essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
I watched one of George Carlin’s shows the other night. The man is a hero of mine, and I think of him as one of the great figures of world culture, for all his immersion in the woes afflicting American society. The audience howled with laughter throughout the show. Carlin is indeed a very funny man. Yet his subject matter isn’t funny at all. I wondered why the people were laughing so hard.
We live in a world, Carlin said, where our freedom of choice has been eroded. We are at the complete and utter mercy of a handful of people who control giant, mega corporations, who are powerful enough to buy and sell governments, and whom we cannot identify, let alone control or make responsible. We live in a money economy, and while we do, our disposable wealth will be extracted from us by means of thought control devices such as advertising and Newspeak. We are completely responsible for this state of affairs, as we have elected again and again, weak and corruptible leaders to run and ruin our countries.
It’s a terrifying picture. As the reference above to Newspeak implies, it was identified as a probability in 1948 by the writer George Orwell in his seminal book, 1984. There, in that nightmare world depicted by Orwell, all is under the control of a mythic figure called Big Brother. He dominates every member of society, every moment from dawn to dusk. No one is ever alone, giant TV screens carry out ceaseless surveillance and at the same time impart mind numbing propaganda.
George Orwell had a fear he expressed after his book was published. It was that 1984 might happen, and that no one would notice. Then George Carlin came along and pointed out that it had, and that no one did.
The term ‘Big Brother’ is worth talking about. In the novel 1984 there is no such person as Big Brother. He is an imaginary figurehead behind which the real rulers of that society hide. He is the end product of a long line of such figures, some real, some abstract terms, some mythic: God, the State, the Führer, Democracy, Freedom, Pharaoh, the Economy, Realism, Quetzalcoatl, Woman (no reference to the female sex implied here). One of the saddest things in human history is that when you hear abstractions being spouted (“the good of the State”, “in defense of Democracy”, “the will of God”, “war against Terrorism”) then gifted individuals full of idealism, the finest products of humanity, are being exploited by cynical seekers after personal gain.
Carlin explained several times his own point of view. How could he go on, he was often asked, with such a black view of society hanging over him? Wasn’t he depressed by the reality he saw? No, said Carlin. He was an observer. Everyone born gets a ticket to the freak show. In America you got a front row seat. Some, like himself, were able to comment on what they saw. Others could choose to be entertained by the odd things other people do. Carlin was a fatalist. It was too late to change anything, he said. The damage had been done. It was irreversible. One could only laugh. This was more than back humour: Carlin in his career went from humorist to satirist.
Now, there is black humour. Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One is a good example of that. That the terror that death brings is assuaged by sentimentality is a fact, and that is ridiculous. And there is satire. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove is a good example of satire (nothing at all like its source, Red Alert, which was a thriller). The arms race is ridiculous, but it is dangerous: the prospect of mankind, which thinks of itself as the peak of creation, blowing itself up can only engender self disgust.
At the core of every satirist is a moralist, someone who strives, sometimes without much hope, to change human behaviour. At the core of George Carlin’s routines, mixed with an exasperated delight at the absurdity of human behaviour, was a spark of idealism. It was a belief in intelligence, in thought. If the reality Carlin depicted in his sketches was there, and he could get some people thinking about it, perhaps a change could be made.
Other thinkers were not so sanguine. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, during the carnage of the First World War, remarked bitterly that most people would rather die than think. Most people did, and historians today are still debating why.
The politics of satire
Perhaps satire has something to do with political breakdown. Think of Isaiah. It might seem odd to think of Isaiah as a satirist, but if you forget the connection between satire and humour, and accept the moral earnestness of Isaiah’s attempt to bring the Jews to their senses, then he is not unlike George Carlin exhorting his audience to come to their senses. Isaiah said:
“I have nourished and brought up children,
But they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knoweth his owner,
The ass his master’s crib, but Israel doth not know;
My people do not understand; Ah, they are a sinful nation”
George Carlin said: “…It’s called the American Dream,because you have to be asleep to believe it”. The last few George Carlin shows remind me a lot of Isaiah.
