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In Plato’s Cave

Kernan, Alvin | Yale University, 1999


p. 127

“Other types of literature, like comedy and tragedy, may be uncertain of purpose, but satire exists to attack folly, and perhaps even to improve the knaves and fools it scourges, though this last seems more doubtful. Normal people find some way of ignoring society’s massive hypocrisy–‘the world was always like this,’ ‘you have to take the good with the bad,’ ‘we are all sinners,’ ‘if you get to know him he isn’t really all that awful,’ ‘people who live in glass houses . . .’–but great satirists like Aristophanes, Horace, Ben Jonson, Swift, Pope, Byron, Orwell, Waugh, and our own Mark Twain and Nathanael West will have none of these evasions. They know knavery and folly when they see them, they understand how dangerous they are, they have the courage to call them their true names, and they have the verbal skills to strip the masks off hypocrites and fools and hold them up to laughter and contempt. Juvenal called the powerful moral outrage that drives the satirist to attack the hypocrisy and pretensions of the flagrantly wicked and the pompously virtuous saeva indignatio, fierce indignation. But the man who skins another alive gets a lot of blood on him, and great satirists have always had to find a way to relieve themselves of personal responsibility for the rough way they handle their fools and scoundrels. Some indirection, that is to say, is always required for the satire to be both effective and safe. Pretending to be and acting like a satyr was only one of the more bizarre devices for handling this universal problem of satiric writing. Irony, pretending to praise what you are in fact blaming, and comic overstatement have been the standard rhetorical devices for achieving this required obliquity. Swift put his satire in the mouth of an idiot like Lemuel Gulliver, who is unaware of the idiocy and vice he describes, while a satiric novelist like Evelyn Waugh simply allows folly to reveal itself, scrupulously avoiding any comment on it.”