Profiles in Literature: Satire

(7:45PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

I hesitated on posting this because of Temmoku’s sage advice to avoid the discussion about the New Yorker topic.  But given that literature is my gig, I thought this could lead to some interesting discussions nonetheless.  My apologies.

Greetings, literature-loving DDers!  This long defunct series is soon to be revived full time, but the current kerfuffle over the New Yorker cover is practically begging for a discussion about the nature of satire, its history, form, and intents.  

In the past few days, a lot of text has been spilled over what is and isn’t necessary for satire to work.  I want to make one thing clear from the outset: I’m not here to discuss whether the New Yorker cover was offensive or not.  I am here to clear up some misconceptions about what satire is, what it “should” be, and how it works.  I’ll be addressing specific criticisms at the end of diary – but first let’s have a primer on satire itself:

History of a Genre:

Satire, like many loosely-defined genres, is hard to pin down in specifics.  At its broadest, we might say that satire is a method of making a moral judgment about a particular state of affairs by presenting that state of affairs through a distorted lens.  Significantly, that lens often doesn’t announce itself as such – but the reader recognizes the distortion through various techniques: hyperbole, irony, sarcasm, understatement, ridicule, etc.  Some satires are didactic and direct, and the creator openly discusses its aims.  Other satires are subtle and make no effort to reveal themselves outside a loose or not widely accessible context.  

The word itself comes from the Latin satura, which actually means “an assortment” or “a medley” – over time the word was confused with the Greek “satyr” and its connotations.  The first to apply satura to literature was the Roman author Quintilian, some time in the first century C.E.  He was searching for a term to describe a literary genre he considered “if nothing else, totally ours.”  (Of course this doesn’t mean Rome invented satire, but they did invent the word.)

The most famous of Roman satirists was probably Juvenal, author of a series of insightful and funny rips on Roman society.  His name eventually morphed in our word “juvenile” (see correction), but there is nothing juvenile about his satires.  The Satires are practically an encyclopedia of virtue and vice in everyday life of ancient Rome, and though they were not the first, they certainly set a precedent for the types of techniques used in satire.

Over the centuries, no small number of artists used elements of satire in their works: Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer…  But one name stands above all the others for developing the genre into a highly sophisticated vehicle for moral outrage:

The Master of Satire

In the English language, satire has had one writer who’s stood as the undisputed master of the genre: Jonathan Swift.  In his long life, Swift penned some of our most memorable satires, ranging from outright fiction to essay.  No cow was too sacred, from religion (Tale of a Tub) to literature (Battle of the Books) to humanity as a whole (Gulliver’s Travels).

In 1729, Swift penned his most well-known short satirical work, “A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick”.  For the few who haven’t read a “Modest Proposal”, Swift was disgusted with Anglo attitudes towards the poverty-stricken Irish people, and especially with those attitudes that reflected in social policies designed to oppress the Irish even further.  Swift takes a set of stereotypes about Irish people – they reproduce too much, they’re not worth anything, they’re lazy (sound familiar?  some stereotypes never change, they just shift hands) – and concocts a brilliant solution to the Anglo’s problem:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

Brilliant!  There are too many of those damned Irish children already: why not repurpose them for the benefit of society?  Everyone’s a winner!

What people forget about this particular piece of work is that it is painfully unfunny in the best way.  We have the benefit of distance both in time and space, and that distance allows us the luxury of laughter without guilt.  But when Swift wrote about cooking Irish children, the actual Irish children were dying of poverty and starvation.  The bitter truth of Swift’s charge comes through in a swipe at the exploitative methods of English landlords to keep their Irish tenants poor and helpless:

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.  


Other notable British satirists who followed in Swift’s footsteps included the hugely quotable Alexander Pope (“The Rape of the Lock”), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), and a personal favorite of mine, Laurence Sterne (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman).

The Golden Age

The 19th century was a particularly rich time for satire, especially in the English language.  The list of authors who made satire a major vehicle for expression is daunting: Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe (yes, Poe!), Lewis Carroll, Mark Fucking Twain, Ambrose Bierce, W.S. Gilbert, Thomas Nast, and Saki among others.  

