Edgar Johnson’s essay “The Nature and Value of Satire,” is the best explanation I have ever read of what satire is, how it works and why it is important. The essay is in A Treasury of Satire published in 1945 by Simon and Schuster. In the book Johnson put together a who’s who of the greatest satirists of all time to illustrate what he explains in his introductory essay.
He starts off with this:
There wouldn’t be much exaggeration in saying that everybody recognizes satire and that nobody knows what it is.
I’m not going to try to explain the essay here, I’m going to let Johnson give you a taste. If you can get the book I highly recommend reading the full essay. has not yet reached these lofty heights (Yet? Extremely presumptuous on my part!)…but I can dream. Clearly, satire is made for such a time as this. Good memes and political cartoons, I think, accomplish this, particularly when they outwit the “Censor” that Johnson writes about below.
Here are some highlights from the essay.
The one ingredient common to all these activities, from satire in cap-and-bells to satire with a flaming sword, is criticism.
But that is not enough
But criticism alone is not enough to define satire….Satire’s criticism must be criticism with a difference.
Satire is an unmasking
The merely foolish, satire may be content to “take down a peg or two”; the dangerous and vicious it would reduce to ruin. But in both the important thing to note is a kind of unmasking. The foolishness shown up is a foolishness that usually passes for sense. The ugliness revealed in its true colors has masqueraded as merit.
What Satire Is
This enables us to say, I think, what satire really is. It is criticism getting around or overcoming an obstacle. Let me call this obstacle the Censor. The Censor is always insisting that we mustn’t say or oughtn’t to say certain things. To a lady who complained that somehow, she couldn’t explain how, her fingernails were always getting dirty in London, Samuel Johnson replied, “Perhaps, madam, you scratch yourself.” Now, good manners don’t allow a gentleman to tell a lady that she herself is dirty, but Johnson’s form of words gets around the Censor; he says it without saying it.
By the time we are grown up Dame Civilization gets most of us house-broken pretty well.
Satire’s Significance Comes from its Truth
At its sanest and most penetrating it does not cancel distortion with counterdistortion. It merely focuses our gaze sharply upon the contrast between things as they should be and as they are.
High Spirits May Help the Satirist
A great aid to abusing people and getting away with it is high spirits. High spirits suggest that the satirist is not really serious, that it’s all in fun, that his fury is only a comic fury, mere kidding among friends. Just as a grin and chuckle have saved many a man from being socked in the eye, so a rollicking manner enables the satirist to attack us with denunciation piled on diatribe and still escape unharmed.
Damaging and True
For satiric purposes, however, abuse has to be more than funny, it has to be damaging, and to be damaging it must strike us as really true.
“Last week,” says Jonathan Swift, “I saw a woman flayed, and you would hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.”
By all the means we have now glanced at, the direct satirist overrides censorship, and makes himself a licensed teller of unpleasant truths.
Truth and Sanity
Because the great criteria of satire are always truth and sanity.
Where are the Satirists?
But we still have a lot of people and a lot of things that need to have the living daylights lambasted out of them. Is there a satirist in the house?
If you can get hold of the essay take a look. There’s a lot more about the types of satire (wit, irony, direct, indirect, burlesque, exaggeration and more), some great quotes and more insights. One of my favorite quotes is by Samuel Butler:
What makes all doctrines plain and clear?
About two hundred pounds a year.
And that which was proved true before
Proved false again? Two hundred more.
Some things never change.
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