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Satire is the snort of common sense coming upon absurdity: the rough jest, the elegant, feisty rejection of the stupid, the rant, the screed, the pure, harsh invective, the witty condemnation of human folly. Satire is the reaction of the human intellect to the eternal scam. It is Ridicule as a Weapon.
All Powers That Be make false and fluty claims to legitimacy, divine rule, and societal sanction. Usually, the PTB are lying through their teeth and they know it, so they erect a Censor, which acts as a fence around the PTB, carefully creating their cover, the illusion of legitimacy. The Censor works relentlessly to snooker dullards into believing that the PTB (whether governmental, societal, or religious) are legitimate, positive, and worthwhile. Satire is the Power's deadly foe, whether the satirist works with psychic cannon, battle axe, dueling foil, shotgun, derringer, or poison. Or clown shoes and a pie to the ego, for that matter.
Satire is criticism that delicately or powerfully unlayers the myriad masks of arrogance and buncombe, and shows the PTB as the bogus con-artists they most certainly are. Sometimes ridicule and satire are light and funny, sometimes scalding, sometimes witty, occasionally furious--no other literary art form can take so many different shapes and styles. At times, the satirist will deliberately hide her satire within another form, for fear of retaliation from those she ridiculed. Down through history, satirists have been made to pay the price for their wit and ire. Hell hath no fury like a ridiculed "dignitary" who got hit with a pie. Thus, the satirist makes her Drunken Sage face at the PTB, sticking out a saucy tongue, and at the same time, attempts to duck and run for cover. It is a difficult and occasionally deadly job, that of being a gadfly, leading to hemlock and worse.
Satire's difficulty is matched only by its necessity and importance, however: "Satire is a powerful civilizing agent: if we ever become civilized it will probably be satire almost as much as poetry that will have accomplished it. Because the great criteria of satire are always truth and sanity."*
Ridicule takes so many forms it becomes a task merely to list them all: snide jokes, scathing invective, delicate parody, murky travesty, melodramatic nonsense, entertaining fiction, irony, mocking allegory, parables, symbolism, slapstick and burlesque. Every lively critic of power has used any or all of these techniques to make their point that the PTB in question are no more powerful or intelligent than any of the rest of us. And that their soi-disant legitimacy is a pure skullduggery.
And what an illustrious company of satirists! Aristophanes, Juvenal, Horace, sweet-tempered Chaucer, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Donne, Johnson, Moliere, Dryden, Pope, masterful, cutting Swift, witty, sharp Voltaire, furious Dickens, marvelous, funny Twain, razor sharp Mencken, wildman Groucho, and cordial, hilarious O'Rourke. And these are simply the names that come to mind--although I'll be damned if I can recall anything of whom they tormented. Satire and ridicule ARE effective, I must say. I know the satirists' names, bless their wicked, wicked wits, but not the names of their targets. And that is how it should be.
How to join this celebrated, acclaimed Satirist Race? Wit and intelligence are both required, and all I can tell you is to go to the Wit and Intellect Store and buy some. My local Wit and Intellect Store is right next door to the School of Hard Knocks, where I'm still taking classes. Chances are, if God did not see fit to gift you with these, then your talents lie elsewhere and you'll be happier and safer not plying the satirist's trade.
In writing satire and ridicule, you must get a good sighting on your target. You will need to endure listening to your adversaries, listening to them call you names, dismiss your ideas and arguments, assign you psychological labels, and in general, irritate you to High Holy Hell. This irritation, built up by your seeming willingness to suffer fools, is akin to the irritation an oyster feels when a grain of sand become lodged within. To calm the annoyance, the oyster slowly builds a pearl around the grain of sand.
The oyster has no choice--but you do. You can choose to NOT know your adversary, but then you'd miss out on all that delicious irritation that will create your pearls, your satire. Your lampoons can be either funny or bitter or at best both, but first you must get annoyed and disgusted. You gotta pay your dues.
