Like nearly every teacher of literature, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with my students about satire. Crucial in the study of satire is seeing that there is a huge difference between the kind of mockery that goes on in ordinary life and the kind that comes from wanting to have the world and people be better. I learned very much about this from a report by poet and critic Sheldon Kranz of the lecture by Eli Siegel. Here are two paragraphs from the report:
Satire at its best, [Mr. Siegel said,] has three forms: satire of one person, as we find it in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt; satire of a group like the Rotarians or the D.A.R. Gilbert and Sullivan in their operetta Patience were satirizing the aesthetic movement of the 1890s; and third, there is a satire of mankind in general. Here Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is one of the best examples in literature.
In all of these, Mr. Siegel went on, it can be seen that satire is always about pretense, about how persons will choose what is false in order that their vanity be undisturbed. We have a picture of ourselves which truth will destroy; and so to protect that picture of ourselves, we will accept what is untrue and unimportant. Satire changes a bad thing into a good thing, an untrue thing into a true thing. Satire makes us laugh to make the ugly more apparent.
Read the whole report here.