I’ve been enjoying a compilation of English Satire in the moments between course-related readings, and especially the middle section of the book, broadly the 18th century. Instead of exploring whether this is a biproduct of familiarity, I’ve been picking at an offhand line from Robert Easting: that nobody writes in the satiric modes of that period any longer.
My “picking at” has largely been a scattershot search for it. And there are some obvious, and occasionally excellent sources for modern satire: the Daily Show, the Onion and according to at least one highly authorative book jacket the world’s finest living satirist or someone even less talented. I could go on. And then I ran aground by consulting every academic’s most important resource.
Satire, n: A poem, or in modern use sometimes a prose composition, in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. Sometimes, less correctly, applied to a composition in verse or prose intended to ridicule a particular person or class of persons, a lampoon.
I especially like that I could also have said “was all at sea while consulting…” Either being at sea, or not being at sea is equally bad in a range of common metaphors. How more deeply ambivalent could you get?
Most of what I enjoyed in Dryden was his evisceration of literary-political enemies… I technically wasn’t enjoying satire in its full range. As with any genre-study though, there are bound to be overlaps and cross-connected wires, as you can see from:
Parody, n: A literary composition modelled on and imitating another work, esp. a composition in which the characteristic style and themes of a particular author or genre are satirized by being applied to inappropriate or unlikely subjects, or are otherwise exaggerated for comic effect. In later use extended to similar imitations in other artistic fields, as music, painting, film, etc.
I can enjoy both, all three, one only… depending on the work. But these oxford definitions make a mockery of any potential claim that satire has had its day. For example, I think you can argue that virtually any sitcom derives the bulk of its humour from parodying real life; even if you don’t want to acknowledge as fact that life is merely literature lived, there are a vast array of unsatiric life-modelled works they could be seen as taking off instead. Parody might not be exactly a satire, but the location of the line dividing them is subject to debate.
Satire is clearly here to stay, from the subtle to Weird Al’s musical obsession with violence. Heck, in a recent international press conference, George W Bush had an impersonator help him out in satirizing himself! So, perhaps I’m reading too much into a apercu assessment of the modern literary field… but I feel entitled to for several reasons. The foremost is that I instinctively thought he had a point, and the second is that if he can pick over the minutae of other literary agents, so can I.
Dryden and his lot were not merely casual observers of a wider field of interest, but soldiers in a bitter internecine war over what literature should be. The wood-cuts attacking foreign opera and books, the constant attempts to crystalize and hence discard any trace of dulness, and the neo-classical dichotomy of following French traditions while trying to reconstruct an English theatre… theirs was a world of literary war. And there were casualties. Poets and playwrights like Thomas Shadwell, their works all but lost to all but a select rebellious few who dispute Dryden’s portrait. In comparison, we are in a period where the most avante-garde or even non-sensical work will find a ready audience, and that dual role of creator and critic which made Dryden so great, has been irreversibly bifurcated. Whatever skirmishes the modern politician might deploy his literary battalions to fight, they are fought in the sphere of mass media, well away from the scene of high art. It may be funny, but nothing lasting is being written for the Daily Show.
This is an artificial distinction, I think: “high art” v. “mass media”, but one which lies at the heart of Robert’s claim. Dryden was published on a historically equivalent scale to Jon Stewart’s face. But the volume of output is disproportionately larger to the populations. I think it quite likely that some young writer is even now toiling on the great literary work which will in future ages be hailed as the great satiric portrait of his times. Maybe it’s even published, maybe even already out of print. She’s just been missed by the luminaries of the age as they toil over old masters once lively, now very very dead. At least, I hope so, because I intend to find her.