Caricature and Content

Political Science
Randy Newman

Caricature and Content

Let Us Prey
Thomas Nast

There was a review in The Guardian, “Garry Trudeau: ‘Doonesbury quickly became a cause of trouble’”, of a retrospective collection of Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. In the book Trudeau comments on satire and its essential unfairness. He said, “Satire is unfair. It’s rude and uncivil. It lacks balance and proportion, and it obeys none of the normal rules of engagement. Satire picks a one-sided fight, and the more its intended target reacts, the more its practitioner gains the advantage. And as if that weren’t enough, this savage, unregulated sport is protected by the United States constitution. Cool, huh?” This captures satire in all its guises. It may not always be clear when something is intended as a satiric comment or just a general observation (is Glen Beck, for example, a satirist or a political analyst, and can the two coexist in one and the same person at one and the same time) but it is generally clear that someone is being ridiculed and belittled.

But whether it is the right at the mercy of Trudeau or the left at the mercy of Beck (I am not sure if Beck is a satirist or not I only know I respond to Beck much the same way the targets of Doonesbury respond to Trudeau) the targets of each feel they have been misrepresented or even “lied about.” But as Trudeau points out it is all protected by the Constitution and it is all very “cool.” As the Nast cartoon above suggests ridicule is a far more effective weapon for engaging the enemy than rational debate. The most ludicrous of positions can be made to sound reasonable, but even the most reasonable of positions struggles with its credibility when it is made to look ridiculous. Tweed and his cronies survived most assaults upon their power, they did not survive Nast and if we remember Tweed at all it is probably the Tweed of the Nast cartoons we remember and though people were being “nasty” long before Nast, he gave the word an additional twist.

Randy Newman’s song underscores this astringent quality of satire. The world is not treating us we deserve to be treated so we’ll show them, we’ll blow them off the face of the planet. Even if our analysis of our treatment is correct, the satiric response is hardly a measured one. As with most humor it has at its heart adults behaving childishly. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Red Mars begins with a conflict between two colonial factions on Mars, one that wants to create a homogeneous planet by only allowing people of a certain nationalistic view to settle there and the other that wants to create a diverse society with all the conflicts that diversity brings with it. Can satire exist in a world with a single point of view? Can a single point of view be long maintained or do humans by their very natures split into factions and groups incapable of remaining “homogenized”? When we get around to choosing up sides and staking out our satiric positions we are not likely to remain judicious in our portrayals of those with whom we disagree.

The Name of Dante Gabriel Rossetti is Heard for the First Time in the Western States of America
Max Beerbohm

But is it the goal of satire to offend its targets while it amuses those that share its values? The caricatures above and below by Max Beerbohm and Andre Gill suggest that their intent was to give some offense, whether to gain a laugh at the subjects expense or to make a point it is up to the viewer to decide. In Beerbohm’s drawing is it Oscar Wilde or his western audience that is being satirized or is it perhaps both? The Gill cartoon suggests that Darwin and Littré are confronting the ignorance of the time, but they have also been dehumanized in the process. Is there a separate message in that? There are times perhaps when it is the satirist’s intention to offend everyone.

Charles Darwin and Émile Littré depicted as performing monkeys at a circus breaking through gullibility (credulité), superstitions, errors, and ignorance
Andre Gillé_by_André_Gill.jpg

There was an article recently in The London Times, “Misreading Gulliver’s Travels,” about Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels and it suggests that those that read this book as a misanthropic attack on the whole human race miss the point. The article quotes from a letter Swift wrote to Alexander Pope where he says, “But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell.” This suggests that it is not people that Swift despises but what people do when they get together and form a group. Individuals are lovable, groups less so. Those that read of Gulliver and his travels without keeping this thought in mind are bound to misread the book, though, it could be argued that those that misread in this way have not really been paying attention.

Ben Jonson wrote of his plays that they had two audiences, the “understanders,” who got the jokes, but were also illuminated by them and the “pretenders,” who laughed but learned nothing, who essentially missed the point. In his introduction to the play The Alchemist he wrote:

“If thou beest more, thou art an understander, and then I trust thee. If thou art one that takest up, and but a pretender, beware of what hands thou receivest thy commodity; for thou wert never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age, in poetry, especially in plays: wherein, now the concupiscence of dances and of antics so reigneth, as to run away from nature, and be afraid of her, is the only point of art that tickles the spectators. But how out of purpose, and place, do I name art? When the professors are grown so obstinate contemners of it, and presumers on their own naturals, as they are deriders of all diligence that way, and, by simple mocking at the terms, when they understand not the things, think to get off wittily with their ignorance.” (The Alchemist, Ben Jonson)

Jonson is attacking the critics of his day that would praise a play, or a poem, for the “business,” the humor and action but miss the artistry and the message. The understanders are changed by what they see on stage or read from the printed page, the pretenders are merely entertained. Jonson goes on to say, “I speak not this, out of a hope to do good to any man against his will,” suggesting that we all must play a role in our own reformation and even if Jonson wished to make his audience into better people, they cannot hitchhike on his good intentions. Jonathan Swift echoes Jonson’s view when he says, “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein the beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world and that so very few are offended with it.” (Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books) Few are offended because they believe that others and not themselves are on the receiving end of the humor. Swift suggests, I think, that the best satire puts everyone, even the satirist, under the microscope and that we all have something to learn from it.


