Those who’ve read “Gulliver’s Travels” probably remember the story of Laputa, the floating island whose residents lived in strict accordance with the laws of mathematical reason. Those who haven’t, but know Spanish, can probably recognize something in the island’s name. Because when Jonathan Swift, the author of this bizarre and fantastic tale, chose to name his island “la puta,” he was almost certainly echoing Martin Luther who once famously called reason… a whore.
Laputans, we are told, devote their days solely to the study of mathematics, astronomy, and music. This latter addition to the list of abstractions might strike the modern reader as strange. Music, we believe, is precisely that which has the power of taking us out of our heads and into the depths of our emotions. Yet, “Gulliver’s Travels” was not written in the 1960s but in 1726, when music was still considered a branch of mathematics, following the examples of Pythagoras and Plato. The island of Laputa floats suspended above ground through the use of a giant magnet, its inhabitants being as far removed from earthly affairs as Swift’s pre-scientific imagination could afford. So detached are they, that Laputans cannot even focus their gaze on the objects in front of them, their eyes being turned upwards and inwards in eternal contemplation. In fact, to engage in conversation with each other, these “brainiacs’” need the assistance of servants, who tell them when they should speak and when they should listen using a stick. Their foods are served cut in perfect geometrical shapes, while their clothes fit them badly but are otherwise perfect in mathematical proportions. And just when you might have thought that everything would go just fine, a scandal erupts as Gulliver arrives. The Prime Minister’s wife, and despite efforts to restrain her, had run away to the mainland below, where she found company in the arms of an old mercenary, who gets regularly drunk and beats her.
The modern reader can take this story as they might, but Swift, who was not a modern, seems to believe that women, as creatures of nature, will always prefer passion over reason, even if this passion is accompanied by violence. But it gets worse, because many of those who are modern, feel increasingly able to recognize themselves in the face of that woman, as there is something in the mindset of modernity itself, with its insistence on viewing nature as the realm of mathematical predictions and mechanical necessity, that seems to numb the spirit of its vital powers.
And as modernity encroaches our minds, whatever is left from our spiritual traditions will become nothing… if not one last big attempt to escape from Laputa.
But what led to Laputa’s emergence in the first place? Reading history backwards, as one often does nowadays, we can easily be left dazzled by the astounding wealth that was created during the Industrial Revolution, which in turn was based on the principles of the new mathematical sciences that came out of the Enlightenment. But using this wealth as proof of their validity, however, is literally like putting the cart before the horse. In fact, it was another revolution that happened centuries before science was finally applied in industry, that explains the radical change of mind that brought the Age of Enlightenment.
It’s perhaps ironic that Descartes, whose ideas first placed the world on the tracts towards modernity, began his quest through a mystical vision, where an angelic being revealed to him how the basic structure of the universe was mathematical in nature. But therein lied a problem. One that has of late been forgotten. Because the real world is made of what philosophers of the age called “extensions,” where physical objects need to “extend” or “occupy” a piece of physical space in order to exist. But even avoiding the question of their existence, numbers do not extend, as they do not occupy physical space. How is it even possible then for something that doesn’t exist in physical space to correspond perfectly with everything that does? The radical solution that Descartes gifted the world is that two realities exist simultaneously, totally independent yet bound together by the grace of God: the “res extensa” or world of matter, and the “res cognita,” the world of the mind.
If this ultimate appeal to God by way of proving the connection between the two realms of matter and thought seems today a little arbitrary, it’s only proof of Descartes’s success in shaping the modern mind, to such an extent, that the enormous difficulty of that question has been all but forgotten. In our modern understanding of the natural world, physical qualities such as motion precede in importance meta-physical ones such as causes, and the “why” question of natural phenomena became slowly replaced by the “how,” until it simply evaporated. As to the “where” of this second realm of cognition, Descartes was in many ways one the first to place it… in the brain, paving the way for neuroscience, and Laputians’ “internal” gaze. And so, while he never abandoned his Christian origins, Descartes nonetheless placed the foundations for a world where God as a “final cause” is slowly receding to the background. Within his lifetime, the split between the world of experience, where qualities such as color and light create “affections” such as Beauty, and the world of pure number, located in a portion of the brain, had been made. The way was clear for Swift to imagine Laputa sailing over the earth on magnetic lines, along with the growing despair of the Prime Minister’s passionate wife.
Soon after Swift published his work, a movement would spring in Germany, a movement that we have learned to call Romanticism, and that for liberal authors such as Isaiah Berlin was the first substantial attack upon the ideals of the Enlightenment. The reasons Berlin gave as to its German origins was that unlike the image we may have from the 20th century, back when Jonathan Swift first wrote his novel, Germany was indeed the “backwater of Europe,” a country nearly destroyed by a protracted war against France, the site, no less, of the Enlightenment. Regardless of political orientations, however, and whether liberals like Berlin like to present Romanticism as regressive, we need to recognize, in ourselves as much as in 18th century Germans, a yearning towards the fullness of Being. A fullness that was viciously attacked by modern industrial society following the great split between the world of experience and the world of pure thought that was initiated by Descartes. In poetry, we recognize the attack in the images of William Blake’s Satanic Mills, a precursor to the factories of the Industrial Revolution. In contrast to Marx however, Blake’s factories were evil not because of their social injustice, which in Marx’s mind could be corrected, but exactly because they were physical manifestations of the abstract mathematical spirit that governed “Laputa.” Wordsworth, the most philosophical of the English Romantics, summed many of the criticisms against the new, reductive methods in biology, in a single verse: “We murder to dissect.”
The Industrial Revolution in many ways marked the final victory of the world that Blake and Wordsworth were trying to avoid, as the abstract principles they criticized found practical applications in real wealth creation, the first of its kind. And so the movement retreated in the realm of phantasy and art, where it is still found today. In the early 20th century, some weaker strains emerged that tried to reconcile our innate sense towards that “fullness of Being” with the modern scientific mind that destroyed it. Joseph Campbell famously showed how myths could be mapped onto personal dreams, and from there, to human conditions. Before him, Carl Jung theorized on a “Collective Unconscious,” a psychic structure that extends beyond the Cartesian categories of time and space, providing the ground out of which all mental phenomena, mythological as well as scientific, emerge. These efforts, however, as valiant as they were, only managed to save the gods by collapsing them into the human mind, Descartes’ “res cognita,” the realm of pure thought which remains split from the real world of “extensions.” A Greek beholding the gold and ivory statue of Athena inside the Parthenon, twelve meters high and sculpted by the hand of Phidias himself, would never say that this whole thing was inside of him. No, the gods are still in retreat. And our yearning to escape from Laputa… is as strong as ever.