Defining Satire, its Methods and Aims


Aristotle speaks in his Poetics of a kind of poetry (iambics) which portrays the actions of inferior men (IV, 9), but the word satura (originally an adjective meaning mixed or of various composition) and the conception of satire as a definite type of poetry with a definable style first appears in Rome in the first century B.C., most importantly in the writings of Horace. When the first-century A.D. rhetorician Quintilian writes, Satura... tota nostra est (Rome is preeminent in satire, Institutio oratoria, X, 93), he means, however, to claim Roman superiority only in that kind of satiric writing now known as formal verse satirea collection of short verse satires in which the satirist directly attacks and denounces a variety of men and practiceswritten first by Lucilius, refined and stabilized by Horace, and further developed by Juvenal and Persius. The word satire has come, however, to be the general term for any kind of writing which attacks, directly or indirectly, something which is hated or feared. In one direction the word expands into the adjective satiric, vaguely referring to any slightly muted expression of hostility; and in the other direction it narrows to a particular literary genre or myth, like comedy, tragedy, and epic, with a characteristic subject matter, style, and structure. As a genre, it should be distinguished from the perspectives or modeslyric, narrative, and dramaticthrough which it is variously presented.

The history of satire from its primitive beginnings to its highest levels of development is a series of attempts to manage and use a fundamental attitude or human energy which is nakedly open in the crudest satire and is still expressed in some fairly direct form in even the most polished literary satires. Juvenal's Si natura negat, facit indignatio versum (Though nature says no, indignation shapes my poetry; I, 79) reveals precisely that quality of fury and outrage which drives most satire. The desire to attack and overwhelm those things which are hated and feared, for whatever reason, comes through openly in Swift's Drown the world! I am not content with despising it, but I would anger it, if I could with safety” (Letter to Pope, Nov. 26, 1725). It is there in Pope's strong Antipathy of Good to Bad (Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue II [1738], 198), and in John Marston's I cannot chuse but bite (The Scourge of Villanie [1598], Satire VIII). Even when the hostility is not openly expressed, it is latent in the ugly ways in which satire characteristically presents its victims, and in the imagery traditionally associated with the satiric attack: biting, flaying, throwing acid, whipping, administering purgatives, and anatomizing. In those works where the author creates a character embodying the pure satiric impulse and develops the logic of this attitude to its absurd but revealing extreme, the satiric figure ends isolated from society, hating all that man does and is. Shakespeare's Timon retires naked to the desert to curse man and nature, to intrigue against Athens, and finally to kill himself; Gulliver goes to live in the stable, preferring the company of horses to that of men; Molière's Alceste in Le Misanthrope leaves Paris, and the vital though morally imperfect Célimène, for that wild, trackless, solitary place, where he can forget the human race; and Tod Hackett, the satiric painter in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939), ends broken and insane, wailing like a siren to announce all the disasters past and to come.

Such direct and indirect revelations of motive permit us to see the relationship of sophisticated literary satires to cruder, more direct expressions of the same power in primitive satiric spells and curses used to banish and destroy the dark forces, human and natural, which threaten the well-being of the community. In pre- classical Greece, satire was used in various early fertility rituals to invoke the good and banish evil through the imperative magic of the curse. Among the Arabian tribes the satirist rode in the van of the army hurling curses like spears at the enemies before him. The ancient Irish satirists, of whom particularly full records exist, not only were capable of dealing with community problems by means of satiric spells but were credited, down to the seventeenth century, with the ability to perform such useful but humble tasks as rhyming rats to death.

This use of language like a fist and the belief in the power of the curse have never died. Anthropologists describe shame-cultures in which public ridicule will cause a man to retire to his house and die, and we hear of flyting contests in which two opponents stand and hurl insults at one another until the weaker is overwhelmed by sheer vituperation. The crude energies of satire are present even in what Benjamin DeMott (The Age of Overkill, New York Times Magazine, May 19, 1968) has called the mindless cycle of super taunts so characteristic of our own time of habitual irascibility whenlike the generals who build enough weapons to kill every human being three times overmen use the language of overkill: hundred- megaton dirty weapons like, The white race is the cancer of history, The family is the American fascism, and, repeated like a primitive chant, The middle class are just like pigs.

