Elected by the Conservative Party as everyone predicted to replace Theresa May as the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson’s victory speech reveals as much as it conceals about the future of Britain. Above all, it reveals much of what we already knew about what we might call Johnson’s “speech processes” which long ago, in his journalistic career, replaced his thought processes.
Boris reminds us, for example, that he has read the classics of English literature when he deploys a metaphor borrowed from Jonathan Swift as he promises the nation that “we are once again going to believe in ourselves and what we can do and like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Sleeping and, therefore, unaware of what is going on in the world, but totally focused on one’s dreams that distort reality
Johnson compares Britain and implicitly himself to Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. The comparison is apt in ways that Johnson didn’t intend. Swift paints Gulliver as a comic character, drifting through worlds that he cannot understand and, in the end, influenced to the point of a mad obsession by what he believes to be the master race: the Houyhnhnms, who have the morphology of horses but the language and thought processes of humans. These hyper-rational horses, who are incapable of telling a lie, also understand that Gulliver is nothing more than a clothed Yahoo, the other race on the island, who are brutish, aggressive, unthinking and unclothed animals with human morphology.
Johnson is known for identifying with the nation’s elite, even if he doesn’t specifically follow Gulliver in identifying with the master race of rational, articulate horses. It’s possible Johnson may not have read past the first of the four books of “Gulliver’s Travels,” since the story of the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms appears only in the final book. It is followed by Gulliver’s definitive lapse into paranoia, the sad, even despairing end of the comic tale. Something similar may await Johnson after his stay — however long or short — at 10 Downing Street.
In the first book, the shipwrecked Gulliver finds himself sleeping on a beach in the land of the Lilliputians, a tiny race of people who profit from the exhausted sailor’s slumber to tie him down with guy ropes. Gulliver has no trouble breaking free and becomes the powerful leader of the Lilliputians, who bow to his superior size and strength.
Though his conscious metaphorical intention may have been to see the slumbering giant as Britain as needing to wake up from a bad shipwreck of a dream to display its dominating force to the tiny, powerless Europeans, the real significance of the metaphor may be what it reveals about how Johnson thinks of himself and his role in society. He is the giant capable of putting out a catastrophic fire in Lilliput by simply peeing on the flames between now and October 31.
For Jonathan Swift, Gulliver — whose name evokes the adjective “gullible” — is a clownish avatar of British culture. His surreal interactions with a series of strange worlds allow Swift to explore the multiple follies and meaningless trends of both English society in the early 18th century, from heartless colonialism to abstruse scientific speculation and trivial theological debates. That Johnson portrays both Britain and his own person as a powerful giant who landed on an uncharted island and proves capable of restoring order to a society of little people tells a tale concerning his own psyche that would undoubtedly amuse Gulliver’s author to the point of hilarity.
In real life, Johnson sometimes does have the physical demeanor of a horse. He wears his hair like an ungroomed mane, and though preferring the two wheels of a bicycle to the four hoofs he could never manage to grow at the extremity of his limbs, Boris may believe himself to be not just a giant awaking on the beach to find himself strapped down by Lilliputian guy ropes, but also a Houyhnhnm, the master race whose members have no word for “lying.” Like Johnson, their discourse consists only of facts.
Noticing that Johnson’s “slumbering giant” was an allusion to “Gulliver’s Travels,” The Independent highlights a significant difference: “The truth is the Gordian knot in which the UK finds itself entangled was of its own making.” Instead of an alien diminutive race, the frightened Lilliputians that have subdued the giant are none other than the British politicians and voters who, first, allowed the 2016 Brexit referendum to happen, then voted in favor of leaving the European Union and finally fell into endless Lilliputian-style bickering and warring. In the case of the Lilliputians, it was the “Little-Endians” versus the “Big-Endians,” as they disputed the primordial question of which end of the boiled egg one should break to eat its contents.
Johnson is of course a Big-Endian, meaning that he favors a big, clean break of the shell that held the UK inside Europe. Boris himself, always seeking a pun, might say that he objects to the yolk being held in a yoke. He promises to do what Theresa May failed to do: “deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat (opposition Labour leader) Jeremy Corbyn.” With her mere Lilliputian strength, May failed to break free of the “guy ropes of self-doubt,” an affliction that Johnson has never been in danger of succumbing to.
Boris sees himself not only as a giant amongst dwarves but also — thanks possibly to a cinematic allusion — as the Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers’ iconic character, “the Dude.” Johnson delights his partisan audience when he tells them to add an “e” for “energize” to complete “deliver, unite, defeat” (DUD), producing the American word “dude.” (Could this be an appeal to President Donald Trump, who recognizes Johnson as a soul brother, “the UK version of himself”?)
Analyzing the problem of politicians in a democracy where self-promotion is required for electoral success, the great sociologist Max Weber spoke of the case where the “striving for power ceases to be objective and becomes purely personal self-intoxication, instead of exclusively entering the service of ‘the cause.’” He added, “The mere ‘power politician’ may get strong effects, but actually his work leads nowhere and is senseless.” Was Weber anticipating Trump, Johnson or both?
What would the 18th-century wit, Jonathan Swift, have thought of Johnson’s contrived attempt at a joke that literally comes across like a dud? According to Guy Faulconbridge and Elizabeth Piper writing for Reuters, Johnson’s “embrace of a court jester role has won over many Britons,” but Johnson would do better to study his Monty Python or, better still, seek to hire one of its surviving members to write his jokes.
That might be difficult, though, since John Cleese, who spoke out in favor of Brexit, recently complained that he is so disgusted by the entire Brexit debate — specifically citing Johnson’s promise of diverting the money for Europe to the National Health Service — that he will move to a Caribbean island. Another Python, Michael Palin, didn’t support Brexit, precisely because it was witless. “[T]here’s not a single joke in Brexit,” he complained. He is unlikely to have been convinced by Johnson’s dude joke. As for Eric Idle, he recently tweeted: “Brexit. Having shot ourselves in the foot we now go on to aim at our ankles…..I hope our knees surrender.”
Palin is right. Brexit appears not just to be humorless, but may have killed the possibility of British humor ever again emerging. It would be the death of a rich tradition that includes Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Laurence Sterne, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, the Beatles, the Monty Python and many, many more, in all the arts.
No one knows how long the Brexit drama will last, despite Boris Johnson’s promise to produce its glorious outcome on October 31. And no one can predict how long the current slumber of British wit and humour (sic) will last.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.