Prudery & Promiscuity: In Which Juvenal & Comedians Take on the World

The Folio Society edition, translated by Peter Green & introduced by Simon Callow

“It is difficult not to write satire,” Juvenal wrote.

Yes, but where is it?  Who’s writing it?

Satire is rapidly vanishing in the U.S.  There’s not exactly censorship, but there has been a weird suppression of stand-up comics and comic actors:  flocks of them have been accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct and  banned from their careers.  And where are all the modern satiric poets and novelists? Are they banned, too? Are the publishers rejecting satirists? The pressure to quell voices has come from both the Left and the Right: if a book triggers a sob or a bad memory, if a comedian offends (and which doesn’t?), if a point of view is unpolitically correct, you must shut up the babblers. 

The poet Juvenal, who was exiled during Domitian’s reign of terror, began to publish his outrageous satires in 110 A.D.  In the introduction to the Folio Society edition, the actor Simon Callow writes about Juvenal’s outrageous stand-up comedy.  He writes,

I have a rather unusual qualification for introducing this edition of the Satires of Juvenal: I’ve been him.  This surprising manifestation occurred on the London stage, in 1976, in a one-man show called Juvenalia, and it proved to be the surprise sensation of the Fringe season that year, lauded with rare unanimity by all the major national newspapers.  The triumph was essentially Juvenal’s.  His scabrous commentary on his own times was perceived as startlingly pertinent and laugh-out-loud funny, filthy and deeply, gloriously unpolitically correct, even for 1976, when the concept had yet to be articulated.

Juvenal is hysterically funny in his unpolitically correct lampoons of Roman life.   He satirizes the decadence and depravity of Rome, pretentious poets, the allure of breads and circuses, the nouveau riche, the ubiquity of Greek immigrants, houses collapsing because of bad construction work, transvestites, eunuchs getting married, women who poison their husbands, homosexuality, legacy hunters, lawyers… Is there anyone or anything he didn’t satirize?

There must be an American Juvenal:  I don’t know him or her.  No, so instead I will make observations about two comedians.

Amy Schumer in “I Feel Pretty”

Critics are fond of the comedian and comic actor Amy Schumer, or so I’ve heard. But why are throngs of male critics bashing her silly summer movie, I Feel Pretty?  Having seen the trailer, I know it’s the kind of trifling entertainment you watch in an air-conditioned cineplex when it’s 90 degrees–not the kind of film to be reviewed in The New Yorker.

But this goofy satire of male-defined beauty has infuriated male critics.   Richard Brody at The New Yorker censures Schumer and writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein for wasting their talent.  He hates the plot, which centers on an overweight woman who, after falling down at spinning class and bumping her head,  hallucinates that she’s actually beautiful.  Naturally, she becomes more confident.  He writes,

It’s easy to see how the stereotypical view of beauty that’s satirized in “I Feel Pretty,” which Renee faces and then overrides, could have meshed with the persona, and the themes, that Schumer has developed on her own, but Kohn and Silverstein aren’t sufficiently lucid about the implications of the comedic premise. Schumer should simply be writing her own movies—and working with directors whose artistry matches her own.

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian manages to demolish the film in three paragraphs.  No, it doesn’t work for him, and the third paragraph tells us why.

Actually, Schumer is pretty, and the casting wouldn’t work otherwise, but despite the disconnect between how she is portrayed and how she feels, she is never really abashed and there is no comic friction. In fact, it is more a parable of how celebrities like Schumer, on becoming successful, suddenly get an inkling of how beautiful people have always felt. I Feel Famous would be an alternative title.

Ouch!  So he says Schumer cannot satirize male-defined beauty because she’s pretty–and then he stabs her in the back and says she only feels famous.  Bitchy, Mr. Bradshaw.

Aziz Asani in “Master of None”

At our house we are fans of Aziz Ansari.  His brilliant Netflix comedy, Master of None, is not only hilarious but insightful: in one episode, he explores the issue of racism against Indians (his American-born Indian character is  offered acting roles in which he must play an Indian with an accent) ; in another episode, he delightfully satirizes The Bicycle Thief (his phone is stolen in Italy, and the episode is even filmed in black and white). But after Ansari won a Golden Globe for lead actor in a comedy, he was accused of “sexual misconduct” by an adult woman who said she felt uncomfortable about having had mutual oral sex with Ansari.  All I can say is:  At least you didn’t get pregnant!  Because it is harder to get an abortion than you think these days.  (And don’t date celebrities, and especially don’t go home with them on dates, if you feel it’s going too fast!).

