Custom Search


A Brief Introduction to Restoration and Eighteenth Century Satire

[This document is the text of a lecture delivered on November 1998, by Ian Johnston, of Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University). This lecture is in the public domain, released November 22, 1998]




A. Historical Note

When we move from the Metaphysical Poets and Milton to consider Dryden (and, next semester, Pope and Swift) we are passing over an important watershed in English literary history. And although English 200 is not, as I keep stressing, a history course, it is appropriate here to say a few words about the historical context, because there is an abrupt change in literary style in the last third of the seventeenth century. This change in style is very much the product of a different cultural temperament which redefines the role of literature and which, hence, has a profound influence on the style of poetry and prose.

One key date all students of literature should remember is the year 1660, the date of the Restoration, when the great republican experiment under Oliver Cromwell came to an end and the British reinstated the monarchy by inviting Charles II (the son of the king whom Cromwell had executed about twenty years earlier) to come back as king in a restored monarchy. King Charles and his friends had spent their exile in France and the new court climate was very influenced by French manners and literary styles.

Beyond that, the Restoration came at a time when Europe had, after about a century and a half of religious warfare, reluctantly come to the realization that religion could no longer serve as a suitable basis for a shared communal life. Since there was no longer any shared agreement about what the revealed word of God meant or about an authority which might interpret that revealed word for everyone (as the Roman Catholic Church had done for centuries), the social and political life of the nation had to find some other grounding if people were to live together without killing each other over religious questions.

Out of this cultural climate increasingly grew a hope that the basis of social and political life must be a new reasonableness, combined with a concerted attempt to limit emotional excesses that had prompted so much religious bloodshed. Part of this new program of cultural reform stressed paying attention to all forms of language, both in the popular and in the high cultural forums. Language needed to be purified of passionate rhetoric and misleading metaphors, the major features of much of the enthusiastic preaching and general rabble rousing which had accompanied the religious conflicts. Public discussions should use simple, clear language and appeal to the reasonable sentiments of educated people.

Appeals to reform language encouraged certain literary efforts and discouraged others. For example, they led to increasing demands for words which were clearly defined with meanings everyone shared; hence, here begins the great age of dictionaries, attempts to codify the meanings of words in ways that everyone could understand. There were repeated attempts to purge language of complex metaphors, especially religious metaphors. These were incapable of clear exposition in a way that satisfied everyone, and since people could not agree on their meaning they only promoted disagreement. Styles of literature should move from the passionate lyric or the account of visionary religious experience to more public, restrained, and polite forms. The common popularity of the heroic couplet, for example, reflects the desire for a poetic style that is inherently more restrained, incapable of generating the emotional momentum of an impassioned verse paragraph (for example, in Shakespeare or Milton).

It's important to realize that in this period words like "imaginative," "extraordinary," "visionary," "fanciful," "enthusiastic," and so on are words of serious criticism, indicating a form of thinking or behaviour in which reasonableness has surrendered to passionate feeling. In the vocabulary of Swift, Pope, Johnson, Austen and many others, this value system is built into the language, and you will have trouble understanding some of their texts if you fail to recognize the deep distrust of passionate feeling unaccompanied by reasonable control (e.g., Swift's praise of the horses in Book IV of Gulliver's Travels because they are not "fond" of their children, a phrase which strikes the modern reader as rather odd). The term of the highest praise is "sensible," because it suggests an imagination which confines itself by experience and does not impose visionary schemes on experience or rely upon impassioned metaphors.

Accompanying this cultural shift, there is a new phenomenon, a rising middle-class of literate people with a significant amount of spending power and leisure. And so we begin to see an increasing concern with public manners, how men and women (especially in the middle class) ought to conduct themselves, particularly in their leisure time (reading, entertainment, courtship, and so on). The development of magazines and journals is directly linked to the growing importance of this group and concerns to educate it in the appropriate ways. It is no accident that literary criticism as a regular activity begins here in England, and Dryden is England's first great literary critic, concerned about the public taste in what people read and write. For example, the central concern in "Mac Flecknoe" is bad literature; Dryden's central concern is to make sure people recognize it for what it is. The fact that this is now a concern illustrates the growing importance of literature in shaping public taste.

