Sunday, January 16, 2011

Satire I

Several years ago, as an academic assignment, I wrote an ill-fated paper on the question: What is Satire? The paper was
ill-fated largely because I took several falsehoods as given, the most notable of which was the notion that satire was
necessarily humorous. I no longer stand by this notion. Rather, I wish to develop a new take on satire. I have in mind
the following works:

  1. Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, from The Canterbury Tales
  2. Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote

I do not claim that the definition of Satire I offer is final or complete. Rather, I intend this
as an experiment. I begin with the example of Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales.
The tale is a version of the fable of the cock and the fox, present in the fables of Aesop. For
the benefit of those who have not read this tale, I will briefly summarize it.

Chanticleer is reluctant to jump off his perch onto the ground due to a dream he had last night. His favorite hen, Pertolete, questions his manliness. Chanticleer’s response is to offer various learned reasons why he would be wise not to jump off the perch but in the end, he relents and jumps off the perch. The fox captures him and runs off with him. The widow’s dogs run after the fox. Chanticleer suggests that the Fox tell his pursuers to give up the chase. As the fox opens his mouth to taunt them allowing Chanticleer to break free.

The Nun’s Priests tale, available in both Middle and Modern English here ; is a mock epic. The narrative is not entirely faithful to the fable of "the Cock and the Fox"; but the resemblance is obvious. It is with the relationship of the tale and the fable that I wish to begin. The setting in which the tale takes place is an odd one. Animals live like animals and yet are capable not only of speech but of learning. Chanticleer is knowledgeable of both classical and medieval literature. It seems to me that bringing the fable into this environment necessarily changes it. Satire then is a literary environment that necessarily takes something else whether it be a narrative or simply an idea as to how the world works and changes it in such a way to reveal its presumptions.

We see a weaker version of this same pattern in Don Quixote. In this particular case, Don Quixote believes himself to be a knight-errant. While those around him mock him, the reader cannot help but wish that Don Quixote were a knight-errant largely because the reader wishes to be a knight-errant as well. It is important to notice here that this drawing in of the reader, common to all of literature takes on a particular form both in Don Quixote and the“Nun’s Priest’s Tale”. It seems to me that the drawing in effect of literature inevitably has something to do with the human tendency to develop affections for those near at hand, especially in unusual situations. This is somewhat stronger in narratives written in the first person or limited omniscient since the solipsism of the reader merges with that of the literary subject. In the satirical environment though, the reader’s sense of self overlaps with the subject’s sense of the same. This is related to but not the same as their solipsism.

The phrase “sense of self” requires a bit more explication. There are several aspects to it. Permit me a short psychological digression. Firstly we have the ego. The ego is, of course, an abstraction. All the same, it is an abstraction with which we all have first person experience insofar as it is the abstraction that is personal experience. The ego is arrogant in the etymological sense of the term. Something so simple can only understand itself as something more than self-hood by arrogating other ideas to itself, among them status and the sense of right and wrong. The up shot of this is that even the ego’s sense of right and wrong revolves around itself and therefore, from an egocentric (or purely solipsistic) point of view, other subjects deserve certain treatment precisely to the extent that they are like the ego.

Therefore, the sense of self contains the sense of right and wrong as well as the sense of self-importance. Thus, in satire, the afinity the reader naturally develops for the main character ends up taking on a special significance. The pretentions that the satirical environment so mocks are those ideas which the protagonist’s ego has arrogated and also those that the reader’s ego arrogates sympathetically but also autonomously. On the other hand, the reader has the advantage of dramatic irony. In spite of the sympathy the reader feels for the protagonist, the reader still has a sufficiently broad view of the narrative to realize the gap between the protagonist’s view of his relationship to the world and the actuality of that relationship.

It is precisely this tension that teaches the reader. The reader learns from Satire when he realizes that he is laughing at himself. Both the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and Don Quixote mock our more monumental aspirations. Indeed, most men most of the time simply live and do what they do in order to live. In this sense, our daily activities are no different from those of barnyard animals and it is intriguing how little the imposition of human intellect changes the barnyard animals; the only obvious addition is the sense of pride, the aspiration to the monumental.

Now, we turn to the writer or narrator. My conflation of these two is an evasion. I do not wish to attempt the elucidation of this distinction here though comments on the matter are welcome. Precisely because the composition of Satire requires omniscience with respect to the protagnist’s ego, the soul and therefore the ego of the writer aspires to a more universal understanding. This appeal to our sense of the absurd at the expense of a character to whom we have affinity then allows the ego of both the writer and the reader to arrogate to itself omniscient and thus, in a way, universal understanding. The difficulty is universal understanding is necessarily abstract. It achieves its universality merely by defining its universe. It then treats “different” as “same” and turns “same” into “equal”. Then the ego uses the powers of abstraction it derives from being such a thing itself to gain a kind this omnisicience and thus its pride causes it to arrogate this universe to itself. Then, the ego retreats into its own pride and loses its sense of its own lowliness. The wise reader of Satire, if such a man exists, realizes this danger and is humbled by his pride. All the same, it remains true that Satire requires the channeling of the diabolical and is the most arrogant of all literary arts. This makes it extremely dangerous when effective and also extremely ineffective as a partisan weapon. A well written satire will not puncture the pretensions of “them” but not “us”. The arrogance of Satire forces to to mock all men or else collapse under its own grand pretensions.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Suspension of Judgment

