The essay is a literary mode peculiarly well disposed to satire. Both the Encomium moriae (1511; The Praise of Folly) by Erasmus and the Utopia (1516) of Sir Thomas More employed a politically sensitive irony to set old and new world views of the moral life against one another. While not satiric in any way, Machiavelli’s Discorsi (1531; Discourses) and Francis Bacon’s Essayes (1597, 1612, 1625), in the unwavering critical scrutiny they brought to bear on their subjects, indicated the direction satire was to take in the form of the essay; Machiavelli and Bacon, from their respectively suspicious and skeptical perspectives, were engaged in the business not so much of providing as of criticizing knowledge. The analytical revisionism of the Renaissance, by questioning the authority of received learning and by drawing attention to the limitations and problems surrounding all human ways of knowing, assumed a critical posture akin to the traditional position of the satirist. While Machiavelli and Bacon cannot be described as satirists, their methodology is latently satiric in its essential skepticism.
It is Montaigne who fully developed the essay’s potential as a vehicle for satire, and in so doing made satire a crucial way of seeing and analyzing the world. The evolution of prose into the primary medium of literary expression in Renaissance Europe altered the nature of satire radically, with its novel emphasis on the written word and on the solitary and silent business of reading. Montaigne’s Essais (1580, 1588) illustrate this new dynamic exquisitely. He wrote much about the act of reading, about his own critical and intellectual engagement with other texts and authors; in this he drew attention to the word as its own reality, to the way in which literature, reading, and intellectual reflection create a space apart from nature where the human personality experiences itself. Critical selfawareness is the source of the ironic epiphanies that characterize Montaigne’s satiric essays. This sort of satire is especially evident in “Des cannibales” (1580; “Of Cannibals”), where the object of ironic analysis is finally not the anthropological truth about cannibals, but the literary ambiguity of texts and especially the slipperiness of meaning that allows the European to disguise himself and his culture, using language deliberately to render truth incognito. In the final paragraph of the essay, Montaigne complains about the impediment that inaccurate translation places in the path of understanding, blaming the stupidity of a translator for his difficulty in getting the answers he wants from a certain chieftain among the cannibals: “I spoke with one of them a long time but I had an interpreter who followed me badly and was so unresponsive to my ideas that I had little pleasure from it.” Montaigne’s reading of various texts about the New World aboriginals becomes a satire on the inhumanity of European governance in areas where cannibalism is institutionalized. But his ultimate satiric concern here is with the language by which moral neglect is disguised as necessary policy rather than with the actions themselves. Flawed interpretations, intellectual impatience, and the failure, often deliberate, to grasp and express meaning with clarity become the ultimate joke in Montaigne’s essay: politically selfserving language cannibalizes meaning and denies all access to truth. The satiric essay, as Montaigne rendered it, provides a means for regurgitating truth through the ironic manipulation of texts. “Of Cannibals” is the seminal example of the satiric essay: it becomes the very thing it satirizes, duping the unwary reader into mistaking its purposes while using a clever parody of contemporary accounts of the Americas to expose European political duplicity.
Practitioners of the form after Montaigne continued to employ kinds of parody to disguise their subversive objectives, often with such success that their satires were mistaken by the majority of their first readers for straightforward essays. Two of the more remarkable instances of this sort are Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702) and Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children ofPoor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or the Country (1729), both savage satires written in the guise of domestic political pamphlets. In The Shortest Way Defoe set out to expose the Anglican Church’s repressive policies against dissenting denominations by assuming a High Church persona and arguing for more severe restrictions and punishments, insisting that “if the Gallows instead of the Counter, and the Gallies instead of the Fines, were the Reward of going to a Conventicle, to preach or hear,” then few if any Englishmen would profess dissenting beliefs or survive to witness them. Defoe succeeded only in outraging both his fellow Dissenters and the authorities because his ironies were too acute; neither side could see the humor in so devastatingly naked an exposure of actual repression. At its best, the satiric essay simply states the truth with an authority and a zeal for precision that almost recalls Bacon’s scientific method. Nowhere is that mock authority and ironic precision more disturbingly manipulated than in A Modest Proposal. Swift assumes the voice of a Tory gentleman to suggest that the English aristocracy encourage their Irish subjects to sell their own children as delicacies for the upper-class table, even going so far as to include recipes for this new epicurean delight. Swift’s debt to Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” is an obvious one, but his own essay has assumed a transcendent place as the model for the ultimate reach of satiric irony, the phrase “a modest proposal” becoming a synonym for irony itself.
The extreme responses elicited by both Defoe and Swift from their readers have less to do with the obvious use of exaggeration and hyperbole in their essays than with the way in which both writers ironically manipulate the public discourse in their parody of recognizable political texts. These essays try to deceive their readers into overlooking their blatant ironies by closely imitating the language and emulating the rhetoric of the propagandists they intend to expose. Satiric essays are thus often more interested in humiliating readers by exposing our inattentiveness to the meaning of written language and our deafness to the tone of printed texts than in attacking their political foes. The danger that satiric essays warn about is the danger of the print medium itself, the power of a text-based culture to disarm the moral sensitivity of the reader by usurping the individuaPs reflective identity. That realization compels two satiric personae as unlike as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Anthony Burgess’ Alex (A Clockwork Orange, 1961) to destroy, respectively, the printing press and the typewriter that have imprinted their textual identities.
Bringing enlightenment through humiliation and empowering the reader through victimization are the paradoxical objectives that unite satiric essays as different as those of Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas (Los sueños [1627; Visions]), Laurence Sterne (A Political Romance, 1759), Victor Hugo (Napoléon le Petit, 1852), and Mark Twain (To the Person Sitting in Darkness, 1901). Even in the less ironic work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an S.J.Perelman, the focus is still on the ambiguous nature of written language itself in its capacity to dull us to social inequalities and political injustice. By drawing the reader’s attention to the dangerous inadequacies of language through entrapping that reader in a text of unexpected bewilderment, the satiric essay is ultimately an instruction in the fine and dangerous art of reading itself.
Elliott, Robert C., The Power of Satire, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1960
Nokes, David, Raillery and Rage, Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987
Paulson, Ronald, The Fictions of Satire, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967
Rawson, Claude, editor, English Satire and the Satiric Tradition, Oxford: Blackwell, 1984
Tave, Stuart M., The Amiable Humorist, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960
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