On Satire in the Arts

by Frederick Turner

Connections between the arts are particularly close in the genre of satire, which ranges freely through poetry, the visual cartoon, lampoon or caricature, serious painting and sculpture, photography, the novel, theater, film, opera, standup comedy, mime and, arguably, even music, dance, set design, computer games and architecture. Any time and any place human beings pridefully create a grand show or engage in some overweening project, or even settle complacently into conventional wisdom or assumption of superiority, satire stands ready to gleefully deflate or ludicrously exaggerate.

What is satire? The novelist Dawn Powell put it thus: “Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out.” The implication is that satire’s deepest urge is to tell the truth, and, as Eric Idle of Monty Python says: “If anything can survive the probe of humor it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted.” Satire is laughter that reveals the truth, and human truth is, among many other things, essentially ridiculous. If we stand back and consider the splendor of the human soul, the dignity of our political and intellectual roles, the beauty of our ideal human images, and then juxtapose with them the spectacle, sound and smell of our ways of eating, disposing of what we have eaten, reproducing ourselves—and add the endless embarrassment of negotiating our social obligations—we must either laugh or despair.

There is also a savage joy in satire. The contemporary poet Joseph Salemi insightfully describes it in an online essay, “The Curse of Didactic Verse”:

A satirist has no desire to save the world, or even to change it. If he did, he would be constitutionally unsuited to the genre of satire. Satirists lambaste stupidity for the sheer joy of doing so. The job of converting silly people back to the paths of reason is really not part of the satiric task. …Satire is the literary manifestation of the mystique of violence, one of the major driving forces in human life. As a genre it belongs to condottieri on horseback or the bloodthirsty Jacquerie, who are the usual bearers of the mystique of violence. It does not belong to stolid burghers dreaming of mortgage rates and progress. …If satire is going to be worth a damn it has to be destructive, period. Only then will it give aesthetic delight via its sheer exuberant savagery. I don’t expect suburban types to understand this—but Homer and Martial and Bertran de Born and Marlowe would have.

In an election season, it is easy for a humorist to lose the distinction between true satire, which is funny because it has no axe to grind and possesses a sort of insane innocence—telling the truth despite itself—and violent and mendacious political polemic, which is not funny at all, indeed rather miserable. At the heart of satire is not reform, but the contemplation of the human condition itself. The great political cartoons always undercut the very indignation of their message with a sort of reminder of our own complicity: we have met the enemy, and he is us. Archie Bunker, c’est moi. The grotesque scenes of Honoré Daumier are mirrors of our own automatisms; the great English caricaturists George Cruikshank, James Gillray, Max Beerbohm and Ronald Searle take us behind the scenes of our heroic and rational stories of ourselves. When P.D.Q. Bach lampoons the silliness of conventional classical music performance, he is, after all, doing it as a skilled classical music performer, before a classical music audience. We recognize ourselves, as the satirist does, too, in his victims.

If satire has at its heart, as Salemi implies, the joy of destruction, and yet tells the truth about ourselves, a further implication emerges. Behind the delicious malice of good satire is not mere vengefulness, justified sadism or the cruelty of mental superiority, but also a certain necessary self-destructiveness. It is not suicidal: instead, good satire can offer an odd kind of liberation, even a touch of bitter compassion. The self of the viewer or reader that is destroyed, along with the selves of the satire’s targets, was perhaps always something of a burden, a burden one sometimes wishes to shuck. Perhaps the soul needs, from time to time, to slough off its self.

Here we are getting into the territory of the mighty Francisco Goya, whose Caprichos carry the cartoon into the realm of great philosophical art. Taken together, they are as powerful as any great tragedy in depicting what human beings are. The only redemption in them is that we can at least see what we are, recognize ourselves and so be free in the clearer world of the recognizer. And as with Toulouse-Lautrec, another of the clear-seeing, at the end of our recognition of the degradation of human whoredom is a strange compassion for the crippled whores and addicted flâneurs themselves. In his masterwork, Au Moulin Rouge, the cripple Toulouse-Lautrec is himself one of the exhausted and diseased revelers. There, but for the grace of God, go we.

