Every now and then a person just needs a good screed, a healthy diatribe, a dose of invective, a solid shot of vinegar to cut the treacle. In the random-acts-of-kindness age, the appeal of the satirical, sarcastic slice may be less than fully appreciated, but the New Age will not get on without it. No age has. No age will.
Just as a person lives on a diet of food, so does a society live on a diet of words. And in both cases some balance is best. Imagine surviving on an unending diet of sweet or bland, with no sour or bitter for bite, no pungent chilies to bring on a sweat, indeed nothing at all to break the unending flow of sweetness down the gullet.
Being nice in the conventional way, randomly slathering doses of kindness on everything and everybody in sight, may not in fact be the most genuinely kind, the most genuinely honest way to engage. It’s hitting the same note over and over again, playing what will make people superficially happy, and quite often burying the bitter and the sour in some deep, dark place, only to unleash it inappropriately in a torrent of artless, useless and ill-directed rage.
In speaking and writing, as in cooking, the use of the bitter and the sour requires the greatest of care. This is most aptly illustrated in good satire, where the keen edge of invective is married with wit. But to unleash negativity badly, ham-handedly, is the lowest of arts. The poison pen, the ad hominem attack, and the newest genre, the flame, are all bile, no art and no grace. The bitter and the sour are so easily indulged in, so readily played for effect, it’s no wonder we bury them under do-goody bumper-stickers like What would Buddha do?, What would Jesus do?, or Chicken Soup for Whatever. But what we may lose in the bargain is the truth.
Penetrating critique delivered in the form of satire has a venerable lineage. In the sixteenth century, the sometime monk Francois Rabelais exposes aristocratic and clerical life in the early Renaissance, taking the epic form so admired at the time and turning it into sketch comedy. Outrages such as describing a friar as “a crack dispenser of prayers and masses, an expert at polishing off vigils-in short a true monk if ever there was one since this monking world of ours first monked a monkery,” earned him the condemnation of the church and banishment from the Sorbonne, but he is the father of the genre that gave us Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” and “Life of Brian.”
Several centuries later, Jonathan Swift drew inspiration from Rabelais in creating his master work Gulliver’s Travels. His disdain for the arrogance, self-importance and belligerence of men of virtue left us with the term Lilliputian, for high-minded people with essentially trivial, self-serving aims. His equal disgust for low-brows left us with the term Yahoo (although his trademark on the word has apparently expired).
In Swift and Rabelais, the jabs lie beneath the surface. With George Bernard Shaw, the greatest barbed tongue of all time, the rapier is unsheathed. Among his many plays, one of the most iconoclastic is Don Juan in Hell (contained within the longer play Man and Superman).
At the play’s climax, Shaw declaims in the voice of Don Juan how all the world’s turned topsy turvy, and those who appear to be the best are in fact the worst: “They are not dignified: they are only fashionably dressed. They are not educated: they are only college grads. They are not religious: they are only pewrenters. They are not moral: they are only conventional….They are not artistic: they are only lascivious. They are not prosperous: they are only rich. They are not loyal, they are only servile; not dutiful, only sheepish; not public-spirited, only patriotic; not courageous, only quarrelsome; not determined, only obstinate; not masterful, only domineering; not self-controlled, only obtuse; not self-respecting, only vain; not kind, only sentimental; not social, only gregarious; not considerate, only polite; not intelligent, only opinionated; not progressive, only factious; not imaginative, only superstitious; not just, only vindictive; not generous, only aiming to please; not disciplined, only cowed; and not truthful at all: liars every one of them, to the very backbone of their souls.”
When the audience hears this diatribe, inevitably they laugh-because they see themselves. And that’s the point of all this mockery. Our best intentions to better ourselves and the world-through politics or religion or activism-easily descend into self-interest and self-absorption, and a sharp thwack and a good laugh can bring a delightful comeuppance and relief from the great burden of being holier than thou.