The Uses of Satire in 21st Century

Is satire of any use?  Does it change anything?

Sometimes real events appear to stretch the capabilities of commentators who wish to address through criticism, invective, ridicule or, indeed, satire.

Satire has a very long history. Numerous definitions of it are available.  Many literary or dramatic productions have satirical elements or passages.  The boundaries are blurred at the edges.  I take it that cartoons can be satirical: when they address individuals, they probably qualify as lampoons rather than satires: I rely on the definitions cited below.

I would like to refer to two definitions of satire, as they are insightful, in my opinion.

In his famous dictionary (1755), Samuel Johnson noted the definition from the Latin ‘satira’ and defined it as:

A poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.  Proper satire is distinguished, by the generality of the reflections, from a lampoon which is aimed against a particular person; but they are too frequently confounded.

 

The aim of satire is clear.  The literary nature is given as the mode of expression.  Verse is preferred to prose.  (Discuss!)

 

Secondly, I refer to the 1946 MA thesis of a Mr E L Watrin, student at Loyola ir

 

(See: Watrin, Eugene L., Absalom and Achitophel in the Light of the Scholastic Canons of Aesthetics (1946). Master’s Theses. Paper 417. http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_theses/417 Accessed 7 Feb 2017)

In his thesis, Mr Watrin examined the nature of satire in general and John Dryden’s 1681 verse satire in particular.

Dryden’s long poem fulfils the criteria of Samuel Johnson’s definition, as it is in verse, and it is aimed at a particular time, place and group of people (England’s powerful men – mostly, those in government).

One of the clever aspects of the poem is the parallels Dryden establishes between the English of his time and the Jews of the 2nd Book of Samuel in the Bible.  Hence, King David represents King Charles II and Absalom (David’s illegitimate son) represents the Duke of Monmouth (Charles’s own illegitimate son).  And so on.

The poem still meets with admiration among scholars.  But few people today know much about this part of the OT, nor late 7th century English history, nor John Dryden, let know Absalom and Achitophel.   (I shall comment on this, below.)

I proceed to Mr Watrin’s carefully considered definition of satire:

As a working description which can serve as foundation for further explanation we might say that satire is literature written to reform or improve, rendered effective by rhetorical devices. Or….satire is a literary production in which the correction of abuse is the principal form, and the rhetorical devices which add brilliance to this first form are the secondary forms. The three notes which characterize satire are the literary manner, the corrective purpose, and the use of rhetoric. The first distinguished it from the sermon or oration, the second from comedy, and the third from impassioned diatribe. [page 31]

This definition permits the inclusion of prose satire, so long as it reaches a high literary standard and uses rhetorical devices.

The trouble is that, generally, satire’s edge loses its sharpness with the passage of time.  The writer presupposes that the reader or audience will understand who or what the targets are.  As time passes, many issues which give rise to satire become footnotes in history.  It takes a great writer to produce something that lasts and that gives delight and perhaps instruction to later generations.  Who fulfils this criterion?

I would put forward a few names: Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), George Orwell (1903-1950), and Dario Fo (1926-2016). (Not meant to be an exclusive list.)

Swift

Jonathan Swift was a prolific writer of satires.  He is best remembered nowadays for his Gulliver’s Travels (1726 and 1735)The precise historical background is lost to today’s readers, in the absence of footnotes.  However, readers can make their own connections to abuses of the present day.

Fo

Dario Fo has been a prolific and popular writer and indeed multi-tasker.  His Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Morte accidentale di un anarchico) (1970), for example, albeit constructed as a farce, satirises police corruption and illogicality, mercilessly and (I think) effectively.

Orwell

George Orwell is still widely admired – but particularly for two works.

Animal Farm (1945) is extremely well constructed. It is clear and concise.  It has a strong internal logic.  It makes a clever use of allegory: the animal characters are endowed with human traits. It is funny, but the humour is bitter.

The satire is upon totalitarianism.  It appears that Orwell was thinking of Soviet-style communism; but it my opinion it can be applied to fascism too.

Some of the phrases have become well-known quotations, for example: “Four legs good, two legs good,” and its distortion into “Four legs good, two legs better”, and “All animals are equal,” which is twisted into “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

A warning from history!

I do not see Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four/1984 (1949) as a satire.  Whereas Animal Farm starts on a heroic note and ends in a dystopia, 1984 presents the reader with an ongoing dystopia. It can be seen as a second take on the end situation depicted in Animal Farm.