Satire is at least as important in theater as it is in the visual arts. In our admiration for classical Greek drama, we sometimes forget that the great Athenian festival of Dionysus, where Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides staged their tragic masterworks, was also the home of Aristophanes’ outrageous and permitted satirical comedy. It is a puzzle that Socrates was condemned to death for his essentially private, very subtle and highly sympathetic critique of his culture, while Aristophanes got away with much more offensive, explicit and publicly funded attacks before a mass audience. But this is the power of satire; like Shakespeare’s fools, it is tolerated because it makes itself as ridiculous as its targets, because it comes from a place that is not taking the moral high ground, because, on the contrary, it has emptied itself of all claim to respect and authority.

So much postmodern contemporary art—perhaps the majority of the “installations” we find in galleries these days—professes to critique contemporary “capitalist,” “consumerist” society. But it lacks both the punch and the wild hilarity of true satire, because it takes itself too seriously, it seizes the moral advantage, it makes an implicit claim of purity for its creator and its creator’s “set,” while leaving a smear upon the mindless conformist, consumerist drones of the public. Contemporary satirical drama, TV and film—perhaps because actors are always physically involved with and must empathize with those they play—don’t, to my ear, have the same deadening sense of didactic superiority. Mad Men, for instance, though its premise was clearly an implied unmasking of consumerism and the hidden persuaders, ended up making us sympathetically identify with many of its characters, so much so that today they are beloved popular spokespeople for Mercedes and Lincoln automobiles. Andy Warhol’s indictment of show-biz, hype, advertising and the consumer economy is somehow humanized by the fact that Warhol was himself obviously as much in love with the false tinsel and mass-produced glamour as his victims and his audience.

It is this ability to be carried away by the grotesque beauty of what is being satirized that marks the most effective and funniest satire. Molière’s obsessives—his misers, misanthropes, hypocrites, coquettes and hypochondriacs—are geniuses at sociopathy, darkly blazing archetypes of human distortedness. To take our exploration into poetry, Alexander Pope, perhaps the greatest satirist of all, provides for his vapid, vain, idiotic and profoundly superficial heroine, Belinda, in The Rape of the Lock, some of the loveliest poetry of our language. He gives her a panoply of sylphs, the fairylike spiritual embodiments of vanity, that are like the exquisite iridescent horseflies, dragonflies and butterflies that I can remember settling upon open latrines in my African village back in the ‘fifties:

But now secure the painted vessel glides,

The sun-beams trembling on the floating tides:

While melting music steals upon the sky,

And soften’d sounds along the waters die;

Smooth flow the waves, the Zephyrs gently play,

Belinda smil’d, and all the world was gay.

All but the Sylph—with careful thoughts opprest,

Th’impending woe sat heavy on his breast.

He summons strait his Denizens of air;

The lucid squadrons round the sails repair:

Soft o’er the shrouds aerial whispers breathe,

That seem’d but Zephyrs to the train beneath.

Some to the sun their insect-wings unfold,

Waft on the breeze, or sink in clouds of gold;

Transparent forms, too fine for mortal sight,

Their fluid bodies half dissolv’d in light,

Loose to the wind their airy garments flew,

Thin glitt’ring textures of the filmy dew,

Dipt in the richest tincture of the skies,

Where light disports in ever-mingling dyes,

While ev’ry beam new transient colours flings,

Colours that change whene’er they wave their wings.

