Category Archives: Satire

“As the World Turns”


Wallace on humor, irony, advertising, entertainment and Infinite Jest

Frye in Anatomy: “The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect, as a kind of maddened pedantry” (CW 22, 290)

This seems to be evolving into the go-to excerpt from David Foster Wallace‘s last unfinished novel, The Pale King, but let’s slip it in before it becomes overly familiar. Here’s Wallace’s rendering of the spiritual awakening of college student Chris Fogel:

I was by myself, wearing nylon warm-up pants and a black Pink Floyd tee shirt, trying to spin a soccer ball on my finger and watching the CBS soap opera “As The World Turns” on the room’s little black-and-white Zenith. . . . There was certainly always reading and studying for finals I could do, but I was being a wastoid. . . . Anyhow, I was sitting there trying to spin the ball on my finger and watching the soap opera . . . and at the end of every commercial break, the show’s trademark shot of planet earth as seen from space, turning, would appear, and the CBS daytime network announcer’s voice would say, “You’re watching ‘As the World Turns,’ ” which he seemed, on this particular day, to say more and more pointedly each time—“You’re watching ‘As the World Turns’ ” until the tone began to seem almost incredulous—“You’re watching ‘As the World Turns’ ”—until I was suddenly struck by the bare reality of the statement. . . . It was as if the CBS announcer were speaking directly to me, shaking my shoulder or leg as though trying to arouse someone from sleep—“You’re watching ‘As the World Turns.’ ” . . . I didn’t stand for anything. If I wanted to matter—even just to myself—I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way.

“The Fable of the Bees”

Further to our previous post, here’s “The Moral” of Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees. The complete text of the poem can be found here.

Then leave Complaints: Fools only strive
To make a Great an honest Hive.
T’ enjoy the World’s Conveniencies,
Befamed in War, yet live in Ease
Without great Vices, is a vain
Eutopia seated in the Brain.
Fraud, Luxury, and Pride must live;
Whilst we the Benefits receive.
Hunger’s a dreadful Plague, no doubt,
Yet who digests or thrives without?
Do we not owe the Growth of Wine
To the dry, crooked, shabby Vine?
Which, whilst its Shutes neglected stood,
Choak’d other Plants, and ran to Wood;
But blest us with its Noble Fruit;
As soon as it was tied, and cut:
So Vice is benefcial found,
When it’s by Justice lopt, and bound;
Nay, where the People would be great,
As necessary to the State,
As Hunger is to make ’em eat.
Bare Vertue can’t make Nations live
In Splendour; they, that would revive A Golden Age, must be as free,
For Acorns, as for Honesty.

TGIF: “Kotex Classic” — And Frye on Laughter, Menstruation and Apocalypse

I usually post comedy on Friday assuming that it’s a source of end-of-the-week relief whose relevance is implicit, but today’s post invites more consideration.

Here’s a groundbreaking SNL commercial parody from 2002 featuring Tina Fey, Amy Poeher, Ana Gasteyer, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch. These five women did a lot to change the place of women in comedy over the past decade, and this parody encapsulates how they did it: by demystifying feminine taboos and making them funny on their own terms. You can watch the video over at Funny or Die here.

Meanwhile, here’s Frye in “The Nature of Satire” on our response to the “naive and childlike quality in satire” that arises from otherwise risky subject matter:

[Satire] of this kind is based on a solid physical laugh, an earthquake in miniature, a laugh which begins far down in the abdomen, bursts the vest buttons, rolls the stomach, shakes the diaphragm, suffocates the throat, reddens the face, and finally reduces the whole body to rolling and kicking in an epilepsy of joy, then, after quieting down, returns for the next few hours in a couple of dozen squalls of splutters, gasps and reminiscent chortles, and finally sinks into the subconscious to be left until called for. (CW 21, 48)

In Notebook 12, he reflects on the barriers in getting past the anxiety associated with excretory functions, something that this sort of humor helps to diffuse:

I imagine it will be a long time before we have public toilets without distinction of sexes. That seems to be the last stronghold of the primitive passion for separate houses & initiation rites for the sexes: I am noting a strong desire for co-educational residences & the like, & am wondering if excretion rather than sex is the real basis for sexual segregation. E.g. puberty rites & seclusion at menstruation. (CW 9, 248)