Many of its concepts have entered the language, for example, “Big Brother” and “Newspeak”.  “Newspeak” has relevance to the 21st century, as today we hear talk of “fake news” and “post-truth” – in other words, lies.  (I note that Rudyard Kipling, in his poem If, spoke of: “the truth you’ve spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”!  Identify the knaves!)

George Orwell has been read continually from the 1940s up to 2017; and his reputation as a writer-critic is secure.  His books have not dated.  Totalitarianism has not disappeared.

On the whole, I believe that satire does not, in itself, cause political change; but it tends to raise the awareness of readers and audiences of the issues that impinge upon them (whether short or long term).  It acts as a corrective to lies and misinformation. It still has its uses.

 

 

 

 

 

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Franz Kafka,’Das Schloss’ (‘The Castle’)

 

Sie sind nicht aus dem Schloẞ, Sie sind nicht aus dem Dorfe, Sie sind nichts.  Leider sind Sie doch etwas, ein Fremder, der ûberzählig und ûberall im Wege ist, einer, wegen dessen man immerfort Scherereien hat.

You are not from the Castle, you are not from the village, you are nothing.  Unfortunately, though, you are something – a stranger, superfluous, always in the way, constantly causing trouble.

[The landlady of the village inn to K, in Chapter 4]

 

The title

The word ‘Schloss’, in the title, can be translated as ‘castle’ or ‘palace’ or “country house” (or even ‘lock’).  The building (or buildings) that figure in Kafka’s novel appears, however, to be quite unimpressive – certainly, this is how it appears to ‘K’, the protagonist.

Publication

Kafka left his third novel incomplete (but see below).  It was published only after his death, at the instigation of his friend Max Brod.

The story

K arrives in a village, in winter, to take up an appointment as a land surveyor, for Count Westwest.  The local castle (the Castle) overlooks the village.  The Castle officials (an all-male elite) oversee all the goings-on in the village and record them, in bureaucratic detail.  They are respected and looked up to by the villagers, and indeed obeyed.

The Castle and the village are fundamentally separate.  Castle officials visit the village but villagers are not permitted to enter the Castle. The officials transact much of their business in the village itself, at night.  They conduct interviews with villagers at night too.

The novel largely consists of a record of the series of meetings between K and individuals – both villagers and officials – which give him some insight into how the place works.  (Called to his own first proper interview with an official, at night, K misses his appointment, by falling asleep!)

Some Castle officials abuse their power over the ordinary people by taking local women as their mistresses. They are free too to discard them.  (One man in particular – Herr Klamm – is mentioned.)  The women who are taken up by Castle officials gain rather than lose higher social status in the village!  (Any woman who rejects such a relationship is ostracised by the community)

K himself tries to use his relationship with a young villager (Frieda) as a bargaining tool in order to arrange a man-to-man interview with Klamm – this he fails to achieve.

K is engaged in a struggle for recognition as a professional person – a land surveyor.  He never has the opportunity to practise his profession.  Indeed, one informant tells him that his services are not required and that the job offer resulted from a bureaucratic error.

K remains an outsider.

The language

Kafka’s prose is precise.  It has many long sentences, with subordinate clauses.  Different aspects of a topic are balanced.  Different arguments are weighed against each other.  It reminds the reader of bureaucratic language.  Even the characters’ speeches tend to be formal.  Typically of literary German, reported speech features extensive use of the subjunctive mood.

Kafka’s German is fairly easy to understand, because of its clarity; but it is difficult to translate into fluent English.   For example, the word order sometimes has to be changed – but with this the delicate structure of the original may be impaired.

The story is told, in a way, from K’s perspective, as the reader is given access to his thoughts as well as his statements, as in a first person narrative.  The other characters’ thoughts are revealed in their body language (as reported) and what they say.

K, the protagonist

The reader is entitled to ask questions about K.

Why does he stay in the village, given that he suffers a series of rebuffs?

Is he too proud about his status?  (He does accept a job as a school caretaker as a temporary measure.)

Is he insufficiently flexible in his dealings with both villagers and officials?  Does he expect the system to adapt to him rather than the other way round?

What is more important to K – his proclaimed love for the barmaid Frieda or his wish to use her as way to set up an interview with Klamm (her former lover)?  Does he neglect her, in the pursuit of his struggle for recognition?  Does he, indeed, misuse her?

