I have often noted here the difficulty our progressive and enlightened age poses for the art of satire. Satire depends on some palpable distance between common reality and the thing satirized. “Ha!,” we say, we feel viscerally, when confronted by effective satire, “that exaggeration, that caricature, that satire dramatizes a dangerous tendency in our culture. Of course, no one really tries to extract cucumbers from sunbeams, as Swift suggests in his great satire Gulliver’s Travels, but the idea that they might shows you how absurd so much academic culture is.”
But what if it turned out people really did try to distill cucumbers from sunbeams? What then?
To bad for Swift’s narrative. For the satire only works if the extreme thing it presents really is some distance from the quotidian world.
What absurdity, what outrage, what assault on common sense (to say nothing of common decency) is safely beyond enactment that the satirist can rely on its being safely beyond the pale? For decades now, the art world (which is not to be confused with the world of art) has specialized in mounting raids to efface the distinction between outré and acceptable: the ne plus ultra is now the status quo, the surreal the new documentary. The same is true in the world of education, where delicate feminist snowflakes recoil from the perturbations of Ovid even as they broadcast videos of their sexual escapades. The normalization—that is to say, the currency, for there is nothing normal about it—of transexualism and attendant phenomena from the Baedeker of Kraft-Ebbing might make for a pandering line in Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, but it is hard, hard on the would be satirist, for if the world can celebrate Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner, it’s pretty much knock-off time all around. And then there is the world of politics. It’s almost sweet that some conservatives are scrambling to explain how Chief Justice John Roberts’s assault on the Constitution and what Antonin Scalia mournfully called the plain meaning of words is really, deep down, an opportunity for conservatives and a good thing because now they won’t have to dealing with the yapping disruption of the Left. How can you satirize that?
I was chatting (that is to say, emailing) with a percipient friend yesterday who, having cast a doleful eye about the mad, mad world we inhabit. “You ought,” he said, “write something on Juvenal.” Ever happy to oblige, I pointed out that I had done just that. Lessons from Juvenal appeared some years ago in The New Criterion. I hope and expect that most of my readers will have functioning subscriptions to that beacon of sanity, but since the piece is behind a paywall, I post it here free and for nothing for the delectation and guidance of neophytes and random web travelers. I begin with a few eipgraphs:
It is difficult not to write satire.
—Juvenal, on the Rome of his day
J’ai en ce moment une forte rage de Juvenal. Quel style! quel style!
—Flaubert, in a letter of 1853
Satire, if it is to do any good and not cause immeasurable harm, must be firmly based on a consistent ethical view of life.
—Kierkegaard, The Present Age
Probably the most politically incorrect Roman poet, certainly the most caustic, was the satirist Decimus Junius Juvenalis—Juvenal to us. We expect satirists to expose hypocrisy, injustice, corruption. Juvenal does this. We also expect satirists to exaggerate, to caricature, to lampoon. Juvenal does this, too, in spades. But satire, like liquor, comes in a variety of flavors and potencies. There is mild satire, whose means are gentle and whose aim is comic. Gilbert and Sullivan are satirists in this sense, as, in his satirical forays, is Horace, Juvenal’s meticulous, urbane precursor. Gentle satire pokes, but gingerly, in fun. Its goal is enlightenment, yes, but also laughter.
Juvenal belongs to a different tribe. When he pokes, he pokes hard, to hurt. His satire is bitter—an adjective that is never far from the poet’s name. The phrase “savage indignation”—often in Latin—is another epithet unfailingly applied to Juvenal, though it does not, I believe, occur in his work. Jonathan Swift, a rival in acerb satire, employed it in his epitaph, which pictures him happy at having finally escaped the saeva indignatio that so lacerated his heart during his life. There are plenty of hilarious passages in Juvenal. But in the end, as F. H. Buckley notes in The Morality of Laughter, Juvenal’s “savage indignation stifles our laughter.” Juvenal aims primarily at the catharsis of exposure, only incidentally at justice and reform. The element of humor is but an intermittent companion to his verse.
Juvenal’s signature disposition is rage—rage against women, foreigners, and pandering homosexuals; against cruel and decadent rulers, unresponsive patrons, uppity parvenus; against greed, pomposity, extravagance, vanity, innovation, stupidity, bad manners, and urban blight. Why write satire? “I will enlighten you,” Juvenal tells us in his the first Satire:
When a flabby eunuch marries, when well-born girls go crazy
For pig-sticking up-country, bare-breasted, spear-in-fist;
When the barber who rasped away at my youthful beard has risen ￼
To challenge good society with his millions; when Crispinus,
That Delta-bred home-slave, silt washed down by the Nile—
Now hitches his shoulders under Tyrian purple, airs
A thin gold ring in summer on his sweaty finger
(“My dear, I couldn’t bear to wear my heavier jewels”)—
Why, then it is harder not to write satires; for who
Could endure this monstrous city, however callous at heart,
And swallow his wrath?
