Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

Sweet and bitter are the uses of satire.

[New Straits Times, 27 May 1992]


The Romans, Masters of the Universe in their day, nevertheless felt a powerful inferiority complex before the Greeks when it came to literature. They were great imitators and adaptors, but not very good at inventing new types of writing. When they did, they congratulated themselves loudly.

Satire is a difficult term to define. The closest that I can get is to call it "writing about things you don't like," but that's not really accurate. The Latin word for satire is satura, related to the word "saturate." It originally meant a plate of mixed fruits or other goodies (like the modern Italian antipasto), or the stuffing in a roast chicken.

Maybe for this reason, all the Roman satirists were obsessed with food.

Unusually for a major literary genre, satire boasts an "original inventor," one Gaius Lucilius, born sometime in the early 2nd century B.C. Like a lot of other old writers, there's nothing much, sigh, left of him, a thousand or so scattered lines saved in dictionaries, among which the reader looking for literary fun sits like an archaeologist in a pile of smashed porcelain. Here's one shard, describing a

Large, worthless human being like a huge butcher's dog.

Lucilius was a new type of Roman: intellectual, curious, and not overly rigid. It seems to me that he chose to write his "antipastos" simply because there was no traditional genre available for miscellaneous thoughts. Lucilius strangely keeps mentioning bags and pockets and things kept in them. He preferred nibbling at assorted things rather than big meals.

Lucilius established a pattern for the genre---even beyond the bounds of Latin. Anything, sordid or dignified, was a fit subject for satire: fashions, dress, food, language, literary criticism, people's odd habits. Second, Lucilius' satire dealt with sharp observation of details, and finally, his satire was about likes and dislikes, what he found to blame and what to approve of in life around him. In short, criticism.

A hundred years later, the poet Horace took satire up again. While Lucilius often wrote in passion, as we feel a satirist should, Horace to many readers seemed too gentle, as he himself confessed. He was well off for a poet, a friend of Augustus Caesar. Content people have not much to complain about. It's significant that he called his pieces sermones or "chats":

...however, to tell the truth laughing
What forbids? As nice teachers give their kids cookies
To get them to want to learn the alphabet...

Horace always makes the moral purpose of his satire clear; he is out to encourage his readers to look at their own lives. In between the reflective and merely smiling pieces, Horace includes a few poems to raise a laugh off encounters with trouble. He is trapped by a boring acquaintance in the Forum, who takes hours to shake off; he goes on a trip to south Italy and suffers all strange things modern tourists write about. The bizarre dinnerparties of the nouveau riche, and Roman sexual antics are good for a few snickers.

Satire comes into its own during the first century of the Roman empire. There are a number of reasons for this. First, although things were corrupt enough during the old republic, when government was elected, people at least made a pretence of morality. When emperors held power, vulgarity and wickedness ran riot, just as "greed was good" in the Reagan years. The emperors-such paragons as the unspeakable Caligula and Nero---led the pack.

...When faggots get married, when society ladies
Hunt wild boars with spear and naked tits,
When barbers can buy out whole old families,
When a piece of the Nile mob, that Egyptian slave
Crispin flaunts a purple cape on his shoulder
And a gold ring on his sweaty fingers---the jewel's
No bigger because he couldn't possibly carry it--

Then it's difficult not to write satire...

Juvenal is the angriest and the most biting of the satirists. He got that way from living under bad government, in poverty, and in Rome. By his time, cities were no longer civilized. Change the appropriate details and he could be talking about New York, or K.L.:

...with the rent you pay for an garret room in Rome
You could buy a house in Frusino...'re crazy if you go out to dinner at night
without having made your will...thugs...chariots... ...
What place do we see so wretched and lonely, that
We wouldn't believe it worse to be in terror of fires,
The constant collapse of houses, and the thousand other
Dangers of this savage city, including
Poets reciting in the month of August?...

It was these last that got Juvenal started writing satire:

Will I always just listen? Will I never get to respond,
Vexed so often with the Theseid of hoarse Codrus?
Will with impunity this guy recite me his comedies,
And this guy his "love poetry"? Will some huge tragedy,
Telephus, or Orestes written full into the margins of the
Scroll and on the back and still not finished take up my
Whole day and I have no vengeance?...

Satire takes forms and moods as various as the personalities of the people who write it. It probably employs a greater variety
of techniques than poetry without critical bent. Humour is a big part of satire, but a laugh can have many motivations, and there are many kinds, gentle to bitter.

Irony, the technique of saying what you do not mean, is important to satire. This includes exaggeration, understatement, and bathos---a thought that begins grandly and ends in nothing:

Go, Hannibal! and rush through the terrifying Alps,
So you may give schoolboys a good essay topic...

Burlesque is to take something serious and important and describe in terms of something low and trivial---a cabinet meeting described as a football match.

Juvenal was one of the few to work this trick the other way around, to take something trivial and describe it in terms of something serious, what is called "mock-heroic" in English poetry.

In Satire 4, the loathsome Emperor Domitian is presented with a large fish:

..."Accept," said the man from Picenum,
"Something too great for a private kitchen. Let this day
Be sacred to your genius. Hasten to fill out your stomach
With this fat dish, and deign to consume this turbot
Destined to honour your reign. The fish himself
to be caught..."

The problem is, there's no dish in the palace big enough for the thing. The Emperor summons the Cabinet,

...As if he were about to give directives about hostile
German tribes...

The ministers---whom Domitian hates---rush to the palace in terror and stand pale and anxious, having had experience that wrong answers to the Emperor have cost lives before. In comes the fish, and as everyone looks at it in complete stupor Domitian asks: "Well, what should we do? Cut it up?"

The implication is that Domitian decided real policy in no better fashion. Satire often most effectively works by indirection, starting from some safe point and constantly testing how far the boundaries of criticism can be pushed. All satirists hope that their writing will help correct the times. I doubt the world has ever got much better because of a poem; yet for us singly, satire keeps us aware as well as entertained.