The development of a new faith in reasonableness in England, speaking quite generally, we can see going in two directions. Traditional Christians maintained their faith in scripture and insisted that the appropriate way to proceed was to maintain the faith, with limited tolerance for those who were not of the Anglican persuasion, but with no quick dismissal of scripture or political and social traditions. A second group saw in the growing power of science a way of reforming society without reference to religion (or with a decidedly less emphasis on religion). Out of these two views grew the dominant political reality in England in the eighteenth century: the conservative Tories, Anglican traditionalists who defended the state religion and existing institutions, and the more reform-minded Whigs (the ancestors of the modern liberals), more committed to rational reform or subjecting religion to the demands of reason (dismissing the irrational from religion as much as possible) in the interests of improving society, increasing trade, and gradually making the political system more inclusive.

A third group, somewhat outside the mainstream political process, included those unwilling to give up traditionally enthusiastic religion. This group was made up principally of more radical Protestants: Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and others collectively called Dissenters (because they dissented, or refused to comply with the main articles of the Anglican faith). These people often suffered oppression and discrimination of various kinds (as the life of Bunyan reveals), but the most extreme forms of persecution of them for the most part ceased. In spite of the discrimination, the dissenting religions continued to exercise a growing appeal among the working people of England (by the end of the eighteenth century, Methodism, for example, was numerically the largest body of organized opinion in England). For the student of English culture, it is important to realize that the official religion of the country, the Anglican Church, has never been a "grass roots" belief with an enormous and enthusiastic public following. People in England who have demanded passion in their religion have, by and large, sought that either in Roman Catholicism or in the dissenting chapels.

For our purposes here, the important point to observe is that the demands for a new reasonableness in public conduct and literature encouraged a special attention to satire, that form of literature which is most directly concerned with addressing public issues with a strong didactic intention. In one way or another, most of the greatest writers in English literature for the next century (Dryden, Pope, Swift, Defoe, Johnson, among others, up to and including Bryron) directed some of their considerable energies into writing satires. And this age following the Restoration until the early nineteenth century produced some of the greatest satires ever written.  In many respects, the great satiric tradition launched by Dryden at the Restoration ends with Lord Byron.

B. Introductory Note on Satire

Formally defined, satire is "A composition in verse or prose holding up vice or folly to ridicule or lampooning individuals. . . . The use of ridicule, irony, sarcasm, etc., in speech or writing for the ostensible purpose of exposing and discourage vice or folly."

In other words, satire is a particular use of humour for overtly moral purposes. It seeks to use laughter, not just to remind us of our common often ridiculous humanity, but rather to expose those moral excesses, those corrigible sorts of behaviour which transgress what the writer sees as the limits of acceptable moral behaviour.

Let me put this another way. If we see someone or some group acting in a way we think is morally unacceptable and we wish to correct such behaviour, we have a number of options. We can try to force them to change their ways (through threats of punishment); we can deliver stern moral lectures, seeking to persuade them to change their ways; we can try the Socratic approach of engaging them in a conversation which probes the roots of their beliefs; or, alternatively, we can encourage everyone to see them as ridiculous, to laugh at them, to render them objects of scorn for the group. In doing so we will probably have at least two purposes in mind: first, to effect some changes in the behaviour of the target (so that he or she reforms) and, second, to encourage others not to behave in such a manner.

In that sense, what sets satire apart from normal comedy (and the two often shade into each other in ways which make an exact border line difficult to draw), is that in satire there is usually a clear and overt didactic intention, a clear moral lesson is the unifying power of the work. Whereas in normal comedy, we are usually being asked to laugh at ourselves and our common human foibles, in satire the basis of the humour is generally some corrigible unwelcome conduct in a few people. Normal comedy, if you will, reminds us of our inescapable human limitations; satire focus rather on those things which we can correct in order to be better than we are. It invites us to scorn the target in order to spurn that activity. This is no doubt a somewhat muddied distinction at this point, but it should become clearer as we proceed.

