“It is difficult not to write satire. For who is so willing to suffer this unjust city, so iron-clad, that they could restrain themselves?” [Juvenal]
difficile est saturam non scribere. nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se
The story goes that when Henry Kissinger was offered a Nobel Peace Prize, Philip Roth thought that satire was effectively over. I had much the same thought as I drove by a crowded Applebee’s here in San Antonio, a city which has experienced record increases in new coronavirus cases over the past week. How can The Onion even stay in business when people are ready to sacrifice themselves for the ad blitz which will note that Applebee’s burgers are literally to die for. “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” This sentiment of Constance Chatterly, at the beginning of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, could be modified to suit our own time by noting that ours is essentially a self-satirizing age. It is tragic, to be sure; but all of the language of anger or despair has already been co-opted by the very sources of the tragedy itself.
It has become impossible to write anything meaningful about the collapse of culture and civilization in the 21st century without referring to the orange man, and I will not buck this trend. Some people have apparently been amused by comedic treatments of Trump, but it is hard to see what is so funny in them. Satire relies heavily on irony and exaggeration – but can that tumescent orange pustule be exaggerated any further? What fictionalized headline about him could be so preposterous that we wouldn’t believe it?
If we live in a post-satire world, it is only because we are living in the post-truth world, in which words don’t really seem to mean anything in particular. Stephen Colbert could be funny when coining the idea of “truthiness” because, in that era which now feels long-lost, there was at least some vestigial sense that facts existed and that it was the job of language to track and represent them with some accuracy. But who could have predicted that America’s expert epistemologist Rudy Giuliani would one day announce his revolutionary doctrine that truth isn’t truth? In such a world, truthiness just isn’t funny anymore.
As Juvenal seemed to sense in the opening lines of his first book of Satires, the beginning of satire lie in vexation:
Shall I never respond, vexed so often by the Theseid of rough-sounding Cordus?
numquamne reponam | uexatus totiens rauci Theseide Cordi?
Vexation is in ample supply. In an age as ridiculous as ours, it is hard to mock any of the agents of our suffering because they have already expressed themselves in the most ridiculous terms. Indeed, in every sense, they speak for themselves. What can we do to make a travesty of something which is already a parody of itself? Nothing. And so, we are left only with expressions of unalloyed rage, with no raillery to add zest to these wholly unpalatable truths.
Satire is more effective when the fools and villains in power make some attempt to disguise their malice. When they instead make an open show of their hypocrisy, they preclude the possibility for mockery, because they no longer even pay lip service to a standard to which they can be held. We all know that the politician and the CEO have no shame; but at least they used to have to act out a public ritual of pretending to feel shame when assailed by public opinion. Recognizing the hollowness of that gesture, they now simply “say the quiet part out loud” and rely on bolder sallies further into the fields of patent hypocrisy to flee from any reckoning. Delivering his opening monologue today, Shakespeare’s Richard III would simply announce to the whole cast of characters that he was determined to prove the villain.
Compare these two headlines:
Very little separates the satirical from the reportorial here. But as we have seen during the reign of our circus clown in chief, the point at which evil and stupidity so exceed the bounds of credulity as to become parodies of themselves is the point at which they have removed themselves from public responsibility and become tyrants who need not answer to the anger or the mockery of the people. How nice it would be once again to live in a world where the fear and loathing of the people who run our lives could vent itself in jest.
Let such raise Palaces, and Manors buy,
Collect a Tax, or farm a Lottery,
With warbling eunuchs fill our Licensed Stage,
And lull to Servitude a thoughtless Age.
Heroes, proceed! What Bounds your Pride shall hold?
What Check restrain your Thirst of Pow’r and Gold?
Behold rebellious Virtue quite o’erthrown,
Behold our Fame, our Wealth, our Lives your own.
[Samuel Johnson, London 57-64]