Sunday, December 07, 2008
The way Silk tells it, something rather odd happened to criticism of classical satire in the 50s:
Juvenal’s target, it now seemed, was not the deplorable features of Roman life; the target was rather the bluster of the angry voice itself. Juvenal might or might not be righteous, but the indignant satirist is a pose, and himself the object of the satire.This is a peculiar idea and it's satisfying to watch Silk savage it.
Fifty years on, this kind of posing has been identified, more and more broadly, across Roman satirical writing, and then read back into satirical equivalents in ancient Greece as well.
I'm not deeply familiar with Juvenal but that interpretation looks to me like somebody getting lost among multiple levels of irony.
The next logical step would be to suggest that, instead of being the main point of the work, Juvenal's indignant pose was in fact a masterly satirical trap designed to make literary critics embarrass themselves with convoluted over-interpretation. It's just that up until the 20th century, they were wise to him.
Or perhaps there is a simpler explanation.
I suspect most people who can pull off accussing the entire world of moral turpitude are smart enough to realise they themselves, if they're right, don't have the authority to do the condemning. So, even if they had no other reason, they might satirise their own indignation from time to time. They might also do so in passing as they savage their main target, in the hope it might be mistaken for humility.
I'm not certain about examples in my own work (unless you count that bit when I said I wasn't "deeply familiar" with Juvenal, which is true as far as it goes).
Perhaps this one, all the way back in '05: Satirist 'Apologises' to Howard. Perhaps not. If you wish to pursue the question you should probably read this one first: Howard Demands Emergency Anti-Wolf Legislation.
Anyway, Silk also has a lot to say about what satire is. And his observation on the conserativeness of the mode - not just because it attacks rather than constructs but because your audience has to share a moral and factual paradigm or it doesn't work - I had considered this.
In the latter respect - the shared point of view - it's a bit like a joke. Although humour is more of a method of satire than a part of it.
I think of a laugh as the sound of a surprise you like. There are lots of ways of achieving this. At a clowning workshop a learned that it can be done by setting up a rhythm and breaking it, even by breathing at the right moment.
In a joke - and what follows I got from a footnote in David Foster Wallace's Consider The Lobster (it might have been this piece about Kafka [pdf] but I haven't checked) - the punchline moment is where you're jumped by the intersection between the setup, which is internal to the joke, and what you already know about the world, which isn't mentioned in the joke at all.
[For another literary-review type discussion, about jokes, see this Spiked article. It takes a more freudian, and hence less right, angle on the definition, but one that might help for explaining why some things are funnier than others.]
I suppose that business with externalities and assumptions is part of what makes jokes educational; if you can work out why it's funny you can understand the teller.
What's more, that act of rearranging those ideas in you head has probably shook up your preconceptions just a little.
Which helps reconcile me to the whole "satire is inherently conservative" thing.