At the basis of every good traditional satire is a sense of moral outrage or indignation: This conduct is wrong and needs to be exposed. Hence, to adopt a satiric stance requires a sense of what is right, since the target of the satire can only be measured as deficient if one has a sense of what is necessary for a person to be truly moral. And if this satire is to have any effect, if it is to be funny, then that sense of shared moral meaning must exist in the audience as well. Satire, if you like, depends upon a shared sense of community standards, so that what is identified as contrary to it can become the butt of the jokes.

This moral basis helps to explain why a satire, even a very strong one which does nothing more than attack unremittingly some target, can offer a firm vision of what is right. By attacking what is wrong and exposing it to ridicule the satirist is acquainting the reader with a shared positive moral doctrine, whether the satire actually goes into that doctrine in detail or not. Dryden in "Mac Flecknoe" does not discuss what good literature is; but by attacking bad literature, he makes it clear what needs to occur if literature is to be valued.

[I should note here that it is possible to write satire in the absence of any shared sense of moral standards, but the result is a curious form of "black" satire. This genre is particularly common today. Modern satire typically makes everything look equally ridiculous. In such a satiric vision, there is no underlying vision of what right conduct is and the total effect, if one tries to think about it, is very bleak indeed--a sense that we might as well laugh at the ridiculousness of everything because nothing has any meaning. Whether we call this Monty Python or Saturday Night Live or This Hour Has Twenty-two Minutes or whatever, it seems to add up to an attitude that since there's no significant meaning to anything, we might as well laugh at everything. That will enable us to retreat with style from the chaos. Such an attitude is certainly at odds with traditional satire, which tends very much to work in the service of a moral vision which is being abused by particular people]

Satire may be very topical, that is, refer directly to people and events known to the readers from their own immediate context (e.g., satires on President Clinton), or it may focus upon more general human characteristics or upon both. Very topical satires which have no interest in universal characteristics tend to lose their impact very quickly, once the details of the context are no longer shared by the readers (e.g. Saturday Night Live). Satires which focus on the lasting characteristics of human experience (in addition to their topical interest) tend to have a longer life (e.g., Gulliver's Travels).

One central challenge to the satirist is to be subtle and varied enough to keep the reader interested in the wit of the piece, while at the same time making it clear (but not obvious) that there is a satiric intent. The major interest satires provoke in the reader often arises from the style, which invites the reader to share the joke. Since most satires depend upon a certain awareness in the reader (awareness of events, of literary models being satirized, of irony working in the language), skilful satires tend to require a certain sophistication in the readers or viewers. A person insensitive to levels of irony in language will normally find satires difficult to follow (unless the irony is very obvious).

Whatever the style of the satire, the writer must avoid at all costs becoming predictable and dull. Satires which are boring are ineffectual, and satires in which the ironies do not register properly simply don't work as satires, since the readers fail to see the satiric intent and take the distortion or the irony literally (e.g., Machiavelli's The Prince (perhaps), All in the Family).

C. Satire: Some Key Terms

The satirist has a number of traditional stylistic techniques at his or her disposal. Some of the more common are as follows:

Invective: describes very abusive, usually non­ironical language aimed at a particular target (e.g., a string of curses or name calling). Invective can often be quite funny (e.g., in Fawlty Towers), but it is the least inventive of the satirist's tools. A lengthy invective is sometimes called a diatribe. The danger of pure invective is that one can quickly get tired of it, since it offers limited opportunity for inventive wit.

