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.