Aesthetic Realism Consultant, Writer, Poet (1919-1980)
Aesthetic Realism Class of May 24, 1948
Taught by Eli Siegel
Report by Sheldon Kranz
In the class of May 24, 1948, Eli Siegel discussed satire as part of a series of talks he is giving on the large subject of humor. The purpose of true satire, he explained, is to take an ugly thing and present it gracefully and humorously so that the ugliness is seen. When satire shows the cheap and the ugly, it is on the side of beauty because, essentially, it is based on the desire to make reality more beautiful. For example, when Jonathan Swift wrote his great satire, Gulliver's Travels, he was trying to show up the weaknesses of people in order that they change so that the world would be a better place. However, Mr. Siegel pointed out, when the purpose of satire is to make reality less, as we find it in bad "kidding" and in sarcasm, satire can do harm and is not on the side of beauty.
Satire at its best, he continued, has three forms: satire of one person, as we find it in Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt; satire of a group like the Rotarians or the D.A.R. Gilbert and Sullivan in their operetta Patience were satirizing the aesthetic movement of the 1890's; and third, there is a satire of mankind in general. Here Swift's Gulliver's Travels is one of the best examples in literature.
In all of these, Mr. Siegel went on, it can be seen that satire is always about pretense, about how persons will choose what is false in order that their vanity be undisturbed. We have a picture of ourselves which truth will destroy; and so to protect that picture of ourselves, we will accept what is untrue and unimportant. Satire changes a bad thing into a good thing, an untrue thing into a true thing. Satire makes us laugh to make the ugly more apparent.
"The Owl Critic"
To illustrate this, Eli Siegel read and discussed a poem called "The Owl Critic" by the 19th century poet, James Thomas Fields. In this amusing poem we see how a person, because of his vanity, can mistake what is authentic. The critic in the poem comes into a barbershop and devastatingly criticizes the stuffed owl that is part of the decor of the barbershop. Here is one stanza: The young man says:
I've studied owls
And other night fowls,
And I tell you
What I know to be true:
An owl can't roost
With his limbs so unloosed;
No owl in the world
Ever had his claws curled,
Ever had his legs slanted,
Ever had his bill canted
Ever had his neck screwed
Into that attitude.
He can't do it, because
'Tis against all bird laws.
An owl has a toe
That can't turn out so!
I've made the white owl my study for years,
And to see such a job almost moves me to tears!
...And the barber kept on shaving.
The poem ends this way:
Just then with a wink and a sly normal lurch,
The owl, very gravely, got down from his perch,
Walked round and regarded his fault-finding critic
(Who thought he was stuffed) with a glance analytic
And then fairly hooted, as if he would say:
"Your learning's at fault this time, any way;
Don't waste it again on a live bird, I pray
I'm an owl; you're another. Sir Critic, goodday!"
And the barber kept on shaving.
Eli Siegel went on to discuss other things that can be satirized. Disproportion, he pointed out, can be satirized, as for example, the man who devotes a whole life to money grubbing. This was a favorite theme in Victorian novels. On the other hand, there are the dreamy persons--the Don Quixotes or the romantic girls who don't want to think about dirty dishes or making a living. This has also been material for satire.
Eli Siegel read a satirical poem by Samuel Butler called "O God, O Montreal!" which makes fun of acquisition and snobbishness. In this poem, Butler uses Montreal to show satirically people who are not interested in art, who are only interested in material things and in important connections. The poem tells about two plaster casts of Greek art which are in a Montreal museum. However, they have been relegated to a back room because they are seen as indecent with their lack of clothing. And the caretaker defends his position by pompously referring to his high connections with the Reverend in the town. Again we see, Mr. Siegel pointed out, how satire goes after criticizing man's mistakes, man's vanity. Satire is part of the desire of man to be critical of himself.
We Satirize Ourselves
We can all see our inconsistencies and satirize them, he went on. We can poke fun at ourselves for saying we will never talk to a certain girl again, and then call her up the next day. We can satirize ourselves for telling a person not to do something, and then doing it ourselves. The neurotic is always satirizing part of himself unconsciously. Not wanting to be with people satirizes the desire in him to be in the middle of things; wanting to be gloomy satirizes the part of him that wants to laugh.
We can satirize the way we were in the past. At 30 we can satirize the way we were at 16; at 50 we can satirize the way we were at 30. The married woman who, in her mind, once satirized the married life can later satirize the single life. Satire can express bitterness, Mr. Siegel said, but it is bitterness with grace; it is opposition with beauty.
Then there has been satire of a person who only thinks of himself; also the person who is so involved in causes, he forgets people. Here Mr. Siegel read about Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens's Bleak House, who has a family around her that is in a constant state of neglect and disintegration. But Mrs. Jellyby is intensely involved, twenty-four hours a day, in writing letters for causes in South Africa and obscure little islands in the South Pacific.
Satire has also been used a great deal in political campaigns, particularly in campaign songs. And Mr. Siegel read a song now being used in the 1948 presidential campaign. This campaign is notable because, running against Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey is Henry Wallace, heading a Third Party. Mr. Siegel read a song being used by the Third Party set to the music of "Stormy Weather" with lyrics by E. Y. Harburg. In this song, as in all satire, truth, fun, and criticism are mingled so that one is against the thing satirized-here the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Using Humor for Beauty
If we make the beautiful ugly, Eli Siegel concluded, we are cynical and sarcastic. If we take the ugly and make it funny, we are using humor for beauty. If we are against the ugly clearly, we will have pleasure in being against something in a good way. What has too often happened is that we are against things but our motives are not ones we are proud of and so there is no real pleasure. True satire is humor on the offensive.