Caricature: refers to the technique of exaggerating for comic and satiric effect one particular feature of the target, to achieve a grotesque or ridiculous effect. The term caricature generally refers more to drawing than it does to writing (e.g., the political cartoon). Almost all satire relies to some extent on the distortion of caricature. In that sense, satire is not concerned with psychological verisimilitude. The natural state of the target is pulled out of shape to make a satiric point (like a distorting mirror). Often the humour in a satire, especially a long satire, depends upon a fertile basis for the caricature, which enables the writer constantly to amuse the reader with some detail of the distortion in constantly witty ways.

One key technique linked to caricature is the development of a unique perspective on a common human action. Shifting the reader's perspective to an unusual point may then enable the satirist to caricature normal human actions in a really witty manner. This is most skillfully and famously illustrated in the first two books of Gulliver's Travels, in which the simple disproportion in physical size between Gulliver and the inhabitants of the new worlds enables Swift to describe all sorts of human actions in a way that stresses their ridiculousness.

Burlesque: refers to ridiculous exaggeration in language, usually one which makes the discrepancy between the words and the situation or the character silly. For example, to have a king speak like an idiot or a workman speak like a king (especially, say, in blank verse) is burlesque. Similarly, a very serious situation can be burlesqued by having the characters in it speak or behave in ridiculously inappropriate ways. In other words, burlesque creates a large gap between the situation or the characters and the style with which they speak or act out the event.

Mock Heroic, a particular form of burlesque (see above) is a satiric style which sets up a deliberately disproportionate and witty distance between the elevated language used to describe an action and the triviality or foolishness of the action (using, for example, the language of epics to describe a tea party). Mock heroic appeals to the sophistication of the reader familiar with the epic original and encourages the reader to see the ridiculousness of the heroic pretensions of really trivial people. It is thus an excellent vehicle for making fun of people's pride. Two of the greatest mock heroic satires in English poetry are "Mac Flecknoe" by Dryden and Rape of the Lock by Pope. The mock heroic style in the 18th century typically uses a heroic couplet (like so much other poetry of the time): a series of blank verse rhyming couplets.

Irony: a stylistic device or figure of speech in which the real meaning of the words is different from (and opposite to) the literal meaning. Irony, unlike sarcasm, tends to be ambiguous, bringing two contrasting meanings into play. Often irony works by an incongruity between an action or a proposal and the moral words used to describe it. Many forms of language, except perhaps those of mathematics and science, are inherently ironical, since words carry complex connotations. Irony becomes satiric when the real meaning appears to contradict the surface meaning (e.g., A Modest Proposal). Irony is not, of course, confined to satire.

Lampoon: generally refers to a very harsh and personal attack on a very particular recognizable target, focusing on the target's character or appearance.

Parody: refers to a style which deliberately seeks to ridicule another style. This may involve, in less talented parody, simply offering up a very silly version of the original. In more skilful parodies, the writer imitates the original very well, pushing it beyond its limits and making it ridiculous. To achieve this second form of parody, the satirist has to be able to compose as well as the original. The very best writers are hard to parody in this second sense, simply because the style of the original is impossible to push any further without revealing that the parody is less skilful than the original (e.g., King Lear, Macbeth). The effect of parody obviously depends upon the reader's being familiar with the original.

One curious effect of some parody is that the satire is so skillfully done that it becomes a better work of art than its original and lasts long after the original has been forgotten and the satiric intention is lost (e.g., The Beggar's Opera, Spinal Tap).

Reductio ad absurdum: is a popular satiric technique (especially in Swift), whereby the author agrees enthusiastically with the basic attitudes or assumptions he wishes to satirize and, by pushing them to a logically ridiculous extreme, exposes the foolishness of the original attitudes and assumptions. Reductios are sometimes dangerous either because the reader does not recognize the satire at work or because the reader fails to identify the target clearly. The most famous example of this technique in an English satire is Swift's "A Modest Proposal."

