Thoughts on satire

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 CriterionI 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.

Juvenal probably died shortly after Antonius Pius succeeded Hadrian in 138. The Satires seemed at first to have died with him. There is no mention of them at all for more than a century. Given Juvenal’s xenophobia and suspicion of anything not properly Roman, it is ironical that his work should have been rediscovered first by Christian apologists in the fourth century. They mined the vein of Stoic resignation that courses through the Satires. Once Juvenal entered the bloodstream of European literature, he stuck. Even today, in our amnesiac age, a good many bits of Juvenal are in general circulation, a surprising number in Latin. Everyone knows panem et circenses, the “bread and circuses” for which the public proverbially clamors, even if its origin in Juvenal’s tenth Satire is forgotten. Likewise rara avis (from the sixth Satire) and mens sana in corpore sano (from the tenth). We know many other Juvenalian tags in English: the admonition that “he who travels light can sing in the face of a robber”; that “honesty is praised but freezes”; that “luxury is more deadly than an armed invader”; that a long peace brings special evils of its own; that parents should “abstain from things that they must condemn” lest their children copy them; that many—too many!—are afflicted by “an incurable itch for writing.”


Some writers have responded to Juvenal’s ferocity, others to his exquisite Latin, still others to the implicit vision of a cleaner, nobler, more honest society lurking behind his satire. Chaucer appropriates bits of Juvenal for the Wife of Bath’s tale and Troilus and Criseyde. The famous French writer and aesthetician Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711) wrote satires modelled closely on Juvenal. Montaigne quoted him dozens of times. Donne greatly admired him. Dr. Johnson scored an early triumph with “London,” a brilliant imitation of Juvenal’s third Satire, whose permanent, language-transcending relevance to human affairs is illustrated by Johnson’s transpositions:

Forgive my transports on a theme like this
I cannot bear a French metropolis.
………… …
Obsequious, artful, voluble and gay,
On Britain’s fond credulity they prey.

Johnson returned to Juvenal in “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” an imitation of the tenth Satire, and he told Boswell that he had considered translating or imitating yet others (though some, he noted, were too “gross” to be Englished). Johnson seized upon the moral core of Juvenal. Others responded to different aspects of the Satires. Flaubert’s “rage” for Juvenal was based partly on Juvenal’s searing tone and his sharp, contrarian Flaubert’s “rage” for Juvenal was based partly on Juvenal’s searing tone and his sharp, contrarian spirit: Emma Bovary could have won a starring role in the sixth Satire. But Flaubert was also intoxicated by Juvenal’s style (“Quel style! quel style!”), his astonishing mastery of diction, meter, and sound, his ability to use sound to mimic, to adumbrate sense. When Juvenal describes a belching courtier, he captures the eructation in his alternation of open vowels and percussive consonants. When a woman sobs, Juvenal’s verse does, too. It’s a wonderful feat and also, as one scholar crisply observed, “a translator’s nightmare.”

Juvenal has often been criticized for inattention to structure. His Satires are—some of them—less narratives proceeding in orderly procession from beginning through middle to the end than hectic digressions in which a cascading kaleidescope of ideas, images, and imprecations jostles for our attention. “All human endeavors,” he says, “are the hotch-potch of my little book.” Indeed, Juvenal’s appetite for the circus of life competes with his urge to condemn its depredations. The third Satire poses—no, it is—a rejection of city life in favor of bucolic simplicity. But somehow the enthusiasm of Juvenal’s rejection transforms his criticism into a cunning half-embrace. On the one hand, it’s “farewell Rome”—there is

No room for honest Romans when Rome’s ruled by a junta
Of Greek-born secret agents, who—like all their race—
Never share friends or patrons.

And yet what follows is an evocation of Roman life so palpable, so teeming with life, that fascination triumphs over fastidiousness. For sheer velocity, few poets can match Juvenal. “Horace,” Dryden wrote in his Discourse Concerning Satire, “is always on the amble, Juvenal on the gallop.” Yet considered line for line, Juvenal is a prodigy of formal excellence, a Cellini in words. Hence the astute observation by one critic that Juvenal, despite his large canvas, was essentially a “miniaturist.”


We should not be surprised that many of Juvenal’s famous lines have outlived their original context and satirical point. We are all familiar with the question quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Today, we are most apt to encounter the phrase in a political context: who is looking after the politicians who are supposed to be looking after us? Juvenal, characteristically, applies the phrase to women: a man thinks to safeguard his wife’s chastity by locking her in the house: “But who is to keep guard/ Over the guards themselves? They get paid in common coin/ To forget their mistresses’ randy little adventures.”