There is something here that is beyond even the savage indictment of empty aristocratic frippery that Pope conceals within (and contrasts with) its poetic form—the heroic couplet of reason and enlightenment virtue. It is the hopeless infatuation of Pope himself—a cripple, like Toulouse-Lautrec, with no hope of being loved by a woman—for the mindless but enchanting charm of his subject. Only a few decades separate Pope from the Romantic age, when poets would celebrate the very things—sensory impressions, ungovernable emotions, childishness, the feminine, nature, dreams, mysticism, folk wisdom—that The Rape of the Lock derides and secretly worships. Pope is prophetic, despite himself.

Joseph Salemi, whom I have already quoted, has a brilliantly sharp response to Pope’s poem, which he puts into the mouth of a feminist professor:

This is a patriarchal, sexist piece:

The lock’s a helpless, victimized ideal

Gynal trophy (like the Golden Fleece)

That masculinist enterprise must steal.

Persons without false consciousness should feel

Outrage at how Belinda is oppressed

Both by the Baron, and the author’s zeal

For perfumes, billets-doux, and all the rest

Of hierarchy’s baubles. Women dressed

In corsets, bustles, petticoats and stays!

Such voyeuristic cameos suggest

Gender restriction more than beauty’s praise.

As for the forfex—well, now there you are:

It’s phallomorphic, just like Freud’s cigar.

In Pope’s poem, the Baron, by means of a ruse, snips off a lock of Belinda’s hair while they are playing cards. The “forfex” in line 13 is the scissors he uses. This is from Salemi’s new book, Steel Masks, which, like his earlier books, Skirmishes and Formal Complaints, is full of outrageously readable poetry, often with a satirical twist. Salemi crafts his poem out of the postmodern jargon of the literary establishment: the joke is that the speaker is missing Pope’s point. But in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s words “never tamper with natural ignorance,” Salemi is almost fascinated by the fashionable pedant he impersonates.

Salemi is one of a small group of contemporary poets who have chosen satire as one of their preferred poetic genres. Light: A Quarterly of Light Verse has been an excellent place to find their work—I would recommend especially the poetry of R.S. Gwynn, Claudia Gary and the late Richard Moore. The recent death of Light’s incomparable editor, John Mella, is a loss to the world, but Salemi’s wonderfully courageous periodical Trinacria has taken up some of the slack. Other poets, such as Paul Lake, Frederick Feirstein and Dana Gioia, have also turned to satire from time to time. Using the genre opens up one’s poetry in general to the resources of irony, persona, hyperbole and wit.

What are the instruments—the scalpels, catlins, forceps, speculums, lancets and clamps—that satire uses in its surgery? We find them remarkably similar from one artform to another. The parody or pastiche can be found equally in Goldsmith’s The Beggar’s Opera, where all the Italianate operatic conventions are mercilessly imitated and held up for ridicule, as in the blownup comic-book heroines of Roy Lichtenstein; in the lunatic theories of Swift’s pedants in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, as in the ranting iambic pentameter of Pistol, Shakespeare’s braggart coward in Henry IV; in the snatches of cheap band music that Mahler quotes in Das Lied von der Erde, as in Wang Guangyi’s contemporary comic versions of Maoist public art. To be able to imitate another person’s style is to demonstrate the automatism of that person and show that there is a larger world, in which his point of view is itself one of the spectacles to be observed and perhaps laughed at.

“Lampoon” is another important term in the satirical genre. Lampoon often involves parody, but its emphasis is on making its target ridiculous by exposing it to some context in which its concealed folly or venality is revealed to the world. The term (from Old French lampons!, “let’s drink”) etymologically implies a crude, ridiculous and sometimes indecent drinking song. Picture a Friar’s Roast, and you get some of the flavor of the lampoon—and a lampoon is not really so unfriendly; if the victim that is lampooned is a fool, he’s our fool, so to speak. Georg Grosz’s brilliantly vile portraits of the Weimar Republic’s rich are too relentlessly hostile and demonizing (not unlike Nazi representations of the Jews) to be lampoons. P.G. Wodehouse’s absurd portrayals of the British upper classes in the Jeeves books are true lampoons, as are P.D.Q. Bach’s orchestral soloists, Chaucer’s corrupt clergy, Pope’s aristocrats, Molière’s obsessives, Caravaggio’s cardsharps and their foolish victim, and the too-smart-for-their-own-good conmen of Plautus and Ben Jonson.

