Gore Vidal, W. H. Auden, and Satire's Moral Sense

If Vidal spoke and wrote like a patrician, he was at heart a populist, and knew well enough there's but one exit for us all, silently waiting to steal away every elitist pretension.

October 9 th 2012

The varieties of ironic expression may be infinite, especially for those who draw fine distinctions, separating satirical sheep from sarcastic goats. I'm fond of the whole menagerie, and though I'm an amateur, I learned the finer points of one of irony's more pungent forms—sarcasm—from those true professionals: Jesuits. Their asides during my high school years were inside jokes rewarding the attentive. More importantly, they were defenses against despair, indirectly mourning the discordance between things as they are and how they ought to be. Whatever one makes of the Fall and its dolorous consequences, orthodox Christianity has always found a deep, unquenchable goodness in Creation, which ought not be dismissed. That's why my first year at a devoutly irreligious college confused me, its colourful cynics struck by their own cleverness. Their unrelenting, dismissive sarcasm, however wittily expressed, saw the entirety of human experience as unredeemable absurdity. I was drawn to them until I realized their resentment had no bedrock, their bitter witticisms leaving only emptiness between them and those they mocked.

Most forms of irony play on distance and distinction, even when the ironist includes himself in the object of the joke. Irony's energy is available to those who know both text and subtext, and the reader must recognize two ways of meaning simultaneously—one obvious, the other less so—or the joke's lost. But the temptations for those who "get it" include elitism and apathy, two potent vaccines against fellow feeling.

I was reminded of all this with the recent passing of Gore Vidal, who was a consummate satirist. That's not, to be sure, the same as an ironist—close kin, but with peculiar habits. A satirist stands at a rubbery distance from his or her targets: far enough away to critique, close enough to identify with. Satire can be gentle, instructive; it can be cruel and punitive. Through caricature, it emphasizes flaws, often obscuring or ignoring mitigating evidence. To the degree that it does the latter, it tends toward harshness and, perhaps, limited utility. But even the harshest satire still implies things could be better, and I had hoped, in all the written farewells to Gore Vidal, who assassinated with polished words and knowing wink, that the moral dimensions of his art merited appreciation.

Vidal's death prompted mostly futile attempts to sum up the literary career of a man for whom resisting categorization was a gentleman's pastime. Depending on the obituary's venue, he was eulogized as an elegant stylist, ad hominem hit man, sexual pioneer, patrician, populist, despiser of religion, champion of tradition, liberal Democrat, small-"r" republican, grudge-holder, conspiracy theorist, and ice-veined curmudgeon. He was all those things and more, none of them determinative or without qualification. Now that the self-described "gentleman bitch" is gone, there's opportunity to reflect on the underappreciated moral sense inherent, though all too often hidden, in satire.

Satire couches its judgments in humour, but its smile has teeth. The Italian playwright, Dario Fo, for example, distinguishes between satire (satira) and its gentler cousin, teasing (sfotto). Fo suggests we tell the difference by watching the target's reaction: A powerful person responds to satire with outrage and cries for censorship, while teasing is received as well-meaning buffoonery.

Satire—at least for those who hold art above ideology—is an equal opportunity offender, and Vidal's family of privileged populists never fit within the narrow spectrum of concerns that defines liberals and conservatives in the United States. Some obituaries mentioned Vidal's two unsuccessful congressional campaigns as a Democrat and that he was the grandson of a US Senator, also a Democrat, but they rarely noted that Senator Thomas Gore was an isolationist war opponent who initially supported, then opposed, Roosevelt's New Deal, casting the Senate's lone vote against the WPA. Vidal was cut from similar cloth. Jay Parini, Gore Vidal's literary executor, writes, "Vidal is conservative in many respects. He stands behind individual choice, the limitation of executive power, and preservation of the environment. Like his grandfather, he dislikes empire. . . . He would return us, if possible, to the pure republicanism of early America."

Satire often prowls the porous border between politics and morality, intent on nudging or shaming a person, institution, or group toward improved behaviour. Satirical targets are most often those with power or who claim a moral height from which to pronounce judgment on others. Some satire, however, can be so biting that hope of improvement seems abandoned. Voltaire's satirical masterpiece, Candide, closes irenically (and yes, I mean irenic, not ironic), urging all who might listen to cultivate one's own garden. In his letters and essays, however, Voltaire obsessively demands, "ecrasez l'infame" (crush the infamous thing), which summed up his attitude toward the Church, tradition, Judaism, democracy, and most of western history from the conversion of St. Paul until—but not including—the rise of the salons. Don't get me wrong—there's much in Voltaire's work to enjoy, but for a man who loathed dogmatism, he was quite the dogmatist.

As it happens, such grades and distinctions go back to poets of ancient Rome, who forged the strict hexameter verse form of satire while honing its edges to varying sharpness. The first century Latin poet, Juvenal, wrote biting condemnations of Roman society, and the name, Juvenalian satire, has been granted to a tradition emphasizing indignation, dismissive sarcasm, ridicule, and deep pessimism. It's fitting that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons named their dark alternative history of the United States Watchmen after a common translation of a classic line from Juvenal, "Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (Who watches the watchmen?). Other examples of Juvenalian satire, both classic and contemporary, include Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.

