I recall from a college literature class that someone, a British lord or a person with a similar amount of time on his hands, wrote a letter to his son. In the letter the man complained that he had to make it a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one. I wanted to post an entry tonight but I don’t have time, unfortunately, so I’m going to throw in another old cartoon. This one is from Mas o Menos, a weekly cartoon panel I did in San Miguel the first time I lived here. Vaya con nachos:
I did some hard drive hunting and gathering and found this old cartoon of mine that is a kinda-sorta example of satire. It was published in a sci-fi/fantasy magazine, which I think was called “Dragon,” but I could be mistaking the name for China Dragon, which is one of my favorite restaurants here in San Miguel. Vaya con nachos.
I’d like to share one more favorite piece of satire. It’s from Bruce Jay Friedman, a master of dark humor. Context: Mr. Dalton has died but the afterlife is disappointing. For example, there isn’t a clerk making droll remarks in a British accent. What’s worse, he spots Mr. Sydel, a man he knew on Earth to be “not a nice man” and, in fact, a crook. Dalton can’t see how he ended up in the same place as Sydel, with the same benefits. It’s simply not fair. Then, Dalton thinks he’s found the difference. Satire and Dark Comedy often intersect, as they do in this excerpt and the earlier one I posted by Stanley Elkin.
And then Mr. Dalton glanced down at his own sandals. “Tanny’s,” he said. “That’s it. I have these slippers and he doesn’t. He walks barefoot for an eternity, a million eternities, and you give me, us, slippers from Tanny’s and we feel nothing in our feet and he feels every bump, every splinter, every whatever the hell you’ve got here. I have you now, you stubborn sonofabitch. I do, you know. I defy you to tell me Sydel has Tanny slippers on, too.”
“Al Roon’s Athletic Club on Eighth Avenue in New York City,” said the man, and he seemed to have lost his composure the slightest bit. Mr. Dalton waited now, waited for him to speak.
“We, uh, couldn’t get Tanny’s so we got Roon’s. There really isn’t any difference. It’s purely administrative. If we’d gotten Tanny’s, we certainly wouldn’t have used Roon’s. You’re really making a big thing out of nothing. Tanny’s, Roon’s, the spirit is the same, I assure you.”
“But by God, we’ve got the Tanny’s and the Sydels have the Roon’s and never mind the administrative stuff….”
From “Yes, We Have No Ritchard” by Bruce Jay Friedman
Here’s an excerpt from another piece of satire I love, a short story by T.C. Boyle titled “Top of the Food Chain.” Context: A scientist, in an attempt to improve the living conditions in Borneo, unleashes massive amounts of DDT to combat an insect problem, with disastrous environmental results. In this excerpt, the scientist has been called before a Senate committee investigating the disaster.
In an interview, Boyle was asked if, as a writer, he found himself acting as an anthropologist? Boyle replied by saying it’s “a great way of putting it. I had never thought of it in those terms.”
The cats? That’s where it got sticky, really sticky. You see, nobody really lost any sleep over a pile of dead lizards-though we did the tests routinely and the tests confirmed what we’d expected, that is, the product had been concentrated in the geckos because of the sheer number of contaminated flies they consumed. But lizards are one thing and cats are another.
You see, the cats had a field day with these feeble geckos—you can imagine, if any of you have ever owned a cat, the kind of joy these animals must have experienced to see their nemesis, this ultra-quick lizard, and it’s just barely creeping across the floor like a bug. Well, to make a long story short, the cats ate up every dead and dying gecko in the country, from snout to tail, and then the cats began to die … which to my mind would have been no great loss if it wasn’t for the rats. Suddenly there were rats everywhere—you couldn’t drive down the street without running over half-a-dozen of them at a time. They fouled the grain supplies, fell in the wells and died, bit infants as they slept in their cradles. But that wasn’t the worst, not by a long shot. No, things really went down the tub after that. Within the month we were getting scattered reports of bubonic plague, and of course we tracked them all down and made sure the people got a round of treatment with antibiotics, but still we lost a few and the rats kept coming …
From “Top of the Food Chain” by T. C. Boyle
“I was asked to name all the presidents. I thought they already had names.”
Satire is the use of humor and wit with a critical attitude, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule for exposing or denouncing the frailties and faults of mankind’s activities and institutions, such as folly, stupidity, or vice. This usually involves both moral judgment and a desire to help improve a custom, belief, or tradition. The term is from the Latin satura, meaning “full” or “sated” and was derived from satis, meaning “enough” or “sufficient.” (from eNotes Guide to Literary Terms; okay, so I’m lazy and lifted a free definition from the Web)
Modern satire is perhaps best represented by Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22. Remember Major Major, who would never see anyone in his office while he was in his office? Here’s a key passage from the book:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.”
In the Middle Ages in Ireland, satire was believed to cause facial blemishes and blisters, and in extreme cases, even death. Early annals relate the deaths of notable figures, deaths brought on by particularly potent satirical verse. Irish satire was said to have been employed to kill men and animals, mainly rats. Everyday devices of satire included sarcasm, innuendo, and creating nicknames that stuck. The threat of satire could prompt payment of claims, fines, and penalties. It could also force a high-ranking member of society to submit to legal arbitration.
Jonathan Swift’s famous satire “A Modest Proposal” suggests converting the starving children of Ireland into food. Here’s the full title of his 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.” Not everyone understood that he was writing satire. And that’s one of the challenges of writing satire. George S. Kaufman famousaly said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” Long before George S., Mr. Swift wrote these words:
… I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds.
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.