Magical spells, incantations, curses, invective, lampoons, verbal overkill, and the language of hard- attack are not satire, in the sense that the word is ordinarily used, but rather the substratum of satire, the world of verbal anger and violence which always exists in a multitude of extra-literary forms just beyond the edges of art. Civilized societies, while aware of the usefulness of invective and curse, have always been nervously alert to the dangers of uncontrolled aggressiveness and unchained fury such as can still be felt in the curse of the Greek satirist Archilochus (seventh century B.C.) on one of his enemies: Shivering with cold, covered with filth washed up by the sea, with chattering teeth like a dog, may he lie helplessly on his face at the edge of the strand amidst the breakers this 'tis my wish to see him suffer, who has trodden his oaths underfoot, him who was once my friend (Strassburg frag., 97A). Beyond this, there remains always the danger that the satirist instead of employing his skills for the good of the community may use them for such personal ends as Archilochus did when he cursed King Lycambes and his daughter, causing them to hang themselves, simply because he had been denied the hand of the princess. This same arbitrary use of satiric power appears in a number of Irish stories about groups of satirists who descend upon a kingdom and make outrageous demands for food, money, and women. If their requests are denied they blight the king and his land with their curses. Even when the anger is controlled and the attack directed at a socially sanctioned target, satire still continues to generate considerable uneasiness because it seems always to go too far. An attack upon a corrupt lawyer becomes inevitably an attack upon the law itself; an attack upon excessive authority grows into a questioning of the very principle of authority.

Another Irish story, The Great Visitation to Guaire,  suggests the way in which society has curbed and channeled the power of satire. The satirist Dallan demands from King Hugh a magic shield which makes weak all those who look upon it. Hugh refuses to part with his most precious possession, and Dallan then proceeds to curse (satirize) him. But since the curse of Dallan is unjust, used only for personal profit, and without truth, it rebounds on the satirist, and Dallan dies within three days, while King Hugh continues to live and prosper. The point is clear: satire is required to be both just and true if it is to work; if untrue, it harms the man who speaks it. The same requirement is imposed in legal terms in the Roman libel laws and in the prohibition against Greek Old Comedy and its scurrilous attacks in the plays of Aristophanes on such historical figures as Socrates and Euripides.

Perhaps because our documents are from a period when the process was far advanced, it is as impossible to trace exactly the steps by which curses were trans- formed into literary satire as it is to trace the parallel social and psychological movement in which education, religion, law, and the other powers of society gradually exerted some degree of control and restraint on human aggression in general. Both patterns are complicated enormously, of course, by frequent regressions of such severity as to make it doubtful if there has been any change at all. But despite such slippages, satire has evolved from curse to art, and many of the devices and techniques which we take to be characteristic of the genre function not merely to hide but to justify and make socially acceptable and useful the enormous powers of militant anger.

Most obviously the authors of satire have accepted, though often with tongue in cheek, the requirement that their attacks be true. Every satirist endeavors to persuade in some manner that he has along with Pope stoop'd to truth, and moralized his song (Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, line 341); that he is with Byron a Columbus of the moral seas who will show mankind their Soul's antipodes (Don Juan, XIV, line 101); that his subject is with Juvenal quidquid agunt homines  (the things men do, I, 85); and that he deals like Ben Jonson only in deeds, and language, such as men doe use (Every Man In His Humor, Prologue, 21). Despite the obvious exaggeration characteristic of the genre, satire makes extensive use of an elaborate apparatus of verisimilitudemaps are drawn, street names given, genealogies drawn up, fantastic objects precisely named and describedand solemn assurance is offered that the language is plain and simple like the subject, that truth replaces style because the satirist is only a reporter of things that are. Shocking though it may seem, the satirist is always saying, this is the way the world truly is, and he then proves his point by shifting from denunciation to description or presentation of idiocy and vice in all their remarkable plenitude.

