Yet Another Short Treatise on Satire: In Defense of Bad Taste

[Trigger warning: scatology, smugness, over-the-top sacrilege, typos, insensitivity to disabilities, reckless employment of ALL CAPS and gratuitous exclamation points]!!!!

Look, I desitively dig The Onion, I mean BIGLY. They’re BIG LEAUGE for sure, true heirs of the great early 70’s National Lampoon, which itself was the great-great-great-great grandchild of the GREAT Jonathan Swift, who in his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” employs an epic simile to describe turds plopping into a chamber pot:

As mutton cutlets, prime of meat,

Which though with art you salt and beat

As laws of cookery require,

And toast them at the clearest fire;

If from adown the hopeful chops

The fat upon a cinder drops,

To stinking smoke it turns the flame

Pois’ning the flesh from whence it came,

And up exhales a greasy stench,

For which you curse the careless wench;

So things, which must not be expressed,

When plumped into the reeking chest,

Send up an excremental smell

To taint the parts from whence they fell.

The petticoats and gown perfume,

Which waft a stink round every room.

Thus finishing his grand survey,

Disgusted Strephon stole away

Repeating in his amorous fits,

Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits![1]

[Enter Horatio, Hamlet’s BFF]: There needs no ghost, [Stephron], come from the grave/ To tell us this.

Yeah, Stephron, what’s the big deal? Defecation is a necessary by product of ingestion, and in the great cyclic beauty of being, animal waste products can be used to fertilize plants.

Hey, Jonathan Smith, what’s up with this coprophobic obsession with feces?

I suspect Swift would answer that his point is not that Celia shits but that she’s a vain, frivolous woman who considers herself better than, say, the hired wench who polishes her silver, yet Celia’s upper class feces stinks just as much as her maid’s lower class shit.

Satire is a great leveler, a way for powerless wretches like I-and-I to vent our spleens upon the powerful, the foolish, i.e., politicians. Think of Mitch McConnell when you read the following:

Io venni in luogo d’ogni luce muto;

The stench of wet coal, politicians

. . . . . . . . . . e and. . . . . n, their wrists bound to

their ankles,

Standing bare bum,

Faces smeared on their rumps,

wide eye on flat buttock,

Bush hanging for beard,

Addressing crowds through their arse-holes,

Addressing the multitudes in the ooze,

newts, water-slugs, water-maggots [. . .][2]

Some satirists have defended their employment of the grotesque, cruelty, etc. on the need to shock people inured the horrors of the nightly news [punctuated every eight minutes by laxative commercials (and, later, by smiling segues into human interest stories)] into the realization of the true nature of the horror. In other words, to slap some sense into them.

Here’s a paragraph from Tony Hendra’s 1972 editorial from the infamous National Lampoon issue “Is Nothing Sacred?”

To a generation that, when it sees starving babies on the screen, knows it’s almost time for dinner, not much is sacred. All around us, the idols, ikons, and cows of 6,000 of Indo-Aryan culture lie shattered, and daily another paragon goes down to ignominy (Kissenger, Richard Speck) [and] another cherished tradition is lost (see Esquire’s stinging attack on cordovans). And now with Jim Morrison gone, there isn’t really anyone left to look up to [. . .]  it is possible that a society to whom nothing is sacred might just be a better one.

Take, Michael J O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” from that issue, an affront to good taste that makes Swift’s poem seem like a Barney the Dinosaur picture book.

The Vietnamese baby in question, Ngoc, has her first couple of years, including a list of “firsts,” catalogued in her baby book:

First whimper: Two weeks

First cringe: Two-and-a-half months.

It gets worse. Baby’s first wound, baby’s first word (medic), baby’s first funeral, etc.

Hey, that’s sick, cried the bourgeoisie when the issue came out, the bourgeoisie who reelected Nixon in a landslide and whose tax dollars went to making sure our military had enough napalm to incinerate the requisite number of Cambodian villages (or to update the example, has enough drone missiles to obliterate Syrian encampments).

In this sense, as self-righteous as it sounds, O’Donoghue considered himself a sort of moralist.

The Onion has at times crossed the over from the realm of gentle, good-natured mockery into the shadows of bitter sacrilege. For example, here’s an image with something to offend virtually every one.

WASHINGTON—Following the publication of the image above, in which the most cherished figures from multiple religious faiths were depicted engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity, no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened, sources reported Thursday. The image of the Hebrew prophet Moses high-fiving Jesus Christ as both are having their erect penises vigorously masturbated by Ganesha, all while the Hindu deity anally penetrates Buddha with his fist, reportedly went online at 6:45 p.m. EDT, after which not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way. Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.

I admit I included that image hesitantly, knowing some of my readers would find it highly objectionable, but The Onion’s point is well taken. You don’t go off and murder satirists no matter how tasteless, offensive, mean-spirited and/or stupid their product is.  Their target here is not the great religions of the world but religious fanatics who do real, palpable harm.