If all the comedians and satirists  must shut up because they (a) make us uncomfortable, (b) they are nasty people, or (c) they are too raunchy, where will we be?  This is America, where we have free speech. Do you think Lenny Bruce or Joan Rivers were nice people? Lighten up, people

Meanwhile, I’m rereading Juvenal’s satires.   They are funny.  Try Peter Green’s translation, in the Penguin or the Folio Society editions.

Jane Austen and Juvenal: It Is Difficult Not to Write Satire

Either the sparkling Jane Austen or the cynical Juvenal could have said the following:  “It is difficult not to write satire.”  The  Roman satirist Juvenal wrote it ( Satire I):   difficile est saturam non scribere. And yet the 19th-century English novelist and second-century Roman satirist have something in common–the wickedest tongues in their respective languages.

Their spheres of expertise are very different: Austen writes novels about women’s lives, satirizing the tedium of domesticity and the trials of marrying off women in restricted class-appropriate circles; while Juvenal, having survived Domitian’s reign of terror, lampoons the decline of morals and Roman decadence, daring to name  only dead men as examples.  Austen delves subtly beneath the surface, so that sometimes it takes a second or third reading to catch the subversiveness.

Whom do I prefer?  Sometimes one, sometimes the other.  As on a small sketchpad, Austen delineates women’s social lives, their walks and conversations; as in a painting by Bosch, Juvenal derides a colorful cast of Romans, among them women who poison husbands, gamblers who leave their purses but drag a safe instead to the gaming table, and gluttons who eat a whole boar and then die in the bath with an undigested peacock in their stomach.

The form of the satire in dactylic hexameter allows Juvenal occasionally to generalize at the end of a long catalogue of vices. Here is such a generalization in my rough translation: “There will be nothing worse that Posterity can add to our corruption; our descendants will do the same and crave the same depravity; and every vice has stood on the precipice.” (N.B. “… vice can go no further.)

Do you think of Austen as a satirist balanced on a precipice, shifting between a pretense of ladylike reserve and a pointed calculation of “outrageous fortune”(s)?  When I read Emma for the first time, I deemed it a  satire of love and finance. But Austen is more subtle than that: she has a satiric side, and a moral side, and no one better understands than she the serpentine relationship between love and money, and the cryptic  conventions that form the bond between men and women.  Her heroines want to marry, and,  yes, they get their men, but what men!  Handsome, clever, and rich Emma must eat humble pie before her snobbish, hypercritical, much older neighbor, Mr. Knightley, proposes. In Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen, The Radical, she does not dismiss the possibility that Mr. Knightley, who has a passion for “enclosure” of land, wants to marry Emma partly “for all those extra acres, fenced and ditched for free, and the £30,000 besides.”  And certainly I have always thought that their marriage would be made in hell.

Money matters in Austen’s world.   In her first novel, Sense and Sensibility,  Austen begins by describing the financial difficulties of the Dashwoods.  The Dashwood sisters and their mother must leave their comfortable home, because their father managed his finances badly and their half-brother inherited the estate. Now they depend on the kindness of a distant relative, who allows them to live in a cottage on his estate.

Whom will the girls marry?  It is more urgent than ever, now that they are poor.  Elinor assumes her boyfriend Edward Ferrars will propose, but when he does not even visit, she is unable to parse the world of men.  Ferrars has lied to her, a very important lie, we learn.  And how sensible is Elinor, even though she is more sensible than most? Like other girls, she has not been educated in finance, nor does she have any control over money, and could not have suspected any deception because of it.

Like Elinor, Marianne is unable to parse the thinking of men.  When she twists her ankle while running blithely down a hill, a typical Marianne-ish entertainment, a handsome stranger named Willoughby carries her home.  They fall in love:  they love art, novels, poetry..  They have many common tastes.  Unfortunately Willoughby drops her after paying her very marked attentions.

