Requiring a contrastive norm,
satires conservatively point
far less towards reform
than rules that, although out of joint,
have their approval. Though they mock,
undermining with their ridicule
that aims to shatter and to shock,
and spin within a wordwhirlpool,
they idealize by implication
a future that won’t make us laugh,
which is the satires’ inspiration,
pro Henry Five and not Falstaff.
Inspired by an article on satire by Michael Silk, Profesor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Kings College London (“Not in a Punt, ” TLS, December 5,2008) :
What is satire? A short, provisional definition might be: mocking criticism (more or less artistic) of current human behaviour. Current: not necessarily strictly contemporary behaviour, but, so to speak, behaviour still in the public domain. Criticism: unlike comedy, which may be sympathetic (as Pirandello argued) or “innocent” (Freud) or all-embracing (Bakhtin) , satire is negative and addresses a definable target. But mocking criticism: in the Gospels, Jesus is frequently critical of human behaviour, but without mockery, and no one reads the Evangelists’ Jesus as a satirist; contrast Plato’s Socrates, who does mock, and can be so read. And human behaviour: the subject of satire is (in Juvenal’s words) “whatever people do”, its domain the moral and social realm. We do not associate satire with philosophical logic or nature poetry – either of which may have profound human implications, but neither of which is centred on that moral and social realm. Other features of satire are implicit in the definition or its ramifications. Though negative, satire is widely and plausibly held to be impossible without some sense of a contrastive positive: a moral or social norm or ideal (usually assumed, rarely spelled out in full) , against which the behaviour mocked can be identified and placed. In this respect, satire might be said to be inherently conservative, even if radical and subversive in its critiques; unlike some comedy, satire is not open-ended; it closes down and closes out (another problem for postmoderns?) . From the mockery, meanwhile, it follows that satirical criticism will be associated with a distinctive range of tone and tactics: with irony (compare Socrates again; contrast Jesus) , with parody, with wit. From which it follows further that satire is liable to involve some kind of pose: “straightforward” denunciation is unlikely to be satirical.
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