Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Satire isn’t comedy

Jerry Stratton, January 31, 2007

Satire is easily misunderstood. Too often it is miscast as simple comedy, or, worse, children’s literature. I suppose that reasonable people can disagree about whether Alice in Wonderland or Peter and Wendy were written for children or adults. But no reasonable person can read Animal Farm and see it as a children’s story. Yet that’s the way that it’s made into movies.

Perhaps it’s too easy to equate animals with children. But even animal-free satires can be difficult to get. When Nabokov had Humbert Humbert describe twelve-year-old Lolita in terms of adult lust, Nabokov wasn’t saying that Lo was a hot babe. Yet that’s the way she’s been portrayed in two otherwise very good movies.

Satire isn’t funny. It’s about turning the normal world over to expose what’s underneath. It’s about taking bad ideas to their logical, over-the-top conclusion. It’s about provocation. You can’t recognize satire just by looking for the funny bits. As the creator of The Walkerville Weekly Reader satirical newspaper, I am sometimes amazed at the kinds of things people will believe. And the Reader’s satire is, by the end of the article, as plain as it could be without big red letters blinking “satire”. Could anyone possibly believe that John Ashcroft would end the drug war? And yet some people did.

Some satire is funny. Douglas Adams is hilarious. So are Bulworth, Team America, South Park, and Thank You For Smoking. But much of the best satire is not written primarily as comedy. Steinbeck is often funny in Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, but comedy is not the purpose of those stories. Kurt Vonnegut’s works are often funny also, but they’re not comedies.

Hunter Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is funny much less often. What he is, is over the top. Neither Animal Farm nor Siege of Harlem are written as comedies. They are tragedies, Siege of Harlem classically so. What they are, are provocative.

Nabokov’s Lolita is not about the funny side of pedophilia. Lolita is extraordinarily unfunny, but it also contains some of the most brilliant, subversive satire ever written, so powerful that it has fooled two generations of filmmakers.

Vladimir Nabokov lived through both the Bolshevist takeover of Russia (he first fled St. Petersburg and then the Crimea) and the Nazi takeover of Germany (he left Berlin in 1937 and Paris in 1940). Part of his message in Lolita was the ease with which even the most despicable person can rewrite history in their favor. Humbert is a clearly unreliable narrator, and yet we believe him. Nabokov made Humbert so successful at it that at least two generations of filmmakers have succumbed to the Humbert version of Lolita: that she was a forward little vixen beautiful even by Hollywood standards, not a twelve-year-old girl.

But that’s one of the things that satire does: it shows us a part of our culture we’d rather remain unturned.

December 29, 2021: Satire in the vineyard: The parable of Lolita and the sheep
Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s The Wolf and the Lamb

This encounter does not end well for the lamb.

The morning gospel, as I write this, was the parable of the good landlord—the vineyard keeper who hired men in the morning, and then again in the afternoon, and again in the evening, and paid everyone a full day’s wages. This got me thinking about the New Testament’s “opposite parables” where Jesus tells stories that were obviously wrong to the people of the time in order to make a point about how different the kingdom of God is.

At the risk of calling ever more literary types satirical, Jesus uses a technique very similar to satire: taking an absurd situation and using it to tell a story about truth. The lessons of Jesus’s parables are a lot like the lessons of good satire: they progressed slowly into greater and greater absurdity to make a point about a truth that transcends the superficial story told.

On the surface, the parable of the workers is not clearly an opposite parable. Superficially there might be reasons why it was important to get the harvest in before nightfall. Maybe there was a storm coming, for example, and what didn’t get harvested tonight would be destroyed. But that doesn’t really make sense. Even with a storm coming, the harvest that a worker can bring in with one hour’s work needs to be worth far more than a full day’s wages for the parable to make sense in the real world that Jesus’s listeners inhabited. If it is, then the landlord is vastly underpaying his workers, and the next day they’re going to work for a different landlord who pays them up to twelve times as much.

But the most obvious way in which this is an opposite parable is that the landlord isn’t going to get any full-day workers next time. Who is going to work a full day when they can wait until evening, work one hour, and get paid the same amount? The people listening to the parable knew this. They knew how unappealing it was to do hard outdoor work throughout the day in the area around Israel. Which means that Jesus had something to say about the workers and/or the harvest that went opposite to the way the real world works. The harvest is worth more than money, or the workers are bringing in more than grapes. Or there is no day after.

Which is almost certainly the point of the parable. The harvest of Heaven is a vineyard that does not operate by the rules of this world. Not by any earthly wealth can the redemption of souls be measured, nor is the work of a single day comparable to the work of a lifetime.

Jesus’s “single day” was a metaphor not just for one man’s life, but for the life of the world. There is a storm coming, and the harvest is worth the extra effort it requires to bring in before the storm breaks.

August 29, 2012: Grand Island Nebraska too crazy for satire?

This is why the Walkerville Weekly Reader stands empty so often. The reality, especially in public schools, is crazier than anything I’d ever write. I’m a little surprised that I don’t have anything specifically pointed at zero tolerance policies on the Reader already, but it’s difficult to satirize zero-tolerance policies. They’ve gone off the deep end more quickly than even I imagined they would. I thought the plethora of kids suspended for pointing their fingers was too crazy. I should have thought of having a deaf kid suspended for using sign language. But reality was too quick for me:

Hunter Spanjer says his name with a certain special hand gesture, but at just three and a half years old, he may have to change it.

“He’s deaf, and his name sign, they say, is a violation of their weapons policy,” explained Hunter’s father, Brian Spanjer.

Grand Island’s “Weapons in Schools” Board Policy 8470 forbids “any instrument… that looks like a weapon,” But a three year-old’s hands?

“It’s a symbol. It’s an actual sign, a registered sign, through S.E.E.,” Brian Spanjer said.

S.E.E. stands for Signing Exact English, Hunter’s sign language. Hunter’s name gesture is modified with crossed-fingers to show it is uniquely his own.

“We are working with the parents to come to the best solution we can for the child,” said Jack Sheard, Grand Island Public Schools spokesperson.

Grand Island Public Schools have since released a statement that tries to pretend Sheard never said this, that they are not trying to get the kid to change his name because it looks too much like a gun when signed.

It’s awesome that they recognize that this isn’t going to fly now that it’s been reported, but how could they ever have thought “working with the parents” to help them change his signed name was ever right? You can see the sign in the video. There’s nothing remotely objectionable there.

  1. <- Writer’s Will
  2. The Funds ->