The officials

The bureaucrats communicate with K through letters and through interviews – solely on their own terms (who, when, where and how are entirely at their discretion).

The fact that the offer of an appointment to K as a land surveyor was a mistake is not officially recognised.

The bureaucrats fail to resolve K’s status and so leave him in limbo.

An ironic ending

In his afterword to the first edition of Das Schloss, Max Brod states that Kafka revealed to him how the story would end.  By this account, K does not give up his struggle; but he eventually dies in the attempt, from exhaustion.  The local people gather around his death bed.  Now the Castle officials hand down their decision: although they deny K any legal claim to live in the village, taking into account the circumstances, they grant him permission to live and to work there.

Themes

  • Class: the officials have arbitrary power over the lives of the villagers and appear to from a separate, superior class
  • Gender: the officials are all male; they abuse their power when they take village women (expected to comply) as their mistresses
  • Bureaucracy: while little indication is given of much activity being carried out in the village, it is made clear that the officials maintain detailed records of everything.

Meanings

1 The novel reflects the human search for belonging to a community

2 Similarly, it reflects the human search for recognition, by the community, of one’s personal worth

3 It may reflect the human search for order in society

4 It may also have something to do with the need for fairness and flexibility, which can temper the rigid administration of rules

5 It may reflect the elusive nature of a fair social order and the imperfections of human societies in reality

6 In part it may be a satire on excessive and inflexible bureaucracy (the maintenance of some sort of order, at any cost)

7 It may too represent a critique of excessive individualism

8 For a 21st century reader, it can be seen as a parable that illustrates the plight of people who remain outsiders, for example, the homeless, those who suffer discrimination, foreigners, asylum seekers and refugees

9 Fundamentally, Das Schloss remains ambiguous.

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King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616, and the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it

The relatively obscure and seldom performed early play, King John, resembles the much better known Richard III (written, perhaps, a little earlier)I value John, and I wish to make some comments in its favour, and to compare it with Richard.

It must be acknowledged that the play is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.

Plot summary

Possession of the English crown is contested.  John has might rather than right on his side.  He maintains his power against the claim of Arthur, his nephew, supported by France and the Pope.  (Arthur dies, in suspicious circumstances: John is blamed.)  John nearly loses his crown, when the Dauphin (the French king’s son’s invades England and the English lords join sides with him.  John’s cause is rescued by Faulconbridge (a fictional bastard son of King Richard I) and Hubert (a commoner).  John dies, not in battle (as Richard III does) but as the result of poisoning by a monk.  He is succeeded by his own son, Henry III.

THEME 1 – KINGS

Both John and Richard portray the rise and fall of a king who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  Richard is single-minded, strong and tyrannous; but John is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge; he is easily outwitted by Pandulph, the papal legate.

There are in theory alternative kings for England.  Arthur is young and weak and over-dependent on his mother.  A victim of John’s machinations, he strikes a very pathetic figure.  Faulconbridge, the (fictional) son of Richard I, has the qualities of wit, strength of character and loyalty, but he is disqualified by his illegitimacy.

On the French side, the king and his son act in their own interest, against that of England; and Pandulph, the papal legate, does likewise.

THEME 2 – ACTIONS

Both plays feature dynastic marriages: in John, between John’s Niece, Blanche, and the future Louis VIII of France.

Both plays have English lords who have shifting loyalties as between rival claimants to the throne.

Both include battles and an invasion of England: in Richard, the future Henry VII makes good his claim to the crown; in John, the future Louis VIII of France returns home empty-handed.

The tragic fate of Arthur, John’s nephew, parallels that of Richard’s victims, especially that of his own nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”).

Women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.  In King John, major female characters exit early:

  • Blanche, at the end of Act 3 Scene 1
  • Eleanor (John’s mother), at the end of Act 3 Scene 3
  • Constance (Arthur’s mother), in Act 3 Scene 4.

(This feature was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

THEME 3 – REACTIONS, MALE

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Pandulph, in particular, is a skilled practitioner of the misuse of rhetoric and specious arguments for his own ends.

 

Surprisingly, perhaps, Prince Louis of France does strike a note of regret about how events have turned out, in a few remarkable lines (Act 3 Scene 4):

     There’s nothing in this world can make me joy.