Patrick Chappatte 2010G On Editorial Cartooning
TED Talks

The film clip is about the influence of satire and cartooning on society. The understander will see a bit or her or himself in many of the cartoons Patrick Chappatte presents but there is also a troubling side to the cartoonist, in general, and the way in which some societies and some cultures respond to the cartoon. The power of the editorial cartoon is, as pointed out above by Gary Trudeau, that it is not always fair and that ridicule reduces anyone, no matter how innocent of the accusation being made, to something small and laughable. Few respond well to such a one sided attack and as in the case of the Danish cartoons ridiculing Islam, not all responses to the satire are docile or good natured.

Jonathan Swift attacked an attempt of the English government to flood Ireland with a currency that was not worth the metal it was stamped from. He made his attack from behind the mask of an anonymous Dublin draper who wrote a series of letters to the newspapers revealing the currency for what it was. The English government offered a substantial reward to anyone who would provide evidence that would lead to the draper’s arrest. The government believed Swift wrote the letters but they could not prove the charge. Unfortunately, for the British, no one was willing to collect the reward and identify Swift as the perpetrator of the letters.

Daniel Defoe also published a bit of satire attacking the religious attitudes of powerful people. He was convicted of libel and pilloried for his crime. At the time being put in the pillory where the convict’s head and hands were secured making movement impossible, could be a very harsh sentence. Passersby could throw most anything at the pilloried individual and it was not unusual to leave the pillory much the worse for wear. In Defoe’s case, though, the crowds sided with him and instead of sticks and stones they threw flowers and came to drink his health. Even when the satirist is legitimately in the wrong, which is questionable in Defoe’s case, it is unwise to respond too harshly, because public sympathy is often disinclined to side with the powerful and it often enjoys a bit of fun at their expense.

When satire is done well, everyone occupies a bit of the frame. We may not be powerful, we may not be guilty of the offenses that are being ridiculed, but as human beings we should be able to recognize that given the opportunity and the ability to take advantage of it we have in ourselves at least the propensity for acting as dubiously as those in the center of the frame. Though there may be a specific individual targeted in the humor, what gives the humor its force is that the behavior under attack is one to which all humans are susceptible and if we are wise we do not laugh at the object of the satire without laughing a bit at ourselves.

Zonker Harris
Gary Trudeau


A Common Shelf

Make a Better World
Blind Boys of Alabama

A Common Shelf

Anonymous Commonplace book in manuscript

There is a series of books assembled in the early 1900’s by Charles Eliot, president of Harvard at the time, called the “Harvard Classics.” It has been nicknamed the “five foot bookshelf” as that is the size of the shelf required, at least so it is alleged, to hold all the volumes. The idea behind this “bookshelf” was that a person could receive a fairly complete education by spending fifteen minutes a day in these books. I m not sure that a lifetime of fifteen minute daily reading would get a person through everything on the “bookshelf” but it might, it probably depends on reading speed and comprehension of the reader, but it may well be doable.

There was once a practice of compiling “literary scrapbooks” called “commonplace books,” John Milton, for example, kept one. These books were literary journals of sorts in which a person jotted down quotes and passages encountered in the day’s reading, or just random ideas. These could then be reflected upon later, shared with others, or developed into reflective essays, poems, or stories. The photograph above is of such a commonplace book. It can be seen that they were not always neatly kept and the handwriting may be difficult to follow, but than it was more for personal than public consumption.

Virginia Woolf compiled two books of essays called A Common Reader (volumes one and two of course). They were essays on books and writers that were important to her and other “common readers” of her generation. The introduction to the first volume begins with a summary of Dr. Johnson’s definition of the common reader:

“The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing.”

The important thing to see in this is that people of all generations have had a shared literature, a literature that was important to the educated and the uneducated. It is said that Boston policemen could point out Henry James to tourists when Mr. James was walking about town. It was also to be understood that both the tourist and the policemen were familiar with Mr. James’ stories.

