Monday, March 7, 2011

Satire I: Definitions, the Trick of It, and A Modest Proposal

When we're talking about a guy like Wodehouse, humorist extraordinaire, it's impossible not to talk about satire. So we're going to pause our regularly scheduled programming to talk less about our mentor directly (don't worry, it'll come back around) and talk in more general terms about satire itself--which we'll define as a comeuppance to society via witty repartee or sarcastic/exaggerated presentation. I like Wikipedia's definition of satire, found in full here.

The thing with satire, though, especially in literature, is that it's tricky to pull off in just the right manner. The idea is to take something socially important (a problem) and then present a ludicrous solution as a viable option.

For example: proposing cannibalism (ludicrous solution) as an effective method to fight over-population (social problem). It's ridiculous, right? Especially if it's all about eating children. Which is exactly what Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver's Travels fame, did in his essay A Modest Proposal.

Let's hear the full title:

A Modest Proposal: For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public

Sounds like something reasonable, right?

Ireland, 1729: Poor children are a social burden. How can the poor afford to raise these children? Abortions and child mortality rates are on the rise. Here are a bunch of beggar kids ripping around the streets of Dublin, stealing and consuming valuable resources.

Anything to make them beneficial, right? Well, according to this essay, the children are most beneficial in a nutritional capacity: "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout."~Swift, A Modest Proposal

The goal of satire is pretty much to offend the world in order to wake it up. Swift's essay is meant to draw attention to the fact that it was a pretty bad time in Ireland, but the Irish (suffering badly from prejudices and foul treatment) are human and are therefore due human rights and dignities.

And how does Swift point this out? By pissing be off through sarcasm. In a letter to Alexander Pope Swift said: "the chief end I propose to my self in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it."

To vex the world. To make the world think.

We're going to go into the pitfalls of satire on Wednesday, but what do you guys think about this? Can you think of contemporary satires that have been effective?

As an example of the thought process involved in satirical rhetoric, check out this clip on the thought process behind The Daily Show's rally.

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