Another favorite technique of the satirist is the persona of the naive and innocent narrator or observer. The classic use of this technique is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which an earnest and public-spirited economist faces up to the twin problems of Irish famine and Irish overpopulation by brightly suggesting a solution: “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.” The cheerfully lunatic last phrase—“especially in winter”—is true genius.

Is there an innocent observer in satirical visual art? I believe the effectiveness of much cartoon art—William Hogarth and Goya spring to mind—may be due to the matter-of-factness of the assumed naive observer, who accepts everything he sees without apparent shock. The drawings of Grosz and Josef Lada, who did the illustrations for the first edition of Jaroslav Hasek’s novel The Good Soldier Schweik (itself a masterpiece of the art of using a naive observer), are splendid examples. Sasha Baron Cohen’s personae—Ali G, Borat, Brüno—are all innocents, as is Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, where the innocent Guido Orifice protects his still more innocent son from the horror of the Holocaust (and reveals the grotesque evil of his captors) by pretending that the concentration camp is a rather draconic health resort. Such naifs serve the function of the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s fable of the king who has no clothes—they point out what we are too sophisticated and jaded to notice and be horrified at.

Satirists include in their surgery kit the technique of exaggeration, whereby an apparently minor flaw in their victim’s reasoning or character is revealed as the monstrosity it is. Visual caricature is entirely based on this deep and magical trick: examples are too numerous to need mention. But even good portraiture relies on a subtle version of the caricaturist’s trick. Consider, for instance, Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More, Velázquez’s of Pope Innocent X or Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, in which there is no satiric intent. But a few degrees more of emphasis on a nose, a wrinkle, a dewlap or a lower lip can bring out the deep sins of the subject, as, for instance, in Cruikshank’s merciless rendering of George IV, or Thomas Nast’s Boss Tweed or David Levine’s Nixon (or Leonardo da Vinci’s Man with Bushy Hair). Some of the greatest novelistic characters are caricatures; consider Anthony Trollope’s monster of ignorant malignity, Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s wife, or the whole cast of eccentrics that swarm the pages of Charles Dickens. Dante Alighieri verily populates his Inferno with caricatures. Here satire serves art of the highest order, for, in a sense, Dante’s conception of damnation itself is that some aspect of a person has consumed his soul entirely, so that his whole being is the willed but addictive distortion of personality itself. The comedy of humors—Molière is again the classic example—is all about people who, so to speak, have become all nose, all paunch, all grasping fingers or all tumescent desire.

More subtly, satire uses an intellectual version of exaggeration, which is also a recognized and legitimate technique in discursive logic—the reduction to absurdity. This is, of course, one of the main devices in Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” What he is attacking is the inhuman attitude of the armchair political economist who totally accepts without empathy the human costs of his practical suggestions—and the alarming presence of such among the advisers of Parliament. His suggestion, that the Irish eat their babies, is nothing more, he persuades us, than what Parliament is actually preparing to put into effect, but with the elimination of a few middlemen. The exaggeration is simply one of perspective; with the middlemen of import-export controls, taxation and land tenure removed, baby-eating is what remains. What a logician does when he picks up a key detail in his opponent’s argument and ruthlessly demonstrates what it necessarily assumes and mandates, is the reductio ad absurdum. Much medieval emblematic art uses this technique, where such ideas as “the blind leading the blind,” “we’re all in the same boat” or “the big eat the small” are graphically pictured in grotesque imagery. Great artists, poets and humanists of late medieval or early Renaissance times, like the Breughels, Langland, Chaucer, Ronsard, Spenser, Rabelais, More and Erasmus, were fascinated by the aesthetic possibilities of this technique. But the tradition goes further back still: Aristophanes’ Cloudcuckool and in The Birds is itself an exaggerated reductio ad absurdum of the moral psychology of his fellow-dramatist Euripides, who, in Aristophanes’ opinion, had assumed notions of human freedom that would totally separate us from any solid moral ground.

