Friday, 15 June 2012

Whatever happened to satire?

I am far from the first to pose this question of course, but I would like to put it in a slightly longer historical and literary context than is usual. When I was at University I studied an optional unit on 18th Century verse satire. I was the only one to opt for the unit and even at the time I wondered why. Satire may not have been quite as in vogue in the seventies as it had been in the sixties, or would be again in the eighties and nineties, but I was surprised that no one else was interested in learning about its roots (particularly given the alternatives. The Prelude and Lyrical Ballads, anyone?)

Maybe partly this can be explained by how little people generally know about English 18th Century satire. By its nature (dependent as it is on contemporary cultural references) satire dates badly. Most people's exposure to 18th Century satire will have come in one of two forms: either a children's edition of Gulliver's Travels, with all traces of satire surgically removed; or an A level study edition of Rape of the Lock, Pope's prissiest and most genteel offering, where again it is possible to carry out the most detailed dissection without discovering the faintest trace of that jubilant iconoclasm that is satire's greatest joy.

Yet 18th Century satire in English is far from being bland or uninteresting. There is wit, humour and in-jokes that would not be out of place in a Footlights Review but there is also anger- Swift's A Modest Proposal goes further than Frankie Boyle would dare, and much of Gullivers Travels, particularly the voyage to the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos is equally bitter. There are also enormous amounts of downright crudeness, particularly in the works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. It is to him that I owe the understanding that virtually all the swear words I guiltily treasured as a boy, thinking my generation to have invented them, were in common currency in the 18th Century and probably had been for centuries before that. Mind you, the word "dildo" appears to have been something of a neologism, according to his poem Signor Dildo (not one of his best).

So why did the 18th Century see the first and greatest flowering of satire in the sense we now understand it? That was not a question I particularly asked myself at the time, though I could see that it did, and that all satire since (up to and including its last great flowering towards the end of the 20th Century) can in a sense be traced back to that time.

I am no historian, but it is clear that it is the historical and social context that was influential in producing the work, and it was a historical and social context that has resonance today. The country's old certainties had recently been torn apart with the Reformation, then the Civil War and the execution of Charles I. Then the new certainties (of Puritanism) that had replaced the old were torn apart by the Restoration of the monarchy. And in this context, so similar to our current context of post-War, post-Thatcher, post-Blair Britain a new breed of rulers emerged. Charles II had always believed himself the rightful King of England, but had for years been cast into the political obscurity of exile. Totally out of touch with the reality both of government and of life in Britain he was, as Ed Milliband should have said, born to rule but not fit to govern. And so he presided over a court with no firm beliefs or commitments to anything but pleasure and networking. It was the first flowering of celebrity culture and thank God Twitter had not yet been invented.

A telling, if probably completely fictitious scene sums it up for me. John Milton, now blind and slaving over Paradise Lost, would get up at 4am to have the Bible read to him by his manservant in Greek. Unfortunately for him this was the time when the Restoration rakes were returning from the brothels and the private parties, and more than once Milton's windows were smashed by drunken proto-Bullingdon boys.

And it turns out this was a perfect breeding ground for satire. Rochester wrote a pretty ribald Satyr on Charles II and a pithier little verse that goes
"God bless our good and gracious King
Whose promise none relies on
Who never said a foolish thing
Nor ever did a wise one."
Satire seemed a natural response to their newfound freedom from church and state, their relish in the coarser joys of life and their sudden understanding that those who led them were just as stupid, selfish and lost as they were themselves.

So if the 18th Century was the perfect breeding ground for satire then why in 2012 are we not awash in it? Well it turns out for a start that satire is not and never has been a particularly effective way of achieving change, because satire is fundamentally an insider's art-form. Most of the twentieth century's best satirists (in the UK at least) came from about as Establishment a background as it is possible to conceive. And the idea of taking the piss (and being prepared to have the piss taken right back) is pretty fundamental to British society, dating right back to Court Jesters and the Lord of Misrule. And so it should perhaps come as no surprise that most of the Tory cabinet allegedly loved Spitting Image. Mind you it still has one of my favourite exchanges ever. Thatcher is at a restaurant, her cabinet sitting around her. She is ordering:
Waitress: And what will you have?
Thatcher: The steak please.
Waitress: And how would you like it?
Thatcher: Raw please.
Waitress: And what about the vegetables?
Thatcher: They'll have the steak too.

See. You smiled. Laughed maybe. You were presented with a visual image of a carnivorous, bloodsucking Margaret Thatcher, treating her entire cabinet like the vegetables they were, and you found it funny. Very British, but hardly revolutionary.

So by 2012 we have progressed to the point where, far from undermining the status quo, satire becomes a means to sustain it. Have I Got News for You, about the closest we have to satire these days, can be used by Boris Johnson to make the people of London elect him as mayor of the fifth largest city in the world. Not because he was clever or politically astute or because they agreed with his policies, but because he didn't mind having the piss taken out of him. So what on earth is the point of satire?

In the end Rochester came to the same conclusion. Much of his greatest work in the end is turned against himself, not the court or King Charles. In some ways my favourite is To the Post Boy if for nothing else then because of the simplicity of the concluding line. Rochester starts by berating the post boy, saying "Son of a whore, God damn you, can you tell/A peerless peer the readiest way to Hell?" He then outlines the destructive decadence of his own life (made even more poignant if you know the events he is alluding to) and awaits the post boy's response. It is simple and direct. "The readiest way my Lord's by Rochester."

So the conclusion that Rochester reached, I believe, is that the only real value of satire is when the satire is turned on the reader rather than on another. And the trouble is, that doesn't make us laugh, does it. So we aren't interested in it.

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