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Puissant

21/09/2016

“Puissant” means having great power and influence. I came across it whilst reading Jonathan Swift’s well known but, I suspect, under read Gulliver’s Travels. The book was available for free download as part of Amazon’s free classic reads program. We do live in a fortunate time. I’m now 34% through on Kindle. Gulliver has left the Lilliputians behind, after discovering a plot to dispose of him in rather sadistic fashion (the emperor is considered clement for proposing only to remove Gulliver’s eyes) apparently because of his cost to the crown purse (though a giant should be of tremendous use to the Lilliputians) and fears, voiced most strongly by the Lilliputian admiral, that he may violently assault the townspeople.

Gulliver has now, after a hiatus back in England, arrived in Brobdingnag where his position has reversed and he is now a miniature confronted by the giant Brobdingnagians. These people, however, have treated him, for the most part kindly (Gulliver takes special note of the affectionate nurse* of the house who has taken particularly good care of him) although he has suffered the ignominy of being taken to shows as a sort of circus attraction for his short stature compared to his hosts.

There is probably good reason why, despite the book residing in the popular consciousness (there was a recent film starring Jack Black), it is unlikely to be widely read today. It was written in 1726 and, of course you are probably well aware, the English language has evolved significantly since that time. Puissant was unknown to me but it really is just the tip of the iceberg. Some words have no definitions in the kindle dictionary and are not readily returned via google. There are many words Swift deploys which have either fallen out of usage (“durst” is an obsolete word which has been replaced by dare) or carry meanings which sound odd to the modern ear.

So, dear reader, you are more than entitled to inquire, given these drawbacks, why on earth should I care to attempt such a seemingly antiquated text?

The answer is: because of two recommendations. The first came from a learned former colleague in the bureaucracy who suggested, given I was reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America at the time, that I may find it interesting because of its political undertone.

Allan Bloom also devotes a reasonably sizeable passage, in his excellent Closing of the American Mind, towards Swift’s text in a most demanding chapter entitled “From Socrates Apology to Heidegger’s Rektoratsrade”. Bloom reads Gullivers Travels as a devastating critique on reason and its capacity to be used as a tool of oppression by the powerful.

I don’t yet know if Bloom’s analysis is correct but I shall attempt to provide an update as I make further progress.

*This post has been edited. I earlier wrote that the lady of the house in Brobdingnag had been especially kind to Gulliver. It was the nurse.

PS: My earlier blog post on The Closing of the American Mind.

My Amazon.com customer review of The Closing of the American Mind.

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