Satire is a literary response to life in the city: its basic cynicism and especially its political nature seem to require an urban culture to spawn and thrive. There are other less sophisticated kinds of verbal and literary vitriol; flyting and invective, what might best be described as creative name calling, occur almost universally, but satire proper derives from a parodic association between literature and the hypocrisy of civil behavior. While the term itself has its etymological roots in the Latin satura, meaning “a full or mixed dish” in the sense of a cacophonous variety, the Greeks had a rich satiric tradition, especially evident in the Athenian Old Comedy, which played scatologically with the pretentious behavior of particular contemporary citizens recognizable to the audience.
Aristophanes’ lampoons on Socrates and Euripides are prominent examples. The great Roman poets Horace and Juvenal set the literary standards for European satire, their best work being much imitated models, even well into the 20th century. They also lend their names to the two essential types of satire: Horatian is the gentler kind, which exposes human folly to correct it and thus strengthens the social fabric; Juvenalian is harsh, even abusive, and sees little chance of social progress. Horace and Juvenal use language that is colloquial and immediate, and most importantly, like Aristophanes’, their subjects are actual and contemporary people and current issues. These remain the distinguishing elements of satire: it is colloquial, immediate, and recognizably real in style and subject.
In a peculiar way, satire’s generic qualities and social motives are very close to those of the essay. The satirist, like the essayist, is intensely aware of his or her subjectivity and attempts to engage the reader on a personal and even conversational level. In both genres, the dominant impression is one of immediacy, of a face-to-face exchange in which opinion and interpretation take precedence over fact and objectivity. The attitude is casual, however charged with message, and the whole has about it the feel of the marketplace or coffeehouse. The wit, worldliness, and sophistication of the satirist declare his urbanity; this is not the familiar mode of a pastoral country cousin. Both satirist and essayist assume a sophisticated literacy in their readers, relying on the reader’s abilities to recognize cultural allusions and to detect subtle variations in literary voice and tone.
Gilbert Highet identified three satiric modes in his Anatomy of Satire (1962): monologue, parody, and narrative. Each has a long literary pedigree and finds practitioners in, respectively: Jonathan Swift, whose A Modest Proposal (1729) is among the best examples of a satiric monologue; Robert Burns, who used parody with uncanny precision in “Holy Willie’s Prayer” (wr. 1785, pub. 1799); and Rabelais, whose Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–34) influenced most subsequent satiric narratives, especially mock travels. These three satirists, however different the cultural objectives of their work, have one thing in common: they share with most satirists a talent for observing the excesses and absurdities of those social conventions designed specifically to control human behavior. Satire in this way is almost always political, focusing as it does on the methods by which the group and the individual impose restrictions on human appetites and ambitions. Just as the satirist takes up a position outside the norm to observe critically the human scene, so the satiric voice or persona usually represents a position of alienation or otherness. At the very least, the satirist is set apart because of a disenchantment with the way things are; often that isolation is the result of the more intense emotional experience of the satirist’s anger and hatred. That is certainly true of those satiric narratives that also pass so easily for children’s literature: Carlo Collodi’s Le avventure di Pinocchio (1883; The Adventures of Pinocchio), Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), and Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz (1900). The child’s perspective is easily made into one of bewilderment, frustration, and separation. Similarly, the traveler, whether Homer’s Odysseus or Swift’s Gulliver, makes a ready satiric persona because of his naturally alien condition. Naivety and credulity are also necessary elements of much satiric narrative, however complex and ironic their contributions.
Sometimes, it is the narrator or the satirist’s chief character who is the credulous ingenue, as in Voltaire’s Candide (1759), or much of the recent work of the Australian novelist, Elizabeth Jolley; in other cases, the credulity of the reader is manipulated and exploited by the satirist, as in the work of Mark Twain, or hoax literature such as Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702) and Denis Diderot’s La Religieuse (1796). The effect of most satire is to create in the reader not just a sense of doubleness, of the world’s duplicity and falseness, but of outright separation, an experience that truth is, ironically, not enlightening but disabling, that the reality of social conventions is wholly at odds with moral and ethical goodness. Innocence, naivety, openness, and honesty are all risky postures in satire; the satirist assumes such attitudes only ironically and invites the reader to adopt them only to be humiliated. Satiric irony at its extreme leaves the reader in a position of “enlightened isolation”: we see truths about our society but in acknowledging those insights we are made to feel ashamed of our own hypocritical social identity. In summary, great satire is seldom constructive.
Swift’s notoriously cutting observation, that man is an animal only capable of reason, is a disturbingly double-edged sword. To the Horatian satirists, it suggests that humanity, with the prodding of a little critical laughter at itself, may be nudged into more reasonable if not wholly rational behavior. But to the Juvenalian, humanity’s mere capacity for reason is an unattainable condition, the promise of sensibleness and justice which exists only to reveal and deride the human animal for the vain and foolish thing it is. The darker ironic tendencies of satire and its necessary, if parasitic, relationship to a sophisticated and literate culture predispose it well to the genre of the essay, with its narrative selfconsciousness, its tradition of sharp social observation, and especially its sensitivity to the ephemerality of meaning and language.
See also Satiric Essay
English Satire: An Anthology, edited by Norman Furlong, London: Harrap, 1946 The Naked Emperor: An Anthology of International Political Satire, edited by Barbara Fultz, New York: Penguin, 1970
Satire: A Critical Anthology, edited by John David Russell and Ashley Brown, Cleveland: World, 1967
Satire: An Anthology, edited by Ashley Brown and John L. Kimmey, New York: Crowell, 1977
Guilhamet, Leon, Satire of the Transformation of Genre, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987
Highet, Gilbert, The Anatomy of Satire, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962
Paulson, Ronald, editor, Satire: Modern Essays in Criticism, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1971
Pollard, Arthur, Satire: The Critical Idiotn, London: Methuen, 1970
Rawson, Claude, editor, English Satire and the Satiric Tradition, Oxford: Blackwell, 1984
Rosenheim, Edward W., Jr., Swift and the Satirist’s Art, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963
Sullivan, J.P., editor, Satire: Critical Essays on Roman Literature, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963
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