Dr. Morgan Curtis
11 December 2007
Satire is a genre that through history has made a great deal of friends and enemies, but remains elusive as a genre to the reader who is not well read in its confines. It is easier to say that you only know satire by reading it and you can only read satire if you know what you are looking for. Satire combines the ideas of pointing out the faults of someone, something, or an idea that is currently making its round on the popular culture scene. In the search for an understandable definition of satire, it is easy for the reader to become embroiled in the debate of what is satire and how is it to be understood in modern time.
According to Peter Briggs in his articles “A Teachable Definition of Satire,” the idea that satire always involves an “Error” of some sort, tends to leave the reader asking more questions. What kind of “Error” is the author discussing and what is the purpose in pointing out the “Error” to the reader? In the 18th century, the idea of the “Error” involved theories that Locke had about how the mind worked and how language is processed in order to understand the object (Briggs 30). Briggs contends that there is a shift from ‘what’ is wrong to ‘why’ this is wrong. Why is the object of the satire doing what he did and why is it an ‘error’ on their part? This comes back to Locke’s theory of how the brain works and what it does in particular circumstances to understand its circumstances. The language that an author chooses to use in his satire elicits a variety of responses from the audience and a few of those responses may not be what the author had hoped.
Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is an ideal example of how language comes in to the mind of the reader and while the words make perfect sense, it is the premise of the words that bring horror to the reader. The idea that children should be consumed as food for the people of Ireland is one that any reader would revolt against on moral principal alone. Swift however, takes the approach that the consumption of infants would aid the ailing Irish economy and subsequently bring the Irish people out of the devastating poverty that has afflicted the land. In laying out his plan to feed the Irish people on their own children, Swift goes point by point laying out all the details of how long a child should be nursed, to how many people a male infant could feed. While scholars have pointed out that Swift is parodying William Petty’s “Political Arithmetic” Swift’s use of language lulls the reader into a false sense of security by presenting his argument in a logical and understandable way. There is no point in the proposal that the reader can disagree with Swift other than a moral argument for not eating other humans. This is the “Error” that Briggs and Locke are working out as a definition of satire; language has presented an everyday situation, but the author has taken the situation to its un-logical end and it is the reader that has to derive the meaning.
The online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as “a poem, or in modern use sometimes a prose composition, in which the prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule.” The definition continues though to content that when looking to “ridicule a particular person or class of persons’” that would be more accurately listed as
a lampoon. It is easy to lampoon someone, especially in this modern age of 24-hour news channels and the internet. Anyone can see what someone did 20 minutes ago thanks to “YouTube” and other instantaneous websites. Yet, I personally believe that good satire has a balanced combination of both the ability to point out the flaws of a person and that person’s way of thinking while at the same time asking the audience to question why these things are happening or did happen under their watch.
John Dryden in his poem “Mac Flecknoe” asks his audience to think about the portrayed poet and ask themselves why they have elevated him to such a place of honor. For Dryden the idea that the critics have allowed a poet of low standards to become so popular with the populous is revolting to him. Dryden takes his intended target’s name and replaces it with the word that he believes best describes the poet’s poetry. The point of this is to get his audience to see the difference between the poets writing and quality of writing. While Shadwell may have the critics in his pocket, Dryden can take Shadwell’s name and writings and draw out a less than flattering portrayal of the poet. The lunacy that the critics could find Shadwell’s work as something to be lauded blows Dryden’s mind, and his backhanded praise of Shadwell proves his point to his audience. Even though over 300 hundred years have passed since Dryden wrote his poem, anyone can read this poem and understand on an elementary level the point that Dryden is explicitly stating. It is the finer points and jabs of the poem that the modern audience will miss in the critique because they are not familiar with Shadwell and Dryden. Yet, one place the finer points come through for the modern audience is the film version of satire.
While satire is a fine line, there have been a few movies in the past few years to come through and readily move satire into the 21st century. One such movie is “Thank you for Smoking” and stars Aaron Eckhart. Released in 2005 by Fox Searchlight is based on a novel by Christopher Buckley. The movie was a small independent film that took critics by storm. Eckhart plays nick Naylor who is Vice President at the Academy of Tobacco studies, a pro tobacco lobbyist group whose job it is to place a positive spin on big tobacco. This group turns the negative about tobacco into positive and it is Naylor’s job to be the mouthpiece and idea man. At one point while on a talk show Naylor states that government health groups want a teenager who has cancer to die more than big tobacco does. The government gets another statistic, a so-called feather in their cap while tobacco loses a paying customer
Eckhart’s character has a group of friends and they have self-titled themselves the MOD squad (Merchants of Death). Eckhart represents big tobacco and the others are lobbyists for gun owners and alcohol. They meet once a week to commiserate together and convince one another that the other has the more difficult ‘evil’ to defend. The movie follows Naylor through trying to convince Hollywood to return to its glory days when actors smoked on screen all the time and for no particular reason. The idea that smoking was and is sexy is what Naylor is trying to being back to Hollywood and the American public in general.
Modern audience understand what Naylor is doing and the “error” that is occurring in the movie. Even when Naylor is nearly killed by the thing that he is defending it is that subtle twist where the audience can have their light bulb moment.
Like Dryden, the filmmakers want the audience to catch on to the ‘error’ that they as satirists want to express, and only then can the audience begin to make corrections. Briggs points out that the satire itself has allowed the audience to “define its adversary” (30) and then offer up a solution.
It is movies like “Thank You for Smoking” that continue the satirical traditions that Swift and Dryden attempted to carry on in their own time. Satire is a valuable tool in today’s society because we are such a knowledge driven society that sometimes we forget to look up from the grindstone and examine the world around us. However, the fine line with satire is again the focus on the actions that occur after the “error” has been presented. If comedians and writers of our age are going to use satire to point fingers at society, they should be equally prepared to walk society through what they perceive could be a remedy. If the “error” is a process as Briggs and Locke contend (29) then the “correction of error in satire must also be a process” (29).
Briggs, Peter M. “Notes Toward a Teachable Definition of Satire.” Eighteenth-Century Life 5.3 (1979): 28-39.
Dryden, John. “Mac Flecknoe.” The Longman Anthology British Literature Ed David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar et.al. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006: 2240-45.
Swift, Jonathon. “A Modest Proposal.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature Ed David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar et. al. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006: 2592-2599.
Thank you for Smoking. Dir Jason Reinhart. Perf. Aaron Eckhart. Fox Searchlight, 2006.
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