Saturday, June 27, 2015

`The Obscene Graffiti of Life'

“When it comes to other people’s vices, most of us are thick-skinned; but the satirist is a man without a skin. He senses faults before anyone else, and wears a perpetual frown. Most of us encounter grossness, cowardice, and obsequiousness two or three times a day and never give it a second thought. These are the obscene graffiti of life, seen so often that we have become accustomed to them. The satirist’s gift is the ability to point out that which we already know, and to provoke a moral or aesthetic response. He does not discover new vices, but uncovers old ones to which we have become inured. He provides no new information, but only reminds us that we already know enough to be shocked, but we have resigned ourselves to a contented indifference.”

This comes in a section of F.H. Buckley’s The Morality of Laughter (University of Michigan Press, 2003) titled “The Paradox of Satire,” in which he contrasts the playful and the bitter. Gulliver’s third voyage, to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan, is playful. In Laputa, where scientists labor to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, he pokes fun at the Royal Society, but Swift was never more savage than in Gulliver’s fourth voyage, to the land of the Houyhnhnms. Buckley describes the chapter as “one of the most caustic attacks on human pretensions ever written, which shocks the reader without amusing him.” Perhaps I’m among the thick-skinned, because I judge the Yahoos very amusing, but I appreciate Buckley’s larger point: “The more intense the satire, the fewer laughs it raises. The Paradox of Satire is that it asks the reader to share its rancor; and if it succeeds the satire fails.”

Satire is tricky. The most vicious of art forms calls for a delicate hand. Heavy-handed satire is almost a contradiction in terms. It requires well-calibrated wit, not a slugfest, and certainly not a preening sense of self-righteousness. Too much subtlety or too much simple-minded explicitness, and satire is a dud. I’ve been reading Juvenal again (Juvenal in English, ed. Martin M. Winkler, Penguin, 2001) and, as Buckley says, “Bitter satire is Juvenalian.” He quotes a brief, apparently self-translated passage from Satire 2.8-10: Rome, says Juvenal, is a city where “every street is just full of stern-faced sodomites. How can you lash corruption when you are the most notorious furrows among our Socratic fairies?” Here is Peter Green’s translation of the same lines (The Sixteen Satires, Penguin, 1974):

“Every back street swarms with solemn-faced humbuggers.
You there—have you the nerve to thunder at vice, who are
The most notorious dyke among all our Socratic fairies?”
In his footnote, Green explains: “This is a variant on the classical gibe of antiquity (derived largely from Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes’ Clouds) which assumes that all `philosophers’ are homosexuals. Juvenal inverts the cliché: in his day many homosexuals pretended to be philosophers.”

Buckley doesn’t address self-satirizing, a phenomenon that proliferates in our culture and age, and requires a degree of self-obliviousness to be effective. Some things can’t be done by others because the job has already been accomplished.  A friend in South Carolina alerts me to “When we’re told we’ll never understand,” a piece of writing produced by Ed Madden, the poet laureate of Charleston, S.C., the city where a nasty little punk last week murdered nine people. Aesthetically and morally, the piece is a satire of conventional groupthink reactions to the slaughter, a parody of pre-approved sentiments. Let my friend, a native of South Carolina, have his say:

“What a piece of shit this work is. When an obviously mentally ill white boy goes into a church and kills nine black people, we understand it’s a terrible thing, but the writer of the poem wants to ascribe the fault to the culture. The writer says when we say the boy was mentally ill we know he killed those people because of hate, because of racism, because he had a Confederate flag. The writer is saying that if the boy’s mind had not been poisoned by racism (endemic in S.C., implies the author) he’d not have murdered those people. Any sane and fair mind would understand that the monstrous act is, in fact, not explicable to a sound mind, even if that mind is racist. I grew up with racists, was probably to some degree one myself, but the most virulent racist I know, or ever knew, would never do what this mentally ill boy did. This absurd and worthless poem reminds me of Kenneth Rexroth’s rant on the death of Dylan Thomas. Rexroth says it was the son of a bitch in a Brooks Brothers suit that killed Thomas. Dylan Thomas died of drink.”

Madden’s words embody yet again what Orwell called “the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

[Thanks to the reader who noted my error in writing "Columbia" for "Charleston."]

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

You will have to excuse my ignorance as a Englishman Mr Kurp, but was the American Civil War fought over the attempt of the Unionists to impose the abolition of slavery on the South? This is what I have always been led to believe. If this was the case is it not legitimate to see the Confederate flag as a symbol of the desire to maintain an undesirable status quo in which slavery is sustained? If it is such a symbol is it not, at the least, bad manners towards black people to seek to sustain it?

These are the simple understandings of a European. I'd be delighted to be put straight on the matter.