In The Return of Eden, Frye delineates the convoluted relation between creation, sex, shame, and sin in Milton’s Paradise Lost as the state of fallen consciousness:

In refusing to recognize the Son as their own creative principle, then, the devils are closing the gate of their own origin.  This theme of closing the gate of origin recurs all through the epic, and is the basis of the feeling which later appears in humanity as what Milton calls shame.  Shame to Milton is something deeper and more sinister in human emotion than simply the instinctive desire to cover the genital organs.  It is rather a state of mind which is the fall itself: it might be described as the emotional response to the state of pride.

In “The Top of the Tower: The Imagery of Yeats,” Frye provides an apocalyptic perspective on excretory functions:

To return to his creator, man has to come back down again, return on himself, seek the source of creative powers which are close to the sexual instincts, and are therefore in “the place of excrement,” as [Yeats’] Crazy Jane says, partaking of the corruption out of which all life comes [Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop, l. 16.]

And, finally, in “On the Bible and Human Culture” (among other places), he associates the apocalyptic with the female — perhaps the best way to round out any meditation on why menstruation is funny until it isn’t because, like everything else wrongly associated with fear and shame of the human body, it is in fact an intimation of deliverance:

The story of the fall in the Jahwist account tells us that the woman took the initiative in breaking the divine prohibition regarding the tree of knowledge. This was of course a standard proof-text, for many centuries rationalizing a patriarchal social system, and in fact the Jahwist account itself says that patriarchy would result from the fall. Commentary has been so anxious to make this point that it has overlooked the fact that the creation of woman was placed at the end of this creation account, as the climax of the whole procedure. Besides, the conception of fall is unintelligible without its complement of reconciliation. Humanity falls as woman, that is, as sexual being, and it is clear that the eating of forbidden fruit has a good deal to do with the loss of innocence and the developing of the sexual relation as we now know it, or what D.H. Lawrence calls sex in the heard. In the Jahwist account, as in so many forms of social psychology today, morality, the knowledge of good and evil, is founded on the repressing or sublimating of the sexual instinct. But if humanity falls as woman, humanity must be redeemed as woman. In Christian typology the souls of all human creatures, whether they are biologically men or women, are symbolically female, forming the body of the bride Jerusalem or the people of God. The Virgin Mary in Catholic thought is placed at the head of all created human beings, below only the Jesus who was begotten, and she is the second Eve in much the same sense that Jesus, in the Pauline phrase, is the second Adam. (CW 4, 122)

Edward Lear


“The Owl and the Pussycat”: listen right through to the end and you’ll be rewarded with some of the sweetest, most spontaneous and relevant literary criticism you’re ever likely to encounter

Today is Edward Lear‘s birthday (1812-1888).

Frye cites Lear to define the boundaries of satire in “The Nature of Satire”:

Again, we said that the humour of gaiety was the other boundary of satire. But as Juvenal truly said that whatever men do is the subject of satire, and that in consequence it is difficult not to write it, it follows that most humorous situations are at least indirectly satiric. Non-satiric humour tends toward fantasy: one finds it most clearly in the fairy worlds of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Walt Disney, in Celtic romance and American tall tales. Yet even here one can never be sure, for the humour of fantasy is continually pulled back into satire by means of that powerful undertow which we call allegory. The White Knight in Alice who felt that one should be provided for everything, and therefore put anklets around his horse’s feet to guard against the bites of sharks, may pass without challenge. But what are we to make of the mob of hired revolutionaries in the same author’s Sylvie and Bruno, who got their instructions mixed and yelled under the palace windows: “More taxes! Less bread!” Here we begin to smell the acrid, pungent smell of satire. (CW 21, 44-5)


The Descent of Jewish Humour


Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in a moment clearly descended from the “badkhn” tradition, takes the stage at a Bat Mitzvah as part of a botched effort at score-settling

According to UC Berkley professor Mel Gordon, sardonic Jewish humor emerged from a pogrom in the Ukraine lasting from 1648 to 1651. Jewish elders determined that the massacre was God’s punishment, and so outlawed traditionally raucous shtetl entertainers to encourage communal piety. There was however one exception, the badkhn, who was regarded as a cruel truth-teller rather than a frivolous mirth-maker.

