Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Satirical Terrarium

I treasure the Art of Satire, and in recent times, it seems that our most eloquent journalism adopts the satirical tone:—viz., the Onion and the Daily Show. I have found myself thinking that perhaps liberalism could find a voice (albeit with a disgruntled and somewhat apathetic tone) in such words. My experience reading Nicholas von Hoffman’s Hoax nearly convinced me otherwise.

Hoffman would have us believe that Americans exist inside a giant “terrarium, an immense biosphere which has cut it off from the rest of the world and left it to pick its own way down the path of history.” He says precisely that, as a matter of fact, on the cover of his book:—and if he were to stick to his guns and deliver us an honest-to-goodness terrarium-enclosed U.S. inside the covers of his book, we would be tremendously entertained.

Herein we encounter the Great Problem with the work. Satire, sadly, requires intellect of its readership, and indeed, respect for such intellect on the part of an author. As Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish write in The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel: “To hold something up to ridicule presupposes a certain respect for reason, on both sides, to which one can appeal. An Age of Reason, in which everyone accepts the notion that conduct must be reasonable, is, therefore, a general prerequisite for satire.”

An Age of Reason? Alas, our modern world (or perhaps simply the modern terrarium) has little use for such a construct, and we should possibly excuse Hoffman for his jaded perspective,—if nothing else, we must recognize that he has worked as a journalist for some decades, and such an occupation takes a heavy toll on its practitioners. To rail against the dying of the light causes one to grow hoarse after a while.

Of course, I would happily refer to the Age commonly called “The Age of Reason” as “The Age of Tristram,” for what other character so adroitly embodies the knowledge and wit of the Age as our Hero? Take, for example, a snippet from “The Author’s Preface” in Tristram Shandy, Volume Three, Chapter XX, “In the foreground of this picture, a statesman turning the political wheel, like a brute, the wrong way round—against the stream of corruption,—by heaven!—instead of with it.” Simple sarcasm, you say, and you’d not be incorrect, but I ask you to admire the enviable clarity of the Author’s droll tone.

One certainly encounters no such simple pleasures reading Hoax. Hoffman clearly has little or no regard for his audience, and in the process of attempting to inform, chastise, and entertain us, he switches voices with such rapidity that one is often at a loss to comprehend the seriousness or (supposed) levity of any given phrase. Take one of his more bizarre factual-sounding statements: “Certain laboratories are working to perfect a process for converting Arabs into crude oil. Scientists are hopeful that they will soon have a pilot plant making oil at a ten to one ratio, that is ten Arabs to produce a barrel of crude. Since Arabs have a high birth rate, this technology will make crude oil a renewable resource.” To my ear, this lacks Sterne’s pith, and although one’s mind leaps to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public” as analogous in its potential to offend, Swift manages to amuse and persuade by persisting with his premise,—and furthermore, by elaborating on it and engaging in a few simple mathematical calculations to bolster his argument.

Hoffman would do better tp re-write his book as true satire, confining his informative or invective asides to footnotes, endnotes, or appendices. His readers could then enjoy his hard-earned acerbity with a measure of satisfaction, knowing that they can feel ever so slightly more erudite by exploring the marginalia. But here, perhaps, we reach the limits of satire:—for can we expect it to educate as well as entertain? In an Age of Unreason, can we hope to channel our apathy into understanding?


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