“Today every vice/ Has reached its ruinous zenith. So, satirist, hoist your sails.”
Juvenal’s loathing is visceral, breathtaking, unforgettable. His ninth Satire (he wrote sixteen altogether) is a conversation between Juvenal and an unpleasant, discarded rent-boy who rails against the perfidy and stinginess of his even more unpleasant former keeper. (“‘I paid you so much then,’ he says, ‘and a bit more later, and more that other time.’”) Gilbert Highet, the great classical scholar and an expert on Juvenal, called it “one of the most shocking poems ever written” but also “a masterpiece.”
Highet is right on both counts. The shock stems not so much from overt obscenity. There are only a few passages that the Loeb deliberately euphemizes (only once, I believe, does it render Juvenal’s Latin into Greek). Many classical poets outdo Juvenal in the deployment of four-letter words and the depiction of the actions they name. But no poet exceeds him in portraying the chilly perversion of human affections—not just sexual affection, but all the many forms of intimacy that bind us one to another. Juvenal was a connoisseur of contempt. But he was a dazzlingly eloquent connoisseur. His stinging hexameters glitter with linguistic brilliance and moral outrage. (They glitter, too, with a demanding vocabulary: of the 4790 words in the Satires, 2130 are hapax legomena.)
Who was Juvenal? We hardly know. If he wrote letters, none survives. For all their panoramic detail, the Satires contain only a handful of autobiographical tidbits. There are no contemporaneous accounts of Juvenal’s life or work. He savaged his fellows; they responded with a consuming silence. In the introduction to his excellent translation of the Satires (Penguin, 1974), Peter Green notes that Juvenal is among the most elusive of classical writers. We do not know where he was born, or when. We do not know whether he was married (probably not), or whether he had children. Highet conjectures that Juvenal was or became homosexual, chiefly on the evidence of his fearful contempt for women. But “probably” is the best we can do about even basic signposts. Juvenal was probably born between AD 55 and 70, which is to say during or just after the reign of Nero (54–68): a period of ostentatious corruption and moral breakdown. He was probably born in Aquinum, a town about one hundred miles north of Rome. His father seems to have been a well-to-do Spanish freedman. It is possible that Juvenal saw military service in Britain—there are some scattered allusions to Agricola’s campaign in the Orkneys (84–85) in the second Satire—and it seems likely that he embarked on a career in the civil service. Some speculate that he studied with the great rhetorician Quintilian (c. 35–c. 95).
Juvenal was obviously in and about Rome a good deal: his vivid, omnivorous descriptions of life there bespeak intimate knowledge of the city. He may have been exiled—possibly to Egypt—by Domitian around 92. If so, it may have been because Juvenal made a slighting remark about an actor called Paris, one of Domitian’s favorites (until, that is, Paris was suspected of pursuing an affair with the emperor’s wife, at which point he was promptly executed). Those who suffered exile had their property confiscated, which would explain Juvenal’s bitter depictions of impoverished writers seeking favors from indifferent patrons.
Exile in Egypt would also help explain Juvenal’s loathing for all things Egyptian (an animus he cordially extended to all things Greek). Would Domitian really have exiled someone simply for criticizing Paris? Probably not. Probably he would have had him executed. That, after all, is what he did to a poor chap who just happened to look like Paris. Ditto for some youths who put flowers on Paris’s grave. Domitian was—or became by the end of his reign—a paranoid, murderous tyrant. If Juvenal was exiled, he might well have been recalled when Nerva became emperor in 96 and issued a sort of general amnesty for those exiled by Domitian. The sixteen Satires—we possess a full fifteen and a fragment of the sixteenth—were probably begun in the late 80s. They amount to some four thousand lines of verse. Juvenal published them in five books between about 110 and 130—during, that is, the relatively benign reigns of Trajan (98–117) and Hadrian (117– 138). The only contemporary reference to Juvenal is by his older friend Martial, “the fashionable social pornographer” (Green’s phrase), who mentions Juvenal a couple of times in his Epigrams. In one epigram from the 80s, Martial called Juvenal “facundus,” “eloquent,” but he probably referred not to the Satires (as yet unpublished) but to Juvenal’s skill at oratory. Juvenal mellowed with age. His last satires lack the biting invective and linguistic pyrotechnics of the first dozen. After a period of poverty, Juvenal seems (judging from some hints in the Satires) to have acquired a modest competence: a small farm at Tibur where he could quietly entertain a few friends.