Of these, only Carroll (“The Hunting of the Snark”) and Gilbert (various operettas with composer Arthur Sullivan) wrote very successful satirical verse – as a vehicle for satiric expression, verse was becoming supplanted by prose as early as the late 18th century.  Meanwhile, the inclusion of Nast in this list shows the growing prominence of illustration as a vehicle for savvy political humor.  

This was a particularly strong area for American literature:

Mark Twain is undoubtedly the most read of these satirists, at least by 21st century Americans (Dickens might have the edge world-wide).  Twain laced his short stories and novels with his recognizably stinging brand of laid-back, droll humor aimed at the moral hypocrisy he saw around him.  One of the most direct examples, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, skewers the positivism of an American culture convinced that technology and progress can save us.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain took aim at slavery, religion, and “civilization” by filtering the narrative through a naive boy who doesn’t understand that he’s a thousand times more morally righteous than his elders: significantly, no one steps in to tell Huck that he is right – Twain leaves it for the reader to understand.  

“Bitter” Ambrose Bierce, the author of my signature line, had a knack for mowing down opponents with his poisonous pen.  His major work of satire is The Devil’s Dictionary, a fake lexicon that exposes the evilness of humanity in terse, sometimes mean-spirited definitions.  Even satire itself doesn’t escape his skewering:

SATIRE, n.  An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author’s enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are “endowed by their Creator” with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a soul-spirited knave, and his ever victim’s outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent.

Among Bierce’s other great works of satire is “Oil of Dog”, a wonderfully (and shockingly) ugly little piece that uses abortion and murder for comic relief.  It’s offensive and in terrible taste.  The target of his satire is his favorite: moral hypocrisy.  

The Twentieth Century and Beyond

Despite the embarrassment of satirical riches in the 19th century, the last hundred years have had no lack of major satirists poking their artistic tools into every imaginable corner of society.  A few quick highlights:

Though relatively unknown in this country, Jaroslav Hašek is among the best-loved writers in early 20th century Europe for his hilarious and stinging The Good Soldier Švejk.  Haš?k turned the stereotypical Czech male – a lazy, shiftless buffoon – into a symbol of resistance against the Austro-Hungarian empire in a rambling, episodic piece of slapstick.  The organized and efficient Teutons find themselves constantly undermined by the seemingly oblivious Švejk, who creates chaos wherever he goes.  The story was so popular that theatre artists were improvising Švejk skits while the novel was still being written and published in newspaper installments!

Joseph Heller may be celebrated more for one novel than his otherwise prolific output deserves, but what a novel!  Catch-22 dismantled the military-industrial complex by running the absurdity of political bureaucracy into the ground, but his favorite technique is a kind of dry understatement that stares at you from the most absurd situations.  Consider this famous passage describing the farming strategy of Major Major Major Major’s father:

His specialty was alfalfa and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. … He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.

A favorite around these parts: Kurt Vonnegut took modern America to task for its narrow-minded stupidity, most prominently in the vicious Cat’s Cradle.  The characters in situations in Cat’s Cradle are both laughably cartoonish and painfully recognizable, a Vonnegut specialty.  More than anything Vonnegut despises humanity’s inhumanity, especially in the face of our painfully brief lives.  Major targets: organized religion, science, stupid people.

But the twentieth century also saw a boon in new venues for satire: television and film.  

The Marx Brothers took on the war machine in Duck Soup, while Stanley Kubrick hit it from a different angle in Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Film satire has had a harder time recently, but few political satires have hit the mark as accurately as Alexander Payne‘s Election.  More controversially, Spike Lee attacked contemporary media blackface in Bamboozled, a film that didn’t sit well with audiences (and wasn’t supposed to!) Meanwhile Matt Groening realized the power of television to skewer the worst excesses of American culture in The Simpsons.  In short, we’re bathing in satire in every medium known to popular culture.

