Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Four Horses of the Writers' Apocalypse

Here's a write-in vote for ambiguity, which in a neat sort of dramatic justice, allows equal opportunity for the finger of justice to be wagged pointedly at any one of us.  Fond as I am of satire and toppling ignorance and pretentiousness from the table, my fondness is enhanced by the vulnerability of knowing I may very well be hoist by my own petard, trampled by my own righteous indignation, exposed naked in ignorance.  Innocence is only a half blush; ignorance is the full Cleveland.

There are numerous ways to take on a subject with the intent of bringing it down, preferably in flames?  Ridicule is, after all, a valuable tool, the major instrument, in fact, in the surgical procedure called humor.  Ridicule is achieved by demonstrating an individual, an institution, a concept, or a system in progress, then applying the blow torch of exaggeration.  At what point does the exaggeration move the ridicule from satire to parody or, even more severe, farce?  At what point does satire retire into the darkness, allowing parody to take over?

Exaggeration has such a delicate balance.  You have, for a specific instance, a thesis that the one work considered Evelyn Waugh's greatest triumph, Brideshead Revisited, is a satire.  Certainly his other work shows an authorial sense of moral high ground as it attacks character types and attitudes.  Moral purpose is a major factor in satire, and so pompous and attitude-oriented was Waugh in his lifetime that he appeared to be satirizing himself as much as he took on social mores and standards of ethical behavior, to say nothing about his perfervid religious beliefs.  You have concluded that the movement of Charles Ryder's agnosticism, drifting inexorably toward Catholicism, paralleled with Lord Marchmain's ambiguous last-minute "conversion" demonstrate Waugh's own vision of how a set of characters as individuals and en famile can be led to an exaggerated quest for salvation.  Thus was Waugh using plausibility to suggest his ultimate disdain and dramatize the exaggeration to the point where the characters may feel they have behaved well but some readers may conclude differently.

Satire requires this delicate balance.  Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" had just the proper amount of exaggeration to trigger the fear and revulsion aspect in enough readers to cause them to experience outrage:  How dare Swift suggest such a contemptible thing?  The splendid satirist Stephen Colbert works the same way, actually enlisting the support of the very targets of his barb.

As cohorts in this wicked conspiracy, satire and ambiguity lead us off the commonly trod pathway into the thicket of our own pretensions and prejudices, where we may trip over the snaggle of ego.  Neither satire nor ambiguity intend to leave the reader/victim in the dark but rather to allow the reader/victim to unsuspectingly slip head within noose, led by the cohorts of plausibility and outraged belief.

It is said that we few, we precious few, we band of others have little practical use in the world beyond the academy.  In fact, we are even suspected of having limited use within the academy.  How, we are asked, are we able to use such tools as ambiguity, satire, plausibility, and the ability to transmit outrage in service of earning our keep?  

The answer is clear enough:  We make our living from the loose change found under the metaphoric cushions of the metaphoric sofas and chairs in which they sit, waiting to lecture us on practicality.

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