Like the naive narrator, the device of the imaginary country or utopia is another favorite satirical device. The corruptions of one’s own country—which are one’s target—can be marvelously unmasked simply by the depiction of a country where they are absent. Thomas More’s Utopia is classic here: the rational behavior and organization of the Utopians with respect to money, marriage, property, war, rank, religion, etc. stand as a mutely eloquent indictment of the cruel, vicious, self-deceptive, mendacious, predatory, hypocritical and unjust practices of Europe. More is himself drawing on ancient examples, like the just city of Plato’s Republic or the Golden Age visions of Hesiod and Ovid.

This device is artistically rich, because utopia itself is a topic ripe for counter-satire, since it presents the naively sentimental and often brutally cruel assumptions of the utopian writer in all their naked silliness. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, especially Books III and IV, excoriates the folly of simple utopian “rational” solutions to complex and real fundamental problems, ending up with the society of the Houyhnhnms, who use the bodies of Yahoos (that is, us human beings) as practical raw materials for their manufactures, like the Nazis. For every utopia, there is a dystopia. Science fiction, which is now our most profound way of reexamining the premises of our society, abounds in both utopias and dystopias, ranging from Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress to films like Bladerunner and District 9. The satiric content is not explicit, but it is perhaps the more potent for it.

In some ways, the most effective satirical device of all is the hoax (or its less risky version, the spoof). If we can be convinced that a representation is true, when it is revealed as invented and false, it is impossible for us to avoid a self-examination for the false assumptions that we must have brought to the table. As conmen say, you can’t con an honest man. Again, “A Modest Proposal” comes to mind. By the time we have finished reading it, we know we have been duped; but there is a terrible moral judgment implied in how long we were able to sustain our belief in the genuineness of Swift’s monstrous proposition.

In modern times, in 1996, we have the famous Sokal Hoax. Alan Sokal, a physical scientist who had become irate with the idiocies of post-structuralist literary theory, deconstruction, social constructionism and the Political Turn, composed a solemn piece of nonsense about how quantum theory justified reading into authors anything the critic wanted to—and sent it to Social Text, one of the leading theory journals. The piece was enthusiastically accepted by the editors, whereupon Sokal announced the hoax on the day of publication. “Theory,” wounded like Napoleon’s Grande Armée at Borodino, struggled on for a few years afterwards, but announced its own death in 2003.

Satirical hoaxes can be found in other arts, too. Haydn’s Surprise symphony is a gentle example. The famous Wasserspiele at Hellbrunn Castle in Salzburg is another: the landscape architecture of an Italianate arcadian garden conducts the fortunate victim seeking Romantic spiritual uplift into a variety of little aqueous traps where embarrassing parts of one’s body are suddenly drenched with fine sprays of cold water. Trompe-l’oeil painting, whenever it plays with and subtly critiques our visual prejudices, is a sort of hoax that, though pleasurable, can have satiric intent, especially when the painted image is much more attractive that what it covers up.

Satire, then, as a critical category, named as a genre, is a profoundly useful concept. It does what critical language is supposed to do—it enables comparison, understanding and insight. It is especially valuable in making visible the kinship among very different art forms from very different cultures and periods of history. In doing so, it affirms, despite its apparent divisiveness in message, the essential unity of our species. It attests to our ability, despite our own interests and preconceptions, to see the flaws in our institutions, our leaders, our nations, our species and ourselves. In the hands of the greatest masters, such as Shakespeare and Cervantes, it can be our passageway into the heart of our humanity: how much poorer would our understanding of ourselves be without Falstaff and Don Quixote?

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2012, Volume 29, Number 4