This shift from denunciation to presentation, the removal of the emphasis from the attacker to the thing attacked, though it has not taken place steadily and evenly, is still the most prominent line of development in Western satire, and the major way in which satirists have met the social requirement that any display of aggression be based on truth. In Roman satura the attack is managed by a speaker who denounces directly the foolish and vicious world; and while it is possible to argue that the speaker is not Horace or Juvenal but a persona designed for the satiric purpose, the effect is still to locate, despite all protestations of objectivity, the point of view in the speaker himself, and thereby to force on him sole responsibility for the attack. The charge that the fault lies not in a corrupt world but in the intemperate character of the satirist was met in part in satura by portraying him in as favorable a light as possiblethe mild, tolerant, amused Horace is the best exampleand was handled in Renaissance England by the construction of a standard persona that the satiric poet was expected to assume. Elaborating an old false etymology which derived satire from satyr, the Elizabethans constructed a satyr-satirist who incorporated all the traits thought appropriate to these rough, woodland gods and all the traditionally feared psychic qualities underlying uncontrolled attack: sadism, brutality, uncontrolled anger, prurience, envy, frustration, and imbalance. Under the cover of this persona several generations of English satiristschiefly Joseph Hall, Virgidemiarum  (1597-98), and John Marston, The Scourge of Villanie  (1598-99)were able to attack the social ills and the follies of Renaissance Englishmen with a savagery and violence which would ordinarily be unacceptable. Isaac Casaubon gave the true etymology of satire in his De satyrica Graecorum poesi et Romanorum satira  (1605), but it was not generally understood and accepted until nearly a century later.

The more usual way, however, of handling the problem of the satirist has been to portray him as a simple, ordinary, humble figure who would never dream of doing anything so unpleasant as writing satire if the wickedness and stupidity of the world were not so overwhelming as to make it inescapably necessary. The prophet come down from the hills to the wicked cities of the plains, the gawky medieval plowman stubbornly and quietly speaking truth, the simple scholar nurtured at the university experiencing the big world for the first time, the fool too innocent to know that men do not speak of what is plain for all to see: these are all variants of the standard type of ironic satirist brought to perfection by Alexander Pope in his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Imitations of Horace, and the two dialogues of  the Epilogue to the Satires. In these works he carefully constructs a charming picture of a modest and gentle Pope raised in innocence by kind and harmless parents, retiring from the world, mildly accepting insults, until at last he is driven, reluctantly, into replying to his enemies. Fools rush into my Head, and so I write (Imitation of The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, line 14).

The gap between author and satirist implicit in the elaboration of fictitious personae in formal verse satire grows wider in those narrative and dramatic works where the author disappears and the satirist becomes a character in his own right, responsible for the attack and for any unpleasantness that may be associated with it. Such a figure may be either an ironic simpleton like Folly in Erasmus' Praise of Folly, Voltaire's Candide, or Joseph Heller's Yossarian in Catch-22; or he may be a hard attacker like Shakespeare's Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, Ben Jonson's Macilente in Every Man Out of His Humour, or Alceste in Molière's Le Misanthrope.

The master of the fictitious satirist is, however, Jonathan Swift, who seems to have played all possible turns on the device. His regular method is to construct a satirist who attacks effectively some aspect of human folly, as Gulliver attacks human pride, as the political economist in A Modest Proposal attacks the wasteful economic practices of the English in Ireland, or as the amateur scientist in The Mechanical Operation of the Spiritattacks religious dissent and enthusiasm. But as the attack proceeds, the satirist gradually reveals himself as being at least as foolish and wicked as his victims. Usually he is guilty of the same sins in a more intense, unsuspected way: Gulliver the misanthrope living with horses is supremely proud and stupid, the Modest Proposer who plans to reduce the Irish population and provide needed income by selling babies for meat is more cruel and inhumane in his science than the English in their indifference, and the fellow of the Royal Society is more mechanical and lacking in true spirit than the poor fanatics he castigates.

Swift's method for handling the satirist merges with that variety of satire where the satirist disappears altogether, and the fools and dunces are simply presented in the fullness of idiocy. This type of satire sometimes called Menippean or Varronian, but more aptly called situational satire by Ricardo Quintana existed side by side with first-person satire from the beginning, and has gradually become the dominant satiric method. Its chief virtue in accommodating satire to the restrictions placed by society on the display of anger is, of course, that it permits the author to retire altogether from the combat and leave the stage to fools who convict themselves in words and actions, as do the advocates of war and sophistry in Aristophanes' plays, the vulgar merchant Trimalchio in The Satyricon  of Petronius, the philosophers in Lucian's satires, the greedy dreamers in Jonson's Alchemist, the dunces of Pope's Dunciad, George III and Southey in Byron's Vision of Judgment, the pompous, muddle-headed Englishmen of Evelyn Waugh's satiric novels.

