Fall Issue | 2015
Fish Out of Water
The essential benefit of satire
By Jesse Webb | email@example.com
I am stunned—not by the hollow shell of plastic and metal hurtling my water-sack-of-a-body 400 mph through the air; not by the casual smile of a sleek and lipsticked flight attendant handing me Belgian cinnamon cookies as we float 40,000 feet above a fathomless ocean; and certainly not by TV-sized George Clooney’s efforts to rip my gaze away from the paperback in my hand. I am stunned because a disturbingly animate horse has just debunked the myth of human rationality.
I am certainly not the first to encounter this Houyhnhnm (whinnim) who, along with the miniature citizens of Lilliput, the giants of Brobdingnag, and the emperor of the floating city of Laputa, have challenged our assumptions of human nature ever since Jonathan Swift published his epochal satire, Gulliver’s Travels. The voyages of Lemuel Gulliver are as fanciful and imaginative as they are disturbingly observant. Every civilization the surgeon-turned-adventurer encounters, whimsical and entertaining as they appear, serve to caricature the vice and folly of the society to which Gulliver (and Swift) belong.
Some of these caricatures are more pointed than others; take for instance the Yahoos of Houyhnhnm Land, who mirror humans in every way except that their features are more utilitarian (and primal)—claws for digging and climbing, matted hair for warmth and protection, and sharp teeth for a raw diet. Gulliver, however, reacts to these cousins of humankind with disgust: “I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy” (Swift, 230). The Yahoo’s are among Swift’s sharpest satirical tools; the more the reader learns about them, the more they identify with the creatures and consequently, the more they loath them for their resemblance.
Gulliver’s disdain for the Yahoos, however, does not compare to the Houyhnhnm’s contempt for humanity. After familiarizing his equine captor with European culture, Gulliver notes the creature’s reaction:
He looked upon us as a sort of animals to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen…that we disarm ourselves of the few abilities she had bestowed, had been very successful in multiplying our original wants, and seemed to spend our whole lives in vain endeavors to supply them by our own inventions…that our institutions of government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence, in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature. (270)
Here, Swift describes humans not as the animal rationale (rational creatures) but merely as rational capax (capable of reason). He does not qualify this statement with examples of our rational abilities. Rather, by leaving the reader unsatisfied Swift issues a call to action, demanding we embrace his alienating perspective and reassess our concept of vice and virtue
With each adventure in Gulliver’s Travels, the reader is drawn in by a false sense of superiority, only to be left questioning the foundations of their culture. Swiftian satire follows the deductive method, allowing its audience to come to their own conclusions about human nature. Harvard professor Leo Damrosch writes, “Swift was a profoundly skeptical person who had little patience with the pretense, in the newly popular genre of the realistic novel, to present plausible details as if they were literally true” (v). Gulliver’s Travels is illustrative rather than didactic, a quality essential to its purpose: “to show that truth and fiction are more closely intertwined than we normally acknowledge…and every story…is suffused with imagination” (vi).
Satire serves to examine societal issues by exaggerating their absurdity. When long standing institutions and customs become normalized, the population begins to accept their defects—can you believe there was ever a time when people conversed articulately face-to-face rather than through magical glass rectangles? Satire reverses this practice of normalization and reexamines social customs by first identifying and caricaturing their absurd qualities.
Modern satire continues to follow this method. In fact, the best form of satire in circulation today may be South Park (yes, that crude little show about fourth graders that offended you that one time). Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker—champions of the absurd, guardians of the offensive, and inquisitors of the naive—tackle sensitive issues with both precision and reckless abandon. In the current season, for instance, South Park lays siege to the culture of political correctness by portraying it as a police state in the small Colorado town—its ironic constable: a frat star and elementary school principle who beats up children when they fail to use gender inclusive pronouns. ‘PC Principle’ lampoons the captious defenders of political correctness, showing the far extent to which the consciousness of every subtly offensive word we use can exhaust us individually and as a society. More people know South Park for its indecency than for its swiftian insight into popular culture when in fact, its crudeness actually empowers it fully to realize the absurdity of that culture. The show’s reputation for indiscriminately making fun of anything and everyone allows it to say what everyone wants to without fear of judgement (to the extent that not ridiculing certain people or events would be more offensive than mocking them).
The inflammatory nature of South Park derives from the longstanding tradition of editorial cartoons. If you’ve ever seen a historical documentary, you know their timeless power to illustrate complex situations. Political cartoons from different eras reflect the national sentiment in a way that can’t be mimicked in any other form. Caricatures highlight absurd qualities of politicians and citizens alike, allowing the viewer to immediately identify their vices. Marshal Ramsey, a two-time Pulitzer Prize Finalist, continues this tradition in Jackson where he tackles corruption, disparity, and ignorance in Mississippi with his pencil. He explains that “fish can’t give an accurate description about water until they’re out of it.” Ramsey uses his cartoons as a tool to take his audience out of the water for a moment and see what their home looks like from the outside world.
Satire serves a critical function in society: introspection. Through witty humor, it breaks down our defenses and allows for collective self-awareness. The success of satire, however, depends on the willingness of its audience to suspend disbelief and accept absurdity—you can’t take a fish out of water if it keeps hiding under rocks. Therefore, censorship is antithetical to satire. Unfortunately, America loves its censorship. New York Times writer Clyde Haberman notes, “jeremiads on how society was hurtling headlong on the road to perdition accompanied just about every new development, from radio to television, from jazz to rap, from Elvis’ swiveling pelvis to Miley Cyrus’ twerking” (Haberman). Censorship, our nation’s knee-jerk reaction to social developments, hinders self-awareness. Though a functioning society requires certain limitations of the profane and the inflammatory, their excess can strangle democracy and impede on inalienable rights. The restrictions threatening satire today are not measured in letters and bleeps, but in ratings and click-counts. Our increased affinity for slapstick and decreased affinity for thought-provoking humor reflects our insecurity as a society.
The once revolutionary format of fake news broadcasts pioneered by Stephen Colbert and John Stewart has become a tired trope, forced down our throats by retrogressive network executives. The Onion remains a potent source of satire, but struggles to maintain quality while feeding the voracious appetites of Facebook scrollers and click-and-close consumers. Even Saturday Night Live has failed to recover its former prominence as a vehicle for electoral satire. Still, crusaders of the comedic form—editorial cartoonists, disillusioned comics, and animated, foul-mouthed children—are fighting battles everyday for its revival as a force for national self-awareness.
Swift’s Houyhnhnms reject humor because of its illogical nature. Jokes, more often than not, involve deceit—a quality that the creatures don’t understand. To them, our ability to laugh equates with our inability to govern ourselves. However, it is exactly this quality—humor—that makes humankind so astounding. It allows us to cope with disaster and spread goodwill. In the form of satire, it gives us perspective on the normalized absurdities of our society. In all of its irrationality, humor empowers humanity and therefore serves one of the greatest public goods.
November 10, 2015
Haberman, Clyde. "Two Pop Culture Wars: First Over Comics, Then Over Music." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
Swift, Jonathan, Leopold Damrosch, Nathaniel Rich, and C. E. Brock. Gulliver's Travels. New York: Signet Classics, 2008. Print.