From its history, we can see that satire is a diverse and multifarious genre, practiced by people of many different temperaments, not always successful, often funny, sometimes not.  It’s this insight that led to this diary in the first place:  

Specific Charges

What compelled me to write this diary were a number of comments that wanted to define what satire is and should be.  While people are certainly entitled to their beliefs vis-à-vis the success of a particular work (and to reiterate: I’m not making a call about the success or appropriatenes of the New Yorker cover), some of these broad statements about satire as a genre are inaccurate and deserve some discussion:

Satire is supposed to be truthful, or more specifically, satire is supposed to reflect reality and not lies.  Some people felt that the New Yorker cover was a failure because it was satirizing a series of myths rather than a real-life situation.

However, a whole lot of our satire aims for the myths.  When Swift jokes about poor Irish women with babies clinging to every limb, is he mocking poor Irish women for having too many children, or mocking English beliefs about poor Irish women?  Hašek’s brilliant Švejk depicts the titular hero – a representative of his native Czech – as a fat, lazy, and somewhat stupid loser, just as the country’s occupiers saw the Czech people to be.  When the Simpsons find a union of musclebound gay steelworkers who interrupt work to dance to C&C Music Factory, they’re certainly not satirizing real behavior of gay men so much as the greatest fears of homophobes.  We laugh because we’ve heard these fears expressed before.  

Realization of misconceptions as a means of undercutting them is a common enough strategy in satire.  Charge dismissed.

Satire is supposed to provide context.  Some users felt that the fact of its being a New Yorker cover was context enough.  Others felt that the cartoon demanded a caption, or an explanation.  So the real question isn’t whether the context is there, but whether enough context was provided.  

Should the satirist make it crystal clear what his intentions are?  You might be surprised to know that contemporary readers of Swift’s “Modest Proposal” didn’t get it: he came under criticism for his callous attitudes towards Irish children.  The classic novel The Petty Demon was misconstrued as an ugly self-portrait of author Fyodor Sologub until its later rehabilitation as the great Russian satirical novel.  As I mentioned above, there is nothing within Huckleberry Finn to signal the reader that Twain is being satirical: you simply have to be a sensitive reader and recognize the limitations of its noble but naive narrator.  A more recent example is Paul Verhoeven’s masterful Starship Troopers, a withering critique of militant Americanism that was attacked as pro-fascist(!).  Verhoeven may often make bad movies, but he certainly doesn’t make pro-fascist ones.

Charge partially upheld, but with the recognition that context can be extremely narrow and invisible within the text itself.  There is no rule of satire that says it has to reveal itself as such.

Satire is supposed to be funny.  Emphatically untrue!  A great deal of the best satire is disgustingly, shockingly, horribly unfunny by design.  I mentioned Swift above, but consider the humorless humor of Ambrose Bierce, which earned him the nickname “bitter” for his dry, pessimistic satirical barbs.  

You might also be familiar with some of George Orwell’s satires, like Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Whatever else it may be, funny it is not.  Orwell took on many satirical targets in his novel, including the totalitarian mindset, nationalism, censorship (Thought Police), etc. – but it’s not the kind of satire that we crack a smile at.  

Science fiction has proven an especially fertile area for unfunny satire, whether coming from Huxley and Zamyatin, or Bradbury and Lem.  Science fiction allows authors the ability to transform contemporary foibles into fiction that exaggerates those foibles under the guise of “fantasy”.  It’s clearly satire, even though it lacks laughs.  

Charge dismissed.

These aren’t the only criticisms launced at the New Yorker cartoon, but again I’m less interested in the cartoon and more in misconceptions that people have about satire as a genre.  It’s these sweeping statements that I wanted to address – but also to revist some of the indisputably great works of satire that many of us enjoy reading.  Let us know what satires work for you: your favorite authors, your favorite works, even movies or television shows that have found that perfect balance between moral criticism, artistic quality, and entertainment value.   There’s a lot of satire out there…

The rest:

Profiles in Literature has been on hiatus for the last year while I finished a few projects I needed to devote more time to.  It will return regularly in August after I’ve finished moving in to my new place, and as before, volunteers and/or suggestions for future segments are always welcome.  

Related Links:

Thank you for reading.

cross-posted with minor changes at dailykos


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    • pico on July 16, 2008 at 00:54

    in August.  Just need some time to move to and settle in my new place.  Cheers!

