Aspects of Satire

For Elsa Cayat and her colleagues

When early in his discovery of the Unconscious Freud discovered the relation between wit and the formation of a dream he opened up a new perspective on why we gain pleasure from jokes. One of the signs of this pleasure is, of course, laughter and Freud subsequently explored the relation of laughter to pleasure in a later text “On humour”.

One of Freud’s most beloved writers was the poet Heinrich Heine whose poetry and prose are both rooted in the German satiric tradition that Freud greatly appreciated and to which he alludes in interesting ways. Freud’s famous use of Hyacinth’s joke derives from Heine’s famous satire on travel – The Italian Journey — a work that owes a considerable debt to the originator of much of the satiric tradition Lucian.

Satire as a literary genre could be said to be quite obviously created from the wish to allow a thought that for considerations of politics ought to be censored to be articulated. The origins of satire in Roman classical literature, Juvenal, Propertius, are the consequence of the politics of a society that takes pleasure in its decadence and at the same time fears the censure of being un-virtuous.

While jokes can be made at the expense of an individual, satire derives its particular interest in being ways to code messages about specific people. The strategy of the satirist is to both indicate that the satire does refer to actual events or people and at the same time generate sufficient ambiguity to actually protect the object of the satire from direct exposure or mockery. In satire the wish to mock is veiled, but the satisfaction sought in mocking is satisfied. But we might ask whether satires don’t produce another kind of satisfaction that goes beyond the perhaps over-simplification of the idea that the pleasure derives from eluding the censorship.

In order to explore the complexity of satire we will begin by pointing out that the wager of the satirist changes depending on the object of the satire. One aspect of satire is the treatment of individuals who are already known to the audience of the poem. Only if the person in question wields power is the satirist in danger. But certainly Roman satirists risked exile or worse if they failed to disguise their characters sufficiently. The same has been true in all tyrannies. In this sense the satirist risks saying what the rest of his community fears to state.

But there is another less dangerous form of satire which takes as its object a complete society and rather than disguise the object of its criticism it aims instead to create an entirely new perspective – a nonsensical perspective – from which to look at this society. An originator of this genre is Lucian in his trip to the moon.

In English literature perhaps the finest example of this form of satire is Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. This nonsensical perspective of Swift’s enables the different forms of degradation of eighteenth century life to be exposed. Swift’s approach might be compared to one of the great political satires of the twentieth century Animal Farm. However the very premise of Orwell’s great novel is that the animals’ existence far from being nonsensical corresponds to a very recognizable human hierarchy. One explanation for the importance of sense to Orwell’s novel is that satire is at the service of a different genre – the fable.

Historically a link has always existed between fable and satire, particularly in the wonderful fabliaux of Chaucer and Bocaccio among others. These remarkable writings are marked by what might naively be called a generosity of spirit that while engaging in mockery also introduces a sense that the reader will grow closer through the spirit of the fabliaux to the character that has been satirized. Through satire a new appreciation of the human emerges.

This element of satire appears to have been vanished by the Augustan age and perhaps this is the consequence of the way in which literature has responded to the achievements and increase in significance of the scientific world view. In European, particularly English literature, the adoption of the idiom of the classical and the satire is a response to a devaluation of the role of fantasy in literature itself and certainly a devaluation of the incredible richness of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. The subjectivity that emerges in the poetry of Donne has been censored in the aftermath of Newton.

I would like to propose that this is the basis for the remarkable achievement of Gulliver’s Travels as both satire and fantasy and a way for literature during this epoch to avoid being itself the object of a satire – its irrelevancy in the face of scientific knowledge. More than any other form of the comic, satire responds to the violence of change whether it is decadence or progress. Realism is one for of topicality – Satire a veiled one.

But it is here that it produces a pleasure that goes beyond that of the satirical object.
Because it is here that satire produces a kind of sublimation of its own violent response to the degradations that it targets, while it is impelled by a search to satisfy its own violence on the object it can as shown by some of the great examples — Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Ox, produce an unexpected lightness and distance from the very horrors it aims to confront. This is why it is so valuable in whatever form it appears — literature, film or cartoon — and why all attempts to intimidate the satirist are attempts to repress the very potentiality of satire to make from the response to a violence a space of alternatives and alterity.