From the Jerusalem Post:

The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim spiels in shtetl society.

His humor was biting, even vicious. He would tell a bride she was ugly, make jokes about the groom’s dead mother and round things off by belittling the guests for giving such worthless gifts. Much of the badkhn’s humor was grotesque, even scatological.

“They would talk about drooping breasts, big butts, small penises,” Gordon said. “We know a lot about them because they were always suing each other about who could tell which fart joke on which side of Grodno.”

It’s that same self-deprecating tone that characterizes the Yiddish-inflected Jewish jokes of the 20th century, Gordon points out. Who is the surly Jewish deli waiter of Henny Youngman fame if not a badkhn, making wisecracks at the customer’s expense? . . .

And that’s how the badkhn became the only Jewish comic permitted in the shtetls, Gordon says, and how his particular brand of sarcastic, bleak humor set the tone for what we know today as Jewish comedy. Before the 1660s, the badkhn was the least popular Jewish entertainer – now he was the sole survivor.

“Jewish humor used to be the same as that of the host country,” Gordon said. “Now it began to deviate from mainstream European humor. It became more aggressive, meaner. All of Jewish humor changed.”

The badkhn’s role was secure from the 1660s to the 1890s and the beginning of the great Jewish migration to America and to the larger cities of Russia and Ukraine.

This character is recognizable in Frye’s account of the “churl” in Anatomy‘s Theory of Myths“:

Such a character [the churlish plain dealer] is appropriate when the tone is ironic enough to get the audience confused about the sense of the social norm: he corresponds roughly to the chorus in a tragedy, which is there for a similar reason. When the tone darkens from the ironic to the bitter, the plain dealer may become a malcontent or railer, who is morally superior to his society…but who may also be to motivated by envy to be much more than another aspect of his society’s evil… (CW 22, 164)

Lewis Carroll


Alice and the Cheshire Cat in the Disney adaptation

On this date in 1898 Lewis Carroll died (born 1832).

Frye in “The Nature of Satire”:

Non-satiric humor tends to fantasy: one finds it most clearly in the fairy worlds of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Walt Disney, in Celtic romance and American tall tales.  Yet even here one can never be sure, for the humor of fantasy is continually being pulled back into satire by means of that powerful undertow which we call allegory.  The White King in Alice in Wonderland felt that one should be provided for everything, and therefore put anklets around his horse’s feet against the bites of sharks, may pass without challenge.  But what are we to make of the mob of hired revolutionaries in the same author’s Sylvie and Bruno, who got their instructions mixed and yelled under the palace windows: “More taxes!  Less bread!”  Here we begin to sniff the acrid, pungent smell of satire. (CW 21, 44-5)

Jonathan Swift


“A Description of the Morning”

Today is Jonathan Swift‘s birthday (1667-1745)

Frye in “The Imaginative and the Imaginary”:

The eighteenth century was the period in which this view of the imagination struggled with, and was finally defeated by, an opposed conception which came to power in the Romantic movement.  At the beginning of the century we have Swift, for whom established authority in church and state was the only thing in human life strong enough to restrain the desperately irrational soul of man.  In his day the conception of “melancholy” was out of fashion, but another ancient medical notion of “spirits” or “vapours” rising from the loins into the head was still going strong.  For Swift, or at least for the purposes of Swift’s satire, all behavior that breaks down society is caused by an uprush either of digestive disturbances or of sexual excitement into the head.  Swift’s chief target is the left-wing Protestantism which in the seventeenth century had carried religious melancholy to the point of replacing the authority of the church with private judgment and had made a virtue even of political rebellion.  But he finds the same phenomena in the political tyrant who substitutes his own will for the social contract, or the poet who allows his emotions to take precedence over communication.  “The very same principle,” he says, “that influences a bully to break the windows of a whore who has jilted him, naturally stirs up a great prince to raise mighty armies, and dream of nothing but sieges, battles and victories.”  (CW 21, 430)

Huxley and Orwell: Two Varieties of Dystopia

Frye in “Varieties of Literary Utopia”:

