Chris Vilmar (of Perplexed with Narrow Passages) posted recently about the difficulties of teaching satire to undergraduates, which got me wondering about what it is about this genre that makes teaching it such a difficult task. My first thought is that satire is fundamental to understanding many of the writers we teach in the long eighteenth, and so everything we say will be dominated by our own sense of its importance. Our undergraduates, though, when they hear our lectures will have little concrete sense of how much better Swift or Dryden were at the job than many of their contemporaries, or why scholars and critics have long deemed satire to be one of the literary “dominants” between the era of Butler and Swift.
The Poems on Affairs of State is a fascinating anthology, especially in its most recent, monumentally annotated scholarly edition, but a little of it goes a very long way for even the most experienced scholarly reader, and it’s hard for me to imagine a class in which students would really get to swim around in the thing. So difficulty number one for teaching a genre like this would be the lack of corroboration in our students’ minds when they discuss the term: students have not been exposed, and probably never will be exposed, to the full range of this genre, as important as it is to understanding the literary and political culture of this era. So why should they care about all this strange and brutal stuff? And how could they ever know the history behind things like the Warming Pan Baby poems, without doing specific investigations into those episodes up front?
The next difficulty is the delicate one of students’ “sense of humor,” which is just another way to talk about the contingencies of taste. Will students ever find a famous piece of satire funny in their first reading? Or will some find it funny and others find it offensive? Of course someone will be offended; if they’re not, it means they’re not keeping up with the reading. But this gap in responses has its own pedagogical use, because it helps show students the divisive or polarizing effects of such writing, which I think is one of the characteristic effects, if not the ultimate goal, of this genre.
The way that I attack these problems in my Swift class is to begin the semester with a simple question: what is satire? And I collect their responses and especially their examples, which I insist initially that they make completely contemporary. And then we start to generalize as a class from about 10-20 of their examples about the larger characteristics that emerge from our sampling: exaggeration; offensiveness; politics; parody; and so forth. And after we talk about the inevitable Jon Stewart or Colbert examples, I pose them a question: it’s 200 years from today, and someone has uncovered a “tape” of a show by Steve Colbert, and scholars are tasked with the job of discovering what this strange performance is all about. Someone suggests that it’s supposed to be funny, but no one can tell very well which parts are funny and which parts are not. So how would the 22nd century literary historian begin to annotate and explain what these “shows” were about, and why people liked them? What would be the hardest part of that kind of job?
Now we’re ready to talk about Swift. We do know that Swift as a satirist has “targets,” but we’re often unsure which ones are intended, and how broadly we need to construe them. We also know from the formal definitions of satire that it involves “ridicule” of both “vice” and of the more mundane absurdities or foibles of the people around him. But even if we are not sure of the precise targets, we do know that a satirist has some purpose in what he represents and how he represents it. So that prepares us to begin seeing descriptions of people and places as satirical, though we need to continue refining our understanding of who and what Swift’s potential targets were, by looking in places like biography, history, and literary criticism.
This kind of patient, incremental discussion doesn’t necessarily bring laughter into the classroom, at least not right away, but it does address head-on the differences between their own uses of the term (I find that many students are very unclear what “satire” even means, though they will use it in all sorts of contexts) and the eighteenth-century understandings I know about. And it leads them toward the historical through their own understanding of at least the purposes of such writing in the present. What they learn is that they need to know more, more about Swift’s own attitudes, but also about the attitudes of those around him whom he liked to ridicule, so they can orient themselves better when they encounter satirical writings (or writings that might possibly be satirical). They need to be able to distinguish the joker from jokee, and sometimes supply the explanations that Swift and his audience would have tacitly understood. As always, it is a recursive process, a series of returns to the text, to begin to see where its first audiences found their pleasures, and themselves, in it. Only when students are able to do that work for themselves, and in a similarly tacit, almost unconscious manner, will they be prepared to laugh in the right places. And sometimes not even then.