Yes, my first post has come months after the blog has started, and given the lateness of the hour, it will be a short one. To those seeking a reason why, I direct you to Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Q. 35, and the following sentence from an essay in Albert Camus's Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: "It is better for the intellectual not to talk all the time."

The essay in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death that follows the one I just quoted is a remarkable piece entitled "Reflections on the Guillotine." Written in 1957, when the guillotine was still used in France, it is the most lucid critique of the death penalty that I have yet found, and I am in agreement with almost all of the entire essay. There is one page, though, in which I differ from Camus. He writes, "Today when such vile death is administered on the sly, what is the meaning of this torture?...The science that serves to kill so many could at least serve to kill decently. An anesthetic that would allow the condemned man to slip from sleep to death (which would be left within his reach for at least a day so that he could use it freely and would be administered to him in another form if he were unwilling or weak of will) would assure his elimination, if you insist, but would put a little decency into what is at present but a sordid and obscene exhibition." I am not sure what Camus would have thought of lethal injection as it is currently practiced (Camus died in 1960; lethal injection was first used in the U.S. in 1982), but it seems as though he was anticipating it here.

This appears to be a reasonable proposition, that a man sentenced to death should be allowed to die calmly and painlessly, like Socrates. Camus is absolutely right that the death should be painless; prolonging the moment of death in pain would be unnecessarily cruel. Whether it should be calm is another question.

There are many reasons offered for supporting the death penalty; common ones include it acts as a deterrent, it prevents the criminal from repeating his crime and better ensures public safety, it has Biblical precedents, and it satisfies a sense of justice and outrage at an atrocious crime. Camus directly or indirectly addresses all of these. Deterrent? Capital punishment is not guaranteed to put the fear of God into potential murderers; this assertion is not borne out by statistics. Biblical precedent? As in most discussions involving Sacred Scripture, you can pick texts to support what you please; the Bible is often inventively and creatively fudged around. Sequestering criminals from society? This is a stronger reason than the previous ones. In fact, it may be the most valid reason of them all; yet it still will not do. A maximum security prison will remove the criminal from society almost as thoroughly as death. And then there's the satisfaction of justice...

To begin, that depends on what sort of justice we have in mind. To put a man to death for murder presupposes a standard of exact retributive justice: a life for a life. As Camus points out, however, this is also the language of retaliation and revenge. In this case, it is the language of bloodlust. A man is condemned to death because others want to see him die. This, I think, is the reason capital punishment persists. Statistics, the Bible, and poor facilities are not reasons strong enough. If we are going to support capital punishment honestly, we fall back on a reason which we would prefer not to articulate. We would not like to think that bloodlust enters into judicial pronouncements, yet there is an element of it present.

If we are going to be honest in our pronouncements, let us also be honest in our methods of bearing them out. If the public wants bloodlust, let us give it to them, as it is what they want. This is not done. Lethal injection, as it is currently practiced, takes place behind closed doors with relatively few witnesses present. It is quiet, orderly, and sanitized. By this process, execution is made to look comparatively pleasant--if one gets a chance to look at it. But if the public wants satisfaction for an atrocity, let it have a corresponding, reciprocal atrocity for all to see. This was done in the past with nooses, guillotines, and firing squads.

Let us see the moment of execution, but let's also be humane. I stand by the former point: the moment of death should be instantaneous and leave no room for extended suffering. This was one reason for switching to lethal injection, but the other three methods mentioned above work just as well. The guillotine was designed to be a more humane method of execution, so that the dying man would feel little more than "a slight sensation of coldness on his neck." The firing squad brings death even faster. Lastly, if done properly, hanging breaks the neck instantly. Lethal injection has not been shown to be less painful than any of these, save perhaps the guillotine. It may look less painful; for some, that is enough.

Of course, there will always be botched executions regardless of the method. But if it does not decrease the pain, there is no reason to use a "sanitized" method of execution instead of one more grotesque. All lethal injection does for us as a public is make us feel better about putting criminals to death. It is secret and orderly, so we do not have to see it or think about it too hard, and we can have our sense of vengeance gratified at the same time. All the benefits of vengeance without the scruples of conscience or the burden of responsibility. If we are to face the problem of the death penalty squarely, we cannot have this situation persist. As I see it, there are two options. The first and best is to abolish capital punishment altogether. But if we must have it, let's not kid ourselves about what we're doing; rather, let's erect a gallows and return to public hanging.