Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Merry Minuet

this is an audio post - click to play

Recently I taught the Merry Minuet (Sheldon Harnick, 1958) to my chorus class at the Waldorf High School. It concludes: "They're rioting in Africa, there's strife in Iran; what nature doesn't do to us will be done by our fellow Man." The song has a cheerful tune and whistling, as you will hear if you listen to my first audio blog above! (Except, I can't whistle.)

Several members of the class sullenly complained they didn't understand the song or why anybody would sing it. I asked if any of them would be willing to write a report on satire and irony (words I'm going to use interchangeably since I'm not getting graded), and since I got no volunteers, I've done it myself.

I'm looking for input from you, if you're willing to chime in - I have some questions I need help with (at the end).

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it. (Swift, "The Battle of the Books")

Satire should, like a polished razor keen, Wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen. Thine is an oyster knife, that hacks and hews; The rage but not the talent to abuse. (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, "To the Imitator of the First Satire of Horace")

Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware, both of that "more" and of the outsider's incomprehension. (H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage)

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it. (Mark Twain, How to Tell a Story)

Irony, ultimately, is about insight, about understanding that what we perceive is not the whole truth, perhaps not the truth at all. It is the preferred tool of those wishing to cut through the mythologies of our era. Jeff House

Irony used to be a powerful tool for exploring the chasm between what we might expect and what actually occurs. Its classy approach was to observe ostensibly from the opposite point of view intended, hopefully arousing astonishment and ire in the reader.

Along with its low-life cousins sarcasm and derision it attacks the Seven Deadly Sins plus stupidity, "vanity, hypocrisy, pedantry, idolatry, bigotry, and sentimentality." (infoplease)

More than ever, good old deadpan satire seems lost on many readers. The new obtuseness can be innocent (as with my Waldorf kids) but it's often calculated and intentional - our world these days seems to be run by those who have discovered the hammer of humorlessness, the sickle of taking everything at face value.

To be satirical these days exposes you to litigation; mocking has become a risk many won't take. As Mari Wadsworth wrote in a review of the satiric George Bush, Dark Prince Of Love:
I was muttering over lunch that satire was dead. "There isn't enough goodwill left in public life to support it," I'd said. "Cynicism has made us literalists...literalists with no sense of humor, armed with protective impulses that are both lightning quick and accurate as a sawed-off shotgun."
There's the tongue-in-cheek Short People Got No Reason to Live, "in which [Randy] Newman sent up the stupidity of judging people on their exteriors — and for his pains earned the wrath of uncomprehending champions of the vertically challenged." (more) Similarly, "immune to irony, the parent condemns Bart Simpson for his disrespectful, adolescent behavior, unaware that Bart is not the embodiment of such behavior; he is a commentary on it." (Jeff House)

On the other hand, satire has sometimes instigated change by embarrassing the heck out of its targets:
  • Soon after Doonesbury lampooned a Florida county's law requiring minority citizens to have passcards, the law was repealed by the subsequently-nicknamed Doonesbury Act;

  • In 2000 a Canadian Alliance proposal (which I'm too tired to go into) was satirized by the TV show "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" so effectively that it was discredited and soon dropped (Wikipedia);

  • The song "Burn On, Cayahoga River" had a galvanizing effect on river cleanup in a very abashed Cleveland (subject of an upcoming post).
Sometimes satirists want to effect reform. Sometimes they are laughing and sometimes they are railing at the heavens. Randy Newman, master satirist, has done it all; from the Washington Times story called An ornery soul:
His politics seem to lean left, but after more than 30 years in the business, he seems more like a mirthfully bitter realist than an agitator.

"All the songs I've written about racism have solved the problem," Mr. Newman cracked after playing "Rednecks." "It's all gone."

He only half-jokingly said "Political Science," his swipe at a jingoistic, friendless America ("They all hate us anyhow / So let's drop the big one now"), has proved prophetic. "They finally listened to me," Mr. Newman said.

Are you still there? Does anybody read to the bottom of these? Here are my questions:
  • Plenty of us sit like spiders in our blogs and make snarky potshots at the world, but is this just for our amusement, or preaching to the choir? Do any of you take your indignations public?
  • Can satire go public any more?
  • Can satire make a difference any more?
  • Can you share any examples of satiric works which have made a difference?


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At 8:13 AM, Blogger Crazy Single Mom said...

I don't take potshots in my blog, I feel that each blog is for the person who is writing it. I got caught up in that a while back, and didn't like what I saw when I read my comments on other peoples blogs. I'm very outspoken in public, and if something bothers me I tend to voice it. I do try not to step on other people when I do though.
I think most of the public doesn't understand satire anymore.
Can it make a difference? Well only if the general public understands it for what it is.
The great potato famine and how to feen the Irish, that is a good example of satire!

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Mirty said...

Well, I'm posting a comment mostly to let you know that some of us do read to the very end of the post! As for "indignation", it's not a feeling I often have. And when I do have it, I try to get past it without making any public to-do. "Righteous indignation". Hmmm. Is it really a fruitful emotion? Emotions move us to action, but indignation often carries such a large chip on its shoulder that it automatically alienates the audience.

Graceful indignation is hard to come by. My teenaged stepkids are frequently indignant over the state of the world, as well as our household. But often it seems to me like "sound and fury signifying nothing."

Is indignation the opposite of acceptance? And can we change anything without first understanding and, to some degree, accepting it? That does not mean we have to agree -- I don't agree with racism. But perhaps it's useful to try to understand how some people come around to racist thinking? That's my 2 cents. Perhaps I, like your students, would have difficulty singing dismal news set to a cheerful tune.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Sigmund, Carl and Alfred said...

True satir eis dead.
Who wants to get sued?

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Dick said...

Abily to appreciate irony seems to go in waves, perhaps it's generational. When I was in HS (late 1940s-early 1950s) we were very tuned in to it. We came to it via that "lowlife cousin" sarcasm, which we doted on. This was the great age of Archie, with all those crooked grins, and the founding era of Mad (humor in a jugular vein - wich it the start, it was!). But from our POV the next generation, the boomers, were irony-challenged, although THEY didn't think so!

At 10:44 PM, Blogger Marilynn said...

I am using "They're Rioting in Africa" in my church to get people to think globally and act locally.

I have organized a contest, 2 bucks to enter. It involves researching the song: who wrote it, when, why, etc. No limit on entries. Correct answers will be placed in a drawing. One winner will split the cash 40/60 with the church.

Object" To get people to THINK

Old Hippy Jesus Freak

At 10:34 PM, Blogger Shorey said...

I know that Saturday Night Live is pretty lame now, but Stephen Colbert seems to be doing pretty well with satire these days. I'm a big fan of Randy Newman too, but thanks for the reminder of the "Merry Minuet." They're rioting in Jordan as well, and we may be sorry if "democracy:" really does replace secular despots over there. Think Iran, or is that "Irany?"


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