A good reader of satire never takes anything at face value.
I’ve been hiding something from you, dear reader. I’ve written eight satires in this student newspaper, laying out my secret plan all along the way. I’ve done everything short of leaving a cipher for you all. When I wrote a piece entitled “Super Auto Pets and the Death of Transrealism,” it was all too easy to believe I was simply writing a satire, pointing out the ridiculous strings some people will draw between two completely unrelated things. But the astute among you may have noticed that I was not really writing about not really writing about a mobile game and its connection to a modern literary movement.
Maybe the truth is still a little too opaque? I’ll point you to another satire in this spring’s newspaper. “Tips and Tricks for a Healthy Lawrence Life.” An article about the worst possible way to spend your last few weeks as a graduating senior here at Lawrence. Look a little closer and you’ll find it — the key to my master plan. At least, I should hope.
I’ve locked someone’s soul away in this paper. There you go. There’s the twist.
A good satire inserts something absurd that could not possibly be true to show how ridiculous something real is.
Yes, of course. I locked someone’s soul away in the words of a few newspaper articles. But this article is a satire and you all are too smart for that. You are all well aware that all satirists are either half-assers or nihilists — we take something absurd and we make a little laugh about it to say “look how smart I am.” But the reader can never do that. You can’t read a piece of satire and walk away feeling smarter, or as if you are in on an elaborate joke. You have to feel cheated — that’s why, fun fact, if you look up any person in history who wrote satire for a living, they died at the hands of an angry mob.
Are you still with me? Definitely not — good. You’re reading satire — don’t forget that. Nothing here can be taken at face value.
A good satire will never come right out and say what it means. It derives small meanings from the absurd, which makes interpretation rather messy.
You might be asking yourself, Why did this Jeff guy write such a confusing garbled mess? This reads like Plato or some other guy I was supposed to read for class but didn’t. I kinda liked his other satire articles — this is nonsense. Satire is nonsense. If you come away from satire with anything but a cheeky pompous laugh, you’re doing it wrong. But I haven’t laughed yet? Good. We’re just laughing next to you.
A good satire can only ever be external. It is about external things — society, politics, the arts, the news. It can never be internal.
Okay, you caught me. I never actually did leave a piece of someone’s soul in these newspaper articles. I’ve been writing a satire this whole time. That would be absurd, wouldn’t it? How could writing ever leave a piece of someone’s soul in it?
A good satirist doesn’t insert himself into the satire. That would be too genuine.
I’d like to tell you something. You’re the satire reader. Tell me if this is excrement or not:
There’s a quote I love from The Catcher in the Rye about getting to the end of a story: “you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” I like to imagine this desire is something that only the touching of souls can create. When you finish a good book, you don’t want to shoot the bull about a story the author wrote, use them like an encyclopedia. You want to get to know their soul, where this beauty came from. Because you’ve felt it, haven’t you? Screw Barthes. Screw Nabokov and all the great writers who thought that words were for the tongue. Words are for the soul.
Now, when the author is full of it, that makes it a little more difficult.
I find myself at the last few paragraphs of the last satire I will ever write for the Lawrentian. There’s an outbreak on campus this time of year — President’s Ball 2.0 — an outbreak of the soul. Each of us in the graduating class is feeling it a little different than the next, a little different the next day. Melancholy is the mood I’m going with tonight. I’m reading myself. I’m looking back at the eight articles I’ve written for the paper and I’m reminding myself of the rulesI believe about satire and I am melancholy. How can a face emerge when nothing in satire can be taken at face value?
Good satire is meaningful for readers, and good readers of good satire come away enriched. Satire develops a critical eye. When we forget how to read satire, we get Tucker Carlson. We get lazy. We know what words mean, but we can’t build meaning out of them. We see a face but we are blind to the meaning. Do you follow me?
What happens when you write a satire of a satire? If it were meaningless, if the absurd really was the foundation of everything satire, the laughs would be doubly so. Reality would be one step more distorted. Everything would be a blur of mirrors, a cheeky joke about a cheeky joke. There could be no end to it. But what if it did mean something? Maybe if you write a satire about a satire, maybe it doesn’t get more absurd. Maybe a satire of a satire is just an essay. A piece of writing that just comes right out and says what it means to say. Meaning without veil. Soul to soul.
Maybe it’s a confusing mess that no one follows…
Or maybe we all came away from these articles a little more skeptical of the disingenuous, a little better at recognizing what is real.