01/30/2015 10:50 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

What's Satire Got to Do With It?


In the wake of the terrible Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, there have been many shows of solidarity with the slain cartoonists and their fellow staff members. There have also been some thoughtful retrospectives on that particular magazine's history of satirical caricature (for example, here), and on the more general tradition of satire in French culture (for example, here). As someone who teaches and writes about the history of British literature, which also has a great satirical tradition, I've learned a lot from these discussions. What I haven't seen yet, however, is a sustained consideration of what satire is, how it works and why it still has the power to enrage.

What do we mean when we call a work of art or literature a "satire"? The word itself derives from the Greek word "satyr," the half-man, half-goat creatures of classical mythology. In one of those myths, the god Apollo is challenged to a musical competition by a satyr named Marsyas. Not surprisingly, Marsyas loses, and as punishment for his hubris (and his loss) Apollo whips the satyr to death, removing his entire hide in the process.

Satire, in turn, is a kind of symbolic whipping -- and this is quite different from comedy in general. A typical comic vehicle, like a classic TV sitcom, tries to generate amusement by directing its audience to laugh at a character or situation that exists only within the text itself. As a result, it has no real goal beyond entertainment. Satire, by contrast, aims at targets that exist in the real world; traditionally, satirists have frequently targeted politicians, religious leaders, judges and other public figures who enjoy real authority. (For more on the rich tradition of eighteenth-century British visual satire, click here.)

The laughter that satire seeks to raise therefore goes well beyond our delight at mere imitation or mockery, as in the send-ups of public figures in many "Saturday Night Live" sketches. Instead, like Apollo's whip, satire directs the audience's mirth in such a way that it cuts its target, revealing the foolishness, grossness, smallness or ugliness behind the attractive or authoritative appearance. The most powerful satire amuses, to be sure, but it also raises feelings of disdain, derision, anger and even outrage.

How does it do this? Consider one of the most famous literary satires in the British tradition: John Dryden's poem MacFlecknoe, first published in 1682. In the space of a few hundred rhyming couplets, Dryden seizes upon two of his literary competitors -- Richard Flecknoe and Thomas Shadwell -- and rhetorically lashes them from so many different directions that neither of their reputations ever recovered. In the process, Dryden offers a master class in satirical techniques. He exaggerates the dullness of their plays; he makes fun of their personal and physical traits (repeatedly mocking and exaggerating Shadwell's portliness, for example); he puts idiotic words in their mouths; he insults their backgrounds; he insinuates that they were whore-mongers and alcoholics. In short, no insult is too low or too crude for Dryden to leave out of his satirical arsenal. Some of his digs are far more substantive than others -- it's never clear what Shadwell's weight has to do with the quality of his plays, for example -- but the cumulative result is an irresistible wave of mockery and pretension-popping that drowns both of these would-be serious artists in a tsunami of ridicule.

But there's another, bigger target of Dryden's satire, one that arguably raises MacFlecknoe above the level of an extended personal attack. Flecknoe and Shadwell, after all, had been relatively popular authors; otherwise they would not have been worth Dryden's time to attack. So by depicting them as incurably stupid and foolish, Dryden's poem implicitly asks: What kind of society consumes and enjoys the dumbed-down, unoriginal products of hacks like these guys? The ultimate targets of MacFlecknoe's satire, in other words, are not just bad poets and playwrights, but also the degraded public that supports them. Like all the best satirists, that is, Dryden challenges us to take a critical look at ourselves even as we are laughing at the follies and pretensions of others.

What role does satire still have to play today? There's no shortage of puffed-up, hypocritical and/or self-deluded figures in the public sphere whose pretensions and claims to authority are badly in need of satirical deflating. But like any weapon, satire can also be misused. When techniques like exaggeration and grotesque mockery are turned on the powerless instead of the powerful, the effect is more like bullying than critical thinking. And as the example of Dryden shows, the best satirists -- a group that easily stretches from classical authors like Horace and Juvenal through Jonathan Swift and William Hogarth to Stephen Colbert and Sarah Silverman -- have never exempted their intended audiences and even themselves from their keen looks and cutting observations. If satire is to continue to be an effective tool for spurring critical thought, we should all be ready to submit to its whip on a regular basis.