Shapes of Satire


    Satire is the kind of literature that deals with fragments of society, with a society or family or life that is no longer whole.  Satire is what happens when there isn't any decent family or society available for the main character to reconcile himself to, or when the desires he has aren't worth desiring, or when the actions he takes aren't worth taking. Satire is the shape of literature that describes what our world is like when all anyone can see of it are disintegrated pieces.

    One of the best satires that has ever been on TV is The Prisoner, a 17-episode series that is recycles from time to time.  Probably the most popular satiric novel yet written is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World -- at least since since Swift's Gulliver's Travels or A Modest Proposal, There are lots of other candidates, Salomon  Rushdie's The Satanic Verses being one.  In each these satiric works, heroes have no place to go when the novel ends, like the young hoodlum protagonist of Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange, or Holden Caulfield in Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, or Huckleberry Finn. Essentially, they find no society that's worth becoming a part of.

    So, let's  begin talking about satire by seeing it as one of four kinds of literature, one of four shapes of literature.  To review:

    • ROMANCE ROMANCE has the shape of wish-fulfillment -- often an adventure full of excitement & passion, a main character desires something, and (eventually) gets it
    • COMEDY has the shape of reintegration --of the family, of the social order, of society. That need for a reintegration shapes its plot.
    • TRAGEDY has the shape of disintegration -- a person breaking from his family, forced out of the social order, separated from his country, a government breaking apart, a country breaking down. This disintegration shapes the plot.
    • SATIRE has the shape of fragmentation. In satire, chaos isn't far away. In  satire, cities become wastelands; school rooms become blackboard jungles; society becomes a mob or groups of gangs, marriage becomes a mere convenience or disappears altogether; all the signs of civilized life lose their glue, the whole social fabric threatens to come apart.

    First a history:

    Satire as a mode of human experience seems to have come out of primitive magic, ritual and curse. One of the earliest records of it as satire--that is satire identified as such--is in Aeschylus' time (circa 475 BC).  In between his short plays, men dressed as satyrs made fun of the actors--hence our modern word satiric.  But this practice was probably an outgrowth of Dionysian rituals that go back at least to 1200 BC.  Aristotle (384 -322 BC) guessed as much, that satire grew out of magic curses improvised and hurled at individuals by leaders of the Phallic songs. These magic phrases were designed to drive away evil influences so that the positive fertility magic of the phallus might begin working. It took place in a ritual that, eventually, developed into Greek Old Comedy.

    But satire isn't just Greek in origin. Classical scholars will explain that while "satiric" comes from Greek "satyr," the noun "satire" comes from the Roman noun "satura," and so the term have both Greek and Roman origin.  But every tribe we know of made satires, because satire, as it's defined here, is a way humans think. And satires work. Ancient Irish  poets could compose an "aer" or satire that would blight crops, dry up milk, raise blotches on victims and ruin someone's character for ever. The earliest known Greek satirist, Archelochus (7th century BC) did the same thing: he wrote such a strong satire that not only his victim, a man named Lycambes, but also Lycambes' daughters hung themselves.

    In ancient Arabia poets could kill, it is said, with satires, and satirical poets led troops into battle hurling satirical curses  the way the warriors hurled spears. There are records of occasional duels among Eskimos in the 20th century where their weapons were satirical phrases invented and hurled against each other.  The loser, I've read, could be exiled or even killed. People fear the power of satire. In Elizabethan England satire was prohibited by law and satiric verses were burned like witches. And in 1968 a friend of mine, an assistant professor at a major university was told he would be fired if he published a mild satire against English teachers (he published it anyway, but under a fake name and in another country).  During the Vietnam War the counterculture waged satiric assaults against the country's war policy. Hundreds of people encircled the Pentagon and threatened to levitate by chanting (they tried).   And The Yippies tried to run a pig for President, Pigasus.  They were pursued by the F.B.I. 