Isaiah lived in the eighth century BC, when the Assyrian power in the north was expanding, systematically disassembling the once great empire of David and Solomon. For Isaiah it is all too simple. The Jewish people had come to believe in false gods, and the one God was punishing them. Now Isaiah was one of the greatest poets who have ever lived, and he also played a major part in the creation of Judaism as a monotheistic faith. Even though he is a great master of language, and expresses some of the most deeply moving and poignant of emotions in his poetry, I think Isaiah has been proved wrong in his belief. Many satirists who followed Isaiah were atheists, and it is because so many of the ills in human history have been caused by the simple minded belief in god expressed by Isaiah. It is an important point, and I discuss atheism later on, not the normal use of the term, but the atheism of satirists. By reproving worshippers who followed the wrong god, Isaiah was unleashing the demon of religious intolerance, as well as helping to found a great and fulfilling faith.
Aristophanes was a satirical playwright who wrote during what was a catastrophic world war of the fifth century BC, the great 30 year war between Sparta and Athens that destroyed the culture and prosperity of both countries. His city, Athens, carried on its regular festivities, such as the showing of plays at great religious events, while its whole world was collapsing. Each year the invading army destroyed the crops and people behind the walls starved. Thousands died of the plague, including the war’s architect and guiding leader, Perikles. Yet still the war party prevailed, confidant that Athens was indestructible. We know nothing of Aristophanes’ life, yet as the war started when he was a teenager and continued till he was well into his 40s, it is likely he served in the army, was perhaps wounded, and may have suffered the loss of family and friends in battle or from disease. (It is a peculiar fact that most surviving ancient Greek plays were written at Athens during this desperate and destructive struggle; and that the following century the works of Plato were begun under a reign of terror similar to Stalin’s in post WWI Russia. The Greeks had a lot of things they were forced to work out). In Aristophanes’ plays there survives what to us appears a bizarre mix of ritual obscenity (they were played at a festival celebrating new life, and sex wasn’t then considered ‘obscene’); surreal fantasy; exquisite lyric poetry (Aristophanes is also one of Greece’s greatest poets); and political satire. What follows concerns the political satire only and to that extent misrepresents the plays, which are unique in literature.
Aristophanes gets his teeth into the war party in play after play. A chief butt is Kleon, a tanner who was elected to the Board of Generals and was a strong advocate of an aggressive policy against Sparta. In the early play The Knights Cleon is opposed by another demagogue, a sausage seller. The two men exchange insults, reveal each other’s perfidy in dealing with enemies (the sausage seller with Persia, Kleon with the Spartans). The chorus of Knights reveal the benefits of extra food both men claim from the city council. Although Kleon is mentioned by name as a character in the play, and the actor who played him wore a mask which was a caricature of Kleon’s features, the point was not to denounce Kleon’s corruption, but to ridicule how the assembly was deluded again and again by both men’s bombast. Foolish people can easily be led by the nose. What is played out here is an ancient version of George Carlin’s bigger dick foreign policy. Carlin argues that aggressive foreign policy is fuelled by testosterone and penile rivalry. Men, he claims, are all insecure about the size of their penes (OK, penuses) and want to bomb anyone who’s a threat in this department. Well, there are some similarities between the speeches of the George Bushes (who continually declared war, on drugs, on Afghanistan, on Iraq, on terrorism) and Kleon. And it was the Pelopenesean War (OK, Peloponnesian War). But Aristophanes, Kleon (and the George Bushes) were all wrong in seeing matters as a simple choice between war and peace. Going into peace requires a strategy. You need to wage peace, or you get walked over. Of course Aristophanes was affected by the war, and could have suffered great losses. His point of view was biased and unbalanced. Yet so is any simple contrast between war and peace. Governments with either of these simple aims will mainly attract armaments vendors. Satirists ridiculing excessive behaviour in times of political breakdown have had to become cynical of solutions, including that of Aristophanes, Democracy, which has proven to be a chimera in world affairs and easily manipulated by the corrupt.
