Regaining an Appreciation for Satire

As a society, we tend to take ourselves very seriously, even when we err on the side of comedy.  In fact, our most comic moments are those when our beliefs become contradictory and our motivations become obsessions.  Satire is a tool used by writers and performers to regain perspective by pointing out the ridiculous and exaggerating actions and their consequences. 

The irony is, we take ourselves so seriously, we often don’t see a good satire, but an alarming, breath-taking drama.  “Moby Dick”, by Herman Melville, has been acclaimed as one of the greatest literary novels of all times, with pounding insight and a raw look into the human soul, yet in the final analysis, it’s a social satire.  It stretches reality.  A one-legged captain becomes so obsessed with finding the killer Great White whale that took his leg, he places his entire crew in jeopardy.  The adventure becomes a nightmare as the whale is apparently of supernatural strength and cunning, turning the hunters into the hunted. 

We are the Offended

Satire offends; quite frequently.  There is a timeliness to the messages it brings, as satire is meant to shake and wake our moral compasses.  One of the all-time favorite satire books for young adults, is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.  In the pious atmosphere of today’s carefully tended sensitivities, a great deal of criticism has been employed for the terms Mark Twain casually tossed around in references to race.  His word choices could easily be defended as the organic language of the time period, but the choices were also a deliberate poke at the prevailing racism that took place within our young hero’s environment.  Huckleberry, a free-spirited, poorly educated, unsupervised adolescent, considers himself a “bad boy” for feeling friendly toward blacks, and for helping them in times of trouble. 

There have become so many offended readers who do not approve of using satire to make a point, the Australian National Symbols Office recently received a request that the satirical “Coat of Harms”, based of the Australian Coat of Arms, should no longer be used because of the number of public complaints.  Cartoonists have been murdered for caricaturizing religious figures.  It’s probably just a matter of time before South Park fans will no longer be able to skip merrily along, singing, “blame Canada.” 

Not Doing a Thing

Censorship is a sure way to fire up a writer’s more subversive nature in seeking creative outlets.  Some have found if you can’t use honesty, make the story fantastic.  “The Master and Margarite”, by Mikhail Bulgakov, romps through Soviet Russia during Stalin’s regime, on the back of the devil who visits a village with a very corrupt governing body.  The story has all the elements of a fantasy; a black cat suspected of being a changeling, witches flying on brooms, a magician whose mysterious acts include giving away large sums of money and a narrator who doubts his own credibility.  While he makes happy use of targeting greed and vanity, Bulgakov also pokes at the prevailing atheism of the times, weaving in a tale of Pontius Pilate with the supernatural events. As cleverly as the social satire was constructed, the book was never published in its complete form until thirty years after Bulgakov’s death in 1940. 

Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most prolific satirical writers of the twentieth century, reserved much of his creativity for criticisms of war, with characters who plod darkly and inexorably toward their fate, or who are caught in an unfettered fantasy world of their own.  He breaks with his usual theme to take a vacation to the Galapagos with a group of misfits when the world’s economy collapses.  The tale, which carries the narrator haplessly through a million years of evolution, teases Darwin’s theories by devolving humans into furry little creatures who eat fish. 

It’s Just Another Dimension

Science fiction writers are very astute about the future.  It isn’t because they received a vision while they were sleeping of how the world will become.  It’s because of their understanding of human nature and how people will predictably do the same thing, whether they are granted the Midas touch to turn things into gold or given spaceships to fly to different planets. 

Contemporary science fiction books are typically devoted to political satire.  Sometimes the satire is a gay skip through twisted dimensions, packing nothing but a bath towel.  Douglas Adams filled his readers with enormous delight with the political satire, “Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy”.  Poking at real estate developers and bureaucrats, he creates plodding vogons, who fumble through paperwork, strict regulations, terrible tastes in poetry and are easily influenced by depression.  His journey is shared with an Intergalactic hitch-hiker on the quest for the meaning of life, a bi-polar, two-headed prince, a moribund robot and an opportunistic girlfriend with a taste for adventure. 

George Orwell had a grim view of the human condition in general and an even more critical analysis of politics.  His futuristic novel, “1984” frightened people so much that any worst-case political scenario is described as an “Orwellian Nightmare”.

His greatest political satire novel, however, could almost be regarded as a satire for young adults.  “Animal Farm” uses a simple story telling technique centered around talking barnyard animals.  The personalities he presents are not at all simple, however.  They are persuasive.  They easily excite others who are less eloquent in their speech and who are guided more by ambition than moral considerations.  One character, a horse, represents the voice of reason, and through it all, there are few who will listen and even fewer who will follow.

Critical Balance

Satire puts things into perspective.  It points out our follies.  Destructive behavior has been acknowledged since Biblical times, painstakingly recorded as the seven deadly sins.  Our foolishness has been the subject of Aesop’s Fables and Homer’s Iliad. 

In recent years, satire seems to have fallen back literature, with subject matter shifting toward biographies, drama and social commentary.   Instead of literary works, satire is most dominant in opinion pieces for the press, stand-up comedians and the memes eagerly passed around at social media sites. 

Up and coming writer, Mitchell Warren, however, whose satirical voice would seep into an application for a physic’s department position, is slapping at a public engorged with fantastic views of whatever the media presents as proper, tasteful, patriotic and beautiful.  He stretches the characters into full-sized animated figures, propelled by a frenzy that would make Warner Brothers blush.  “The End of the Magical Kingdom” is a series of satire books for young adults that sympathizes with the skeptics who don’t truly believe in a happily ever after.  His characters are exposed to abuse, rape, murder and raging wars as he carries them through the stumbling blocks of ambition, lust and greed.  Sometimes outrageous, sometimes a bleak horror story, yet shining through with sensitive, wistful souls, it’s unsettling, but that’s what satire’s about.  It makes you laugh.  It makes you regain perspective, and it unsettles you when you reflect on your belief in the ideal world, the world you’ve accepted by compromise, and how far apart the two really are. 

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