    Satire as psychological ritual:

    It is probable that each one of us discovered satire when we discovered cursing (it is primitive and magical ). "You son of a bitch!" could be a satiric, magic phrase designed to ruin the-enemy's character.  Does anyone remember any of those nasty rhymes that kids use? Often they start out,

    "Naaaa, Nyaaaa, Nyaaaa, Johnny is a . . .(fill in the blank)        

    I can't remember what Johnny was, but I can remember using that rhyme & having it used against me. That certainly is a throwback to primitive satire. I know of another example, firsthand, where a high-school girl was cursed with magic satiric curses and actually crippled for a week.  I know this sounds hard to believe, but it's true.  She sat in a circle of other girls and when they chanted hateful phrases in unison, she fell to the ground, unable to walk.

    Obviously, there is a difference, several differences, between modern, adult, sophisticated satire and primitive, childlike ritualistic satire. What seems to have happened historically is that like man, like civilization, satire grew up. Originally satire was like a magic weapon, a curse hurled by a hard attacker, the shaman-poet-druid-witch doctor. Originally it was practical, designed to discredit or main or even kill.

    Then rituals developed that used satirical speeches in them. Greek Old Comedy holds examples of this and there are lots of others.  The point is that satire got displaced from the battlefield into the theater and onto the page. The satirist no longer spoke directly; characters on the stage or page spoke for him. And as the satirist became displaced from the spoken words, he began to develop a detachment from the character who spoke the words.  A psychological distance grew  between the satirist who made up the words and the character he created to utter them.  And as this happened, modern satire was born.  This doesn't mean that modern satire isn't just as effective, as forceful.  Salomon Rushdie's satire was forceful enough to get a death-sentence placed on his head by the people to whom it was addressed.

    What happens with our childish satire as we grow up may not be not all that different from what happened with mankind's as it grew up. As kids we chanted those awful wonderful sometimes effective magic curses that were our weapons in our primitive wars. We grew up to become adults who sometimes tell ironic stories about other people, real I and imagined.  In reality, Gerry Ford wasn't uncoordinated physically, was he?  We're really saying something else when we retell that story about him being too dumb to walk and chew gum at the same time. We're being ironic, satirical. Look at the jokes about Clinton, or about George W. BushSatire abounds.

    We grow up, grow out of  the center of our satires, and we become detached, ironic about whomever we put there. This is how satire grew, too. Like people, it suffered an ironic displacement. The magic, the charm, is not quite the same now. The satire is not overtly about us.  We're not obviously defending ourselves or attacking. We can no longer exercise our power by satirizing rats to death (an old story insists that Irish satirists could killed rats with their satiric rhymes). When that great modern satirist Will Rogers says about congress "Every time they  make a joke, it gets to be a law" and then  adds, "And every time they make a law, it's a joke!" he is describing the estrangement of Americans from their government. It is satire, honest and forthright, but no longer magic spell or, direct curse. And it's not focused on Will Rogers.  It is spoken with a humorous, wry, detached irony.

    Irony is the essence of satire and every satirist today uses it, because every satirist is writing about the lack of wholeness in his subject -- its lack of moral or human healthiness. Take what is probably the most famous example of satire in English, Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal written in 1729. It is the epitome of irony.

    If Swift had simply said to the English, "you're governing Ireland abominably and  your policies and neglect are causing widespread famine," he would have just been repeating what Irish sympathizers had been telling the English for years. Nothing would have come of it. Instead, he wrote this "Modest Proposal", or to cite its full title:

    A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public

    It is a  melancholy  object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the steels, the roads, and cabin doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling, to beg sustenance for their helpless infants ...

    I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms or on the backs or at the heels of their mothers and frequently of their fathers, is in  the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth would deserve so  well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

    Shortly, he makes his proposal

    I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least  objection.

    I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout. 

    Finally, he ends this way:

    I profess in the sincerity of my heart that I have not the least personal interest in  endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by  which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past childbearing.

