7 December 2018

Satire and the Anglican Patrimony

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. 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, pompous, and dignified Oxford dons who were ... well, actually just plain ridiculous (and far from well-read). 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, all this 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 daft enough to believe 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 ruthless possible way of putting somebody down. If a person criticises you in a flat, humdrum, pathetic, terribly earnest style, he doesn't get to you. You cheerfully write him off as a poor, sad, silly old thing. But if he laughs at you ... ! You see, the victims of this sort of attack  quite simply ... 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 you are 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. Ho anaginoskon noeito.

And, in many ways, our own 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 ... any of the narratives. The Internet has done for them and all their shabby little techniques for establishing dominance. 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 [gkirkuk], with its frequent pieces on Frankie and his naive correspondent Justin.

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 also 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!'"



1 comment:

Tony V said...


I must confess I never finished Loss and Gain; I found those long discussions of ecclesiology during those walks in rural Oxfordshire rather, er, boring...I mean, couldn't he toss in a good old murder, or at least a runaway horse or something? But OK, I'll give it another shot.

I almost hesitate to mention it here--don't want to raise any combox hackles--but I did enjoy Louis Sullivan's The priest: a tale of modernism in New England. A cracking good read, whatever you think of his theology. Sullivan was a 'modernist' priest himself, and left the Catholic church, but he retained a certain affection for it. His Letters to His Holiness makes an interesting read.