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Satire – Part 3



Last week, before straying into vampire territory, I was talking about Juvenalian satire and, in particular, the way Private Eye magazine has used that in recent weeks to attack Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not everyone believes that satire works or that it’s a suitable tool with which to criticise stupidity and wickedness.

For example, when I showed the Private Eye cover mocking Putin to a Roumanian friend he grimaced and said “That’s not funny.” Now, my friend is in no way a supporter of Putin or the invasion; Roumania, which has a small economy, has opened its borders to thousands of Ukrainian refugees and is in the front line of attack if mad, bad Putin widens his aggression.

My friend simply thought that Putin should be tackled through serious debate and action, not through a species of humour.

Objections to satire go back a long way. Take Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and also a Dean in the Anglican Church; when he composed his own epitaph he included the lines “some may have thought the Dean / had too much satire in his veins.”

Then there is the case of George Orwell, author of Animal Farm, one of the most blistering examples of Juvenalian satire ever written.

One of the principles of satire—argued for by those who, like your columnist, admire it—is that it acts as a corrective, that it stings its targets into behaving better or more wisely.

But at least in the early part of his career Orwell didn’t believe this could happen. In one of his essays (and he was a prolific essayist, possibly the greatest the UK has produced) he argued that using satire was like giving an elephant a slap on the bum with a bamboo stick: the elephant enjoys the tickling sensation, but doesn’t move any faster or in the right direction.

Evidently Orwell changed his mind, because in the 1930s he wrote Animal Farm. Now, Orwell was a left-winger, who believed in the principles of communism as outlined in the programme we refer to as Marxist-Leninist. But he argued, correctly, that Stalin, then in power, had abandoned those principles and had turned the Soviet Union into a vicious dictatorship.

Hence Animal Farm, in which the chief pig, Napoleon, represents Stalin. Having written the novel, Orwell sent it to his main publisher at the time, the London-based Victor Gollancz, forgetting that the latter was a Stalinist. Gollancz rejected the novel; Orwell found another publisher and Animal Farm became world-famous. You can’t keep a good satirist down.

Back now to the issue of Private Eye magazine attacking Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. My favourite item in the issue relates to the sanctions applied to Russia after the invasion, which have led the economy to collapse.

The item in question is as Juvenalian as you can get, cruel to the point of being vicious, and it made me roar with laughter. It comprises a photo of an elderly man with a long white beard, looking distressed and holding forward a little metal begging-bowl.

The caption reads: “Head of Russian Central Bank Attempts to Raise Money.” It’s justified, and its’s funny, not because of the suffering of ordinary Russians as a result of the war, but because the Head of the Bank is a Putin supporter.

Signing-off time. It may well be, readers, that this is my last column for thepost. I just wanted to say two things. First, how much fun it has been writing for you.

Second (and here’s a shameless bit of self-advertising), my new book has just come out and some of you might want to get hold of a copy through the internet.

It is a co-authored book called Seeking Meaning—Prayer as Quest and was written by me and Ian Corbett (formerly Head of Lelapa la Jesu, Roma). Part of it is based on pieces I wrote for this column, so what goes around comes around.

Chris Dunton

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