    • Robyn on July 16, 2008 at 01:25

    I’ve seen too many people make the mistake of transposition.  It’s true that satire is often “offensive and in terrible taste”.  But there are too many who believe that being offensive and expressing terrible taste must be satire.

  1. Good to see you back doing this series.

    I have to say, I’ve read some posts by people who have been very badly affected by this magazine cover and who have had fights with loved ones and friends and been hurt by that.

    So that makes me think you would probably be getting a lot of Irish folks yelling at you back in the days of Jonathan Swift, if you wrote this kind of review of his work right after the publication of his “modest proposal.”

    And probably in a previous incarnation, you may well have been there and written the same kind of thing.  🙂

    It gives me a little cognitive dissonance to read this … being written in real time yet with a long term perspective.  And of course that is not a complaint.

    So I’ll thank you for adding some real depth to this conversation.  I would ask, though, as this is an issue which affects the black community in a unique way (and I am not making claims of knowing what the effect is in any way, am just aware of it), were there any black satirists, in the same vein as this, who wrote about white people?  I agree Spike Lee has done satire, but have there been others before or since?

    I know in a lot of the songs during slavery there was a double meaning to many of the words that was sharp and biting, but I don’t know if it was satire.

    And I read recently there was a dance used by some slaves, learned from their ancient culture, that looked like a real nice “exotic dance” to the slave owners but was in fact a deadly form of martial arts.  I don’t think that would be satire either, but these examples came to mind.

    Sorry if I’m going way out in the blue here, but your essay sparked both a lot of thoughts and a lot of feelings as well.

    Thanks, pico.

    • geomoo on July 16, 2008 at 02:34

    It empowers me to be a know-it-all.  (Self-satire?)

    Very interesting.  And satire doesn’t always represent the “best” side of humans.  I think it often does because it requires wit and clear-eyed view of a situation. Forced “satire” as one might find on Rush Limbaugh, is at best a pale, lifeless, unchallenging version of the real thing.  I expect you could name this much better than I.  But there is such a thing as clever satire in support of a despicable cause.

    I just saw a terrific film, In Bruges, which I think is satire on the basis of what you say here.  I recently watched it for the second time, and it has great literary depth.  In my limited view, it successfully skewers the concept of honor such as one finds in the mafia.  Eviscerates might be more accurate than skewers. But the movie is not cynical in the end–I believe our hero makes it through (possibly) simply because he exhibits innocent goodness as opposed to thought-out religious goodness or absurd notions of honorable behavior.  Highly recommended.

    I’ll also mention a satire currently ongoing on Facebook, Stuff White People Like.  You’ll have to scroll down to get to the short satirical essays.

    I’m looking forward to the series.  Wasn’t here last time.

    Oh, one more thing.  Would you say satire is usually utilized by those in a position of relative powerlessness?  Like The Daily Show.  If so, I believe it is in line with the evolution of all humor, which is to say a group way to take authority down a notch or two.

  2. Thanks for putting this all together.  I appreciate it. I hope our very brief exchange about the topic yesterday helped to spur you to write it. Nice job.

    • nocatz on July 16, 2008 at 03:19

    that should be getting it.  Satire, or just plain snark?  Just posted on the tubes.

    Be sure to pause the last frame to see the available lessons.

    • kj on July 16, 2008 at 04:23

    Yea!!!   🙂

  3. I read and commented at the orange and was going to ask you to post here but felt I might be presumptuous….

    Great Lit summary.

  4. I’m so glad you’re back.

    I thought you’d gotten lost somewhere out there with Enkidu.

  5. …for finally recognizing, some forty years late, the important cultural contributions of Angela Davis and Stokeley Carmichael / Malcolm xxx ….

    For more, please see this  

  6. and Jon Swift is one of my favorite authors.

    Gulliver’s is on my all time favorite list… and one journey that always stuck with me is that of the strulbrugs  

  7. I’m looking forward to more installments of this series.

    For my money, Swift, Vonnegut and Bierce are the biggest winners up there.

  8. More of this online, please!

    My favorite moment of Starship Troopers comes at the end when you realize that you’ve been watching Paul V.’s satire of a glory movie, aimed at the 13 year olds who are now needed to fight.

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