Stages of Satire

Stages of Satire


Howard Adelman

In the debate over satire, Malcolm Gladwell inevitably re-introduced Northrop Frye, one of the most important and influential teachers I had in graduate school when I audited his course, even though, and perhaps because, I could then only grasp 15% of what he was saying. In Frye’s book, Fearful Symmetry, he wrote that, “tragedy and satire are artistically justifiable only when their finality is paradoxical, and where a subsequent resolution of that paradox is implied.” But, as he made clear in the Anatomy of Criticism, this is the pinnacle of satire, not its exhaustive characterization. Or really the foundation, for the satiric rungs of satire descend rather than rise.

Satire at its best points to an opening from the bleak horror of the current dominant power. That opening is implied, not stated. For satire is open-ended as opposed to that which it satirizes, which is always a closed system. The power of parody at its best, that is, at its lowest, is to reveal the paradox, to unveil it, to show the underlying structure, the anatomy that unites both the closed-system being satirized and the open-system acidly dissolving the appearances of its target. Satire really works best when it unveils both the cultural limitations of the society in which we all live while, if possible in the greatest satire, pointing beyond it. In that sense, unlike its target, it is not just caustic, but moral as well.

Satire in the end is the ultimate in irony. It tries to establish that the established order which promises to deconstruct the world and rebuild it in a new/old vision is the acid; the satire that adopts the caustic disguise is the real poetry. This is the paradox. Satire adopts the caustic position of its target to reveal total destruction as the ultimate and end goal of the system being satirized, but satire leaves a residue, an outline, a sketch, an etching of what can and should follow. Whereas the object of satire is revealed as the devil’s work, satire plays devilish tricks to leave hope, gaiety and delight alive beyond the morbid that is being deconstructed and even destroyed. A fantasy world of delight can be envisioned behind the broken and shattered Black Mirror that the dystopic and myopic would bequeath us in the best form of satire that transforms the normal world, or a logical extension thereof, into a shocking horror show.

But satire must stink if it is to do its work. When one of the greatest works of satire in the history of literature, Jonah, is placed on a reverential pedestal and read every Yom Kippur on the annual replay of atonement, when the laughter is drained entirely from its veins and the rabbis in reading it have lost their sense of humour totally, then its acrid function has been lost. One suspects that those who have elevated Jonah to such a state may be guilty of trying to avoid atonement for their own effort to construct either a closed legal system or a closed sentimental moral one. Unfortunately, the best form of satire has the potential to leave laughter behind so that what is presented is taken as a serious rather than a satiric text.

My son’s criticism of those forms of satire to which he responds negatively is that they destroy a target by simply taking the techniques of the target to the nth degree, and undermining the possibility of effective action, even of heroism to confront and combat the work of the devil. Heraclitus wrote that the essence of life is water, for water symbolizes change, but it is also the eternal instrument of corrosion. (Cf. Duncan McFarlane (2011) “The Universal Literary Solvent: Northrop Frye and the Problem of Satire, 1942 to 1947,” ESC, 153-172) Sooner or later, it washes away the detritus and leaves behind the skeletal structure that allows the body to stand and move forward. Sometimes that water can be very acidic so that we are overwhelmed by the smell of sulphur and fall down laughing without being able to grasp any alternative to a universe of hell.

The following disorganized and dissolute, indiscriminate but very incriminating zingers from Frankie Boyle’s piece in The Guardian (8 February 2017) on Donald Trump fall into this category:

Presidents always enter office with something to prove, it’s just rarely their sanity.

He is a super-villain in a world without heroes, a man so obnoxious and unhappy that karma may see him reincarnated as himself.

You kind of wish he’d get therapy, but at this stage it’s like hiring a window cleaner for a burning building.

He’s not a classic Nazi, but would burn books if his supporters knew how to read.

Being on reality TV is the closest he ever got to reality.

Trump is at war with Saturday Night Live. He thinks it’s horrible and yet he can’t stop watching. Pretty much the same as how the world feels about him.

At other times, the water is so mild, even if on close reading it is more caustic than sulphuric acid, that it passes over our head, or, more accurately, past our funny bone and we lose both the sense of what to laugh at as well as the ability to laugh. Jonah is a case in point.

What is satire? It is militant irony in Frye’s words. Its instrument is humour; its target in its ultimate form is that which threatens life, Thanatos, the Grim Reaper. Does that mean that satire which merely belittles, which merely engages in a reductio ad absurdum, is bad satire, is unacceptable satire, is satire that is destructive without any constructive intent? Yes and no. And perhaps maybe. For there is a minimalist form of satire that is simply caustic, as illustrated by Frankie Boyle above, that imitates the negativity of its object without pointing to a way out.

That in itself is not a bad thing. The fact that certain forms of satire have severe limitations does not make them worthy of discard. They serve a purpose even when they fail to dissolve adequately and thoroughly, even when caught up more with the stench of the object of their hatred than the stink that engulfs us all. When Jonathan Swift in meticulous detail describes how the Lilliputians tie up Gulliver and immobilize him, how the hero is made impotent and reduced to a powerless state, we do learn how the multitude of small minds can defeat the ideals of a Statue of Liberty, can behead that statue and hold it forth as a trophy of war.

When my son remonstrated me for using putdowns to deal with the absurdity of Donald Trump, he referred me to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called “The Satire Paradox.” ( Malcolm Gladwell seemed to need satire to tell a moral tale, to establish a larger truth. But the real paradox of satire is that in its greatest expression, the paradox, is not between the “truth” unveiled and the crude means used to unveil it, but the tension between the caustic quality needed to reveal the anatomical structure that has allowed a Donald Trump to take power in the name of a closed order and the ability to point beyond to an alternative open order, to a world of possibility rather than one determined, defined and locked down. There is no truth that prevents a satirical sketch from being interpreted in radically different ways. Malcolm Gladwell wants satire to be didactic when, in its essence, it is not and cannot be. The object of satire is NOT to drive the audience towards TRUTH, but to drive them away from a false vision, a nightmare claimed to be true.