The Satires have something for—and something to offend—almost everyone. Two of Juvenal’s Satires—the second and the ninth—dilate on homosexuality. They once were bowdlerized because of their subject and risqué bits. (The introduction to the Loeb Classical Library’s Juvenal provides summaries of the Satires. Most are lengthy and detailed. About the ninth, however, the writer confines himself to the observation that “it deals with a disgusting offense, one of the main sources of corruption in the ancient world.”) Today, these parts of Juvenal are more likely to be bowdlerized (or attacked) because of what they ridicule than what they depict.

Then there is the issue of women. By far the longest, and in some ways the most vituperative, of the Satires is the sixth, which Juvenal devotes to a wide-ranging attack on the folly, for men, of marriage.

Postumus, are you really
Taking a wife? You used to be sane enough—what
Fury’s got into you, what snake has stung you up?
Why endure such bitch-tyranny when rope’s available
By the fathom, when all those dizzying top-floor windows
Are open for you, when there are bridges handy
To jump from?

Juvenal did not have a narrow view of women. He does not, in this satire, portray all wives as vicious termagants. Some are extravagant, drunken gossips; others are insatiable nymphomaniacs and/or cruel and domineering liars. A whorish unchastity, according to Juvenal, is the leading characteristic. Of course, one does occasionally come across an uncorrupted woman: she is (the famous phrase) a rara avis, as unusual as a black swan. But Juvenal is a tough chap to please: “Who could endure a wife that possessed all perfections?” Such rare birds are invariably “haughty, condescending prigs” who spoil virtue with pride.

Juvenal was not always on the attack. Probably his most thoughtful Satire is the tenth, the one that Johnson commemorated in “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Nothing that Juvenal wrote is gentle, exactly, but here we have Juvenal the teacher, not Juvenal the scourge. What is it that most of us ask of the gods (or call it fate, providence, fortune, luck … )? Money, power, fame, beauty, even a long life—Juvenal shows how these common desiderata are often the enemies of human happiness. We ask for money: we get it and find ourselves the prey of robbers and cheats. (“Increase his riches and his peace destroy.”) We ask for power: we get it and find ourselves the object of murderous intrigues. A mother asks that her daughter be beautiful, her son handsome: they are, but they are also objects of the seducer’s eye. Even a long life—what good is that when the torments and indignities of old age pile up and rob life of its zest? Is there nothing the prudent should ask of the gods? Juvenal has two answers. First his disclaimer:


If you want my advice
Let the Gods themselves determine what’s most appropriate
For mankind, and what best suits our various circumstances.
They’ll give us the things we need, not those we want: a man
Is dearer to them than he is to himself.

But in the end Juvenal affirms the modest creed of the Stoics. Be wary of Fortune, for she is a fickle goddess, but if you must ask for favors, ask

For a sound mind in a sound body, a valiant heart
Without fear of death, that reckons longevity
The least among Nature’s gifts.
……… …
              there’s one
Path, and one only, to a life of peace— through virtue.
Fortune has no divinity, could we but see it: it’s we,
We ourselves, who make her a goddess, and set her in the heavens.

A modest philosophy, but also an eminently humane one.

Kierkegaard observed that satire, to be useful, must emerge from a consistent view of life. In some respects, Juvenal is the least consistent of writers. As Peter Green noted, “if we try to pin down any coherent philosophy in Juvenal’s work, we soon find ourselves forced to admit defeat.” Nevertheless, Juvenal does exhibit a consistency of attitude. At the center of this attitude are two things: courage and an allergy to euphemism. One scholar described Juvenal as “a realist of the realists; he grapples with the real things of life.” Satire is by nature one-sided. It exaggerates wildly. It is over-the-top. Anyone who has read the letters of Juvenal’s contemporary Pliny knows how distorted Juvenal’s view of the world was. Sir Paul Harvey spoke in this context of his “narrow pessimism which sees only the seamy side of life.” Still, we indulge the distortions that satire deploys for the sake of the revelations it promises. We might not like some of the things that Juvenal tells us.  But then we in the West pride ourselves on having finally achieved enlightenment about— oh, so many things! We are unburdened by many benighted prejudices that crimped the souls of our ancestors. And how much better we think of ourselves on account of our liberations. If nothing else, Juvenal may help temper that self-satisfaction.


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