Pure, preposterous exaggeration is often a useful technique in satire. Jonathan Swift's brilliant masterpiece, A Modest Proposal, notes that the poor of Ireland, papists all, had more children than they could feed, even while they were starving themselves. In this deadly work, Swift suggests that their infants, upon reaching the age of one, having been fattened up as much as possible, be sold to the butcher, to be made into fine dinners for rich and poor alike:
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.
". . .That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter." [Swift, A Modest Proposal]
Is Swift, then Anglican Dean of Dublin, actually recommending cannibalism, that the babies of the Irish be offered up to the butcher? No, of course not. He was making a ruthless, scathing mockery not of the Irish poor, but of their treatment at the hands of their "betters," the English overlords.
And so I took a brief from the master. Having gotten fed up with the government's and media's blusterings over the non-issue of teen smoking, I nabbed my superior's method and swung into the same spirit:
THESE TEENS THAT SMOKE ARE BIG TIME TROUBLE!
"How DARE they smoke cigarettes!
"Here's what I think we need to do with teens that smoke:
"Public beheadings. Not by guillotine, either, but by huge scary looking guys with the black hoods and a long, curved scythe thing. Something out of Bergman. Some 14th century brutal Swedish monster executioner. We cut their stupid little heads off, nose rings, eyebrow rings and all. Then we stick their heads on pikes and cut up their bodies and hang their torsos from gibbets for the crows to eat. We boil them in oil. We tie them up to wild horses (are there any of those left?) and drag their smoking bodies apart. We get bloody, real bloody. Bring back the good old days of the cruelest torturous death by fire. We hit them with hot iron and we burn them at the stake.
"Yeah. We do this in PUBLIC. Everyone required to attend." [Neill, The Horror of Teen Smoking]
To my everlasting delight, Claire Wolfe, upon seeing this, wrote back:
Thank you for your moderate and reasonable proposal to halt the Crisis of Teen Smoking (also known as Grave National Crisis Number 47163.c). You will be very pleased to know that, here in the west, we not only still have wild horses, but that they themselves are a Problem (Grave Regional Crisis AB749), overrunning range lands and creating a general nuisance for farmers and land managers. Therefore, your solution to the Horror of Teen Smoking--like so many brilliant ideas--inadvertently overcomes two Crises at the same time.
For years, the Bureau of Land Management has been rounding up wild horses and selling them to the public for an adoption fee of just $135. However, there have not been sufficient adopters, and it's turned out that a scandalous number of past adopters have been...well, to put it bluntly...meat processors. Now, if your proposal is implemented, every municipality in America can buy four wild horses (one for each limb of the teen miscreant) and undertake vigorously to solve two Pressing Domestic Dilemmas." [Wolfe, Personal Correspondence]
Neither Claire Wolfe nor I meant it any more than Swift meant his satirical solution to the "Irish problem," but wild, furious exaggeration makes quite effective satire.
Here is another example of exaggeration at work in ridicule. The Pope recently apologized for the holocaust--something he simply was not, and could not possibly be, personally responsible for. Nor was the Roman Catholic Church responsible. This business of apologizing for something one had essentially nothing to do with is entirely ludicrous and a sham, and it deserves a sharp slap from a satirist. Here's a bit of what I wrote:
of all, I'm sorry about the Holocaust. Really, really sorry about that.
I'd also like to apologize for the fall of the Roman Empire, for Napoleon's
effectiveness, for China's brutality and for Jimmy Carter.
"I want to apologize for the Irish potato famine, and for the Irish in general. Shame on me for inflicting the world with a race of poets, scholars, monks, and cops, not to mention Brendan Behan. I'm sorry for the Hutus using their machetes on the Tutus. Very sorry.
