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What Used to Be Satire

Writing in 1946, at the end of the Second World War, George Orwell stands at the bloody intersection between language and politics and tells us what he sees. “In our time,” Orwell begins. At this point, near the end of “Politics and the English Language,” he arrives at the beginning of his jeremiad. Imperialism, purges, deportations, atom bombs–these are all defensible, he tells us, “but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” For Orwell, vicious arguments are made palatable, normative by euphemism. He deplores euphemism because it is an instrument of propaganda, one that creates an enormous ethical schism between act and representation; between what we do and how we represent those actions to ourselves, individually and collectively.

Orwell’s point about language that works to broaden the schism between act and representation is especially relevant to the role of literary satire, which demands that we acknowledge the distance between how things actually are and how they are represented. Now, more than seventy years after the publication of Orwell’s essay, we live within an incessant stream of flashing messages and images shaped by the intellectual descendants of the most effective propagandists in human history, the Nazis. For those descendants, the ability to build consensus en masse, whether selling slaughter or dishwashing soap, has become a thing to be admired because it is the foundation of a consumer economy, an economy that situates profit as the central and abiding value of our culture.

The ability to say one thing and mean another, an aspect of satire, is the heart of advertising’s darkness. Over time, we have become used to the yoking of the trivial and the serious; the inconvenient and the immoral. We have learned not to ask about the effect of a product on the environment despite what we know about climate change; to demur at the differences between free speech and hate speech when a politician claims all Mexicans are murderers; and to be too busy to bother with the pesky details of history when the next foreign crisis winds its way through the news cycle.

For Orwell, political language will remain “the defence of the indefensible” until our own revolutionary turn in consciousness, the point at which we turn away from blind obeisance to critical questioning. That turn requires that we demand from our politicians and ourselves language that does not short circuit critical thinking by appealing immediately to deep and commonly held fears, or that puts us to sleep with its bureaucratic layers of woolly abstraction, repetition, and terms of art.

Why don’t we just eat Irish children, Jonathan Swift proposed, modestly? “I HAVE been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London;” he tells us,

that a young healthy Child, well-nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boiled; and, I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust. [italics original]

Your policies kill Irish children, Swift tells his audience. You may as well eat them. Doing so would be pragmatic and tasty–if not exactly humane. Written in 1729, Swift’s language still shocks–though we should remember that his “Modest Proposal” did nothing to ameliorate the suffering of the Irish in the approaching famine of 1740, or the famines that followed in the nineteenth century under continued English rule. Satire is no substitute for clear-sighted social policy. We don’t demand that a sonnet sequence turn swords into ploughshares, so why place such onerous demands on satire?

As Swift explains in a 1725 letter to Alexander Pope:

…the chief end I propose to my self in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it….

Perhaps that is all satire can ever accomplish: the vexation of a powerful, enfranchised class and the sad acknowledgement by the rest of us as to how things are. Remove Irish children from Swift’s proposal. Substitute Guatemalan and Salvadoran children as if you were swapping ingredients in a recipe or objects in a long caravan of Iran-contra chicks come home to roost.

Does the satire vex you, or does it waken you to injustice, to the cupidity of the human heart?

The comedian Trevor Noah describes the daily news as a yoking of terror and joy: a meteor is hurtling directly toward us–and it is shaped like a penis. Noah stands at an intersection, not as an angry or lamenting Jeremiah, Old Testament prophet, but the way an anthropologist would stand, pointing to the frames we tend to forget—language, history, culture. Noah asks us to join him in the role of anthropologist, the consummate outsider who understands the contingency of all cultural practices, including or perhaps especially the practice of language. Noah is from someplace else (South Africa), from another language (Xhosa, one of several), and another set of historical and cultural references (apartheid), which is perhaps the basis of the solace I often find in his humor. He makes me feel less alone in the skin, the frame Edward Said described as the exile’s “double perspective.”

In a recent satire that appeared in The New Yorker, “Little St. Don: A Reading from the Book of St. Don,” George Saunders presents us with a testament that threatens destruction and raucous humor, vexation and diversion: a meteor in the shape of a penis. The hagiography of Donald of Ogilvy, a Scottish eight-century saint, is marked by the fortuitous absence of historical facts. We know so little about St. Donald, (who lived in Forfarshire, had nine daughters, was part of a religious community formed after his wife’s death, and whose feast day is the 15th of July), that he, sporting the name of a common Scottish clan, becomes a mirror of the narcissism fostered by a consumer economy, the narcissism distilled into “leaders” that follow their own self-interest.

The parables that form “Little St. Don” turn the parables of Christ on their head. Saunders’ St. Don does not heal the blind. When one of his disciples, Michael Cohen, asks “‘is that man blind through his own sin, or did his parents sin?’” the response of St. Don centers solely on himself:

Hey, I didn’t do it. Both, probably. How should I know? I find it, honestly, a little disgusting. Let’s clear out.

When St. Don spits at the ground, his disciples incorrectly assume he will use the mix of spit and dirt to heal the man’s eyes. Instead, St. Don spits again”

Did I say let’s get going or what? Are you morons deaf?

As Edwin Turner observes (“George Saunders’ ‘Little St. Don’ and the Limits of Contemporary Satire”) Saunders skillfully “channels” the “verbal tics and rhythms” of Donald Trump. Turner cites this example:

Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.

The problem, Turner argues, is that “Little St. Don” does not help us understand “the jarring discrepancy between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality.” Instead, the satire repeats: “George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. ‘Little St. Don’ redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.”

For Turner, Saunders’ “Little St. Don” exemplifies “the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.” Turner is quick to add that there are important instances of literary fiction that have addressed demagoguery and fascism, including the works of Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood. However, Turner insists:

[l]iterary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil–it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language

…instead of reinforcing the beliefs and assumptions of its audience.

The iconoclast in me loves Turner’s argument; it is thoughtful and thought-provoking. On the other hand, I don’t think we need a “new language” so much as a stripping away of the euphemisms Orwell warned cast brutal arguments about imperialism, purges, deportations, and atom bombs in terms that are defensible, palatable both to the public and “the professed aims of political parties.” In fact, within the chrysalis of capital, Corpus Christi has become a monstrous thing–bloated thorax and abdomen and stubby wings–a corporation, with a practical distaste for the beatitudes, the way some beetles eat only certain leaves. In our state of amnesia, a new and improved version of the beatitudes has been nailed to the walls of the only institutions that seem to matter, a revised set of theses, a more rational, more practical version of the Sermon on the Mount, articulated by a pale, blonde, blue-eyed Christ: cursed are those who have no money, for they are without God’s grace; cursed are those with grievances, for they shall not remain employed; cursed are the timid, afraid to ask for more, for they shall receive the very least; cursed are the wicked who want a share of what has been given to others, for nothing whatsoever shall be given to them; cursed are those who ask for mercy, for no such promise has ever been made in writing; cursed are those of sullied hearts who seek not Mammon; cursed are those who seek the peace that follows justice, for they shall be called the scum of the earth; cursed are those who sacrifice for others in the name of equality, for theirs will be an ever-lasting hell of anonymity.

I seek to vex and less so to divert.

Have thoughts on satire in this day and age? The floor is yours.

About Elizabeth Huergo

Elizabeth Huergo was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at an early age as a political refugee. A published poet and story writer, she lives in Virginia. The Death of Fidel Perez is her first novel. You can learn more about Elizabeth on her website, and by following her on Twitter.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.