Discussing Satire and The Purpose of The Lanx

'Two Satyrs' Peter Paul Rubens. The word 'satyr' was often thought to be the basis for 'satire.' The conniving gods became a sort of mascot of the form.

The word ‘satire’ comes from the Latin term ‘lanx satura,’ which referred to a platter of various foods (what we might call a smorgasbord). The term was used to refer to the variety of writing styles and tempers that eventually lead to the creation of Satire. I have chosen the name ‘The Lanx’ because what I will be discussing on this site will be merely a platter, a smattering of satirical forms and norms being created in the digital age. Satire was originally a specific type of poetry known for its rhetorical force and wit, more often biting than humorous. Today, the idea of satire has been broadened to include political humor, social commentary, caricature, parody, mockery, lampoon, and anything else that challenges folly and vice by way of irony and banter. My goal with this site will be to scour contemporary culture for the best in satire, and discuss each piece as a work of satirical art, keeping in mind the context of its argument, the force of its reasoning, and, hopefully, the brilliance of its wit.

It is not necessary to know the full history of satire in order to understand what satire should mean, and what true satire ought to do. Even the early critics and historians could not agree on the origins of the genre. (I refer to it as a genre here because it was a genre of poetry in Ancient Rome when Satire had specific rules of structure and content. It is now said to be more of a “temper,” or style, of writing.) The Roman rhetorician Quintilian claimed that Satire was “totally ours,” that it was distinctly Roman, because the genre was not based on a Greek model. But even the early satirist Horace suggested that the essence of satire came from Greek Old Comedy writers like Aristophanes, Eupolis, and Cratinus. Menippus, too, was a Greek author who mingled verse and prose to create seriocomic works that are seen as early satire. The reason Quintilian claimed Satire for Rome was because the particular rules of Roman satire (usually written in hexameter, often using epistles or mock-epic forms) were basically established by Lucilius, but again, Horace argues that Lucilius borrowed from others, so nothing is precisely certain.

Though the history is muddled, the purpose is not. From its earliest days, satire has sought to ridicule folly and vice, and champion reason and virtue. As with modern satire, the Ancient satirist presented the problems inherent in government, society, art, philosophy, and life in general, as he skewered them with irony, mockery, or pointed critique. But unlike modern satirists, the Ancient satirist held moral principle and virtue as the archetypes by which all things in life should be judged, and displayed vice as the disease that must be removed to maintain a healthy social body. The method of accomplishing this was, as Martial put it, “To spare the person, to denounce the vice” (“dicere de vitiis, parcere personis“). In other words, Satire was more concerned with folly itself than the foolish who committed the act, and more concerned with universals than with particular or temporary persons or situations. This is not so true anymore, as modern satire places politicians and public figures on grand display, roasting them for the pleasure of the masses. This change occurred around the mid-18th Century, when the rise of caricature and graphic satire brought about the first great era of political cartoons, and advances in literature distribution made way for situation satirists like Peter Pindar, who made a living writing satirical poetry about King George III and his government. From that point on, satire became more about ridiculing the foolish than about championing virtue. It also moved away from being a genre of poetry and literature, and became a temper of humorous art.

There are two main categories used to differentiate between types of satire: Juvenalian and Horatian. These are taken from the two major satirists of the Roman period: Juvenal, whose work is known for its fierce, biting argument; and Horace, whose work is known for its levity and urbanity, often using civil dialogue and epistles to express a concern. These are best exemplified, in what is considered the last great era of satire, the early 18th Century, by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, respectively. Though each synthesized numerous styles in their works, Swift’s Gulliver’s TravelsThe Tale of the Tub, and A Modest Proposal are seen as biting and Juvenalian, while Pope’s Rape of the LockEpistles to Several Persons, and Imitations of Horace are more jocular and Horatian. In more recent times, one might consider the difference between Juvenalian and Horatian satire as the difference between Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or as the difference, in hip-hop, between the fierce Eminem of 2011 and the jocular Eminem of 1999.

Although Juvenal and Horace were each more complex than these limiting categories, they serve as good guidelines in discussing what satirists hope to achieve and why, because Juvenal and Horace were each products of their own times. Juvenal wrote against a Rome led by autocrats; Horace wrote in the time of peace under Augustus. It is no surprise, then, that Juvenal wrote with such contempt and exaggeration, and Horace with such civility and wit. Thus, these two categories allow us to distinguish in contemporary satire if the satirist seeks to subvert and disrupt a broken, oppressive, or ridiculous system, or to ridicule the folly that crops up in what they see as an otherwise agreeable society. Usually, the satire is more complex than a bipolar categorization, and almost all satire contains a bit of both tempers, but as it usually tends toward one or the other, the two are helpful for the sake of classification.

A third category, Menippean, is marked by a use of a variety of styles within a single work, and refers more to the form than the temper of writing, as it is used in literary criticism to differentiate between formal verse poetry like Pope’s, and works that use various forms like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As such, it is not as useful to categorize contemporary satire, because we no longer have to make the distinction between formal verse satire and prose satire. We now have such an immense variety of satirical forms—fake news, cartoons, stand-up comedy, hip-hop, plays, movies, books—that it is no longer necessary to suggest that a satire be categorized by its use of variety, since so many of these forms use techniques and styles that the Romans and Greeks could have never dreamed would be possible. When discussing contemporary satire, it is better to categorize by differentiating between modes like ridicule, lampoon, parody, and mockery.

We have two ways, then, of classifying contemporary satire: the temper, and the mode. The temper is typically Horatian or Juvenalian; the mode is usually ridicule, lampoon, parody, or mockery. It is not worth defining each of these modes at present, because, in relation to satire, they often overlap, and may be used interchangeably. Thus, they are really less of categories than of loose types. There are also additional modes, like burlesque and spoof, but these are both close to parody, and will be used only as a clarification. There are also rhetorical devices and literary techniques, like irony, and sarcasm, which will be frequently discussed, but can only truly be described in regard to the context of their specific use and will thus be discussed as necessary.

This is not meant to be a science. I will not attempt to critically analyze modern humor. These are just talking points, and ways of discussing satire as an art form. But the most important aspect of satire is not its art, but its purpose. Is it effective? Does it intend to be effective? Does it press for change, or just give a playful ribbing? Whether subversive or ridiculous, satire is not mere humor, so it must serve some purpose, or hold itself against some folly; however, there is a great difference between satire as a form of activism and satire as a form of awareness. My goal, in writing about satire, is to discuss how that purpose is portrayed or presented, and whether or not the temper or mode or rhetoric of the satire is actually an effective means of imparting that purpose. Is it meant to make the audience think, or merely laugh, and does it matter? If the satire is funny, are they laughing because they feel superior to the ridiculed, or because of an ironic fait accompli, or because they feel uncomfortably implicated by the claim, and does it matter? If the satire is biting, does the audience rally with the cause, or watch from below as the satirist swings the axe, and does it matter? Is the audience itself the specific target, or is the audience always in some way the target of a claim against a foolish society? I will seek to answer these questions, and, of course, many more, in my writing for The Lanx.

Satire has a long history, and has come to have a wide range of uses and incarnations, but while there is much scholarship on the Ancients and Augustans as literary figures, there has been little devotion to discussing satire in the digital age not only within the context of the contemporary world it satirizes, but within the traditions of satire as a diverse form of art, and as a form of subversion. I hope to bridge that gap, and dig to the depths of modern satire, to broaden the discussion of its claims, and fully bring its purposes to light.


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