A Plea for Satire


IT would be entirely wrong, in this soft spoken age, to advocate a thing so disquieting as the revival of satire, were the writer inspired by any but the loftiest motives. Sure of my position, however, I undertake the task with due humility and gentleness. Of course the kind of satire I have in mind is not that old-fashioned, undiscriminating product of biliousness and ferocity that justified the text, “ The tongue is a little member . . . and it is set on fire of hell.” My plea is solely for a well-bred and decorous truculence that shall delight while it destroys.

We have plenty of entertainers, but no satirists. This dearth, however, is not due to any lack of properly equipped writers, but to the shrewdness of our great publishers. They realize how dangerous to their prosperity it would be to have an old-fashioned mocker at large, a Lone Wolf or Outlier, who would kill or spare as pleased him without regard to the wishes of the Pack. The blessings of free education are such that the army of readers has increased beyond computation during the past century, and the publishing industry has profited accordingly. It is also fortunate that those who appreciate the quality of what they read have either become extinct, or grown too slothfully gentle to tell the truth. Time was when the satirist could neither be silenced nor forced to moderate his strictures by either the prison or the pillory. It also availed nothing to put him to death, for his gibes were immortal; but see how much better we manage things to-day ! As soon as a writer shows evidence of satiric power he is taken up and pampered so that he may be gentle. He is kept tame by some shrewd publisher who knows that people like to laugh when the laugh is not on themselves. So the sleek satirist devotes himself to putting up men of straw and battering them, though there is abundant material for his most caustic attention.

At the present time the world is full of people who know the wrong side of every question so accurately that there is no arguing with them, and satire is in reality the last resource of logic. To my thinking the work of the logician is only half finished when he has proved that his position is the right one. He should also prove that every other position is wrong, and with irresistible laughter convince his opponents that they must give up their folly. That it is not going too far to do this may be shown to some extent by consulting the writings of Euclid, the coldest of reasoners, whose excellent works have been recommended gravely as a manual of good manners. Although his arguments are notably free from personalities, he does not hesitate to end some of his subtlest disquisitions with the remark, “ Which is absurd.” Now if logical reasoning shows that everything except the truth or fact in question is absurd, to make the absurdity universally evident is simply to make complete the work of logic. Many a curious error has been perpetuated in the face of much fine reasoning simply because our teachers are too tender of the fat-witted to make their reasoning vital with satire.

It only remains to show what satire is, and how to produce it. As all the world knows, satire is something that provokes laughter at the expense of some person or object. Its usual expression is in the form of a spoken or written jest; for the practical form of satire that makes a man ridiculous by pulling the chair from under him when he is about to sit down is generally recognized as belonging to a more primitive stage of development than the one we now enjoy. Of course the principle underlying both forms of satire is the same, a deviation from some law, either man made or eternal, and a sudden exposure of the deviation. Analyze any joke you will from the good old one about a door not being a door when it is ajar, to the one that caused inextinguishable laughter among the gods, and you will find that this rule holds true. It will readily be seen that the only equipment needed by the would be satirist is a complete knowledge of all truth, both man made and eternal, and the ability to recognize them and all deviations from them at a glance. He who has that equipment can be satirical whenever he wishes.

It may be asked why I do not make a bid for satiric laurels myself by applying the laws I have discovered, but my reply is simple. I am no better than my fellow men, and I am a lover of peace and ease. Far be it from me to get into trouble by putting bent pins on the seat of the mighty. Rather would I point out the goal to those who are filled with a sense of duty, and cheer on the great but bilious thinkers who consider it their part to look after the world when God is neglectful.

But as the outbreak of satire will probably take a literary form, I wish with all possible earnestness to warn would be satirists that they must not under any circumstances level their shafts at literature. The ideal literary conditions now exist, and they must not be mocked at or made merry with. Until the present age the lot of literary men was always pathetic. Even the most consummate geniuses could not get their work recognized, but now matters have progressed so favorably that men of no ability at all have their writings clamored for. In other days poets, dramatists, and philosophers starved while bringing forth their great works, but it is different now. Literature has gained commercial importance, and is no longer a diversion of the learned. The manufacturing of books is a trade that shows a reasonable profit, and in order that books may be printed and published books must be written. If books were not written constantly, many presses would stand idle, and scores of union printers would be thrown out of work. The stoppage of the presses would lessen the demand for white paper, and that branch of trade would suffer. The pulp mills of Maine would be obliged to shut down part of the time, and there would be suffering in more directions than anyone not gifted with imagination can predict. Therefore nothing must be done to discourage the great industry of authorship. Writers must be coddled and puffed so that they will continue to turn out work that will keep union laboring men employed. Many now do this, and are syndicated into immortality by their grateful employers.

For the benefit of men who have not yet taken to authorship it may be kind to explain that the best way to begin at the trade is to write a novel. If the trained advertisers make a man’s novel succeed his future is made. He can go on writing novels until his invention flags, and then he can write magazine articles telling how each one of them was written. Then he can take to writing reminiscences, and after that anecdotes about his early contemporaries. Besides, he can at any stage of his career deliver profitable lectures, and give readings from his own works. It is seldom that a man once started fails in literature now that it has become a department of commerce. Every important publishing house has its own literary review in which its own books are exploited. Corps of stall-fed critics low gently over their mangers, and write “ Appreciations.” Shades of Jeffries and Brougham and Macaulay and every one else that ever was scornful ! Appreciations ! How dignified and cloying is the word. The reviewer wades through the book that has been submitted to him, and instead of pillorying its faults he carefully collates and applauds the things that please him. He feeds the author most delicious poison that kills his soul but increases his productivity, and in that way the presses are kept going, and the union workmen employed and happy.