Thursday, November 3, 2016

Satire: The Pretty Girl You Can't Escape

In his time, Jonathan Swift had a weather eye for satire, appeared in retrospect to come by it naturally, and in one of the lovely ironies attendant on satire, was forced as punishment into circumstances from which he produced his most memorable satire of all.

One of the great escape literatures of his time was the look backward into the alleged better times of the pastoral past, where dryads and nymphs frolicked, where Pan and Daphnus and Chloe took to the forest, not only for a quick canoodle but to recharge the same anti-urban excesses that would, a hundred or so years down the line, affect Ishael in Moby-Dick.

You'd do well to consider how one of Swift's earliest published pieces, perhaps even the absolute first, published anonymously , took on the pastoral with an unrelenting focus on the incessant clatter and, indeed, squalor of the city life, knocking the underpinnings from pastoral escapism by showing the lifestyle most of Swift's seventeenth- and eighteenth century readers had to endure.

Born in Dublin, educated there and in another sense as a polymath, Swift pursued a career in the clergy, working his way to the Big Tent, which was London, only to be sent down (of course Dublin is "up" from London) to the minors of Ireland again. 

It was here, in Dublin again, where Swift's eye for satire took him to the very thing most of us remember him for, his dynamic solution to the Irish potato famine, arguably helped along its way to a major calamity by the Brits. Thus "A Modest Proposal," Swift's way of reminding the Brits of what they'd had a hand in wreaking, all the while using that sincere, sympathetic narrative voice so perfectly characteristic of satire.

Prior to his memorable modest proposal, Swift had written, "Satire is a sort of glass [mirror] wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own."

There was no way you were going to matriculate as an English [Literature] major without being attracted to the splendid satiric voices of their times, Alexander Pope and John Dryden, with Pope performing open-heart surgery in "The Rape of the Lock" and Dryden upsetting the applecart of propriety with "Macflecknoe," a single course "The Age of Pope and Dryden" being sufficient to yank you into the study of English history you were at previous pains to ignore. You wanted the dish on why P and D seemed as funny as they did.

Which brought you to the more modern times of Evelyn Waugh, whose life span more or less coincided with your mother, and Aldous Huxley, whom you actually met.

During this time of drinking at the Pieriean Spring, you'd had enough personal experiences with satire to know you wanted to continue drinking; an egregious satire on Ernest Hemingway had brought you an unsolicited thumbs up and a "pretty good stuff," from EMH, himself, while a collaborative venture targeting the then vice-president of the United States, one Richard M. Nixon, had the FBI out and about, asking questions about you for some years.

To this day, satire is your friend, reminding you of the time when your parents, always eager to feed you and your friends and pack take-away for later, questioned you about one friend from your earlier days, even to the point of wondering what you had in common now--except for the past.

Thinking about this incident reminded you of one of the defining statements between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, those two wonderfully arch enemies in the TV series Justified.  "We dug coal together."  So far as satire is concerned, "We went to school together."

Satire needs a target. Your target is escapism, individuals (including yourself) attempting to escape from unpleasant realities.

Satire targets escapism.

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