Have we, as a culture, lost our ability to appreciate satire?
The question occurred to me recently as I was reading Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters, picked up on a Thanksgiving trip to Colonial Williamsburg. In the concluding chapter of the book, Wood remarks upon the prevalence of satire in the literature of the revolutionary writers, and in doing so articulates nicely the social character of satire:
“Satire as a literary device depends upon a comprehending and homogeneous audience with commonly understood standards of rightness and reasonableness. Since the satirist can expose to instantaneous contempt only what is readily condemned by the opinion of his readers, he must necessarily be on intimate terms with them and count on their sharing his tastes and viewpoint” (emphasis added).
Eighty years ago, when Evelyn Waugh began publishing his early satiric novels—Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust, Scoop—he could count on a fair slice of his popular audience sharing the tastes and viewpoint that inspired his literary invective. Of course, Waugh disavowed the suggestion that his novels were satires. Satire, he claimed, in agreement with Gordon Wood, presupposes a shared moral ethos, and in Waugh’s opinion, no such ethos existed in the West of the early 20th century. And in this Waugh was more or less right. By the 1930s the moral foundations of the West had long been tottering. Nonetheless, Waugh’s audience was far more homogeneous than Western literary audiences here in the early 21st century. So how much of a chance does a political or literary satirist have today? “If this [moral] intimacy should break down,” avers Wood, “if the satirist’s audiences should become heterogeneous and the once-shared values become confused and doubtful, if the satirist has to explain what his ridicule means, then the satire is rendered ineffectual.” Heterogeneous, confused and doubtful–these would be polite descriptions of the moral chaos that reigns in Western culture today. “We live,” as Walker Percy said in his 1989 Laetare Medal address at the University of Notre Dame, “in a de-ranged world.” And not only the obvious derangement of a mad gunman opening fire on a classroom of small children in an elementary school, but also the more mundane, but still deadly, derangement of “ordinary” life in our stridently secular, self-absorbed, consumerist bazaar.
In any event, I have written a satiric novel. Call me naïve, or simply call me someone who finds cultural decline at times pretty hilarious and cannot help wanting to share the joke. My novel is called High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare, and is a send-up of both contemporary academia and Hollywood. What’s the pitch? A young, out-of-work adjunct philosophy professor, Donald P. Wirt, is mistakenly fired for “unprofessional and unethical conduct” at a professional ethics conference. But his luck changes when an affluent couple hires him to be a private tutor to their son, Miles, a brilliant high school junior who, rather than prepping for the SAT, spends his nights writing slasher film scripts and pitching Hollywood production companies under the nom de théâtre, “Donnie Percival.” When one of those production companies surprisingly requests an actual meeting in L.A., Miles fears he will lose the deal if he’s discovered to be only a pimply youth of sixteen. So in return for a share of the payout, he sends Donald in his place–in the guise of “Donnie Percival.” Yet almost as soon as his plane lands at LAX, Donald discovers that “Donnie Percival” has a life of his own. Hardly aware of what is happening to him, he is quickly entangled in a cutthroat world of warring producers, ferocious celebrity pets, and a ruthless former teen queen looking for a reboot as a serious actress. As the clueless Donald becomes the hottest scribe in Hollywood, the burning question emerges: how hot can “Donnie Percival” become before Donald himself goes up in flames? High Concepts attempts to lay bare our obsession with celebrity and radical chic–and then turns its attention from academia to Hollywood. For those of you who love Waugh’s blackly comic novels, you will almost certainly be disappointed by High Concepts. Still, I hope you will find in it enough laugh-out-loud comedy to make for a pleasant winter’s read in front of the fire over the holidays. By the very nature of the genre and of human beings, the audience of satire will always be small and selective. Perhaps in our time that audience is disappearing rapidly. But perhaps, too, the audience of satire is always capable of regenerating itself. After all, a buffoonish character such as Lady Gaga would not be raking in the doubloons if her audience did not hear a still, small voice saying, “This is naughty.” In their weakness they may delight in the naughtiness, but the moral insight is still not completely snuffed out. It is like an ember among the ashes, one that with enough wind from the bellows may burst into a flame. Or like Socratic questioning, satire can help us “recollect” the timeless truths that we apparently have always known, but just forgotten for awhile.
I hope you will enjoy High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare. You can find the ebook at Amazon by clicking here.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.