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A Not So Modest Proposal

By Beater_4509 Apr 15, 2014 1403 Words
A Not So Modest Proposal (Of Satire in the Eighteenth Century)

In our society, satire is among the most prevalent of comedic forms. This was not always true, for before the 18th century, satire was not a fully developed form. Satire, however, rose out of necessity; writers and artists needed a way to ambiguously criticize their governments, their churches, and their aristocrats. By the 18th century, satire was hugely popular. Satire as an art form has its roots in the classics, especially in the Roman Horace's Satires. Satire as it was originally proposed was a form of literature using sarcasm, irony, and wit, to bring about a change in society, but in the eighteenth century Voltaire, Jonathan Swift and William Hogarth expanded satire to include politics, as well as art. The political climate of the time was one of tension. Any criticism of government would bring harsh punishments, sometimes exile or death. In order to voice opinions without fear of punishment, malcontented writers turned to Satire. Voltaire's Candide and Swift's Modest Proposal are two examples of this new genre. By creating a fictional world modeled after the world he hated, Voltaire was able to attack scientists, and theologians with impunity. Jonathan Swift created many fictional worlds in his great work, Gulliver's Travels, when he constantly drew parallels to the English government. The new form was not limited to literature alone; William Hogarth expanded Satire to include art as well. His series of paintings, A Rake's Progress, narrate the life of a young man in eighteenth century London. Hogarth's paintings also illustrate that anything can be the object of satire, as he made fun of every aspect of life, not simply the institutions of religion, science, and politics. Although not all Satire dealt with religion, science and politics, the most notable satirist of the time, Voltaire confined his writings to these subjects. His style, which has been widely used in our time, is to portray a member of the society he is satirizing as foolish and hypocritical. In one of his more famous works, Candide, Voltaire repeatedly mocks the supposedly all-knowing philosophers with the character of Dr. Pangloss, professor of "metaphysicotheologicocosmolo-nigology" (Lamm 175). Voltaire portrays this man of science as very misguided, not the brilliant thinker one would expect. Evidence of this is seen in the Dr.'s proudest accomplishment, "he proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause (Lamm 175). Another technique used by Voltaire to convey satire is sarcastic humor. In one description of a common eighteenth century medical cure, the patient is very fortunate to only lose an eye and an ear (Lamm 178). In this case, as well as in many others, sarcasm is used to show Voltaire's disdain for what he sees as false professors of knowledge.

Voltaire occasionally uses slapstick humor as well, not to convey any criticism, but to lighten the mood. An amusing example of this comes in the early pages of Candide, "The Baron's lady weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds, and was therefore a person of great consideration (Lamm 175)" Jonathan Swift uses satire as a potent weapon to attack governmental injustices and political abuse. In his brilliant essay, A Modest Proposal, Swift projects an expeditious way of addressing Irish poverty by eating Irish babies. In a less trenchant style, Swift attacks English politics and the idiosyncrasies of the people in Gulliver's Travels Although it is looked on as his most controversial work, A Modest Proposal was also Swift's most ingenious essay. The purpose of this essay was to provide a cheap and easy method for making the poor Irish children "sound and useful members of the Commonwealth" (Swift 487-88). He contends that eating Irish babies could solve the problem and save the economy. Swift's most famous work was without a doubt Gulliver's Travels. The Lilliput civilization is paralleled to the English commonwealth, which is cruel and corrupt. The Lilliputian Emperor represents the English monarch who was a tyrant over the people. Also, the work was a weapon against the unfair British courts. In the story, Gulliver is told "that several committees of council have been called lately in the most private manner on your account"(Swift 78). This exemplifies the secrecy and unfairness of the courts, which tried to condemn people without fair trial. William Hogarth was an innovator by appropriating the use of satire in the world of art. A talented painter and engraver, lively created comical scenes that poked fun of the conventions of the time, including the rich and the poor, doctors and lawyers, drunks and gamblers, and politicians and preachers. In this way, Hogarth brought the French Rococo style and combined it with a distinctively English subject matter to create some of the most well-known art and satire of the 18th century. Hogarth's favorite device was to create a series of narrative scenes that followed the main character or characters through their encounter and submission to any one of various social evils. For example, in his series entitled Marriage à la Mode, the marriage of a young lord, arranged by his parents, begins to founder. In one scene, called "Breakfast Scene," the young husband and wife sit wearily after a long night of partying. The young nobleman, with empty pockets (from gambling), his hat still on, ruffled clothing, and a broken sword is obviously worn out from the last night's adventures. His dog sniffs at a lace cap hanging suspiciously from his pocket. His servant, carrying unpaid bills, is looking upwards with despair at his master's slovenly behavior (Janson, 561). In another famous print, "Gin Lane and Beer Street," Hogarth exaggerates the danger of people switching from beer, considered healthy, to gin, which was looked down upon as a drink for drunkards. The print presents two scenes. The first one, "Gin Lane," shows a town gone to ruins. Garbage is thrown from the windows, a cart of is overflowing with the dead, and men fight in the background. In the foreground, a mother takes some snuff, while ignoring her infant, who is falling off of her lap. Vagrant children wrestle with a dog for the last bit of meat on a discarded bone. In the distance, a cook is preparing a feast of baby, a shocking idea reminiscent of A Modest Proposal. In the "Beer Street" scene, things are much happier. An artist paints a sign in the village square. The pawnbroker's shop, without its business, has gone to ruins. In front of it, merchants are hard at work, enjoying a thriving economy.

In the background, the finishing touches are put on a brand new building. Everyone is working, everyone is healthy, and everyone is happy (William Hogarth's Realm). The humor in Hogarth's works is of the same thread that gives the spreads of Mad Magazine their charm. Crowded scenes, full of detail, have been carefully worked so that the audience may peruse the subjects and setting several times and still not catch all of the details. In this way, Hogarth was able to create what would be called "conversation pieces," for in the same way children can look through a Where's Waldo for the hidden humor, so could the people of the 18th century look at a Hogarth print and have fun. At the same time, Hogarth was creating pieces that would, as the classical Horace said in his Satires, "use humor for moral ends." Horace dealt with the same type of subject matter that Voltaire and Swift, notably the vanity of the rich, the corruption of government, and the hypocrisy of religious doctrine. He criticized the foolish behavior of the public as well, illustrating the dangers of immoral behavior. This is evident in The Rake's Progress, where alcohol abuse and other debauchery lead to a good man's downfall (Janson, 561). Hogarth is therefore able to use satire to bring about a change, the true quest of a true satirist. In conclusion, the 18th century could be described as the birthplace of modern satire. For the first time, the educated upper crust was criticizing the establishments, and these criticisms were reaching the lower classes. Three satirists, Swift, Voltaire, and Hogarth, brought about necessary social justice through their wit. In an age of reason, the satirist found and exposed society's problems, so that they could be laughed at, and so that they could change. Much is owed to the pioneers of satire, who personified the attitude and the dream of the 18th century.

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