The attempt to displace the responsibility for satiric anger and attack has been paralleled by the development of other techniques for making satire socially acceptable. Society, while demanding that charges be true, has also continued to insist that the expression of anger be limited in intensity, qualified in some manner, and that it be released only for specified reasons on sanctioned occasions. Freud perceived that aggression is acceptable when expressed indirectly in the form of a joke, and wit has been the principal means by which satire has made itself respectable. The presence of wit in the midst of anger and attack perhaps signals that the violent emotions are still under control, restrained and organized by the rational faculties, tempered by some self-awareness. Wit, in Dryden's terms, is the difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place (Essay on Satire, 1693), and no literary kind shows the exercise of such persistent ingenuity in honing its cutting edge as satire. Wit, construed not just as humor, but as cleverness, ingenuity, and style, appears most obviously in the persistent efforts of satirists to find a clever strategy, an unusual and surprising angle of attack. Diatribe and denunciation are avoided in favor of such devices as beast fables, letters of obscure men, ships of fools, presentations of fantastic schemes, praise of the ridiculous, attempts to enter Heaven, trips through a looking-glass, auctions of philosophers, and anti-utopias.

When Byron admits that One should not rail without a decent cause (Don Juan, II, line 119), he speaks for all satirists who have accepted society's view that attack must be limited to those men and practices which are dangerous and evil by generally accepted standards. Satirists have thus been forced to prove that their specific targets are indeed evil. This has been done in the crudest way by delivering a sermon on wickedness, as Juvenal frequently does, or it has been managed by forcing the fools to condemn themselves from their own mouths and bring about evil results by their actions. The required moral standard has been invoked frequently as a lost age of innocence or departed grandeur mocked by the ghastly and ludicrous preten sions of the present. Mock fairy tale, pastoral, epic, and other inverted forms are common satiric strategies. In the very greatest satire the moral standard is embedded in the texture of the work itself. The meaningful and real world, which the fools are perverting, is always present in the imagery of Ben Jonson's satiric plays, in the steady, even, balanced couplets of Dryden and Pope, and in the endless onward flow of verse and events in Byron's Don Juan.

It has been proposed that the most inventive and effective satire is written in times when the satirist is in real danger for his attacks. While it is not at all certain that the quality of satire increases directly with the intensity of political, literary, and ethical censorship, there is no question that the history of satire and the development of some of its most prominent characteristics can be understood as an uneven but continuing process of making anger and attack morally and socially acceptable. It would be a mistake to think, however, that the many techniques used to accomplish this end are mere disguises or concealments of human aggressiveness; rather, the aggressiveness has been shaped, ordered, and transformed into more meaningful and useful forms.

But the history of satire can be viewed in another way, contradictory at first but ultimately complementary. In the great continuing line of Western literary satire extending from Aristophanes, through the Roman and the great French and English neo- classical satirists, to such moderns as Brecht, Huxley, Waugh, Orwell, and Ionesco, the attack has been directed at a great variety of men, ways of thought, and institutions. Aristophanes attacks the war party of Athens and the new sophistry; Horace slyly mocks the frenzied busyness of the Roman status seekers; Juvenal thunders at the corrupting influences of Asiatic customs and luxury on the simple virtues of old republican Rome; uncounted numbers of medieval satirists catalogue the foulness of women and the abominations of a corrupt clergy; Ben Jonson attacks Renaissance materialism and the humanistic dream of the unlimited powers of man; Swift reveals the dreadful truth beneath unrealistic beliefs in the goodness of human nature and the inevitability of scientific progress; Voltaire follows to its bitter end the remarkable belief that this is the best of all possible worlds; Byron exposes the lifelessness and stupidity which underlie the bright surface of the early nineteenth-century establishment; Gogol tracks the callous indifference to humanity and the mechanical set of mind in Russian officialdom and society; Huxley holds up to contempt the views of modern sociology and science which seek utopia but create a hell; Orwell reveals the terror implicit in totalitarian, dictatorial government; and Ionesco makes manifest the herd instinct, the savagery, and the stu- pidity on which middle-class life and institutions rest.

