Ready for your entire world to be dropped on its head? Really? Okay, so get this: satire, the genre, is not actually based on mythological Greek satyrs. What!
Yes, this seems to be a highly controversial claim, because all of your English teachers told you otherwise. Mine did; here’s proof from Professor John Smith. But the truth of the matter is that “satire” isn’t based in Greek roots at all; it’s Latin. Admittedly, it sounds a lot like “satyr,” which is where the misconception started: when translating the Latin word into English, a scholar mistakenly believed that there was a correlation between the Greek and Latin, and thus, changed the spelling from satura to satire. The Latin is actually from the phrase lanx satura, meaning “a full dish of mixed fruit.” Correspondingly, original Roman satires tended to be collections of poems (the “dish”) that criticized a number of subjects (the “mixed fruit”). It has since evolved.
(Of course, like everything they did, the Romans did take inspiration from the Greeks, especially from Aristophanes’ Old Comedy, but unlike the Romans, the Greeks never created a separate genre for satire, so they cannot be credited with its invention.)
But congratulations! Here we all thought that satire was some cool allusion to mythological goat-men, but in reality, it’s all just apples, oranges, and bananas. The more you know.
Alright, cool, you’re thinking. But what does this have to do with anything?
The thing about satire is that meanings (be they of specific words or of the prominence of a scene) matter; the behind-the-scenes message is literally the entire point of the genre. What is the action of a piece, and what does it truly make a statement about? Sometimes it’s obvious. Take, for example, this article, “Tips For Achieving Peace in The Middle East,” by The Onion. Here are a few of the “tips:”
- Alter accepted definition of “peace” to mean a state of constant fear and uncertainty.
- Release one really fucking huge white dove.
- Unflinching American support for Israel hasn’t gone over well… so the U.S. should try acting somewhat hesitant….
- Remember that as human beings, we have far more in common than we have differences, and then remember that absolutely no one in any leadership role in the Middle East would ever think like that.
It’s not a question of whether or not the author is 1) blaming and criticizing the methods of American intervention; 2) criticizing the Middle Eastern governments; or 3) criticizing the concepts of peace and war as a whole. The complete sarcasm and parody used in portraying his/her opinion is strong enough evidence of the satirist’s intentions. “The war is bad, enough that its end is ridiculous,” they are saying, “and the US isn’t helping.”
It’s always nice when it’s obvious. The Onion, as a fast entertainment and information outlet, is generally fairly good at straightforwardly satirizing (and isn’t that a contradiction? with how satires are veiled in conventions and techniques to conceal outright criticism, isn’t it?) the world. Pavel Kuczynski, a Polish born modern artist, is equally clear in his satirization of the prevalent world topics, including the internet, politics, social media, and our focuses, consumerism and war.
Here is one of his paintings, which displays a child in a soldier’s helmet winding up a dove, having already discarded his toy soldiers. Now, this can be interpreted different ways, but Kuczynski, using common wartime symbols– the dove, the helmet, soldiers; he isn’t trying very hard to be subtle– seems to be issuing a statement about the way wars are ran from those with “the view from above,” to bring in some of Professor Smith’s language. Those who run the war know as much as children, playing with soldiers’ lives like toys and issuing peace (a wind-up toy; it will run only temporarily) when they get bored with the soldiers; in other words, war is a game. This is satire.
Mother Courage and Her Children, you could then argue, is a kind of satire as well. Kuczynski painted this work as well, and I believe it is representative of the entire of the play. In layman’s terms, both the artwork and the play’s central focus is “Bleed that sucker dry.” Both are representations of the military industrial complex– this is making a living on death. That’s just the reality of war. Mother Courage satirizes this both in dark (the loss of her children to money) and parodied (the near ridiculous extent to which Mother Courage will try to earn a buck) ways. Brecht isn’t concealing the satire. The layers and layers of parody, irony, exaggeration, etc. are his way of shoving the idea in a reader’s face.
But sometimes the author/poet/playwright/etc.’s message is so far hidden beneath these layers that you’re left reading an entertaining masterpiece in extreme confusion, because what the heck did you just read? Sometimes, it makes no sense, and other times, it seems to be satirizing a good number of things. Enter The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus. From its crazy cow scenes to its wily witch hunts, readers stumble away from scenes thinking something along the lines of, “Was Grimmelshausen high?” Well, possibly, but we can’t say for sure, though we can say that these are examples of satirization. The question is, of what?
I actually do not know. I’ve read these scenes over and over, trying to figure out what in the world is going on, but all I have figured out is that Simplicius has some really terrible luck. According to Smith, that’s the point. The cover image, portraying a sort of man with a book, is the BIG HINT about what the novel is about. The book, in the image, is a jumbled up conglomeration of random images and ridiculous pictures– that is, the novel will contain highly irrelevant, sometimes ridiculous parts as well. We could sit here arguing that this is the genre’s influence, that Grimmelshausen really was just writing crazy scene’s just because that’s the picaresque. I don’t buy it though. Writers can write just because, but they don’t elaborately describe witch rituals for no reason. Maybe this is a statement about novels, maybe Grimmelshausen is criticizing the idea that everything has to mean something, that a cigar can just be a dang cigar. Maybe it’s a statement about war and society, that the Thirty Years War was such a bloody period that the only way to get through it was by parodying life so much it failed to make sense.
I don’t know. Satire really can be difficult to understand. What do you think?
To make us all feel a little better about the difficulty of satire, have this Bruce Springsteen song. A lot of people like to think of it as a prideful, patriotic look on this grand ol’ country of ours. Hint: read the lyrics, and they are very, very wrong. Even Springsteen couldn’t resist a good satirical sarcasm.
Harper, Douglas. “Satire.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Kuczynski, Pawel. Dollar. Digital image. Canvas Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Kuczynski, Pawel. Pawel Kuczynski 28. Digital image. Canvas Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
“Satire.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Springsteen, Bruce. “Born in the U.S.A.” Born in the U.S.A. Columbia Records, 1984. MP3.
“Tips For Achieving Peace In The Middle East.” The Onion. N.p., 05 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.