D. Satire: Some Comments on the Range

Given that central to what we call traditional satire is some underlying moral vision, so that the "negative" portrayal of the target works in the service of a "positive" moral vision, it is clear that satire can take on a wide range of tones. That is, the moral indignation in the heart of the satirist can lead him to something really vicious and savage, an unrelenting and unforgiving attack on what he sees as extreme moral corruption in what he is ridiculing, or, alternatively, at another extreme the indignation of the satirist may temper itself with some affection for the target, so that the satire is much more good natured, less abusive and aggressive, even to the point where we are not sure just how much the comic portrait is really satiric or simply comic (as in, say, a celebrity "roast," where a group of people attack one of their friends, but do so in an affectionate way, so that the target really has nothing to complain about, even if some of the jokes hit a tender nerve at times).

It seems clear, for example, that Chaucer's "General Prologue" has a satiric intention in places. And yet the satire is so gentle and affectionate that generally the distance required for effective satire collapses, and we are left quite uncertain. For instance, is the portrait of the Prioresse a satire? It has some of the elements, but at the same time the narrator is so clearly drawn to the woman and his portrait expresses an admiration that works against any potential satiric effect. If this is satire, it is surely so amiable that we are hardly tempted to mock the lady. Even in cases where the satire is clearly stronger (as in, say, the Wife of Bath's portrait), the strong current of pleasure and full appreciation in the portrait seriously undercuts the seriousness of any satiric edge.

No such ambiguity appears in Dryden's portrait of Shadwell in "Mac Flecknoe." Here the caricature is clear, the satiric distance is always maintained, and we as readers are not invited to enjoy any admirable qualities in the target, but rather to witness his ridiculous pretensions. The mock heroic style and the attention to the discrepancy between the heroic detail and the foolishness of the event maintain a sharp satiric edge throughout.

Satire thus can come in many forms, from savage to gentle, but it remains satire so long as we feel that the writer's main purpose is making us laugh at conduct which he believes ought to be corrected. This purpose is much more important than giving us any psychological insight into why the person might be acting in that way. What matters for the satirist is the behaviour which he or she sees as corrigible and wrong.

Whether we see Dryden's portrayal of Shadwell as aggressively vicious or as much more affectionately funny (and there seems little doubt that it is much more the former than the latter), the satiric purpose remains clear so long as we sense that Dryden intends us to see Shadwell's work (and the people who admire it) as stupid. To the extent that Shadwell and his retinue become attractive to us (say, because of the energy and humour they display), the satiric purpose is diminished. That does not seem to be a problem with Dryden's satire here, but in some famous satires the attractiveness of the target does raise some problems (especially in Pope's Rape of the Lock, the most famous mock heroic poem in English).

E. Satire: Some Basic Techniques

How does a satirist set about ridiculing the vice and folly she wants the audience to recognize as unacceptable? Remember that the challenge to the satirist is to get the moral point across with humour, so that the audience or the reader laughs in the appropriate manner. Put another way, the challenge is to put across serious matters in humorous ways.

Let me restate this point because it is crucial. The central message of satire is often very simple and can be stated quickly. Satire is, for reasons we shall consider in a moment, not a genre which encourages complex explorations of deep psychological issues in the characters. It's much more like a repetitive insistence on the foolishness of certain kinds of behaviour. So the problem for the satirist is to make his treatment funny, that is, to keep the jokes coming quickly and with sufficient variety that the audience stays interested in what is going on. Nothing is staler in art than a satire which runs out of steam or which starts to repeat itself in predicable ways. That's why the staple form for modern satire is the short skit--set up, punch line, fade out. In a longer satire, like an Aristophanic play or Swift's Gulliver's Travels the problem is to keep the reader interested through the variety in one's stylistic technique.

Well, there are a number of basic strategies. I list them here in no particular order.

1. First, the satirist sets up a target-for instance, the poet Shadwell--which will symbolize the conduct he wishes to attack. Satire, in other words, has a clear target. Setting up the target in a way that can generate humour in a variety of ways is an important talent. The coronation of Shadwell, for instance, is not just a one-line joke about the nature of bad poetry; in the poem it becomes the source for a number of other jokes and insults which arise spontaneously but amusingly out of the dramatic setting Dryden has invented In Gulliver's Travels, if you go on to read it, you will probably notice a distinct let down when you reach Book III, in part because Swift doesn't anchor his satire there on a good target metaphor, or at least not on one which works nearly so well as the size metaphor in Books I and II.

