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:
- Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, from The Canterbury Tales
- 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.