Political Satire

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Political Satire

The phrase political satire is so current in common parlance that defining its range of applicability may seem daunting at first. The first problem is to define what is meant by political: even by excluding more contemporary forms of mass-media-related satire in liberal and democratic political contexts—and, because of space constraint, cinema, journalism, and video art—and provisionally agreeing on the referential nature of satire (to the world outside the text, to history, to the community—indeed, critics have often pointed out that satire flourishes in urban settings), the scope of political remains redoubtably broad. In times when free speech was inconceivable, any reference to the body politic could be conveyed through various levels and forms of indirection and sometimes perpetuate the premodern entanglement of politics and ethics. In many instances tackling the political implication was a task left to the reader. As Dustin Griffin notes, "if open challenge is not permitted, writers will turn to irony, indirection, innuendo, allegory, fables—to the fiction of satire. Indeed, satirists would seem to prefer indirection to frontal attack, and thus to be spurred to do their best works by restriction" (Griffin 1994, p. 139).

To give an example, William Congreve's retelling of the Ovidian myth of Semele bore, at the time of its publication (1705–1707), a more vague political reference than it would when, in 1743, George Frideric Handel (1785–1859) set it to music as an oratorio. The story of a woman, Semele, who is burnt because she asks to mate with Jupiter in his divine form and not in a human disguise, could immediately be linked by the public to contemporary events, namely, the intrusive political maneuvers of King George II's (1683–1760) German mistress. In Stephen Lawless's 2006 stage production of the oratorio, Semele, Juno, and Jupiter were portrayed, respectively, as Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962), Jacqueline Kennedy (1929–1994), and President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), and the program notes at New York City Opera contained excerpts from journalistic reports on the Monica Lewinsky (b. 1973) and Chandra Levy (1977–2001) affairs. It must be noted that Handel and other composers switched from the opera to the oratorio form as a result (among other causes) of the immense impact of the parody, and satire, of Italianate opera John Gay's (1685–1732) The Beggar's Opera of 1728.

Just to quote another operatic example, William Hogarth's (1697–1764) The Rake's Progress (1733–1735), which began as social (and, indirectly, political) satire in visual arts became, in the hands of librettists W. H. Auden (1907–1973) and Chester Kallman (1921–1975) (writing for Igor Stravinsky's [1882–1971] opera of 1951), a text inspiring reflections on gender normativity, body politics, and orientalism (through the character of Tom's bearded wife, Baba the Turk). But the opera could be perceived as conveying an even broader satirical message. As the Italian poet Eugenio Montale wrote after attending the world premiere of the opera, "A great European by choice (i.e., Stravinsky) warns Europeans not to become barbarians." (Montale 1982, p. 249)] A further example of a text not intrinsically political but that exerted an enormous impact on civil society could be Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1968), a satirical novel that, challenging sexual normativity, became a milestone of early queer literature.

A second problem is that of the ambiguous definition of satire as a genre, even within the confines of highbrow European and North American literature. In Alistair Fowler's words, it is "the most problematic mode to the taxonomist, since it appears never to have corresponded to any one kind" (Fowler 1982, p. 110). Whereas new critics had imposed a genre status on satire, and Northrop Frye (1912–1991) had developed a complex taxonomy of it as a mode articulated in multiple phases, deconstructionists and neohistoricists have attacked, from very different angles, an essentialist and rhetorical notion of the genre. Unlike most classical genres, which were mainly defined by formal (metric) characteristics, this quintessentially Roman practice had initially (as in Horace's [65–8 bce] Sermones [35–30 bce]) avoided even the use of the word, probably to disengage the genre both from the Greek words satyr and satyresque (the latter used by Aristotle in the Poetics [350 bce]), and from the Lanx Satura miscellaneous genre. In fact, the word remained polyvalent, and eventually (as in John Dryden's [1631–1700] Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire of 1693) was used to indicate (1) the formal verse satire of Horace, Juvenal (late first-early second century ce), and Persius (34–62 ce), (2) the miscellaneous Varronian (or Menippean) satires, and (3) the lampoons and related forms. This ambiguous meaning of the word has resonated with contemporary theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), who, in the Menippean tradition, identified the polyphonic, positive, or at least ambivalent genre (leading to the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky [1821–1881]), and, in formal verse satire, the monological (and therefore negative) type.

