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triangle of satire; and infinite uses of humor

One Student's picture

"Roman satirists may be thought of as functioning within a triangle of which the apices are (a) attack, (b) entertainment, and (c) preaching. If a poem rests too long on apex (a) it passes into lampoon or invective; if it lingers on (b) it changes into some form of comedy; and if it remains on (c) it becomes a sermon." Niall Rudd, Themes in Roman Satire

What is striking and original about Rudd's application of this theoretical structure for satire is the fact that he sees a good deal of movement within individual pieces; the effect is on of hovering and flitting, like a bird that never alights. (Which is why my bird traps on the ground keep turning up with nothing more than handfuls of feathers, I suppose - time to construct a bow and arrow.)

I think this theory would be useful for Uncle Tom's Cabin, which after all slides from satiric to didactic - I'd draw a diagram here if I knew how - but sections of UTC lie on the arm of (a) and (c), but very often slides much too far to (c) for UTC as a whole to be considered a satire. Most importantly, UTC as a whole does not a satiric structure, just satiric structures embedded within it.

The next step would be to apply this theory in a close-reading of a particular passage, which is how Rudd uses it. 


"I am a psychotherapist. Since I  still have certain hang-ups, however, I go  to another therapist for help.

"I don't feel badly about it, because my therapist goes to another therapist.

"And his therapist goes to a therapist.

"And his therapist's therapist comes to me. 

"This sardonic sequence was conceived a few months ago, when I was ill with the 'flu. It was intended as a satirical comment on the profession I normally practise with a straight face, acting for all the world as though I believed in it. It was to convey a view of psychotherapy as a self-enclosed system, a culture within a culture, and to portray its practitioners, with all due respect, as earnest, pathetic fools. 

I have reproduced the sequence here in order to raise an issue. Is my blasphemous outlook to be assessed as nothing more than the caustic expression of a feverish state, or did my febrile condition give me access to an insight I would normally be inclined to censor? To put it more broadly, are satirical views of psychotherapy and psychotherapists mere expressions of ill-will, or do they contain certain nuggets of truth whose possession could enrich our understanding of ourselves?" Harvey Mindess, "The Use and Abuse of Humour in Psychotherapy", Humour and Laughter: Theory, Research and Application, Chapman and Foot eds, 1976. 

Couldn't it be taken many ways? As 'mere' entertainment; as an opportunity of feeling part of a community of therapists (in on the joke); as an opportunity to 'other' therapists (laughing at them); as a critique; as an attack.  

I feel pretty certain about the ways that humor can be used. But I'm hesitant to commit myself to one interpretation for a particular mobilization of humor, sometimes. It wasn't difficult to draw the conclusion that Beecher Stowe mobilized satire in UTC in order to criticize the institution of slavery. Easy peasy.

But as for exactly how specific mobilizations function, that's what's been tricky. And I think the reason for that is because it's hard to predict how an individual reader would react to any given mobilization. I didn't laugh at Topsy, but have other readers? I can resolve the incongruities, but I don't find them funny because of the critical framework I stand in. Would I laugh at a blackface performance, or find it unfunnily ridiculous and awkward and offensive? 

Never mind the author's intentions (and I just read a bit of scholarship which suggested that maybe Juvenal didn't always know what he intended; and in class it's been suggested that Moby Dick got away from Melville; and I can tell you just how surprising a piece of my own writing can turn out to be, even if it's not the least bit funny - so much for authorial authority), because those intentions don't mean much once a piece of writing or a performance or a spoken joke encounters an audience. Never mind the author's intentions, a joke can be used by the audience in multiple ways based entirely on the audience's values

This puts the whole endeavor of humor studies into a bit of an existential crisis. But then, that's a crisis that all of literary studies has been in ever since the author was declared dead. Does one analyze how the joke is supposed to work? I mean, I say that I can recognize the incongruities of jokes which I don't find funny. A largely separate, but valid, area of study is how a joke is taken by the audience. 

So then it comes down to the critic's judgment and the critic's choice of theory. And the theory to which I subscribe is that humor functions via rule-breaking incongruities, and that this rule breaking and the marking of the rule-breaking generate power ... which can be used in any number of ways. Knowing that a joke can heal or harm, I'm not willing to commit to anything narrower than that.

Going in circles, or feels like it; but labyrinths give that impression sometimes.