Anyone who has taken a survey course in English literature is probably familiar with Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, the races of midgets and giants that Jonathan Swift created in Gulliver’s Travels almost three centuries ago. Both names have become adjectives, and it is easy to discern, just by each word’s sound, which are the giants and which are the midgets. But in his satire, Swift also invented less familiar beings, including wise horses called Houyhnhnms and a race of immortals called Struldbruggs. Gulliver extolls the virtues of the Struldbruggs, who, through a kind of genetic lottery, are destined to live forever.
But Gulliver, whose name may have been intended to suggest gullability, equates immortality with eternal bliss: “Happy nation, where every child has at least a chance for being immortal! Happy people, who enjoy so many living examples of ancient virtue, and have masters ready to instruct them in the wisdom of all former ages! But happiest, beyond all comparison, are those excellent Struldbruggs, who, being born exempt from that universal calamity of human nature have their mind free and disengaged, without the weight and depression of spirits caused by the continual apprehension of death!”
But immortality turns out to be something less than blissful, as Gulliver is slow to grasp: “Only in this island of Luggnagg the appetite for living was not so eager, from the continual example of the Struldbruggs before their eyes.” The problem, as Swift explains, was not “whether a man would choose to be always in the prime of youth, attended with prosperity and health; but how he would pass a perpetual life, under all the usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it.”
Gulliver goes on to report that the immortals actually act much like their mortal counterparts, with an added burden: their immortality. “When they came to fourscore years [eighty], which is reckoned the extremity of living in this country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more, which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying.”
This next passage may sound famililar: “They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grandchildren. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions.” Worse yet, “They have no remembrance of anything, but what they learned and observed in their youth and middle age, and even that is very imperfect [my italics].
Sound familiar? Here’s more: “The least miserable among them appear to be those who turn to dotage, and entirely lose their memories.…they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end.”
In The End of Memory: A Natural History of Alzheimer’s, Jay Ingram speculates on the likelihood that Swift himself had what now would probably have been diagnosed as Alzheimer’s or Pick’s disease, a rare brain disorder that typically presents itself in late middle age. The most telling detail is Swift’s blunt assertion in 1738 when he was 71: “I have entirely lost my memory. I can hardly understand one word I write.” An inquest quoted by Ingram stated that “His understanding was so much impaired, and his memory so much failed, that he was utterly incapable of conversation.”
And so ended the career of the most influential satirist in the English language.