Given the immensity, and the blurred boundaries, of the field, it is particularly arduous to even imagine the possibility of an exhaustive treatment of the implication of gender- and sex-related issues in (political) satire, though some threads can be sorted out. For instance, a study of the tradition and influence of Juvenal's Satura VI ("a monument of misogynistic satire" in Amy Richlin's words; 1986, p. 1) could yield at least a genealogy of texts (Dryden translated it). And recent studies have discussed Jonathan Swift's (1667–1745) use of scatology and extreme misogynistic stereotypes in his attacks on women (for instance, in texts as highly religiously and politically charged as A Tale of a Tub [1704]), as well as the attitude toward women of other great Scriblerian satirists who were members of the literary Scriblerus Club, such as Alexander Pope (1688–1744) and John Gay. In this context it is important to remember the personal involvement, as satirist-attacker as well as victim of Pope's retort, of a woman, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1716), who had parodied Pope's Epitaph on the Lovers Struck by Lightning (in 1718) and was subjected to a counterattack, famously, in the Scriblerian's Dunciad (1728). In later times notable women satirists became involved in political burlesque literature, as is the case of Elizabeth Ryves (1750–1797) with The Hastiniad (1785), and of Lady Anne Hamilton's (1766–1846) The Epics of the Ton (1805, see Johns-Putra 1999). If Lord Byron's (1788–1824) misogynistic attitudes and his representations of (hetero) sexual politics have been well investigated (see Wolfson 1987), a very interesting reading of feminist misogyny in Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman (though not formally a satirical work) has been proposed (see Gubar 1994).

Critics have often debated the possible reasons for the very limited citizenship enjoyed by women writers in early modern and modern European satirical literature. Whereas recent studies on early authors such as the English Aphra Behn (1640–1689) and the Italian Arcangela Tarabotti (1604–1652) have extended the roster, and more canonic writers such as Jane Austen (1775–1817) receive ever more attention, a question on the quasi-invisibility of women satirists in more recent times still lingers: in Griffin's words, "have women been excluded from the canon of satire? […] Or have they excluded themselves?" (1994, pp. 189-190).

Other scholars have provided indirect answers, extending the discussion beyond literature proper and into the realm of visual arts. In a 1995 book on contemporary American satirical novels, Steven Weisenburger, delving into the old vexata quaestio of the conservative versus progressive nature of satirical literature, has proposed a distinction between two modes of satire: the generative mode (whose purpose is "to construct consensus and to deploy irony in the work of stabilizing various cultural hierarchies"), and whose gamut ranges from Pope to Mark Twain (1835–1910) to contemporaries such as Tom Wolfe (b. 1931); and the degenerative mode, akin to Bakhtin's Menippean mode, which instead is subversive and delegitimizing, as it can be found in works by William Gaddis (1922–1998), Ishmael Reed (b. 1938), Don DeLillo (b. 1936), and Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937). To this degenerative mode could ascribed, according to Weisenburger, works by feminist artists such as Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and Jenny Holzer (b. 1950) (and, I would add, those of Kiki Smith (b. 1954), who deals with body politics as much as Sherman does). To these must be added the many women artists who, through body art, video, performance, and other media and forms, have produced satirical works on gender and sex politics.

see also Censorship; Enlightenment; Juvenal; Literature: I. Overview.


Doody, Margaret Anne. 1988. "Swift among the Women." The Yearbook of English Studies 18: 68-92.

Fowler, Alastair. 1982. Kinds of Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Griffin, Dustin. 1994. Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Gubar, Susan. 1977. "The Female Monster in Augustan Satire." Signs 3(2): 380-394.

Gubar, Susan. 1994. "Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of 'It Takes One to Know One.'" Feminist Studies 20(3): 452-473.

Johns-Putra, Adeline. 1999. "Satirising the Courtly Woman and Defending the Domestic Woman: Mock Epics and Women Poets in the Romantic Age. Romanticism on the Net (15). Available from http://www.erudit.org.

Montale, Eugenio. 1982. The Second Life of Art, ed. and trans. Jonathan Galassi. New York: Ecco Press.

Richlin, Amy, ed. 1986. Juvenal: Satura VI. Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr Latin Commentaries.

Vidal, Gore. 1968. Myra Breckinridge. Boston: Little, Brown.

Weisenburger, Steven. 1995. Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Wolfson, Susan J. 1987. "'Their She Condition': Cross-Dressing and the Politics of Gender in Don Juan." ELH: English Literary History 54(3): 586-617.

                                              Paolo Fasoli

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