2. Second, the satirist will typically exaggerate and distort the target in certain ways in order to emphasize the characteristics he wishes to attack and, most importantly, to provide recurring sources of humour. Such exaggeration and distortion are a key element in the humour. The target must be close enough to the real thing for us to recognize what is going on, but sufficiently distorted to be a funny exaggeration, often a grotesque departure from normality.

The example of a political cartoon is instructive here. When we laugh at the cartoon of a well known political leader, we are responding to two things: a recognition of the original and of what the satirist has done to distort the original so as to make it ridiculous for a particular purpose.

In that sense, all satire is, as I mention above, unfair, if by that we mean that the depiction of the target is not life-like, not a true copy. Of course, it's not. There would be no cartoon if all we had was a photograph of the prime minister or president. Making the target ridiculous means bending it out of shape (as in a distorting mirror), not beyond recognition but certainly far from its normal appearance. The point of the satire often lies in the nature of the distortion. Much of the best satire depends, in other words, on a skilful caricature or cartoon, rather than on any attempt at a life-like rendition of the subject.

So to complain that Shadwell in "Mac Flecknoe" is nothing like the real Shadwell is to miss the point. Dryden is setting up his Shadwell to symbolize in a ridiculously distorted manner certain ways of behaving which he wishes his audience to recognize as absurd. At the same time, the portrait has to have some recognizable connection to Shadwell if the poem is to make a connection with the audience. But it's important, too, to recognize that the main satire may not be directed so much at Shadwell, ridiculous as he is, but at those who worship Shadwell, who really do believe that he is an important author.

Such distortion obviously involves setting up a certain distance between the target and the audience. That is, we are not in a satire invited to consider the inner feelings of the target or to speculate on any complex psychological motives for why he behave the way he does. The satirist focuses on ridiculing external behaviour, not on speculating about possible complex psychological motivation. To do the latter is to bring the audience into the inner workings of the target's heart and mind, and once one has done that, it is difficult to respond to the target satirically. As the old French saying has it, "Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner" ["To understand everything is to forgive everything"]. For that reason it's difficult to satirize anyone whose inner psychological troubles are well known.

3. Once the target is delineated in an appropriately distorted way, the satire proceeds by an unrelenting attack. Here the satirist has a variety of weapons, ranging from rude direct insults and a lot of robust physical humour (pratfalls, misunderstandings, mock fights) to more complex assaults parodying various forms of language and belief. "Mac Flecknoe" is justly famous as a very robust satire featuring a wide variety of satiric techniques, in particular a superb mock heroic style, larded with topical references to the London literary scene, and with some skilful insults. The major pleasure one derives from this poem comes principally from recognizing the witty disparity between the heroic style and the triviality of the subject:  

Now Empress Fame had published the renown
Of Sh---'s coronation through the town
Roused by report of Fame, the nations meet,
From near Bunhill, and distant Watling Street,
No Persian carpets spread the imperial way,
But scattered limbs of mangled poets lay;
From dusty shops neglected authors come,
Martyrs of pies, and relics of the bum.
Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogilby there lay,
But loads of Sh---- almost choked the way. (94-103)

A good many of these attacks are going to draw upon the shared cultural milieu of the playwright and the audience (names of particular people and events, excerpts from particularly well known speeches or plays, references to current affairs, and so on). The aim of the satirist is to deliver an unremitting attack on the target which the audience can laugh at, so that the audience's shared response, its laughter, can effectively deal with the behaviour which the satirist wishes to correct.

