Every once in a while, I enjoy revisiting misanthropic classics. I picked up Gulliver’s Travels the other day and thumbed through his adventures in Luggnagg. This destination is less famous than Lilliput, but has one memorable feature, the immortal struldbrugs. When he first hears about them, Gulliver rhapsodizes about the wisdom, wealth, power and “sublunary happiness” which they must enjoy.
However, the inhabitants of Luggnagg set him straight. The struldbrugs have immortality, but not perpetual youth. When Gulliver examines them, he realises his error: “They were the most mortifying sight I ever beheld; and the women more horrible than the men. Besides the usual deformities in extreme old age, they acquired an additional ghastliness, in proportion to their number of years, which is not to be described.”
What I had forgotten was the attitude of the citizens of Luggnagg. At the age of 80, the struldbrugs are forced to become non-persons, maintained at the expense of the state with a scanty pension.
“… they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge. After that period, they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit; they cannot purchase lands, or take leases; neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal.”
Are there any lessons for the 21st Century in Jonathan Swift’s satire? Perhaps. Because of declining birth rates around the world, the proportion of octogenarians, nonagenarians and even centenarians is growing rapidly. Modern medicine may keep them from degenerating into struldbrugs, but they will inevitably become more dependent and lose their political and social influence.
The scariest thing would be if we were to become as misanthropic as Swift and to treat our elderly with contempt and bare tolerance, rather than respect their contributions and their inalienable dignity. The struldbrugs “are despised and hated by all sorts of people,” he writes. In a latter-day Luggnagg, euthanasia and assisted suicide begin to sound rather sensible. Perhaps we need a Struldbrug Pride movement to protect our elders from abuse.
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