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Literary Blog

On Satire

Monday’s review of They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? — Christopher Buckley’s ninth political satire — raises the question of just what satire is. Trouble is, no one is really sure. The term has become a verbal shrug (“You know?”) for any kind of fiction at all with a humorous smack. As George Meredith famously said in his Essay on Comedy (1877), “If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.” At its most precise, then, satire denotes humor that is mean as distinguished from humor that is nice. Peter De Vries advanced a similiar distinction in his novel Sauce for the Goose (1981):

Mrs. Dobbin had once read an article on humor in one of the magazines with smooth complexions, which analyzed satire by sorting its practitioners into two classes. Satirists were either soft-mouthed or hard-mouthed. They both brought their prey back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not.

If De Vries is to be believed, however (and no one understood the use of humor in fiction any better than he), the distinction belongs to satire instead of blocking it off from other types of humor. And De Vries has got to be right, because not all satirists are chilling meanies (Christopher Buckley, for example, is warm-hearted toward his prey).

The question about satire is an ancient one, and I have no intention of rehearsing history’s answers. Mainly because they have been remarkably uniform, from Diomedes Grammaticus in the 4th century B.C.E. (quoted by Dryden in the Discourse on Satire), who said that “Satire amongst the Romans but not amongst the Greeks, was a biting invective poem, made after the model of the ancient comedy, for the reprehension of vices,” all the way down to Stephen Greenblatt, who characterizes it in Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990) as the kind of literature explicitly engaged in attack. Literary history stands united. Satire is fiction that delivers a good bitch slap.

Who am I to stand athwart history? But I would like to observe that two errors result from the uniform confusion of satire with biting humor. First, fiction that is not satirical is subjected to misunderstanding. (The best example of a first-rate novelist who has suffered from the confusion is Francine Prose.) Second, the element of humor, which is not the dominant note in satire, no matter what the critics think, is overemphasized, leading to misinterpretation of a different sort.

WTF? Satire is not supposed to be funny? Only a pompous fool or a turgid academic (but I repeat myself) would arrive at such a conclusion! Don’t get me wrong: a satirist has to make his readers laugh. Otherwise there’s no reason to read him in the first place. But that’s not all he is supposed to do. That’s not even the main thing. The German romantic novelist Jean Paul (a.k.a. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) explains:

A satire on everything is a satire on nothing; it is mere absurdity. All contempt, all disrespect, implies something respected, as a standard to which it is referred; just as every valley implies a hill.

This is why the view of satire as ridicule or biting invective or attack is upside-down. Despite outward appearances, satire is fundamentally affirmative, even if its methods are not. De Vries quoted Robert Frost in support of the notion: “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.”

Satire’s principal method is what in philosophy is called the reductio, the reduction of an idea or attitude to absurdity. But as Jean Paul points out, the satire itself cannot be an absurdity, or nothing is accomplished. (There in a sentence is the weakness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “satire.”) The satirist reduces his puffed-up targets to absurdity, because he wants to clear the ground for a more durable standard of meaning. If he could describe it with outer seriousness, rather than mocking its competitors with outer humor, he’d probably do so. But he writes the best way he can, and avoids what is beyond his capacities. “I have recently read a couple of serious-type articles about what I am actually up to,” De Vries said, “and I can only conclude that my stuff is really over my head.”

What, then, distinguishes satire from other varieties of fiction and other types of humor? The definition in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the best, because it is the cleanest: Satire is caricature joined to literary form. Other varieties of fiction depend upon characterization rather than caricature; other types of humor dispense with literary form (plot, scene, meter). Satire is a genre of serious literature which keeps its seriousness carefully concealed like a weapon of last resort. Bitch slaps are optional: they are a technique, not a genre.


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