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man,

And bitter shame hath spoiled the sweet world’s taste,

That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.

 

THEME 4 – REACTIONS, FEMALE

 

As in Richard III, it is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  (Arthur finds the words for fear.)  Blanche talks about her divided loyalties, when her father and her husband are at war with each other.  Constance vents her grief, and her anger, over the capture of Arthur and his betrayal by his French allies.

Those who mourn, in the body of John are the victims of ambitious men (kings, earls and the papal legate) and their single-minded pursuit of power.  (Compare Richard III and his allies.)

 

THE ENDING

 

The final scene is characterised by the quiet fading away of King John himself and the perfunctory mourning of his passing, followed by Faulconbridge’s putting in a few words acceptance of the present and optimism about the future.  To paraphrase: ‘the King is dead, long live the king!’ and ‘England is strong if we stick together.’

 

Conclusion

 

A problem is that John commences somewhat as a comedy but develops into a tragedy.  Well, it would be a tragedy (rather than a history, perhaps), if John himself was a stronger, albeit flawed, character – a hero, or at least a clear anti-hero – and if his death formed a climax to the play rather than an anti-climax.  John lacks Richard III’s wicked humour, cleverness and depth of deceitfulness, which simultaneously attracts and repels the reader or the member of the audience.  (The wit and wisdom are left to Faulconbridge.)

 

But do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?

 

In accordance with many of Shakespeare’s early history plays, King John I contains many long rhetorical speeches (as does Richard III).  These require skilled acting on the stage.  In my opinion, several are over-long and repetitive and will benefit from cuts in performance.

 

On balance, then, King John is worth a look.

[the long version]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King John died 1216, Shakespeare died 1616 – the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it.

It must be acknowledged that King John is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  (Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.)  It portrays the rise and fall of King John, who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  (Compare and contrast Richard III.)  He is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge.

It is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  But the women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.

(This aspect was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Other characters display their pursuit of “commodity”, to the detriment of others.

 

Do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?  And dangerous!

[the short version]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What really happened at Troy (with apologies to Homer)

Once upon a time, long ago, a great Greek army, assembled from numerous cities, and led by King Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea and besieged the city of Troy in Asia Minor (now Turkey).  A semi-permanent tent city grew up, between the city and the Greeks’ ships, beached on the nearby shore.  The men were accompanied by women, captured in previous battles, and enslaved; and they had animals with them too.

The Greeks’ war aim was to take back the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, and brother of Agamemnon.  Helen had been abducted by the Trojan Prince Paris and taken to Troy.  The two armies were well matched; but true it is that the Trojans, led by the great Hector, would often take the offensive and sally forth through the city gates.  Sometimes they would reach the enemy’s ships and threaten to set them on fire.  Finally, repulsed by the Greeks, who desperately defended their camp, they would retreat into safety behind Troy’s impregnable walls.  The Greeks felt obliged to build their own wall, to protect their camp.  They found that they were making no progress in their campaign.

Then real disaster struck the Greeks: first, their mules died, unaccountably, in great numbers, next their dogs, and finally their men sickened and died.  What, they wondered, was the cause?

The funeral pyres continued for nine days.  Then, the redoubtable Achilles called the Army commanders, to a council: and so they all met.

When all had assembled, Achilles spoke first. “The way our losses are continuing,” he said, “we shall soon have to give up the fight and return to our own homes.  Perhaps we have offended the gods.  I suggest that, with no more ado, we should consult a priest or prophet for advice.”

Calchas, the augur, responded to this and stood up to speak, in turn.  “The gods are angry,” he claimed, “because Agamemnon has taken the fair daughter of the priest Chryses as his concubine.  When the father appealed to the king, and offered him a ransom, he was insulted and driven away from our camp.  We must give her back, in short order, and without conditions.”

Agamemnon was enraged by this.  At first he struggled to find his own words, but at last he spoke up.  “Calchas,”he said, “You never have a good word to say for or about me!  If needs must, I am willing to return the girl to her father.  However, I demand to be compensated: I want another young woman, to take her place.”

Achilles, in turn, grew angry.  “The booty won has already been shared out fairly among the troops and the commanders,” he said.  “If you give the girl back, we will compensate you – once we have conquered Troy.”

Agamemnon retorted that he was not prepared to wait so long, and indeed that he was considering taking a concubine from one of his fellows, such as Achilles himself.