Probably the satirist with the greatest reputation of all is Juvenal, who lived at a time when the great world empire of Rome began to show its first cracks. Juvenal saw 10 emperors come and go. Not long after his death the German tribes broke through and invaded the empire, and the decline became a fall. Juvenal was a great master both of Roman verse and of denunciation. Like all hellfire and damnation preachers there is a suspicion when listening to him that the denunciation has become an end in itself. Juvenal saw the excesses of the upper classes in Rome, who reaped the dubious benefit of the spoils sacked from the ruins of conquered peoples’ cities. They were a lot like the drug exhausted millionaire Hollywood actors who reel from blockbuster to blockbuster with more and more need of support as they lose touch with reality. Juvenal found much of this behaviour ridiculous, as earlier so had Petronius. Juvenal thought the whole problem would go away with a return to old fashioned Republican virtues, the return of the boni, the good men of old, who went from ploughing their fields to command of an army and back to their fields again after victory, as celebrated earlier, in the histories of Livy. Of course Juvenal was wrong to believe that man is naturally virtuous. From the vigour of some of his denunciations one suspects Juvenal didn’t really believe it fully either.
The greatest satirist writing in English is undoubtedly Jonathan Swift. Swift was an Englishman who spent much of his life in Ireland, and saw at first hand the plight of the dispossessed Irish, as well as the mismanagement of foreign affairs perpetrated by both Whigs and Tories. Although the worst pogroms against the Irish were to occur a hundred years after Swift’s death, the signs were evident all about him. In 1730 he wrote A Modest Proposal, a pamphlet of razor sharp sarcasm ironically suggesting the best way to avoid the endemic starvation suffered by the Irish was simply for them to cultivate their own children for food. Swift ironically pours scorn on the obvious solutions. The removal of the corrupt and inefficient practice of absentee landlordism; the diversion of the plentiful supplies of food being exported to England so as to feed the people who actually grew it; the creation of a liberal and fair policy in governing the Irish. No, he says in his pamphlet. The Irish are good at one thing only, producing children. They would never starve if only they could be induced to eat them. Swift goes on to suggest ways of preparing babies for a meal. Incredibly, the satire lost its point. People wrote to complain of the barbarous suggestion, and nobody did anything about the problem. The Irish continued to starve. A similar fate befell A Tale of a Tub, a devastating attack on religious bigotry, pretension and corruption. Many thought it was an attack on faith and religion itself, and Swift became highly unpopular with the religious establishment. Meanwhile, theologians continued to split hairs, churchmen to collect money from the poor, and fight for preferment in the church hierarchy, leaving out much of scripture in their efforts to ‘get on’. A similar, Cassandra like fate befell Swift’s greatest work, the beautifully ironic, perfectly constructed and sarcastic scourge of man the political animal, Gulliver’s Travels. Swift was a great believer in reason, yet he was proved wrong in thinking that if man was to adopt a more reasonable approach to his problems, they could be solved. Centuries have passed, reasonable people have done their best, and the problems are still there.
Europe’s greatest satirist is Voltaire, who spent his entire life battling the injustices of the Ancien Régime. To the extent that even this superbly intelligent, enormously learned and ferociously scathing analyst of contemporary society was ineffectual, we owe the bloodbath of the French Revolution. Voltaire thought superstition, intolerance and injustice could be counteracted with reason, just like his older contemporary Swift, his mentor Isaac Newton and his friend Benjamin Franklin. But, as Bertrand Russell was to find out, man would rather die than think.
Another great satirist (and much more) is HG Wells. Wells, who became a world famous writer then a kind of sage who prognosticated on world affairs, lived through the time of the breakdown of the British Empire that seemed so indestructible when he was young. His last work was the pessimistic Mind at the End of Its Tether. Although known now as SF, Wells’ early romances were actually satires on the excesses of science: The Time Machine (1895) paints a picture of the remote future that is not dissimilar to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Science was to prove itself equally beneficial and disastrous to societies that had faith in its effects. The problems suggested by Wells arising from man’s reliance on science are more prevalent than ever today.
This glance at some great satirical writers makes one thing clear. Social problems associated with political breakdown have been observed by intelligent and witty satirists throughout the ages. These had pilloried the wrongs and injustices they had observed, but to little effect. And their ‘solutions’ had often been wrong. As a result, later satirical writers were much more cynical, inclined to pillory errant behaviour but not suggest remedies. The new development in literature was to be the novel, and satire became misunderstood and neglected as an art form till it surfaced again in the 20th century. People, it became clear, would rather listen to a story, or be amused by a clown, than remedy a wrong. Much existing satire became marginalised by being treated as a form of fiction: Gulliver’s Travels as SF or children’s literature, Wells’ romances as SF, Candide a fairy tale and so on. And satire acquired a large dose of cynicism.