A certain amont of claustrophobia enters this argument when it is realized, as it is from about 1850 on, that technology tends to unify the whole world.  The conception of an isolated Utopia like that of More or Plato or Bacon gradually evaporates in the face of this fact.  Out of this situation come two kinds of Utopian romance: the straight Utopia, which visualizes a world state assumed to be ideal, at least in comparison with what we have, and the Utopian satire or parody, which presents the same kind of social goal in terms of slavery, tyranny, or anarchy.  Examples of the former in the literature in the last century include Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Morris’s News from Nowhere, and H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia. Wells is one of the few writers who have constructed both serious and satirical Utopias.  Examples of the Utopian satire include Zamiatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984. There are other types of Utopian satire which we shall mention in a moment, but this particular kind is a product of modern technological society, its growing sense that the whole world is destined to the same social fate with no place to hide, and its increasing realization that technology moves toward the control not merely of nature but of the operation of the mind.  (CW 27, 194-5)

Video of the Day: Stephen Colbert Pwns Laura Ingraham [Updated with Frye Quote]


Laura Ingraham in the seconds before being hoist with her own petard

Colbert’s interview of Laura Ingraham is a week old but is so artful that it’s worth taking another look.  Colbert, without calling Ingraham a racist who cannot write, demonstrates that she’s a racist who cannot write by using his persona as a pompous know-nothing to play out the pretense that her book The Obama Diaries is actually written by Obama.  The look on her face as the trap closes says it all.  Ingraham thinks she’s produced satire, but Colbert easily outmaneuvers her to show that she hasn’t.  Satire requires more than just a sarcastic attitude and is considerably more subtle than providing an excuse to say nasty things about people that have no demonstrable relation to them. With Ingraham, Colbert demonstrates, the only recognizable issue is race and is expressed in terms of ugly racist cliches.  Ingraham, evidently mortified to be shown up so, provides no rationale; she merely tries to bluff her way through the remainder of the interview.  That’s why this video is being widely linked.  (Ingraham: “I think we had a moment here.”  Colbert: “No, I think you had a moment there.)

See the relevant portion of the interview here.

[Update] Frye in “The Nature of Satire”:

For satire needs both pleasure in conflict and determination to win; both the heat of battle and the coolness of calculation.  To have too much hatred and too little gaiety will upset the balance of tone.  Man is a precocious monkey, and he wins his battles by the sort of cunning that is never far from a sense of mockery.  All over the world people have delighted in stories of how some strong but stupid monster was irritated by a tiny human hero into a blind, stampeding fury, and how the hero, by biding his time and keeping cool, polished off his Blunderbore or Polyphemus at leisure.  (CW 21, 41)

Saturday Night at the Movies: “Network”


Peter Finch as Howard Beale: “But first you’ve got to get mad.  And I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The complete film posted at Google Video here.

We had something else lined up for tonight, but it feels sort of zeitgeisty that, after posting multiple entries yesterday on obscenity and satire (here, here, here, and here), as well as featuring Jon Stewart’s inspired tirade on The Daily Show the other night — and even putting up video earlier today that perfectly captures the inanity of what now passes for television news — tonight’s movie offering should be Paddy Chayefsky’s classic, deadpan satire Network.  Those of us who are old enough to have seen it when it was released in 1976 may recall the queasy feeling back then that it was a grotesque extrapolation of social trends that could not “really” descend so low.  What dreamers we were.  How sweet our innocence.  But for anyone who grew up during the evolution of the 24 hour news cycle and the proportional devolution of news into ideologically mutant infotainment, not to mention the onset of the multiple myeloma that is CNN and Fox News, this wonderful movie will not be so much “satire” as documentary.

Again, for those old enough to remember, this is the great Peter Finch‘s last role, and it is a tour de force, playing the divinely demented Howard Beale, the staid old school newsman who becomes a deranged but truth-speaking prophet.  For those too young to have seen Peter Finch before now, this performance will be a revelation.  They don’t make actors like this any more.  And he makes it look so easy.

This film is not available on YouTube, but Google video has posted it in its entirely.  Just hit the link at the top of the post.  (Be aware that the last 16 minutes of the film appear as “Part 2” at the above link.)

Here’s Frye on the “satire of the high norm“:

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