What's Satire Got to Do With It?

January 30, 2015 3:50 PM

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What's Satire Got to Do With It?

In the wake of the terrible Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, there have been many shows of solidarity with the slain cartoonists and their fellow staff members. There have also been some thoughtful retrospectives on that particular magazine's history of satirical caricature (for example, here), and on the more general tradition of satire in French culture (for example, here). As someone who teaches and writes about the history of British literature, which also has a great satirical tradition, I've learned a lot from these discussions. What I haven't seen yet, however, is a sustained consideration of what satire is, how it works and why it still has the power to enrage.

What do we mean when we call a work of art or literature a "satire"? The word itself derives from the Greek word "satyr," the half-man, half-goat creatures of classical mythology. In one of those myths, the god Apollo is challenged to a musical competition by a satyr named Marsyas. Not surprisingly,...

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