Gulliver’s Travels / continued
by Peter Rickman
The hero arrives at the Island of Truth and travels on to the Island of Post-Everything.
After sailing a wide and stormy ocean traversing fog banks and passing melting icebergs, we at last sighted land. Even from the distance we saw what looked like human beings, so we drew into shore. An elderly man followed by several others greeted us on the sands. I bowed to him and explained that we were lost voyagers. “If you are lost” the old man said “you couldn’t have come to a better place, for this is the Island of Truth, first recorded by my forerunner, Immanuel Kant. I am Hegel the ruler of this land, and these are my Hegelians”.
I bowed more deeply “Your Majesty” I said “surely you claim more than an island.” Hegel looked embarrassed “It’s temporary” he mumbled. “History is still unfolding, but here all men are philosophers, for only rational men are real, and all real men are rational. My own hobby” he added “is bird watching, particularly owls in the twilight.” I looked duly impressed and he continued “Do you see the thin old man over there, picking up pebbles on the beach, that’s John Locke and the plump gentleman peering anxiously at the horizon, that’s David Hume waiting to see if the sun will rise. If you come inland with us you will see Voltaire cultivating his garden and Kant contemplating with awe the moral law within him.” Eager to show that I was not totally ignorant of philosophy I interposed “What about Descartes?” Hegel consulted the sky “He doesn’t exist yet” he replied “He doesn’t wake till well after sunrise.”
The road was gradually becoming busier and Hegel greeted various people whose names I was not familiar with. “I see no women” I commented. Hegel looked contemptuous at my incomprehension “They aren’t real” he commented tartly. This, as well as all I had seen and heard, made me uneasy. Hegel and his Hegelians had been civil enough but this was no place for us. “Your majesty” I said humbly “We need to travel on. All we require is fresh water and perhaps some provisions” There was no problem, after all they were committed to reasonableness and soon we were on our way again from that forbidding coast.
After some days, land once more came in view. It looked more inviting, for we saw dancing figures by the shore. As we drew in I addressed a man standing near, “Sir, we are sailors in strange seas. Where are we?” The man replied in a slightly un- English accent “I am not sure of the meaning of your utterance because its grammatical structure does not indicate if it is a plain or a rhetorical question. If the former it requires information about a spatial location, if the latter – expressing, perhaps anxiety over a cosmic dislocation – it calls for reassurance. Other meanings are possible too. You may, for example, be asking what stage an argument has reached.”
It was not for a guest to show impatience but we eventually extracted from him that the island was named, and dedicated to Post Everything, ie post structuralism, post modernism, post meaning, post reason etc. We then asked our new acquaintance about the dancing figures, and fortunately, we did not have to go through the palaver about it possibly being a rhetorical question and the like. “They are signifiers” he said “they are in no stable relations to any signifieds and so engage in free play.” Prudence dictated not to enquire further and our host led us inland where more curious sights were in store for us.
There was a man on a ladder knocking brick after brick from a house. “Hello Jacques” our host called and “hello Paul” the man replied. When we had been introduced we asked him to explain what he was doing and he was willing to comply. “I start”, he explained “from the conviction that every building, even if it has stood for some time, and served its ostensible purpose, has a structural fault. To detect it, the building has to be demolished brick by brick. We call this important job deconstruction”. I was amazed and asked “But where do people live then?” Both Jacques and Paul were disgusted by my asking such a drearily utilitarian question.
Next we passed a poster saying in large letters DOWN WITH CENTRISM. When I asked for enlightenment they patiently explained that most intellectual problems of mankind could be traced to a few centrisms such as logocentrism or phonocentrism. The very idea of centres, and things being central or peripheral was a prejudice fostering discrimination. They had rejected the notion of essential qualities and abolished town centres. Every part of the city was equally central or suburban. Bewildered I asked who the author of such doctrines was. My hosts looked at me with pity, they laughed “There is no author. They are all dead. The idea of individual creators is just superannuated bourgeois prejudice.”
It was not for me, a guest, to argue; after all I was still hoping to provision my ship on that strange island. Then I saw what looked like a shop. There was a large notice in the window announcing that fruit, vegetables and other provisions were on sale there. Accompanied by my host I walked in. “Could I buy some apples and some bread?” I asked. The man behind the counter looked at me silently, then pointed to the notice. I too, pointed to the notice, nodding. “Could you please provide some of these goods?” The man looked baffled, then laughed “There is nothing outside the text” he chuckled.
We left the island in haste, having despaired of food, drink or sense to be found there.
© Professor H.P. Rickman 1994
Peter Rickman is a visiting professor at the City University in London.