30 December 2016

The necessity of Satire and of Laughter

Henry Chadwick, the towering Anglican intellectual of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that Blessed John Henry Newman was the most superb writer of Satire and of Irony in the English language. Too true! I wonder if you have read Newman's semi-autobiographical novel Loss and Gain. He exposes to our laughter the absurdities of popular Evangelicalism; of sonorous and dignified Oxford dons who were ... well, actually just plain ridiculous. So were the new religious movements thrown up by the ferment of the 1840s. With exquisite cruelty he analyses the hypocrisies of the comfortable domestic affluence, combined with a dilettante affection for the superficial trappings of Catholicism, enjoyed by a certain type of Establishment, monied, gothic-romanticist Anglican. Clearly, it touched a raw nerve in the Ordinariate's Patron Blessed John Henry Newman, and the Novel was the only way in which he could express the strength of his feelings. And not much more gentle was his ironic mockery of those who believed that the Birmingham Oratory contained oubliettes in which heiresses were tortured to death for their inheritances.

Newman, frankly, took no prisoners. And his mode of attack is, essentially, to laugh at his adversaries. This, surely, is the most merciless sort of put-down imaginable. If someone criticises you in a flat, humdrum, pathetic, terribly earnest style, he doesn't get to you. He is a poor, sad, silly old thing. But if he laughs at you ... ! And the victims of this sort of attack ... to quote the martial figure of Corporal Jones of Dad's Army ... don't like it up 'em. The grander you are, the more surrounded by people who defer to you and treat you with respect and deference, the less you like the satirist. The more you are a bully, an obsessive oppressive, or a control-freak, the more indignant the satirist makes you feel.

And, in many ways, this age is made for the satirist. Never was there a time when the the Great, the Wise, and the Good, were less able to control a narrative ... the narrative ... all the narratives. The Internet has done for them and their customary techniques. And if, right now, you would like a neat and brief gem of modern satire, fresh from the Ordinariate stable, turn to Dr Geoffrey Kirk's blog, with its frequent pieces on Frankie and his naive correspondent Justin. Perhaps one of the funniest was his recent piece linking our Holy Father's professed interest in coprophagia with his endless loquacity. Go on, look at it now (via gkirkuk), then come back and finish my piece off.

Right. I hope you enjoyed it.

If, being Intellectuals, you would like an intellectual ... indeed, a theological ... account and justification of Satire and Laughter, I offer you the collection Essays in Satire by another brilliant Anglican, a generation later than Newman, who brought his satirical gifts into the Catholic Church: Mgr Ronald Knox. In his Introduction, he entertained the argument that "our sense of the ridiculous is not, in its original application, a child's toy at all, but a weapon, deadly in its efficacy, entrusted to us for exposing the shams and hypocrisies of the world. The tyrant may arm himself in triple mail, may surround himself with bodyguards, may sow his kingdom with a hedge of spikes, so that free speech is crushed and criticism muzzled. Nay, worse, he may so debauch the consciences of his subjects with false history and with sophistical argument that they come to believe him the thing he gives himself out for, a creature half-divine, a heaven-sent deliverer. One thing there is that he still fears; one anxiety still bids him turn this way and that to scan the faces of his slaves. He is afraid of laughter. The satirist stands there, like the little child in the procession when the Emperor walked through the capital in his famous new clothes; his is the tiny voice that interprets the consciousness of a thousand onlookers: 'But, Mother, he has no clothes on at all!'"


Deacon Augustine said...

If you might permit me to provide your readers with a hyperlink to the said blog, Fr., it may be found here:


John Fisher said...

While pushing the Lutheran error they do have a funny YouTube site with little videos about Frank the hippie pope. If you google Lutheran satire you tube Frank the hippie pope they will come up. One funny clip has frank answer wring loaded questions then his answers require correction by his producer. Another funny clip is about Frank and a reluctant Bartholomew singing a hippie peace song...there is also a number of funny clips.

Jonathan Cariveau said...

The foremost tyrant to which this applies is surely the devil. As Chrysostom says, hades is in an uproar because it has been mocked by the divine trickery of Christ, who offered himself in weakness while concealing strength. "Hell took a body and encountered God."

Sandy Jones said...

Another column with laugh-out-loud satire is Eccles is Saved. A recent take on the "Twelve Days of Christmas" featured the gift of "Five du-bi-a." Eccles links to this as "Fr Hunwick's Mutual Endowment."

Matthew Roth said...

Their video on the Trinity is excellent.

Karl J said...

When I was growing up the saying went, "Laughter is the best medicine".

I have found this to be fairly accurate. Indeed, my ability to joke, often spontaneously, has been a great benefit to me and to others.

Deaconette C said...

Deaconette C could not agree more about the necessity.