On the surface, the objects of satire's attacks have been wide and various, but beneath the variety a remarkably similar world takes shape. The old gods of light and order die, and their places are taken by idols: Horace's Priapus (I, 8), the stupid deities of Lucian's Icaromenippus, Golding's Lord of the Flies. The sacred places are defiled: Jerome's description of the use of Christ's birthplace for an assignation; the rites perverted: the ceremonies of bona dea transformed to an orgy in Juvenal's Satire VI; theology becomes a mockery: Swift's argument against the abolishment of Christianity; piety a pretense: Molière's Tartuffe. History becomes a record of futility and loss in the inverted translatio studii in Book III of The Dunciad  where ignorance rather than light moves across the world from east to west; the past is lost forever in the colossal dream dump of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, where the record of human struggle and courage is reduced to the artificiality of Hollywood sets jumbled together in meaningless chaos.

The scene of nature darkens and the peaceable kingdom gives way to the ravaged German countryside of Voltaire's Candide, the fetid jungle where life abounds without meaning in which Tony Last wanders at the end of Waugh's Handful of Dust, or the universal darkness covering all at the end of The Dunciad. The innocent lamb and the gentle ox are replaced by Brecht's shark with its pretty teeth, Ionesco's thundering hippopotamus, Jonson's flesh-fly buzzing around the dying fox, and, most terrible of all, the Yahoo.

The City of Man ceases to be the emblem of community and art, and becomes the polyglot confusion of Juvenal's second-century Rome; the savage, dangerous, unlighted London of John Gay's Trivia  (1716); James Thomson's City of Dreadful Night (1874); the garbage-strewn, decaying, tyrannically ruled metropolis of George Orwell's 1984. The men of this city no longer assemble for traditional purposes but gather in gangs for pillage as in Henry Fielding's Jonathan Wild (1743), or swirl about, violently and mindlessly, in anarchic mobs like the aimless, chattering crowd of The Dunciad or the excitement-seekers who coagulate before Kahn's Persian Palace in the Hollywood of West's Day of the Locust. In quieter moments, men move mechanically through grotesque rituals such as the Lilliputian leaping and creeping, or they pass bored and filled with ennui through the empty requirements of society in the country seat of the Amundevilles in Don Juan. In this fragmented and meaningless world, every man's hand is ultimately set against his fellow, and this relentless antagonism frequently culminates in cannibalism (Juvenal's Satire XV, Swift's Modest Proposal, Byron's Don Juan, and Waugh's Black Mischief).

Traditional human relationships and the forms in which they are expressed become perverse and grotesque. The family in Jonson's Volpone takes the grotesque form of Volpone's household in which the children are a dwarf, hermaphrodite, and eunuch, begotten in drunkenness on street beggars and kept only for amusement. Eating becomes gluttony, and the banquet turns into the orgy of vulgarity at Trimalchio's in Petronius' The Satyricon. Love becomes the cynical bargains of Lucian's Dialogues of the Heterae, marriage the opportunity for adultery of William Wycherly's Plain Dealer, and sex the ugly perversity of Juvenal's pathic angrily protesting the immorality of the rich man who has tired of him and cast him off.

Human institutions and the arts, originally designed to further life and preserve human values, turn sour and become instruments of tyranny and means to desolation. In satire, law is the stupid, self-satisfied lawyers and cruel judges of Daumier; government is the rule of Orwell's Big Brother; education is Waugh's Scone College, Oxon., and Llanabba Hall of Dr. Augustus Fagan, Ph.D.; science is the alchemy of Jonson's projectors, the schemes of Swift's pedants, and the inhumanity of Huxley's Brave New World. Learning becomes the organized ignorance of Swift's Laputa, the uselessness of Lucian's philosophers in Sale of Lives,  the sophistics of Aristophanes' Socrates; language the instrument of pretense used to mask the idiocy of Pope's Dunces, the Newspeak of 1984, the means to domination of Ionesco's The Lesson.