    With this work, and I quote an eighteenth century historian, Jonathan Swift "delivered Ireland from Plunder & Oppression; and showed that wit, confederated with truth, had such force as authority was unable to resist." Swift became a national hero in England; when he returned to Dublin after a trip to England, church bells rang, the mayor rowed out to greet his ship, and there were bonfires of celebration in the streets.

    Every work of modern satire has a feeling of moral outrage at its core. And it proceeds in at least two ways: it can be written to condemn --as Swift wrote A Modest Proposal to condemn the English or as Anthony Burgess wrote Clockwork Orange.  Or it can be written to heal -- as Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, or as Will Rogers commented on politics -- to warn and to heal. 

    It is as though the personalities of satirists are of two basic kinds: each sees evil and folly. One wants to destroy evil, to satirize it out of existence. The other wants to use irony to cure it , to coax it back to health with satire, however bitter the pill. The first two famous Greek satirists differed in just these ways. Juvenile was a satirical executioner (Juvenalian satire).  Horace was a satirical physician (Horatian satire). And Joyce is both, sometimes both at once.

    The Uses of Satire:

    Before we get to Dubliners, a few sentences about the uses of satire, about what good it is. Surely it was good that in 1729 Jonathan Swift proposed that the Irish should eat their children --good because it changed English policy towards Ireland for the better. I don't know if it was good to run a pig for President in America in 1968, but maybe if someone as skillful as Swift had proposed it, we might have been spared more years of war and Watergate. Surely satire has use  in the world: to correct folly. That is what Will Rogers was about, the ironic physician to America's follies. One use of satire is public proscription.

    But there is another value to it.  I'd like to go back to the idea that kids grow up through the stages satire went through as it grew up. At first they are primitive satirists and try to use words and ritual phrases in a magical fashion, relying on shame, fear, sympathetic magic and group pressure to win over or cripple their enemies, other kids. Then they begin to grow up and become less myopic. As they lose their shrill child  voices screaming for what a child wants, they begin to see more clearly the differences between the way the world is and the way it might be. Some of these young adults have exceptionally sharp vision. 

    And while some kids who grow up to be writers write about what man wishes for, Romances, and others write Comedies or Tragedies, how people reintegrate or destroy, a few keep looking at the discrepancies in life.  Think of Bob Dylan's Hard Rain or The Ballad of Hattie Carol.

    These satirists get very good at being detached, ironic.  Good at expressing the follies in human behavior, the inconstancies, the neurotic mannerisms, the incompleteness.  These grown-up people develop a keen sense of perspective.   They do not celebrate mere wish-fulfillment, imagined reintegration, or our fear of destruction.  For the satiric writer, the fragmented vision of satire is his way of  showing what it is like not to be whole, implying that there is or ought to be a world better than the one which by its own actions and ideas is tearing itself into parts. 

    Satire for these writers could be what happens when the physician looks at the patient with concern. He makes a Horatian Satire to heal us, his patients, to arouse in us such emotions that will make us want to examine our lives and change them. Aldous Huxley.

    Or Satire, for a writer could be akin to what happens when the judge looks at the criminal and unflinchingly holds up a mirror of his worth. Anthony  Burgess. Burgess makes satire to hang folly- -by its neck, or by its "shiyah" as the hoods in Clockwork Orange would say.  Dylan writes Juvenalian satire, as defined here, in the Masters of War.

    In either case, the satirist takes a stance that lets him see folly in every direction.  Picture him standing on wholeness, on Comedy, if you will. We can't see it, it's under his feet, the healthy, integrated world he knows should exist. All its values are his, but the only place wholeness exists is under the soles of his feet. Then he starts pointing at the world around him.

    He can be very cool standing there with everybody and everything around him writhing in the throes of his satiric vision.  Very balanced, detached, and relentlessly clear about what he sees. And what he describes can look so real.

    Now we can talk about Joyce.



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