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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Dulness, deceit and dunces; populism, priorities and prophecy

Populism and priorities

I used to think that populism was a good thing – the will of the people.  Now I have doubts.  It seems that populism represents a series of reactions to single issue problems.  It is likely to result in inconsistencies – trying to have your cake and eat it.  Object to wind turbines but still expect a cheap, reliable supply of electricity, for example.

“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism” – Aneurin Bevan (1949).  One could say, indeed, that the language of priorities is the language of politics.  But the present UK government chooses to underfund and to undermine public services.  Its priorities lie elsewhere – the maximisation of private profit.  The result is the concentration of wealth in a few hands.  (Trickle-down economics does not work.)

The world in 2017

I move on to British trade and foreign policy.  HM Government aims to abandon close ties with our European neighbours on our doorstep and to seek trade with countries far away.  The promises of success appear very dubious.

Today, Europe (including the UK) finds itself situated (sandwiched) between two powerful countries – Russia and the USA – between Putin and Trump – populist leaders.  Shouldn’t this be a factor in UK policy making?  Isn’t the UK safer, anchored in Europe?

Satire and prophecy

Satire appears inadequate to tackle this situation.  Over the centuries, satirists have bent their bows and let arrows fly.  Their admirers smile.  The people in power, targeted, ignore them or retaliate.  As time goes by, later readers fail to understand the context of the satire unless supplied with explanatory notes.

Despite this, I feel moved to draw upon satire – in particular, that of the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744).  I see parallels between his world and ours.

I refer to Pope’s long polemical and satirical poem, the Dunciad, where Pope creates a mock anti-goddess, who he calls “Dulness”.  She represents trends in society, politics and the media towards obscurantism, selfishness, greed, cliquishness and monopolisation of power – a dystopic vision of a world governed by dunces.

I associate ‘Dulness’, indeed, with certain 21st century trends, for example, “post-truth” and “fake news” (also known simply as lies).

The poem

Here I quote from the beginning and end of the final version of the Dunciad (1743), which depict first the return and then the ultimate triumph of Dulness, in 18th century London:

                            In eldest time….

Dulness o’er all possessed her ancient right,

Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night:

Fate in their dotage this fair Ideot gave,

Gross as her sire, and as her mother grave,

Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind,

She ruled, in native Anarchy, the mind.

Still her old Empire to restore she tries,

For, born a Goddess, Dulness never dies.

 

[Book I, 9-18]

 

         She comes! She comes! The sable Throne behold

Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!…

Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!

         Lo! Thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;

Light dies before thy uncreating word:

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And Universal Darkness buries All.

 

[Book IV: 651-656]

 

Evaluation

 

In my study of the writings of Alexander Pope, I rely largely on a slim volume of literary criticism (1989), produced by David Fairer, now professor of 18th century literature at Leeds University. In his chapter on the Dunciad, he comments: “In the world of Dulness there are no objective standards, no structures of ideas against which to measure the truth” [page 154].  (Does this sound familiar?)

 

David Fairer concludes his chapter with a warning:

 

Increasingly, we are coming to understand how the mad visions of the few, combined with the passive mindless of the many, could conceivably bring the end of the world.  The prophecies of The Dunciad are coming close to us, and it is becoming easier to discern a relationship between a pacifying mass culture (….), the growth of mass movements (….), and the concentration of power in the hands of a few charismatic leaders (….).  The pseudo-energy of Dulness, with her flagrant appeal to selfish instincts in the guise of freedom….is a principle which is still alive, and still threatens us. [Page 158]

 

Conclusion

 

David Fairer’s book was published in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the old Cold War was coming to an end, and optimism pervaded the world.  See where we are now!

 

Pope’s and Fairer’s words are prophetic, indeed, and worth heeding.  We ignore them at our peril.

 

References

 

Butt, J (ed) (1963), The Poems of Alexander Pope (one-volume), London: Routledge.

 

Fairer, D (1989), The Poetry of Alexander Pope, Harmondsworth: Penguin.