It is a mistake to believe that if we do not get the message, if there is no message to get, then the laughter is toothless and has lost the fearsome quality of the tiger in Blake’s Fearful Symmetry. For even satire, in which mirth overwhelms, frees us from the ropes of the binding vision of a demagogue, though it fails to unveil the platform on which we can stand and confront the beast. Malcolm Gladwell criticizes American satire for focusing on the mannerisms rather than the underlying mechanisms of the destructive order, but the mannerisms are the mechanisms. That is the issue.

The satire may be of such poor quality that this is not entirely made clear so that, consumed with laughter, the viewer or listener is still lost in the clouds of his tears, but insofar as it engages in a fearsome attack, even without redemption, it performs a magnificent function. Even in its weakest form of name-calling, satire with virtually no irony is still a sharp spear to tear open anomalies and injustices, follies and crimes, even if it does not encourage or facilitate an engagement in protest. If it just opens eyes and does not engage our intellect, it is satire nonetheless and can be very funny when done well.

At its highest (really, the lowest) level, satire is as precious as platinum. As McFarlane put it in describing Book 11 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the death of Orpheus, it, “involves all of Frye’s ultimate criteria for satire. First, an object of attack: the Maenads are a possible target, since their actions are initially ridiculous and finally deplorable, but Orpheus himself is the definite target of the women’s fury. Second, elements of the grotesque or absurd founded upon fantasy: these are plentifully present, in the rending of Orpheus, the fantastic charms of his music, and the punitive planting of the Maenads…Frye suggests the satirist as an author of effective but unthinking brutality, a mindless hatred of the lyrical arts Orpheus embodies…the poet raises, refines, constructs; the satirist debases, defiles, and destroys.”

The steps of satire begin in fragmentation, descend into the epic and then the dramatic, and on rungs four and five to the lyric and saturnalia. Satire at its base is militant irony, irony on the march, founded on fantasy. When the Thracian women, stand-up comics like Boyle, attack Orpheus/Trump with stones, Orpheus may respond with trying to charm the rocks themselves, to neutralize them with a lyre bequeathed to him by his father, Fred. They are impoverished lyrics or, in Donald’s case, tweets. But, as his body is torn asunder by the unremitting attacks, Orpheus descends into the underworld of the epic. There he joins the beautiful Eurydice, Melania Trump, whom Boyle describes as having the “look of a woman frantically trying to unlearn English, appalled to find that this only makes her understand her husband more clearly.”

Trump gives up on Orpheus and falls back on his obsession with gold, his compulsive attachment to wealth. Bacchus transforms Trump into Midas. As Midas, his wish is granted. As president, he can make many more billions than he made as a developer or as a reality star on TV or as a salesman of his own brand. Then, in a dramatic flourish, everything he touches turns to gold, but gold grapes are not only tasteless, they break your teeth even though gold is the softest of metals. Finally, he is even unable to drink a glass of water because, at his touch, it turns into a solid. He asks that his wish for solid gold and the banishment of change, of water, the wish that turned into a curse, be lifted.

That wish is also granted, only to transform Trump into a judge of songs of seduction, lyrical efforts at persuasion. DT goes back to becoming a reality TV star, but one who now occupies the White House. Pan takes on Apollo, the archetype of prudence and wisdom but, in the underworld, Trump’s own father. Orpheus becomes Oedipus. The god of Mount Tmolus had declared Apollo the winner with the most votes, but the rigged system that Trump so vilified now allows Trump to declare Pan, the god of the wild, Dionysius in drag, with hindquarters that can scale mountains and horns on his head that can butt anyone off the mountain he meets. Pan, the classic Pan, not the sweet sentimental Peter who fulfills the fantasies of children, but the ruffian, is the new guise of the victor.

Apollo metes out revenge, turning Trump into a donkey and we are now at the level of saturnalia. Trump travels to Troy, currently called Washington. The parallels now become literal. Using very different devices, Laomedon tricks two gods, both Apollo and Neptune, the Democrats and the Republicans, into building the wall of Troy. But as has been his practice with all sub-contractors, Trump qua Orpheus qua Midas qua Pan, now qua donkey or ass, stiffs them. Washington is punished and flooded with harlequins. In the ultimate irony, the very attempt to stem the flood with a wall, produces the flood itself, not of hardworking immigrants, but of every fraudster and soap salesman from across the land. The attempt to build a wall actually opened the floodgates to inanity. In the final stage of the descent, Hesione, Ivanka Trump, must be sacrificed. Her clothing line is delisted at both Nordstrom and even in the Hudson Bay stores.

Trump now takes on the guise of Hercules. To save Hesione, he must trade in his horses. This time, it is Trump who is double-crossed by no less than the ruler of Zimbabwe. No horses, no Hesione. Debauchery turns into debacle as Ivanka is transformed from a sweet sign of reason and good will into a lioness, and brother kills brother and brother-in-law escapes from the mad apocalyptic world into which all have descended to find a new kingdom. But, in concert with Troy/Washington, Ceyx’s kingdom has also become the very swamp that Trump promised to drain. The dream of turning a desert into a land of milk and honey has become an extension of chaos and self-destruction, where women go mad and are transformed into birds, where wild wolves ravage both farm animals and people.

Lamentations follow in the wake of Bannon’s destructive foul-smelling brew. The ultimate of satire is that it becomes prophetic truth and reveals total devastation.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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