What worries me more is that in the latest Onion output the satire doesn’t seem all that hyperbolic:

WASHINGTON—Amid concerns that a U.S. attack on a Syrian government air base would only escalate the ongoing conflict in the region, President Trump assured Americans Friday that his decision to order a missile strike came only after carefully considering every one of his passing whims. “I want to make it perfectly clear that the decision to launch a military intervention in Syria was the result of meticulously reviewing each fleeting impulse that I felt over the last 48 hours,” said Trump, adding that after learning of chemical weapons used by Bashar al-Assad’s forces to kill innocent Syrian civilians, he gathered his top military aides to pore over dozens of his sudden knee-jerk reactions to the situation. “I examined many different options that whirled through my mind in the moment, including authorizing drone strikes, deploying U.S. troops to Syria, sending in SEAL Team Six to take out Assad, getting up and grabbing a snack from the kitchen, doing nothing, and dropping all our nuclear bombs on Damascus at once. Ultimately, I concluded that an airstrike was the best option at that particular second.” Trump went on to say that if the Assad regime’s behavior continues, he will not hesitate to order further military action if he hasn’t already completely forgotten about Syria by then.

Except, the quotes from Trump appear in sentences far too well-crafted to have emerged from his mouth, and I doubt seriously if “meticulously” is in his working vocabulary.

At any rate, I say rage on Juvenal, rage on Swift, rage, rage against the stupidity of all ages, though, I suspect it does very little good when it is all said and done.

[1] Stephron had been rummaging around his girlfriend’s dressing room when she was out and stumbled upon a cleverly disguised, which he mistook of a cabinet.

[2] Ezra Pound, “Canto XIV”

Queer Theorem, Shambolic Health Care Zombies, and Cecil B DeMille’s Riding Crop


from Cecil B DeMille’s Male and Female, featuring Gloria Swanson

I spend much of my waking time reading. Unfortunately, during the school year, a considerable amount of that reading time is spent correcting the inexact writing of adolescents or revisiting worn out texts that I now find tedious, like To Kill a Mockingbird.  However, this spring break I managed not to bring work home with me, so for the last seven days, I’ve been binging on recreational reading.

A shallow person who prefers style to substance, I’m always on the lookout for cool turns-of-phrase or apt imagistic analogies, so rather than sharing any profound truths I ran across this week, I thought share a few stylistic winners.

Early in the week, I read an essay by Samantha Hunt called “Queer Theorem” appearing in the spring 2017 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly. In researching her novel on Nikola Tesla, Hunt discovered  that her subject was quite eccentric. For example, he housed “a large population of New York City’s pigeons in his hotel rooms” despite suffering from “a terrible germ phobia.” In addition, Tesla had fears of “pearl earrings and human hair.” These irrationalities of the scientist who “invented radio” and “our modern AC electrical system” lead Hunt to wonder about the possibility of the existence of “Queer Science.”

Here’s my favorite sentence, one that ends with a delicious inversion of clichés:[1]

Queer physics, queer healing, queer chemistry, and all of it conducted by starving scientists and mad artists.


[1] All of the italics are mine and used to highlight the phrases that send me.

Andrew Sullivan, whom I was hooked on for years, had disappeared into silence for too long but recently has resurfaced with a weekly column in New York Magazine. Here’s his description of the debut of the Republican replacement for Obamacare:

In Washington this week, as this shambolic health-care plan staggered, zombielike, into the House, there was a palpable sense that political gravity may, for the first time, be operational around Trump. If he somehow muscles this legislation through, he will be stuck with an avalanche of angry.

What a killer image. How apt.

illustration by WLM3

Staying on politics, perhaps my favorite prose stylist is James Wolcott who in his February Vanity Fair column offers a piece called Trump: The Movie, Coming Soon to a Theater Near You (if Theaters Still Exist).” Here he suggests various directors who might be able to do the subject justice. Here he is harkening back to the beginning of film:

To do Trumpzilla justice, the film should be blustery, spectacular, gold-garish, and neo-pagan, a Circus Maximus Cecil B. DeMille might have whipped up with his riding crop after a fever dream.

Wolcott’s got rhythm, music, and imagination, mixes high and low with aplomb.

Illustration by WLM3

Interestingly enough, Wolcott’s name came up rather unflatteringly in Dennis Perrin’s Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’ Donoghue, a biography I finished Tuesday. O’Donoghue was perhaps the most influential member of the original National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live. Perrin calls Wolcott “squeamish” when he describes O’Donoghue as “a master of hip how-do-you-make-a-dead-baby float humor,” which sounds less squeamish to me than matter-of-fact.

Anyway, I thought I’d offer this O’Donoghue bit of bad taste that network censors axed from Weekend Update:

And in Detroit, a handicapped eight-year-old schoolgirl was attacked by a supposedly tame lion while television cameras rolled. The child, a deaf mute, suffered only minor scratches from the lion but, according to doctors, she did break three fingers screaming for help.”

[cue cymbal  crash]

O’Donoghue in center between Aykroyd and Belushi

My last entry comes from Haruki Murakami’s Infinite-Jest-jumbo-sized novel IQ84, which, of course, has been translated from Japanese, and I inherently distrust translations as far as style goes. Nevertheless, this description of a character’s first memory did arrest me for a moment:

The vivid ten-second scene was seared into the wall of his consciousness, his earliest memory in life. Nothing before or after it. It stood out alone, like the steeple of a town visited by a flood, thrusting up above the muddy water.

Okay, enough. The Screaming J’s are playing down at Chico Feo, and the non-literary life is calling me.