Of Human Folly: A Look at Satire

by William Hoffman
University of Minnesota Report
August 1980

O sacred Weapon! Left for Truth's defence,
Sole Dread of Folly, Vice, and Insolence
To all but Heav'n-directed hands deny'd
The Muse may give thee, but the Gods must guide
Rev'rent I touch thee! But with honest zeal:
To rowze the Watchman of the Pubic Weal.

--Alexander Pope
Epilogue to the Satires

Some thousands of years ago someone did something perfectly ridiculous. Someone else was inspired to record the deed for posterity, perhaps on the wall of a cave. In that instant, the first satirist was born

As one scholar put it, to look at life with a mixture of laughter and indignation is perhaps not the noblest way, nor the way most likely to lead to great art, but it is the way of the satirist.

The satirist's stock-in-trade is wit exercised upon human folly and hypocrisy. Every age has supplied enough folly to keep the satirist in business, but some scholars say that the conditions necessary for great satire are lacking today and that, in a technological age, the future of some satiric forms is about as secure as that of the snail darter.

Others have noted the decline of satire as a mode for the discussion of critical ideas and current affairs, even though such things as gross materialism, electronic evangelism, and politics-as-usual would seem to make plump targets for the satiric barb.

Archibald Leyasmeyer is not among those who think satire is in danger of disappearing. On the contrary, he believes that satire is sufficiently rich and varied in form and technique that it will endure as a distinct way of looking at the world

"It is true that we have lost some forms of satire and that there is no visible body of satire as in other historical periods, but satire is not dying," said Leyasmeyer, an associate professor of English on the Twin Cities campus. "Satire is like the genie in the bottle. You get a different genie each time you rub the bottle.

Leyasmeyer has taught courses on satire for many years. The course he currently teaches moves from the formal satires of ancient Romans Horace and Juvenal to the political cartoons of Herblock and parodies of television's "Saturday Night Live." The graffito and the epigram get proper notice along the way, as do the lampoon and the fable.

Satire has always defied satisfactory definition, according to Leyasmeyer. That can be viewed as one of its strengths. "I find it somewhat treacherous to define. It is no single entity or literary genre, no regular form. Over the centuries there have been just an incredible variety of satirical forms and techniques. Even Horace and Juvenal, the masters of formal Roman satire, were very different."

Satire is "a unique kind of expression," he said. "It is nasty, unfair, and elitist. Those who appreciate it actually form and in-group. "Members have similar convictions and similar emotions, and they share a level of sophistication that places the apart from most people, particularly in their being able to understand irony, which requires an ability to read between the lines, he said.

There is a comic element in satire, yet satire differs greatly from humor. "In humor and comedy, the comedian accepts the conditions. All is forgiven. The satirist, on the other hand, is judgmental. He really wants to wound--to leave a mark.

"The comedian frolics among the rabbits. The satirist runs with the hounds," Leyasmeyer said.

One of the reasons some forms of satire seem to be on the decline today is that there is far less conviction about what the ideal is, he said.

One of the essential elements of classical formal satire is a "moral vision" of the age, Leyasmeyer said. "The satirist attacks the thing he hates because he wants to make it conform to his vision of the good, the true, the beautiful. This is what Alexander Pope meant when he said that satire 'heals with morals what it hurts with wit.'

"But today there is too much social fragmentation, not enough common understanding about what constitutes good and evil. Some of the best satire recently has come out of eastern Europe. People there have had experiences much different from ours," he said.

Leyasmeyer points to a work entitled Pandemonium by German artist George Grosz as symbolic of the satirist's view of our time. "It is a cluttered, surrealistic street scene. At the center, there is a head screaming. Here the modern satirist is expressing himself very powerfully," he said, adding that, ironically, when Grosz came to America as a refugee from the Nazi terror, he rejected satiric expression in his work and became a devotee of Norman Rockwell.

Great satire continues to be read and enjoyed even though much of it is closely tied to the events of the time in which it is produced. This is so, Leyasmeyer explained, because unlike journalism or social criticism, it employs both recognizable artistic conventions and a certain world view.

"Why do individuals find great delight in other individuals who vented their fury through satire at objects, images, ideas, or persons long gone? I believe it is because they recognize great artistry," he said. "I think that today, generally speaking, there is less appreciation of the artistry involved in creating good satire."

"There is a French proverb that says 'To understand everything is to forgive everything.' In a time of greater sensitivity and understanding, the in-group itself becomes smaller and diluted by diversity. Some forms of satire suffer as a result."

But there is too much artistic energy flowing for satire to die out. Like the genie, it simply changes form. Satire finds its way into the novels of Philip Roth, or the pages of National Lampoon, or the monologues of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, rather than into elaborate fantasies like Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, or brilliantly crafted verse like Pope's rhymed couplets, or allegories like George Orwell's Animal House.

Nevertheless, Leyasmeyer does not believe that the decline of some satiric forms is necessarily due to less familiarity with the nuances of language and the meaning of words. "I'm suspicious of the view that there is less genuine appreciation of the magic of language. In the 18th and 19th centuries English prose was more elaborate, but our manner of written expression is not necessarily less effective on that account. Look at graffiti. It's flourishing. That's language being used creatively.

"What's been lost, it seems to me, is the larger appreciation of extended structural development. Perhaps we have lost the sense of satiric form, but we have not lost the satiric attitude. And there has been development of satiric techniques in other media, particularly in the cinema. The film Dr. Strangelove is a good example," Leyasmeyer said.

The satirist has rarely had an easy time of it. "He walks the tightrope. By using irony, for example, he runs the risk of being too obvious, hence ineffective, or too reckless. In Swift's time satirists sometimes had their ears cut off. In our time, they are more likely to get sued for libel.

"It is said that the satirist seeks to improve, but I don't believe he actually succeeds. I see it, rather, as an impulse--a need to point out that the emperor has no clothes. It provides a psychological satisfaction both for creators and participants.

"Being part of the in-group is ultimately very flattering. One is joined with the good guys against the perverts--those who pervert their talents, abilities, responsibilities. It is telling them that, if nothing else, their perversions are being noticed and they are not getting away scot-free."