Infinite Jest20 March 2015
Satire is about as ancient as the human need to talk shit. In every group of cavemen huddling close in fear during a thunderstorm, one most likely grunted sarcastically at the dude who decided they should live in a place that made the sky gods angry. Satire, whether it’s the biting observational humour of a New Yorker cartoon or proto-human whining noises, is just fulfilling the need to say that you know best in the most snarky way possible. If one thing defines human society, it is snark. History has shown us that it gives voice to the passive aggressive and empowers those who should probably have their tongues cut out for simply fulfilling the innate perogative we all share: to know best and talk shit. It’s like activism for people who are more snide than they are motivated.
In the late 5th century BCE, Aristophanes struck out against what were more or less just his personal gripes with Athenian society, moulding satire into what we know and love today: basically just George Costanza-esque ranting wrapped in idealogical pretence. In Plutus, Aristophanes the Surprise Playwright mocks the distribution of wealth in ancient Greek society, cracking such classic gags as slaves buying their own freedom, gods begging for offerings and fart jokes about Corinthians, who were the New Zealanders of Ancient Greece. In The Frogs, he makes the really hipstery argument that Euripides and Aeschylus were way better than his contemporary tragedians, and basically spends the whole play having a theatrical wank about how he’s way more into their old stuff. However, Aristophanes’ satire does extend to some pretty serious topics, with many of his plays standing firmly against war, which was way less of a cliched thing to do back then because up until that point everybody treated war like a nice alternative to a beach holiday.
Aristophanes’ greatest achievement is probably that satire hasn’t really changed dramatically from what he was doing two and a half milennia ago. Aristophanes may have written the first Onion article when he sort of accidentally made a little too much fun of Socrates in The Clouds and examples from his play were then used in Socrates’ trial. The difference is that The Onion might fool that one person you have on Facebook who shares that shit seriously, but Aristophanes kind of killed Socrates. Around the same time period, the Romans, ever the Luna Park to Ancient Greece’s Dreamworld, aped Grecian satire in a manner that basically reduced the form to just dick jokes. One Roman satirist apparently dropped a burn on a dude so brutal that the victim hanged himself, so they must have been pretty great dick jokes. I guess the lesson we can learn here is that ancient humanity could not take a fucking joke. But then again, neither can modern humanity: Mark Twain got challenged to a duel in the 1860s because his satirical news pieces were confusing too many people in Nevada. Like any great man would, he fled the state.
In the Middle Ages, the time period best known for inspiring George RR Martin to write about food, satire basically falls apart in Western Europe. Chaucer did his absolute best, but being a product of an epoch in which burning people alive was a-okay, The Canterbury Tales strike a really confusing balance between Christian morality and, again, dick jokes. Despite their relative cultural proximity to a Western audience today, The Canterbury Tales are actually harder to understand as satire than something written over 1,500 years beforehand in Greece. I chalk this one up to the Tales satirising such topics as: the Black Death, blood libels, how much pilgrimage sucks and why God is mad at you. Meanwhile, the Islamic world was going through something of a dick joke renaissance, with the works of Al-Jahiz and Ubayd Zakani mixing scientific and social commentary with the same universal crudeness that would get you kicked off Mornings with Kerri-Anne these days (which is probably about as relevant as mid-14th century Persian satire anyway).
By the point at which people no longer had to fear Mongol invasion, plague, or angry sky gods (suggested by most historians to be the mid 18th century), satire begins to resemble increasingly what we view it as today. Heralded by the socially conscious works of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, the satirical, allegorical novel starts to take form. By the modern era, satire is back to the powerful position it held in classical Greece, except that it’s global, and to be fair it’s getting less crude. Sort of. Dick jokes are eternal.