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The Literature of Satire
Charles A. Knight

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004
327 pp., ISBN : 0 521 83460 0.


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:

This large and attractive book is not, in the conventional sense, a history of satire, though it offers historical matter, nor an effort at theoretical definition in the hard-core sense of that phrase, though it is full of thoughtful general reflections on the genres and modes of satires. It is an exceptionally wide-ranging exploration not only of works we normally call satires, or even “satirical” in general, but of relations between the “satiric frame of mind” and many works of poetry and fiction. The book retains an energetic grasp of its varied material and contains a great deal of information and thoughtful insights. Above, still on the back cover, Pat Rogers comments: This ambitious and wide-ranging study of satire is consistently interesting and well-written, deeply pondered and obviously the fruit of long thought and extensive research.

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 book is divided into two sections: “Satiric boundaries” and “Satiric Forms.” The first section contains the following chapters: 1. Imagination’s Cerberus, 2. Satiric nationalism, 3. Satiric exile. The second section contains: 4. Satire as performance, 5. Horatian performances, 6. Satire and the novel, 7. Satire and the press: the Battle of Dunkirk, 8. White snow and black magic: Karl Kraus and the press. The book ends with a short conclusion, followed by notes, a bibliography and an index.

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:

Although it proposes a governing view of satire, encapsulated in the phrase “the satiric frame of mind,” it is more concerned to uncover what satire does than to make authoritative statements about its essential nature.[1]

 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:

Although the less constrictive sense of genre as an early interpretive guide whose functions shift throughout the reading of a text avoids the rigidity that is perhaps inevitable in global projects of defining genres, a particular problem emerges in the case of loose baggy genres, such as satire or the novel. Tight, rigid descriptions are inadequate to the variety and complexity of such forms, but loose, flexible descriptions tell us relatively little about the shape and content of the text we begin to read. My argument here is that the bind facing readers of broad genres may in part be avoided by thinking of genres in metaphoric terms and that satire especially benefits from such description. [15]

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” [24]. The explanations follow:

The act of consuming is self-consciously represented by the object we consume, and by eating it we transform the image into reality. Just as the stuffing of the sausage serves as model for the stuffing of the eater’s stomach, the process of reading transforms the satiric representation of experience into the personal of those who read it. The stuffed sausage further suggests the intrusion of various and spicy substances into a flexible but limited form. The satura-farcimen equation, operating as metaphor, implies satire’s self-conscious imitation and the threat that the form it imitates will ultimately prove inadequate to contain its message. The threat that the skin will burst and the contents pour out (the sausage as “banger”) may provide a moral warning against overeating, but it also reflects the satiric rebellion of message against the confining characteristics of genre. [25]

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”:

If not, I have rescued Diomedes from deserved obscurity only to allow an excursion through various satiric occasions, and one may justly complain that the alleged value of metaphorical defining lies in its capacity to suggest possibilities without encompassing anything. [28]

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:

Taken as a whole, Lucian’s satires make a frontal attack on the falsities of intellectual life. He typically imagines an ideal viewpoint from which human activity appears futile, and from which not even the feats of heroes can overcome death (e.g., Charon, Icaromenippus). If action is ultimately futile, systems of human belief, constructed to deny that futility must be illusion or deceit. […] All people are prone to illusion, but clearly some illusions are especially dangerous, injurious to the believer or to others. In face of the human need to believe and the impossibility of belief, Lucian asserts the importance of rejecting false belief, even at the risk of nothingness.[29] Yet these insights can be overwritten and confused: But the risk of nothingness is not unbearable. The need to believe can be filled by fantasy embodied in Lucian’s satire. Fantasy admits its untruths, as Lucian does in the Preface to Vera Historia. Because fantasy is the self-conscious enjoyment of significant untruths, it both escapes from the delusions of false belief and provides the vantage point from which truth becomes apparent. Imagination breaks the limitations of disciplined thought, whose inadequacies it exposes both by testing them against ordinary experience and by asserting that experience becomes meaningful only when the clouds of delusive reason are dispelled. [29-30]

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[220]. 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” [223]. 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:

The novels of Muriel Spark exemplify the force of satiric disruptions in the flow of realistic narrative. Written in an economical style, they include disconcertingly unrealistic elements that call appearances of reality into question. In Memento Mori elderly people, mostly associated with the literary world, get anonymous phone calls telling them to remember they must die, and the novel traces the effects of these calls (apparently from death himself or herself) on each of these characters. In The Ballad of Peckham Rye a satanic figure… [223-24]
Knight should really have produced an anthology of satirical writings with entries in alphabetical order. This would have been the right format for his knowledge.

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?

Since I am basically a reader of English myself (that is, my German is roughly comparable to Kraus’s English), I need I think, to be forthright about my encounter with Kraus, about what I can consequently say, and why it seems important to say it. I have read everything by Kraus that has been translated into English, and some of what I have read (but certainly not all) I have compared to the German texts. In addition I have read in German (slowly and perhaps inaccurately) a half-dozen particularly relevant essays by Kraus that have not been translated. I have read everything written about Kraus in English that I could find, some of what has been written in German. On the basis of this imperfect acquaintance, I can hardly pretend to speak authoritatively about him or to add significantly to what has already been said. [253]



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