Sunday, December 13, 2015

False Normality (Brief Look at Satire, Part 3)

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
There’s no art/ To find the mind’s construction in the face
One task I would sometimes give my students before discussing Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess” was to have them make a sign reading:

I Am a(n)

They were instructed to insert an adjective that would best describe them. They were then told to hold the signs out in front of themselves so that other people could read them. “Wouldn't it be great,” I asked, “if signs worn on their chests would reveal people's true qualities (and not just the sweetness-and-light ones claimed there in the classroom)?” Browning's subtlety would, alas, be lost as the Duke of Ferrara's toxic pride would be (literally) up front. But how much easier life would be if all the masks disguising fools and villains were countered by a little bit of writing.
Architect [John Cleese]: “This is a 12-story block combining classical neo-Georgian features with all the advantages of modern design. The tenants arrive at the entrance hall here, carried along the corridor on a conveyor belt in extreme comfort past murals depicting Mediterranean scenes towards the rotating knives. The last 20 feet of the corridor are heavily soundproofed. The blood pours down these chutes . . .”

Committeeman [Michael Palin]: “Excuse me. Did you say ‘knives’?”
Monty Python's Flying Circus
. . . my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.
As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging . . .
Jonathan  Swift, “A Modest Proposal”
What the famous Swift satire and the non-satirical, Chas-Addamsish-macabre Python skit have in common is (a) the initial surface normality of the presentations: “neo-Georgian features” and “modern design” in the case of the Python architectural project and in the Swift the claim by his persona to have “maturely weighed” the schemes of other proposers and (b) the almost unobtrusive way that a calm seemingly-sane presentation is subverted by a horrendous incongruity. The signaling word in the Python skit is, of course, “knives”; in the Swift the word is “dam”--the mother of a human child has become an animal, and the child will be treated as such too, bred to become the central ingredient in “a fricasie, or a ragoust,” food for the tables of rich Englishmen in Ireland.
Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not . . .
Jeremiah 5:21
. . . instead of seeing a full stop put to all abuses and corruptions, at least in this little island, as I had reason to expect; behold, after above six months warning, I cannot learn that my book has produced one single effect according to my intentions.
Gulliver's Travels
Satire has a range something like chili sauce—from mild to four-alarm fiery hot. But one thing that all satires have in common is the working proposition that out in the world, deceived by appearances, there are too many people who have eyes that do not see, or ears that do not hear. Otherwise, would they not already have—as Gulliver wished—put an end “to all abuses and corruptions” (as well as eradicating the milder follies of our species)?
Enter GLOUCESTER [Richard III-to-be] aloft, between two BISHOPS. . . .MAYOR. See where his Grace stands 'tween two clergymen!

BUCKINGHAM. Two props of virtue for a Christian prince,
To stay him from the fall of vanity;
And, see, a book of prayer in his hand,
True ornaments to know a holy man.
Richard III (Act III, Sc. 7)

In the play we (unlike the Mayor) are not fooled by the pretended display of piety; we know it's all an act, the prayer book merely a prop and the bishops just stage furniture, for the playwright, since the opening soliloquy, has allowed our eyes to see behind the villain's mask and our ears to hear his duplicitous intentions. But what of the real life equivalents of the Shakespeare's Duke of Gloucester or Browning's Duke of Ferrara?

The challenge for the satirist is how to make those eyes see, those ears hear—to counter the stage-managed displays of fake virtue and false reason.
I have decided to take a respite from writing this blog. When (or whether) I will return to it, time will tell.
Meanwhile, to those who have bothered to read the blog at some point I offer many thanks.