The Literature of Satire
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004
Reviewed by Véronique Alexandre
According to a note the very first page of the book The Literature of Satire “is an accessible but sophisticated and wide-ranging study […] It will be of interest to scholars interested in literary theory as well as those specifically interested in satire.” Claude Rawson on the back cover writes:
Both critics insist on the amount of thoughts that has gone into the book and they point to the breadth of the material involved. These may be reasons for praise but also reasons for worry. What is a book to be judged on? On its usefulness to scholars and students or the on the basis that the author has spent a great many hours, months and years on his project and deserves to be commended for it? Knight himself emphasizes the idea of time spent working on his book at the start of his acknowledgements. He calls his work “A book that has grown over a number of years” [viii] and explains that “earlier versions of sections of the book have been given as papers” [viii]. In other words he does not say that the idea of a book came first. The Literature of Satire does not work as a book because it was probably not meant to be one. Instead it is the quilted result of years of teaching, publishing and delivering papers. If it works at all, it is as a collection of chapters on various satirists throughout time and world geography. We hope therefore that libraries will give a detailed description of the contents of the book, from Diomedes to Karl Kraus to Milan Kundera so that scholars and students who are working on specific writers can read the corresponding chapters.
The problem of The Literature of Satire is its very attractive title, which would seem to indicate that a well-rounded analysis of satire is at hand. Having spent time reading the whole book, I can say that it is not the case. In fact the title, well understood (especially afterwards) is indicative of the method which, in 90% of the 327 pages, is descriptive, general and cumulative, one satirist following another satirist, one piece of satirical literature following another, in various historical or artistic contexts. The remaining 10% are the stimulating ideas and endeavours to raise issues about politics and language, which, however, are too scattered to amount to a central thesis.
In his introduction Knight warns us:
Why “encapsulate” then if you are not going to try and make a unifying statement? But at least Knight is honest in revealing his intention to start and end with various examples—“what satire does” as opposed to opting for a more ambitious treatment of his subject. But this lack of ambition leaves the book without a governing view. The “satiric frame of mind” is far too vague to work as a governing view.
Occasionally however, the reader comes across broad statements:
One could argue that genres are loose and baggy until you make your own attempt at defining them—a qualified definition as always, but also a definition that can shown to be operational in a number of cases. The metaphor Knight chooses is that of stuffing: “The equation of satura with farcimen (that is, with stuffing or sausage) stresses the function of satire as a mixture to be consumed by the reader” . The explanations follow:
Does this metaphor—if correctly understood—really work? As a matter of fact, a few pages down, Knight expresses doubts as to the “value of metaphorical defining”:
Knight’s demonstrations tend to be contradictory and confused, either too narrow or too broad, and if there is any theorizing in the book, it should be written in the plural— “theorizings”—as each new satirist inspires Knight with a new way of looking at satire. The 12 points of his definition of “satiric exiles” are a good illustration of his approach, which consists in listing ideas as separate items—The characteristics of satiric exiles can be conveniently listed [84-5]—instead of joining them up dynamically in a discussion.
But if the book lacks strong clear lines there are some thoughtful insights in every chapter. Here is an example:
How “wide-ranging” can a study be? Can wide-ranging mean unfocused? Knight alludes to some linguistic theorists in the course of his discussion: Todorov, Jakobson, Grice (Paul Grice, 1989), Smith (Barbara Herrnstein Smith, 1968, 1978). Their presence does not clarify the question of satire but complicates it. Smith, for instance, distinguishes between “natural” and “fictive” utterances and between poetry and fiction, a theory which, in itself, begs questions, but her work is briefly summoned by Knight to explain— or rather dis-explain—Horace [36-7].
Horace appears at an early stage in the book. By then the reader has realised that his or her involvement with The Literature of Satire will not be rewarding. A quote from Edward Said encountered page 82 is a reminder that academic writing can have stronger purposes. In the chapter “Satire and the Novel” another list provides renewed evidence that the project is basically an accumulation of references: “The Lucianic tradition includes, among others, Erasmus, More, Rabelais, Swift, Sterne, Diderot, Peacock, Jean Paul Richter, Machado de Assis, and such postmodern figures as Borges, Rushdie, and Kundera”. Yielding to a similar impulse Knight circumscribes another group of satirical writers a little further down: “The Quixotic tradition includes novels by Fielding, Smollet, Thackeray, Dickens and Meredith.” This is followed by a description of what the novel does or does not do: “The temporal structure of fiction characteristically emphasizes the relations of imagined events in time and the novel explores other relations within and through the framework of this temporal one” . But what about satire? Are there one or several satiric modes? What is the role of values and politics in the writing and reception of satire? Isn’t satire part of the humanist agenda that transcends history? Couldn’t moral philosophy yield a few general answers on the subject of satire? Knight can only ever provide case-by-case answers:
To bring the review of this book published by Cambridge University Press to a self-explanatory end it is necessary to quote from the final chapter on Karl Kraus. This is truly material for satire, or metafiction if one prefers, with due respect for academic effort and academic self-effacement. Someone is getting lost in detail. Is it Charles A. Knight or Charles Kinbote?