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The Anatomy of Satire
By Gilbert Highet
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1962 Gilbert Highet
All rights reserved.
Satire is not the greatest type of literature. It cannot, in spite of the ambitious claims of one of its masters, rival tragic drama and epic poetry. Still, it is one of the most original, challenging, and memorable forms. It has been practiced by some energetic minds — Voltaire, Rabelais, Petronius, Swift; by some exquisitely graceful stylists — Pope, Horace, Aristophanes; and occasionally, as a parergon, by some great geniuses — Lucretius, Goethe, Shakespeare. It pictures real men and women, often in lurid colors, but always with unforgettable clarity. It uses the bold and vivid language of its own time, eschewing stale clichés and dead conventions. Where other patterns of literature tend sometimes to be formal and remote, satire is free, easy, and direct. Where they use carefully posed models and work in a skillfully lighted studio, the satirist cries, "I am a camera! I am a tape-recorder!" If the results which he offers us are not always smooth with the contours of perfect art, and if their tints are not harmoniously blended, they at least have the urgency and immediacy of actual life. In the work of the finest satirists there is the minimum of convention, the maximum of reality.
To discover what satire is and what shapes it takes, the best way is to look at some good satirists, dealing with themes which we regard as important.
First, consider the problem of traffic in the big city, described by the Roman poet Juvenal. To most of us today, the streets jammed with crowds and vehicles are merely one more annoyance in our irksome lives, an inevitable price to pay for metropolitan luxury. We scarcely realize that the infuriating frustrations of traffic, by maltreating our emotions, are injuring our health, and that the noxious gases belched from a million motors are shortening our lives. Juvenal lived before the age of the internal combustion engine and the motor-horn; but he knew that megalopolitan traffic was more than a mere inconvenience; and so, although speaking in a tone of wry humor, he began his description of the traffic problem in ancient Rome with chronic illness, and ended it with violent death. This is an excerpt from his third satire, in which a man who is leaving the city of Rome forever describes the abuses which are driving him away. (A few details have been modernized in the translation, in order to reproduce the intensely topical tone of the original.)
Most sick men here die from insomnia — though first their illness starts with undigested food, that clogs the burning stomach. Who can ever sleep in a rented apartment? Peaceful rest is costly in the city. There is the root of our sickness: heavy buses squeezing through narrow twisted streets, and the curses of stalled drivers, would break a deaf man's sleep, or keep a walrus awake. To make a morning call, the millionaire is driven easily through the crowds in his long limousine, reading his paper en route, or writing — yes, or sleeping, for warmth and closed windows invite him to take a nap; yet he'll be early. I keep pressing, but I'm blocked by a mighty surge in front, my hips are squeezed by the crowd shoving behind, an elbow hits me here and a fender there, now I am banged by a beam, now biffed by a barrel. My legs are thick with mud, a barrage of coarse shoes bunts me, upon my toe a soldier's boot stands fast. ... My newly mended coat is ripped with a flick from a log joggling upon a truck; next comes a heavy girder suspended on a trailer, poised like a threat of doom: for if the axle beneath a load of heavy granite snaps, and pours out a rockslide on the moving horde, what will be left of their bodies? Bones and flesh alike will disappear. The poor victims' corpses will vanish as utterly as their souls!
A gruesome picture. And yet, in a grim way, funny. When the ambulance arrives, the interne will write on his form D.O.A., which stands not for the customary "Dead On Arrival," but for "Disappeared. Obliterated. Annihilated." And, although exaggerated, there is a truth in this satire. Traffic is too much with us, late and soon; it is corroding our nerves and afflicting our health; and, one of these days, unless we escape, it will crush us out of existence. In this specimen we recognize the characteristic features of satire: it is topical; it claims to be realistic (although it is usually exaggerated or distorted); it is shocking; it is informal; and (although often in a grotesque or painful manner) it is funny. And this is one of the typical forms assumed by satire: a monologue, spoken virtually without interruption by one man — the author himself, or a mouthpiece of the author.
