately. Swift built his argument on a deliberate and gigantic fallacy, or two fallacies, but he built it with such rhetorical cleverness and polemical force that thousands have taken it as earnest. Half the discussions of ‘the problem of evil’ that bedevil modern theology and ethics are couched in terms recognizably derived, though at many removes, from the comprehensive misanthropy of Gulliver.

We have learnt the wrong lesson from Swift, the inhuman lesson, the damning and dishonest lesson. Instead of learning to distrust straw men and Utopian arguments, we have merely learnt to construct them ourselves. I see little hope that our civilization will recover its sanity until we learn to take our lessons from the experiences of real men and women, and not from the Silly Putty distortions of professional satirists. It has taken us three hundred years to appreciate what he tried to teach us, and some of us have not understood it yet. In that sad sense, if in no other, there is some truth in the shopworn saying that Swift was ahead of his time.


  1. No sooner do I post a comment on another essay wondering why you don’t write about Gormenghast, then I get around to this essay. Poetic justice.

  2. And I in turn no sooner comment that you should talk more of Frye than I find that you have. Indeed, you are in the state of mind that Frye describes as characteristic of his students (and many other people): you have attached a moral judgment to particular forms of poesis. Specifically, you have decided that Myth=Good, Irony=Bad, and so you naturally denounce those who think just the opposite. But one of the most important points about Frye’s five modes is that they are cyclic: irony is adjacent to myth. If Yossarian is stripped of every human quality save the most stereotypical, so are the Norse gods, or for that matter the Valar. Romance makes people better than they are, and irony makes them worse, but these are particular viewpoints of the same mixed-quality human beings, and they exist in poesis because they are integral parts of its overall structure.

    As for baboons not fighting wars or setting up tyrannical governments, perhaps not. But chimpanzees, it turns out, do. The old belief that beasts are innocent and only Man is fallen no longer stands.

  3. Wendy S Delmater says

    Mr. Cowan, if Mr. Simon is not allowed to voice his Opinion here on his own blog, wherever shall he do so? I find it tasteless that you are voicing your Opinions here as facts, while denouncing Tom’s opinions as erroneous. If you wish to spout Opinions as facts, please get your own blog.

    Oh, wait, I see you have one. Unfortunately it’s mostly about software.

    • He has expressed his opinion, and I see fit to express my opinions of his opinions (and my occasional factual corrections of his claims)in the same place. If Mr. Simon doesn’t like it, he is free to remove my posts or to ban me. So far he has seen fit to do neither.

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