It's only been in the last 150 years that artists began to seriously reject Aristotle's dictum that good art must delight and instruct. The shift was gradual—they dispensed with the instructive element before getting rid of the delightful part—but now art of all kinds is a subjective mess for which there is no established meaning or standard of evaluation. Beauty, in short, is in the eye of the beholder (a statement as meaningless as it is maudlin and cliche).
In such a climate it's no wonder you're far more likely to see aspoof on the "new release" shelves than a genuine satire. True satire is intended to reveal society's faults and ills to itself by presenting them larger-than-life and getting the audience to laugh at itself.
Don Quixote wasn't a celebration of chivalry, it was an extended joke concerning a failed system; Tristram Shandy wasn't intended to promote the bucolic lifestyle, it was meant to demonstrate the supremacy of Enlightenment ideals; Candide wasn't Voltaire's philosophy encapsulated, it was Voltaire's (inaccurate) encapsulation and mockery of Leibniz's philosophy.
The satirical goal is not merely to make readers laugh; it's to make them see the absurdity of some other point of view, some philosophy, or some societal or cultural relic. That's not to say you have to know all about the society under attack to get the jokes—classic satires are some of the funniest books ever written, and the humor for the most part is timeless. Still, if you know the tenets of courtly love you'll have even more fun reading Don Quixote than if you've never heard of Ulrich von Liechtenstein.
There are some notable modern exceptions to the "art-should-have-no-inherent-meaning" rule. The great Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote some of the funniest and most perceptive satires in his or any era, notably The Flying Inn which chronicles the adventures of a couple of Englishmen under Islamic law (!!!) who wheel a giant cheese around the Isles and drink ale wherever they stick their public house signboard.
Probably the greatest American satirist, Kurt Vonnegut churned out bajillions of comic-sad novels revealing the United States' propensities toward materialism, faddism and military aggression and violence. His most famous is Slaughterhouse-Five, an anti-war parable about a boy who finds himself in uniform in World War II Europe; his best is arguably Cat's Cradle, which involves a made-up religion and a midget.
Whereas satire comments directly on society, a parody makes fun of a particular book or film. The problem with parody is that it's often mockery for the sake of mockery and has little benefit or value for the audience other than to make them laugh. TV shows like South Park and Seinfeld are of this variety, implementing a nihilist aesthetic that tears everything down with nothing to put in its place.
Not every funny novel is a satire or parody, but most of them are. Books like Gulliver's Travels or Tom Jones or Gargantua and Pantagruel might be hundreds of years old, but the comedy is as fresh as when they first appeared. Perhaps fresher—a good joke has a way of building momentum after time, so that a mere reference can produce laughter. If for no other reason, read some satire so you're not the only person not laughing.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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