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This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Animal Spirits 3 Iain Bamforth
Giants and midgets

‘Only late did I understand how small she was to herself’, writes Jeanette Winterson about the large-framed, domineering adoptive mother who bullied her by withholding affection and issuing bizarre rules for conduct in Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal. Winterson adds that there is no such thing as a standard size, this being ‘an illusion of industrialisation’.

Not an illusion entirely, being based on Gaussian distribution patterns; but in the religious context her mother’s inability to gauge her own true size in the scale of things is a reminder of how images of relative size have been recruited all down through Judaeo-Christendom as an analogy for original sin. The image of humans as small and loathsome goes back to the Psalms where the writer compares himself to a worm. John Bunyan saw himself as ‘more loathsome than a toad’. Jonathan Swift famously recruited the diminutive Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels to cast a cosmic shadow on earthly achievements: Gulliver initially seems a giant, and is even tempted by his own size to act out a fantasy of omnipotence and seize ‘forty or fifty of the first [Lilliputians] that came in my reach, and dash them against the ground’. But Swift makes it clear that Gulliver’s own feeling of potency as ‘Man Mountain’ derives from the same kind of illusions of grandeur to which the Lilliputians are subject. He ‘creeps’ in order to acquire honours. Pride blinds him to his own true nature. In the ‘Voyage to Brobdingnag’ chapter, Gulliver has the ...

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