"I am hugely remorseful for Rasputin." [Neill, I Would Like to Apologize]
You get the idea. It is another example of sheer embellishment, aggrandizement to an absolutely silly degree, although more in the making faces/sticking tongue out mode of satirical fun. (You'd think it'd be obvious that the only thing this could possibly be is satire, but beware--the satirically-challenged are out there!)
In another, gentler mode, we find whimiscal parody, one of which came to my notice recently, to wit:
outside, and there perchance to stay
Or to remain within: that is the question:
Whether 'tis better for a cat to suffer
The cuffs and buffets of inclement weather
That Nature rains on those who roam abroad,
Or take a nap upon a scrap of carpet,
And so by dozing melt the solid hours
That clog the clock's bright gears with sullen time
And stall the dinner bell. To sit, to stare
Outdoors, and by a stare to seem to state
A wish to venture forth without delay,
Then when the portal's opened up, to stand
As if transfixed by doubt. To prowl; to sleep; [Hamlet's cat, Shakespaw]
And so on. It is a marvelous, gentle, right-on-the-money mock. And, while it doesn't not directly criticize Hamlet, or the concerns of Hamlet's soliloquy, it sweetly uses the same poetic rhythm to raise other (I'm sure my cats would think so) important concerns.
Another example from another of my own attempts of this most elusive art form is a condemnation of the illogic of the liberal worldview. G.K. Chesterson perhaps said it best: "The essence of satire is that it perceives some absurdity inherent in the logic of some position, and that it draws the absurdity out and isolates it . . ."
The gun-banners are worried about "gun violence." Not people violence, mind you, but the violence of inanimate objects, most particularly that of guns. This fraudulent and illogical silliness finally drove me to write a satire on the Inanimate Objects at My House:
the guns are quiescent, at least in terms of violence. But in terms of
bragging? You oughta hear them! They LOVE being the center of attention!
Hell, you ain't seen such braggadocio since Daniel Boone laid down his
"What the anti-gunners don't know is that all my inanimate objects are near revolt since the media harp and twitch ONLY on the guns. Report after report--and it's gone directly to the guns' heads. The other objects are furiously jealous at the fame the guns are getting, while the guns only make things worse with their puffed headed bluster. Trouble is not only brewing, it is beginning to boil!
"There's the Louisville Slugger by the front door. That's where he wants to be, so that's where he is. He sez he will beat the everlivin' crap out of anyone who bothers me on his turf. I can appreciate that protective nature of his--he is one hardwood sumbitch. But now he's grumbling and complaining. 'Damn guns getting all the press. Hell, the press don't even know I'm HERE,' sez he." [Neill, The Inanimate Objects at My House]
It goes on from there, to ever more hallucinogenic degrees. I recently noticed that this technique is being picked up by other budding satirists--and I certainly can appreciate techniques and methods being lifted--what writer doesn't do that? Hell, I've stolen concepts and ideas and methods from the best of them--all writers do. I do protest the outright plagiarist, and the person who plagiarizes my work will eventually pay with a public flaying. It simply isn't smart to piss off a satirist.
I apologize for using my own work as examples--there are so many brilliant writers who have done so much wonderful work! I highly recommend Edgar Johnson's A Treasury of Satire--a huge compendium of some of the finest satires down through the ages. Read Twain, Mencken, O'Rourke. Or do a search at askjeeves.com using codeword satire and you will be amazed at the number of satire and parody pages on the web, many of them very worthy sites.
May the Lord of Wits everywhere bless this most scandalous of the literary arts, for it: "attacks foolishness foolishly convinced that it makes sense, grinning and unrepentant in its folly."
And I gotta say, what could make a better target than that? Ridicule is a Weapon. Lock and load, folks. There's a lot of things that need satirizing out there.
* Quote taken from Johnson's introduction to A Treasury of Satire.
Patricia Neill is managing editor of a scholarly journal on the life and work of William Blake, the 18th century British poet and artist. She is also a freelance writer, editor and troublemaker. Her work is archived at Claire Wolfe's Lodge and at Lew Rockwell's site.
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