Two kinds of atheism
“Thank god”, said the Irish satirist and comedian Dave Allen, “that I’m an atheist”. He later commented on his career, “I hope god has a sense of humour, or I’ll be in big trouble when I die”. Allen made a big contribution to theology with this remark. The concept that god has a sense of humour has been a niggling worry for every observer who has looked at human behaviour from a broad perspective. I think it possible that that explains the evolution of human beings: a joke on God’s part.
An atheist refuses to believe in god. It is a form of cynicism. Like freedom, about which is asked, “do you mean freedom for, or freedom from?”, atheism can be of two kinds, for and against. An “atheist for” makes a definite statement that there is no god. That far from man being made in god’s image, everywhere he is worshipped, god is made in man’s image. This viewpoint seems blinkered to me, but many people hold it.
The kind of atheism I refer to as “atheism against”, is held by those who object to how other people practise their religion: sometimes with hypocrisy, intolerance and cruelty. We often define god in terms of how others do, and sometimes reject god when we really mean to reject the definitions others make of god. A Sufi poet said: “there are 10,000 descriptions of god. All of them are wrong”. Religion is often merely the battle to prove which wrong one is righter. An atheist who refrains from this battle is what could be called an “atheist against”. They would probably be content with the definition of god that states, “god is indefinable”. My own belief is that if god is, human beings can only limit it by their apprehension. What we can know, including what comes from revelation, is through the senses, and the senses we are coming to realise more and more are extremely limited at some things (like comprehending the universe, or being aware of god).
The bible tells us that god, Yahweh, commanded the Jews to exterminate the Canaanites. Is that a god we want to believe in? In Candide Voltaire tells of the European battle at which both sides were blessed by rival Christian Bishops, and told that any who died for their country in the coming battle would go straight to heaven. We believe that: it’s called patriotism.
Satirists are extremely aware of the limitations of people as social animals. We practise inequality and talk of all men being equal; we are competitive, envious and spiteful and talk of equal opportunities; we enforce clumsy anti discriminatory laws yet discriminate against all who differ from us in any way. So modern satire has no problem finding targets. Mankind is a highly contradictory and inconsistent species and fair game.
Satire and cynicism
But if satire is developed with a large dose of cynicism which prohibits the solutions of earlier times, the moral content that originally fuelled satire, then it becomes hard to handle for audiences. Their solution is to classify satire as a form of humour. Pointing out the ridiculous way people sometimes behave may be funny, but it’s never been the aim of satire to simply amuse. Now it is. But Faith, Democracy, Reason, Morality, Science and so-called Common Sense have all failed us. Sometimes the laughter is the savage laughter of frustration.
George Carlin lived in another age of political breakdown, in this case the continuing decline of the powerful American Empire of post WWII years. He, like most contemporary satirists, was a cynic. Cynicism makes most people uncomfortable, and they laugh to conceal their nervousness. So I see that when Carlin is interviewed, the interviewer is expecting him to be funny. When it comes to matter that Carlin referred to as “the little world” of human behaviour, he certainly is. But Carlin had another subject, he called it “the big world”, about the societies we live in and the choices they give or fail to give us. The matter he talks about here is satirical, and under all the humour of his presentation it is tragic. The audience still laughs.
Carlin talked about rampart consumerism in an economy which has an encroaching poverty line equal to a third world country. He sketched in a vivid picture of a country full of shopping malls where consumers could both eat and shop at the same time. All very funny till you realise the degree of exaggeration involved is shrinking almost daily. The reality he saw was a laugh or cry one, and he preferred to laugh. But I find it amazing so many who encounter his vision join him. Is it hysterical laughter?
This is the price satirists pay for their cynicism. They might not be sure of the remedy for the ridiculous behaviour they point out, but in the absence of any ‘solution’ the audiences can avoid the issue. That’s not me, they say. That’s the other guy. And isn’t it funny? No need to change or do anything; but watch out for the next show.
Big Brother would be pleased. He always thought bread and circuses was a good policy.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.