The traditional architectonics, the ways in which the images of satire are organized and their dynamics shown, underline the disorderliness, the perversity, the sterility, and the meaninglessness inherent in the components of the satiric world. In keeping with the original meaning of the word satura, satire usually lacks a consistent, even development and an obviously harmonic arrangement of parts. Both first-person formal and third-person narrative satire consists of flickering vignettes, a series of brief, seemingly unrelated scenes. This newsreel technique of rapid, abrupt shifts intensifies the already powerful tendencies to fragmentation and meaninglessness.

This characteristic broken scene of satire is seldom if ever dominated by a single heroic figure, or even by a limited central cast, as is the case in comedy or tragedy. Where one figure does occupy the limelight more than others, he is likely to be either the satirist himself railing on the wicked world, or, more often, a booby hero (Voltaire's Candide, Swift's Gulliver, or Waugh's Paul Pennyfeather), innocent, trusting, and utterly ignorant, to whom the most dreadful things happen during the course of his travels. Satire does not, however, ordinarily focus on the private, individual life, and so it gives us not a hero but a great variety of diverse people, very lightly sketched, who have in common only a shared kind of grotesque idiocy, which is busily at work destroying all sense and meaning. The human litter of the satiric world is paired with a litter of inanimate objects, and the satiric world is crammed to the bursting point with dense numbers of unrelated things. If in the midst of this jumble any trace of the good or the ideal remains, it stands upon the edge of obliteration, finds itself utterly helpless and frustrated, or, despairing, allows itself to dissolve into the mob or takes its place in the empty, mechanical movements of life.

Satire is usually said to lack plot, and it does not, indeed, in its abrupt, disjunct movements have the steady Aristotelian progression from a beginning, through a middle, to an end, which is usual in tragedy and comedy. But something does happen in satire: usually all the busy efforts and frantic activities of the fools eventuate in a regression, or the pure confusion implicit in their local activities. They rush madly about, scheme, plan, talk, and cover great distances, only to end in the same place they began. They make titanic efforts to raise themselves to godhead and over- come the limits inherent in nature, only to end lower than they started. They spread over all creation and master everything, only to reduce everything to nothing. The inevitability of their defeat and the scheme of the satiric plot is contained in the projects they pursue; alchemy, the invention of a perpetual motion machine, or the creation of utopia.

The diabolic logic of the satiric world, where one must always run faster to stay in the same place, is revealed in the great irony at the center of a recent American satire, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961). In this novel the bomber pilot requests the flight surgeon to ground him for psychological reasons. The doctor points out, however, that as long as he continues flying and risking his life in this insane war he is, indeed, crazy and should be grounded. However, the fact that he is now here, trying to escape and save his life, proves his sanity, and he is therefore capable of continuing to fly. Returned to duty!

All writers of satire, whatever their particular bias, ultimately fear and attack, and by attacking seek to exorcise the fragmentation, disorder, isolation, and meaninglessness which have historically been sensed by the Western mind as the great threats to the continuity of society and the welfare of the individual. The magician satirist, the author of the great literary satires, and even the verbal overkiller of our own time, all fear and attack the same things, and all use, in varying degrees, the same traditional symbolsthe jungle, the wasteland, the mob, the machine, and the beast. They also use certain structural devicesthe fragmented scene, the multiplicity of characters and things, the reflexive or regressive plot. At the surface of their satires, of course, they are blaming and attacking identifiable men and specific attitudesCardinal Wolsey, urban and court life, Colley Cibber, Victorian prudery, modern science, and Stalinism. The strategy is extremely clever and effective, for by identifying these men and attitudes with the images of fear and by making them responsible for the great archetypal situations of hopelessness and meaninglessness, the satirist condemns his victims utterly. But in the long run, the historical and realistic content of satire may tend to be forgotten, and we may continue to read the great satires not for what they tell us about the Rome of the Caesars or the England of Walpole and Castlereagh, but for what they tell us about our most fundamental fears as men; about what kind of world is ultimately unliveable for true human beings. At this level, in a way appropriate to this most ironic of literary kinds, satire the engine of anger and hatred ceases to be divisive and frightening and becomes instead a source of unification and comfort, which tells us that beneath the hatreds and antagonisms of the moment all men ultimately are afraid of the same things.