Do We Still Get Satire?

Someone (an American) said to me, the other day, that Americans no longer perceived or understood satire. He asked whether it was the same in Australia and I had to pause…

Do we?

My god do I even get satire?

I bloody well hope so because I’ve just published a satirical novel and have another coming out next year!

So what exactly is satire?

My own definition is that satire holds a mirror up to society, often by portraying an issue to the point of extreme absurdity (thus causing the reader to reflect upon that targeted issue in real life). Two of the earliest novels (Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote) are satirical – attacking aspects of their societies that didn’t make sense to the authors – Cervantes through the portrayal of a noble buffoon tilting at windmills, and Swift through the portrayal of Gulliver (an educated “everyman”) as a giant, and then as a tiny chap among the Brobdingnagians (and others) – skewering the pointlessness of religious and political distinctions and rivalries as he went.

Is satire funny?

Sometimes, but it’s usually a wry style of humour – raising an eyebrow or half a smile when the reader perceives the target. Catch 22 is one of the more famous modern(ish) satires – pointing out the absurdity of war by portraying those who wage it as ridiculous. There are many laugh-out-loud moments in Catch 22 – I frequently quote the bit where Yossarian is walking the eerie streets of Rome at night and sees a sign saying: “Tony’s Restaurant, fine food and drink. Keep Out.”

Compare that with a book published just a few years earlier and also satirising war. Lord of the Flies is not funny at all – it’s a harrowing book, on one level about the cruelty of children when allowed to lose their socialisation on a desert island. But on a deeper level, the book (published at the height of the Cold War) is arguably about the sovereignty of nations who can’t get along. (The boys are being evacuated from a war zone as the story opens.)

To get back to my original question – do people get satire anymore? When was the last truly famous satire? The Truman Show maybe? Dexter? I’m wracking my brains to think of anything since, and if people aren’t presented with satire they will never learn to recognise (or appreciate) it.

I was recently involved in an online conversation about Lord of the Flies and all people could talk about was the cruelty. They didn’t like the book because they didn’t believe children would really behave like that.

I was pulling my figurative hair out because the cruelty is not the point! The cruelty is just a vehicle for the message – that people can lose their socialisation when no longer compelled by a higher authority to behave. But is that all the book is saying?

This has always been the fundamental issue with international law. There is no higher sovereign entity to compel good behaviour so nations must negotiate their own (inevitably) unequal relationships, and when those negotiations fail, war is often the result. I always saw the island as representative of the earth with Ralph and Jack as superpowers of waxing and waning power as the others cluster about their leadership. Piggy stands for the last vestiges of civilised behaviour and decency, hence the call to arms: Kill the Pig!

Of course the cruelty continues all the time. Empire building, ganging up and exploitation of the weak is cruel. It’s happened forever and the First World has tended to be the main beneficiary over the centuries. That’s exactly why we see China behaving so assertively these days. They’ve been treated very badly by the West in the past (Opium Wars, anyone?) and they’re not going to let it happen again.

Anyway, back to my point. The people taking part in that Flies debate did not get the satire. Could it be that they were too young to remember the Cold War? Or is it more that we have lost our ability to perceive subtext in literature – that everything is taken at face value and that’s it.

I suspect the latter, and if so, what does that say about our community if we no longer get satire?

It means a society that is no longer capable of seeing its own flaws – that cannot laugh at itself – that does not get the joke – that takes itself far too seriously.

Is that what we’ve become?

In these days of heightened sensitivity over every fucking issue under the sun, I’d say that’s exactly what has happened. Of course, some people will say that as an educated, white, middle aged, First World male, I’m part of the problem. My lamenting the death of satire is really just me bemoaning my incremental loss of relevance and power.

Probably.

Everyone is reclaiming their own personal sovereignty, which is fine, but it’s happening at the expense of satire, subtlety, subtext and (some would say) sanity. It feels like there’s a massive correction happening across the world both within and beyond countries, cultures and subcultures. This inevitably means the disruption of existing arrangements and privileges – which more often than not is a good thing, but we’ve seen before how revolutions tend to breed new bosses – same as the old bosses.

Ironically, it was the identification and skewering of inequality and injustice that satire was invented to achieve. So if satire is dead, maybe we just don’t need it anymore, because the inequality and injustice has become way too obvious.

That has to be a good thing (that we can see the injustice and do something about it), but it won’t help me sell my satirical books…

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