There was a recent article in The Guardian, “What happened to essential books?,” about the shared stories, or the lack of shared stories, among the present generation. The article laments the lack of a shared literature, though it acknowledges some shared stories that do not quite meet up to the author’s definition of literature. Perhaps the problem is with the author’s definition of literature, but I do not think so, time, though will tell. Of course those that are alive while a generations “literature” is being created are rarely the best judges of its quality or its endurance, so who is to say if it rises or not to a literary standard. It is probably best to suspend judgment on this generations shared stories and on their literary quality.

The song encourages us to “make a better world;” it encourages us to do this by singing together and the songs we sing together are another form of story telling, another kind of shared literature. The song encourages us to “love our neighbor” and to care for one another. Not a bad story to tell and a story that many of the classic and not so classic stories do tell. One of George Eliot’s characters ponders in Middlemarch, “What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult to each other.” The Blind Boys would probably echo that, as should we all. It is sentiment that is also found in the shared literature of many generations.

Canto 34 of Orlando Furioso
Francesco Franceschi

The images above and below were made to illustrate two narrative poems. My “common reader” would include many titles from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. The image above came from Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso and the image below is from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I enjoy these two poems because they are both epic and comic. I think Orlando Furioso is a cross between Jonathan Swift and J. R. R. Tolkien; it has moments of heroic struggle and of broad, satiric humor. On one level it follows in the tradition of Lucianic satire and on another level it is in the tradition of The Song of Roland with which it shares a hero. It is an adventure, for me anyway, full of laughter.

One thing I particularly enjoy about this poem is that one of the heroic knights of this story is a woman. This woman warrior character was also introduced into a few later poems inspired by Ariosto, Tasso’s Liberation of Jerusalem and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. These women are the ancestors of Kara Thrace, or as she is more commonly known, Starbuck, in the television series Battlestar Galactica, though she is a bit more worldly than her sixteenth century counterparts. When I first encountered these characters I was taken by surprise because they seemed so out of keeping for the patriarchal societies that created these stories. Perhaps there is a literary lesson in this as well about the danger of imposing our presumptions upon what we read.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Medieval Illumination

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also a comic adventure. On the comic side Sir Gawain with its courtly love gender reversal has elements in common with Billy Wilder’s film comedy Some Like It Hot with a bit of a nod to Damon Runyon’s advice concerning bets one should not take, while on the heroic side it is has all the splendor and adventure of King Arthur and his Round Table knights. The Gawain of this story is very likeable, unlike the Gawain of the Le Morte d’Arthur stories told by Thomas Malory. Gawain is also very human and we understand his failures and ought to realize we may not behave very differently under similar circumstances. But it succeeds for me because of its blend of humor and adventure.

What this suggests also is that those things that make us laugh, make us wonder, make us hang on to the edge of our seats have always made people, laugh and wonder and hang on to the edge of their seats. We may not always understand the nature of the humor due to differences in our cultures, but once those differences are explained the mysteries disappear, of course as with any joke that requires an explanation the humor, on this initial “go-round” anyway, disappears as well. It is difficult to know what makes a story resonate with one and not another. It is even more difficult, perhaps, for the lifelong reader to easily identify the kinds of stories she or he will enjoy, for anyone who has read extensively has been surprised by a story that falls outside the anointed categories. We often get around this by labeling the odd title as something other than it is. I had an English teacher who did not believe there existed such a thing as a well written science fiction story. Someone mentioned 1984 and he said that it was too well written to be science fiction. By this definition, of course, there is no such thing as a well written science fiction story, but is this definition honest.


Tintin – Destination Moon
Ellipse Programmé

The film clip is from a series of animated features based on Herge’s stories of Tintin. I am especially fond of this story because when I was child living in Granada Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, I remember walking down the main street one day and going up a side street. About a block up I came to a storefront with a series of pictures and cel transparencies from this animated film displayed in its big front window. There was no store at this “storefront,” the inside of the building appeared to be empty; there were just these wonderful pictures. Tintin and the movie title Destination Moon were referenced on the display but there was no one inside you could ask about what the display was for, nor was it displayed where anyone was likely to see it on this out of the way side street that neither foot nor automobile traffic was likely to find. I found it though and was fascinated by it.

When I grew older I sought out the stories and read some but it is this story that is the most significant of the Tintin stories for me because of the nature of my discovery of it and the mystery that surrounded it. If there had been someone in the shop that day I could have asked about the story I am not sure it would have had the impact that it had on me as a long unanswered question. There may not be a rhyme or reason that explains how a story makes it into our common reader, but the stories that do find a home there follow us wherever we go and become major destinations on the map of our life’s journey. To a degree they make us the people that we are, they fill more than our conversations and our memories, they shape our characters.

Cover of the Tintin comic book Destination Moon