Another satirist treats a more important theme in a different and more ambitious manner. The history of the human race is a strange succession of light and darkness. Brief and exciting the bright periods usually are, long and stubborn the years of obscurity. In the life of our world one of the gloomiest epochs was the Dark Age of ignorance and barbarism that closed in after the fall of the western Roman Empire. Libraries were destroyed. Schools and universities diminished or disappeared. The sciences were forgotten. The arts shrank to miniature skills or rude crafts. Cities dwindled to groups of villages, towns to sordid hamlets. The population fell away, becoming less numerous and more gross. Illiteracy and superstition flourished in a world made up of warring tribes, lonely settlements, and hopeless "displaced persons." Monarchs could not write; nearly all laymen were unable to read. After long being prosperous and highly civilized, western Europe sank back into half a millennium of poverty, ignorance, and oppression, only to emerge in the twelfth century of our era, and then with vast difficulty and painful effort. Today, when we recall the hideous devastation caused by the Second World War, and realize with horror that the next will be still more destructive, we can easily, too easily, imagine our grandchildren's grandchildren half-barbarized, struggling for a bare existence among ruins and deserts, reduced to the life of primitive man, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Alexander Pope, like most intelligent men of the eighteenth century, looked back on that early time of troubles with revulsion. In his most ambitious satire, The Dunciad, he went so far as to forecast the imminent coming of a new Dark Age, brought on not by war but by the infectious spread of human pride, selfishness, and stupidity; and he made his chief victim, personifying all these vices, glory in a vision of past ignorance triumphing both in Rome and in Britain.
Lo! Rome herself, proud mistress now no more
Of arts, but thundering against heathen lore:
Her grey-haired synods damning books unread,
And Bacon trembling for his brazen head.
Padua, with sighs, beholds her Livy burn,
And even the antipodes Virgilius mourn.
See the cirque falls, the unpillared temple nods,
Streets paved with heroes, Tiber choked with gods:
Till Peter's keys some christened Jove adorn,
And Pan to Moses lends his pagan horn;
See graceless Venus to a virgin turned,
Or Phidias broken, and Apelles burned.
Behold, yon isle, by palmers, pilgrims trod,
Men bearded, bald, cowled, uncowled, shod, unshod,
Peeled, patched, and piebald, linsey-woolsey brothers,
Grave mummers! sleeveless some, and shirtless others.
That once was Britain.
Although Pope was a Roman Catholic, he writes here in terms which anticipate Gibbon's famous epigram, "the triumph of Barbarism and Religion." But these lines are not uttered by the satirist himself. They are part of a long prophetic speech delivered by the spirit of a dead poet, himself a champion of Dulness, to the hero of the poem, in a vision of Elysium. Every reader who knows the classics will at once recognize that this speech is a parody of one of the greatest speeches in Latin poetry: the address of the dead Anchises, in Elysium, to his son Aeneas. The main conception is the same in both: a prophecy of a world-wide empire, to be brought into being by the efforts of the hero under the protection of a guardian deity, and sustained by mighty champions who, still waiting to be born, pass before him in a magnificent procession. Feature after feature recalls the sixth book of the Aeneid: the hero is led by a Sibyl; he sees the souls of the unborn, multitudinous as bees, moving by the river of Lethe; the mystical doctrine of transmigration is imparted to him; from a hilltop he is shown the heroes of his race. However, the themes of the two passages are dissimilar, indeed contraposed. The subject of the prophecy in the Aeneid is the rise of Roman civilization. The subject of the prophecy in The Dunciad is, in part at least, the reverse: the invasion, first of ancient, and then of modern, civilization by the forces of stupidity. The former is spoken by a majestic figure, the spirit of Aeneas's father now endowed with preternatural wisdom; the latter, by a ridiculous personage, the third-rate poet Elkanah Settle,
By his broad shoulders known, and length of ears.
Nevertheless, the tone of the speech in The Dunciad is grave and at times enraptured, although its subject is both absurd and repellent. This is a fine example of the second main pattern of satiric writing: parody.
From the problem of the city suffering from vehicular thrombosis, and the problem of irrepressible human stupidity, let us turn to a third, much older and more formidable, which has been handled by one of the greatest satirists of all. This is the problem of providence: the question how this world is constructed and governed. Everywhere we look, every day we live, we see and experience evil. Pain and suffering seem to be built into the very structure of the universe. Look through the microscope at the tiniest of living things: they are as savage and cunning as sharks, or leopards, or men. Gaze backward at the physical history of this planet, and see what appears to be a long series of meaningless catastrophes. Think of human history: consider what horrors men have inflicted on one another, and what crimes they are preparing even now to commit. Observe the natural disasters — floods, famines, earthquakes, epidemics — which visit us at irrational intervals, as though the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were forever riding around the planet. Can we confidently say that this world is good? Can we easily believe that it was created so that we should be happy in it? Can we call its almost ubiquitous evil merely negative, or incidental, or illusory? For these questions, religions which depend on faith have their own answers. But philosophers also have endeavored to solve them. One philosopher devised an ingenious answer. Unable to say that the world was flawlessly good, yet eager to assert that it was systematically and intelligibly constructed, Gottfried Leibniz argued that, while other types of world-order are thinkable, this which we inhabit is, with all its apparent imperfections, the best possible world. An omnipotent creator could have brought many other kinds of universe into existence; but they would logically have suffered from more and greater peccancies.