Achilles grew hotter.  “I came here of my own will,” he said.  “I am under no obligation to you.  Indeed, we are all volunteers, come here to support you and your brother and to restore Helen to her lawful spouse.  And now you have the audacity to take away what belongs to me!  We do the hard fighting, with myself in the vanguard; but you get more than your fair share of the spoils!  I may as well go home straight away and spare myself all this trouble.”

“Go!  Go now!” replied Agamemnon.  “We can manage without you.  You show yourself in your true colours.  Your disloyalty is on display, for all to see!  I am in charge here!  How dare you defy me!  I shall send for your own girl, Briseis, and give her a home with me.”

Achilles felt driven to take immediate revenge upon the king by stabbing him with his sword.  But he hesitated and thought better of it.  His parting shot was: “I am going!  And I refuse to fight for you ever again.  You’ll miss me!  You’ll never defeat Hector without my help!”

The venerable Nestor tried to reconcile the two men.  He urged Agamemnon not to take Briseis away from Achilles.  He urged Achilles to fall into line and to follow Agamemnon, appointed leader of the Greek campaign.  But neither listened.  For his part, the wise Odysseus understood both sides of the argument; but he chose to remain silent, especially as nobody was asking his advice.

The meeting ended.  Agamemnon instructed the men of his household to go to Achilles’ tent at first light next day, to fetch Briseis.

Chryses’ daughter was duly returned to him; and the spate of sudden deaths ceased.

 

Seeking solitude, Achilles sat on the shore and looked out to sea, in the direction of his home.  He pondered the prediction that he had heard from his mother, that he was fated either to have a short and heroic life, with everlasting fame, or else to have a long and uneventful one.  He said to himself that his opportunity to win fame and honour was being denied him, by Agamemnon’s arrogance.  Moreover, he was genuinely fond of Briseis; and he believed that his feelings were reciprocated.  How, he wondered, could he break the news to her?

Quietly, Odysseus joined him.  He too stared longingly over the sea.  Wistfully, he said, half to Achilles and half to himself, “I wish I could be back home with my family.  I miss them so.”  Turning to Achilles, he added, “I’ve hardly seen my son Telemachus since he was born.”

There was a pause.

Achilles said, “I ask myself whether our cause is noble, and whether it justifies the great loss of life we are witnessing.”

Odysseus replied, “Our aim is noble, in principle.  But we need to be practical too.  The war has taken a heavy toll, on both sides.  Young men have died, who should not have done.”

Achilles asked, “What, then, should we do?”

“I don’t know.  My loyalty to the cause, and the promises I have made, keep me here.”

“As you have just seen, my loyalty is being tested severely.”

“Why are you still here, then?”

“I came here in the hope of winning fame and honour, through my valour, even at the cost of my life.  Till now, I’ve retained the hope.”

I’d argue that, once men have died, they are soon forgotten, however brave they’ve been.”

“So,” Achilles sighed, “I’m wasting my time.  I’ve been misled.  I’ve come here on false pretences.”

I place a high value on loyalty – to friends and to one’s wife.  Part of me itches to get back home to Penelope.  But I am fulfilling a promise, and I can’t let down my friends.  Your friends need you and rely on you.  Stay loyal to them – stay here.”

“I give your words the weight they deserve.”

And there the conversation ended; and they went their separate ways.

 

Early next morning, Agamemnon’s men made their way to Achilles’ tent, pitched by his ship. They looked and looked, but neither tent nor ship, neither Achilles nor his followers, was anywhere to be seen.  They were incredulous but had to believe the evidence of their own eyes.  “Achilles has sailed away,” they said to each other.  “What shall we say to Agamemnon?  How shall we tell him?”

They sought out Odysseus: they imparted their news and asked his advice.  Odysseus sighed heavily.  He thought back to his conversation with Achilles, the previous day.  He also thought of his loyalty to Agamemnon and Menelaus.  Swiftly, he made his decision: “I shall tell him myself,” he said.

 

The result of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles was that the Trojans won the war; Hector was triumphant; Paris kept Helen.  The Greeks (bedraggled and licking their wounds) admitted defeat, and the survivors all went home.  Troy remained standing for many centuries: it was eventually abandoned, but it was never destroyed by hostile forces.  As for Achilles, he enjoyed a long and happy life, with Briseis at his side, and his close friend Patroclus nearby; and he never went to war again.