Marianne is a strong character, but she makes herself sick with sensibility and languishes with a real illness after she takes a walk in the rain, mourning Willoughby.   In Lucy Worsley’s witty biography, Jane Austen at Home, she explains the disease of “sensibility”  that afflicts Marianne.  Worsley writes,

Known as The English Malady, ‘sensibility’ had by the middle of the eighteenth century become a fashionable affliction for the well off. It was a classy kind of problem from which to suffer, for your nerves only became dangerously ‘sensitive’ if you had plenty of leisure time, and therefore lots of money, to indulge them.  But if you did want to appear delicate, full of sensibility, refined, it was a good idea to start by reading novels. And as people started to read more novels, with their high-blown, elevated notions about love and romance, they actually began to write to their  own real-life lovers in the same sensitive, romantic terms.

But Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, interprets sensibility differently.  Depending on whether Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility in the late 18th century or early 19th centurey,  Austen may have been alluding to Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft writes that men’s  power is “reason,” while women’s only power is “sensiblity,”  i.e., having the accomplishments that help her attract men and marry.

Mary Wollstonecraft writes,

 I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority. It is not condescension to bow to an interior. So ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me, that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles, when I see a man start with eager, and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief, or shut a door, when the ladycould have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.

Reading Wollstonecraft, I am surprised to recognize that her words still apply. Think of the difference between professional training (business, law) and the liberal arts (languages, literature, the arts). I so value the  liberal arts that I will make a case for sensibility over sense, but I admit our sensibility  prepared us mostly for (women’s?) lower-tier income jobs, teaching, paralegal work, PR,  or freelance writing. I omitted my master’s degree from a few job applications, after learning that  men with bachelor’s degrees weren’t at all interested in hiring women with more education.   I wonder where women are today on the “sensibility” question?  Surely more are in the professions.  I prefer sensibility, but sense–and cents–also matter.

And yet without sensibility are we human? One wonders when one sees people walking up and down the street looking at their phones, doubtless asking Alexa/Siri for directions.

As Juvenal says, difficile est saturam non scribere.

In Which Juvenal & Dostoevsky Lampoon Poets

Writers love to lampoon poets.  They’re easy targets:  the disheveled hair, heavy drinking, unconventional manners, and thrift-shop tweeds…  Are the stereotypes true?

Horace thought so. He caricatured pretentious poets in Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). (You can read my posts here and here.)  And I was astonished this week to find similar observations about poets in Juvenal’s Satires and  Dostoevsky’s Demons.

I’ll start with Juvenal, who wrote in the second century A.D.

He explains in his first poem why he writes satire. He begins by mocking poetry readings in Rome:  he wants to get revenge after sitting through so many bad ones.  He criticizes hackneyed poems about mythical heroes, Theseus, Telephus, and Orestes.  He writes (this is my rough prose translation):

Will I always be in the audience? Will I never get revenge, after being tormented so many times by the Thesiad of hoarse Cordus? Will one poet have recited dull comedies, another elegies, and go unpunished? Will a poet have wasted my whole day by reciting his great Telephus or Orestes, which he scrawled in the margins and then continued unfinished on the back of the book?

I have been to a few readings like that.  And Juvenal is so funny!

Dostoevsky also raves and rants in his novel Demons about bad poets, who he says flourish in times of social unrest.  He wrote Demons partly to respond to what he regarded as romantic portrayals of the nihilists in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and the revolutionaries in Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?

Dostoevsky fulminates about the times and the mores.

Yet the most worthless fellows suddenly gained predominant influence, began loudly criticising everything sacred, though till then they had not dared to open their mouths, while the leading people, who had till then so satisfactorily kept the upper hand, began listening to them and holding their peace, some even simpered approval in a most shameless way.

He then lists many, many different kinds of people who offend him, the military, the lawyers, the divinity students, and the feminists, and here’s what he says about writers and poets.

People like… Gogol’s Tentyotnikov, drivelling home-bred editions of Radishtchev,….poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant coats and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents…—all these suddenly gained complete sway among us and over whom?

At a literary fete, the pompous Karmazinov, a caricature of Turgenev, gives a long, monotonous reading from his new bad book.  This is followed by an incendiary speech by a liberal humanist of the older generation, and then a revolutionary poem by a drunken madman.

Watch out for those literary readings!