As long as human life jogged on with no more than its customary quotient of suffering, this declaration might not evoke any more than a puzzled smile or a logic-chopping debate. But about forty years after its emission, an unusually violent and apparently inexplicable disaster occurred. The city of Lisbon was almost wholly destroyed by a tremendous earthquake, followed by a tidal wave and by fire. Many thousands of innocent people were killed in an instant, buried alive, or roasted to death. Here was the opportunity for a satirist — not to gloat over the sufferings of the victims, but to point out the ludicrous inadequacy of the philosopher who asserted that they lived, and died, in the best of all possible worlds. In 1759 Voltaire published Candide.
Once upon a time, he tells us, there was a decent young fellow who had been taught, by an expert in metaphysicotheologocosmolonigology, that the world-order was intelligible, logical, and, philosophically speaking, the best of all possible world-orders. His name was Candide, which means Ingenuous, so he believed this theory. He was born in a castle in Germany; he was exiled when only about twenty; he never saw his home again, but became a "displaced person" and ended his days on a small subsistence-farm in Turkey. Between those two terminals, he traveled half round the world, became fabulously rich and miserably poor, was imprisoned, tortured, threatened a hundred times with death; he saw his pretty young sweetheart changed into a bitter old hag, and the philosopher who had taught him the doctrine of optimism turn into a miserable relic of humanity, like one of the ghastly figures who appeared when the German concentration-camps were liberated. And yet Candide continued, almost until the very end, to believe the metaphysicotheologocosmolonigological theory that everything fell out for the best in this world, and that this was the best of all possible worlds.
It is unnecessary to summarize this brilliant satirical tale, but a few of its episodes will show its special quality. On a business trip, Candide is shipwrecked. (Nowadays he would be in an airplane where one of the passengers was carrying a heavy brief-case, which ticked.) He swims ashore clinging to a plank and lands on the coast of Portugal. Exhausted and famished, he walks into Lisbon, arriving just in time for the earthquake. He survives; but, because he is overheard discussing the philosophical inevitability of the disaster, he is arrested by the Holy Inquisition, and, to the sound of hymns, flogged. Another earthquake shock follows. Candide is unexpectedly rescued by an old woman, who proves to be the servant of his sweetheart Cunégonde. Learning that Cunégonde, no longer a maiden, is shared by two lovers, a Jewish banker and the Grand Inquisitor, he kills them both and escapes to South America. A little later he is captured by a tribe of Indians who prepare to cook and eat him. (He made the mistake of shooting two apes who were chasing a pair of Indian girls, and were in fact the girls' sweethearts.) A little later again he reaches Eldorado, which he leaves with an immense fortune in gold and jewels (the dirt and pebbles of that country); a little later still, his wealth is stolen by a Dutch sea-captain; and so it goes. Compared with the adventures of Candide, the exploits of the far-wandering and much-experienced hero Odysseus were mild and humdrum.
The story of Candide has no pattern — except the elementary pattern of constant change and violent contrast, which can scarcely be called a pattern at all. Indeed, it would be perfectly easy for us, if a new manuscript of the book were discovered containing half a dozen fresh chapters on the adventures of Candide in Africa or in China, to accept them as genuine. Probability is disregarded. Logic and system never appear. Chance, idiotic chance both kindly and cruel, is supreme. True, there is a single dominating theme — the philosophical theory of optimism — and a basic plot — Candide loves Cunégonde and at last marries her. But beyond these the story is designed to be illogical, unsystematic, fantastic, and (in the existentialist sense) absurd. A romantic tale which is not satiric may contain wild and unexpected adventures; but they will follow a pattern which, given the premises, could be called reasonable. Allan Quatermain in King Solomon's Mines and Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls move through worlds of extreme fantasy and unguessable peril, but their adventures link into a chain, and the chain forms a design. In Candide there is no design. The implicit purpose of the author is to deny that design in life exists. At every moment the regular course of existence is interrupted or distorted, so that nothing, whether good or bad, happens for any comprehensible reason. In two of the biggest scenes of the book, Candide visits the unreal land of Eldorado and the almost equally unreal city of Venice during the Carnival. In Eldorado he finds that our diamonds are common gravel. In Venice six chance-met tourists prove to be dethroned kings — one Russian czar, one British pretender, one Corsican, one Sultan, and, of course, two rival Poles. When four displaced princes appear after dinner, no one pays any attention to them. In the world of satiric fiction, almost anything may happen at any moment. Satire sometimes looks at reality as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, deserving nothing but a bitter laugh.
Excerpted from The Anatomy of Satire by Gilbert Highet. Copyright © 1962 Gilbert Highet. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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