In this connection, satiric irony is important. This is a technique which, as its name suggests, confronts the audience with the discrepancy between what characters say and do and what we fully understand by their actions. To appreciate satire, that is, we have to have a sense of where the satirist is coming from, so that we recognize the distortion and the ridiculous behaviour for what it is. If we fail to see the satiric irony at work, then our response may defeat the purposes of the satirist, because we will be tempted to say one of two things: (a) well, life's not like that so I don't see the point (e.g., Shadwell was never crowned and it's silly to pretend that he was) or (b) hey, I think that action by the target is just great; maybe we should all be more like that.

If we fail to see the function of the satiric irony, in other words, we may dismiss the fiction as mere stupidity or we may embrace it as something admirable. So the challenge of the satirist is to make the satiric intention clear but not overly obvious, so that the audience derives a certain pleasure from participating in the in-joke, in seeing what the writer is getting at through the humour.

That quality of satire makes it, for all its frequent crudity and knock-about farce, a much more "intellectual" genre than many others. To appreciate satire one has to be able to recognize the continuing existence of different levels of meaning (that is, of irony), and the more sophisticated the satire the more delicate the ironies. Or, put another way, satire requires a certain level of education and sophistication in the audience. People can still respond to the fun of Aristophanes, to the dramatic action and the crude fun, but with no sense for satiric irony, the point of the piece will get rather lost.

4. In assaulting the target in this way, the satirist is going to be pushing hard at the edge of what the audience is prepared to accept. If the satirist wants really to connect with the audience, then the writer is going often to be pushing language at the audience in new ways, taking risks with what they are prepared to accept. After all, if the purpose is to wake people up to the moral realities of their daily situation, then often some fairly strong language is going to be in order. That, of course, presents the risk of offending the audience's taste. If an audience turns away from the work in disgust, then they are not going to attend to whatever important moral lesson the satirist is striving to call attention to. Hence the more aggressive the satirist, the more delicately the writer has to walk along the line of what is acceptable and what is not. It's no accident that expanding the envelope of what is acceptable on the stage or in prose is often the work of our satirists. We see this in "Mac Flecknoe" in the way Dryden is fully prepared repeatedly to refer to shit, faeces, toilet paper, and so on, not the normal vocabulary of polite poetry.

This point is worth stressing, because if a satirist is really touching a nerve in the audience, then a common response is to find ways to neutralize the satire. I have sketched out four of the common methods one can use to do that: (a) take the satire literally and dismiss it as absurd or embrace it as a good idea (the satiric irony is thus lost and the point of the satire evaporates), (b) reject the satire because it is too rude or crude (it offends my taste); (c) reject the satire because it is "unfair" or not sufficiently true to life (this is very similar to point a above); (d) reject the satire by failing to respond to the ironies.

F. Is Satire Ever Effective?

How effective is satire at realizing its objective, that is, the moral reformation of the audience. I suppose the short answer is not very often, especially nowadays, when being laughed at is often a sign of celebrity rather than something one is automatically ashamed of. I suspect that in closely knit groups, where one's status and dignity are important, becoming a laughing stock is something one worries about. Under these circumstances, the satirist may indeed really connect with the target. That, however, may prompt extreme hostility to the writer rather than a reformation of the target's character.

Swift observed that satire is like a mirror in which people see everyone's face except their own. That, I suspect, is a very accurate observation, and to that extent the satirist is probably engaging in something of a vain endeavour: to get people to recognize their own ridiculousness and to avoid it in the future. Still, there may be some other, more useful point. For satire is not just a matter of attacking the target; it's also a matter of attacking or at least challenging those who believe in the target, who do not see, that is, the moral imperfections at the basis of a particular social or political stance.

So it may be the case that satire works most effectively at educating an audience to see through the pretensions and folly of people whom it takes much more seriously than they ought to be taken. If it does that, then it has used laughter in a very constructive way, as mentioned above; it has helped to show us that too often our sense of what we are, as individuals and as groups, is too limited by delusions of grandeur. Too often we become enamoured of false idols. Satire is one means of educating us against the practice.



[Back to johnstonia Home Page]
Page loads on johnstonia web files

View Stats