Wednesday, March 20, 2013


In the Western tradition (see Jonathan Swift is an example) satire is harsh and it sometimes is not funny, at least not at surface level. Sometimes satire doesn't make you laugh until it hurts,  but it still is satire. A wasp sting. The point of satire is to expose the folly and weaknesses of human nature.

Satire can be very cruel, or let's say, extremely unpleasant at times. Again, it stings you before it makes you laugh. The classic "A Modest Proposal" proposes cannibalizing poor infants so they don't become a burden on the state, and it was so straightforward (though obviously ironic) that many people didn't get the joke and thought Swift really meant it. 

Satire can produce this effect. Tears of mirth don't always roll while reading satire --which is actually very different from some other types of comedy such as sit com with its perpetual one liners or newspaper political jokes/cartoons/caricatures.
Satire is not (simply) jokes. Satire is very social, very engaged, and like a doctor it operates without fear or remorse, even without anesthesia. (A cliched image, but picturesque). Very dark humor, for instance, does not always make us laugh either; it's actually quite uncomfortable. Once you can accept what's being proposed in those hard terms --the folly of humanity-- then you might laugh. Or change. Which is the purpose of satire – to make that social comment hoping to change the collective mind.

So, should satire always make us laugh, or can it be harsh without being at all funny? 

Juvenalian and Horatian Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own ;which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended by it. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Anglo-Irish satirist. The Battle of the Books, Preface (written 1697 ;published 1704).

Satire is known as the literary style which makes light of a subject, diminishing its importance by placing it in an amusing or scornful light. Unlike other comedy, satire attempts to create humor by deriding its topic, as opposed to a topic that evokes laughter in itself. Satires attempt to give us a more humorous look at attitudes, advances, states of affairs, and in some cases ( as in Jonathan Swifts A Modest Proposal ) the entire human race.

The least offensive form of satire is Horatian satire, the style used by Addison and Steele in their essays. A much more abrasive style is Juvenalian satire, as used by Jonathan Swift in the aforementioned essay A Modest Proposal.

A Modest Proposal

For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland
From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and
For Making Them Beneficial to The Public

By Jonathan Swift (1729)

”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ...”

Unlike Juvenalian satire, it serves to make us laugh at human folly as opposed to holding our failures up for needling.

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