The poet, Horace, in contrast, is gentler, playful, and self-deprecating. For the Horatian, a satiric target is understood to be momentarily foolish rather than intrinsically evil. Classic and contemporary examples might include Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock and much of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. A virtue of Horatian satire is its openness to including the satirist in on the satire, since folly is universal. Among its vices is the ease in which Horatians cozy up to things as they are. Rarely would Horace target the nobility, and he remained, for all his good humour and gentle ribbing, a Roman patriot. When Wilfred Owen, first-hand witness to World War I's devastation, denounced as an "old lie," "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country), the line was Horace's.

In politically polarized times, satire trends toward the Juvenalian, but such sharply defined categories are rarely, if ever, consciously acknowledged and never quite hold. What sort of satirist is Stephen Colbert? Does his assumed persona implicate himself, or are his persona and person too distinct, the former all bluster and half-baked argument, for this to really happen? Do Jon Stewart's shrugs, "I don't knows," and "Can't we all get along?" monologues amount to Horatian humility? It may be best to give them the benefit of the doubt.

A modern poet who deliberately entered a satirical tradition was W. H. Auden, who, as critic Alan Jacobs tells in What Became of Wystan?: Change and Continuity in Auden's Poetry, found in Horatian satire a way out of what he saw as the rootless inwardness of Romanticism and the obsessive rebelliousness of High Modernism. At times, Auden's poetic language is so subtle that "satire" appears a category error, but he called out pretension wherever he found it, often enough in himself and his fellow poets. Auden had no patience for revolutionary poetic manifestos and thought Shelley's claim that, "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," more appropriately described the secret police.

For Auden, the proper role of the poet was as a citizen, responsible to a place and people, and he never lost sight that, for all his passion, he alone possessed no more than part of the truth. (See, for example, the "Vespers" section of his "Horae Canonicae," which, incidentally, anticipates Rene Girard's theory on the communal function of the scapegoat mechanism by two decades.) Auden was never shy about his formidable poetic skills, often claiming to have written in every known meter, but he insisted that the poet should have less concern for claiming bold new literary heights than for cheerfully accepting an important, yet limited, public role as literary craftsman. In a poem simply titled, "The Horatians," he writes:

                                                     We can only
do what it seems to us we were made for, look at
this world with a happy eye,
but from a sober perspective.

Auden's conscious turn toward Horatian satire came about the same time as his return to Christianity, in the early years of the Second World War. In that war's carnage and the edgy global pseudo-peace that followed, English-language poetry's public influence noticeably waned, making Auden even more problematic for literary contemporaries who imagined themselves opinion makers, heroes, and revolutionaries. Like most of us, poets and authors don't appreciate being reminded they're ordinary, like others in all that matters, including mortality. Among the few later poets who grasped and appreciated Auden's project is Richard Wilbur, whose obituary poem, "For W. H. Auden," ends:

Of all these noted in stride and detained in memory
I now know better that they were going to die,

Since you, who sustained the civil tongue
In a scattering time, and were poet of all our cities,
Have for all your clever difference quietly left us,
As we might have known that you would, by that common door.

And with that reminder of common mortality, we return to the late Gore Vidal, whose commitments and temperament seem, at first glance, as different from Auden's as one can imagine. Vidal picked literary and ideological fights, nursed grudges, complained, "It is not enough to succeed; others must fail," and insisted, "There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise." There was a time I would have been awed by Vidal's caustic wit, but age does strange things, even to a fan of sarcasm, and I'd now prefer Auden for a dinner partner, if only so I could relax and enjoy the conversation without having to plot my defense.

Yet I come not to bury Gore Vidal, but to praise him. For all his gleeful Juvenalian barbs, for all the opinions I don't share, he had a vision of how things could be better without succumbing to utopian temptations. Furthermore, he fought for that vision using weapons no more lethal than words. It's an accomplishment Vidal himself called attention to, albeit in, for him, an unusually self-effacing way, in a 2009 Vanity Fair interview:

The usual question everybody asks now is: What are you proudest of, Mr. Vidal, of all your great achievements? To which I answer: "Despite intense provocations over the course of what is becoming a rather long life, I have never killed anybody. That is my greatest achievement." A little negative maybe, but that's it.

Indeed, for a figure often identified as part of the American political left, his withering critique of America's "perpetual war for perpetual peace" placed him at odds with postwar liberals in the United States. While his arguments against what he saw as American imperialism were sometimes self-indulgent and all too often sidetracked with tangential concerns, his more focused commentary often echoed Alexis de Toqueville, whose chapter in Democracy in America, entitled "Why Democratic Nations Naturally Desire Peace and Democratic Armies, War," sounds like it was copied directly into the Vidal family playbook. Vidal was not a pacifist, but he feared the military-industrial complex—institutionalized by Harry Truman, who signed the National Security Act of 1947 in the Presidential airplane named, of all things, "Sacred Cow"—and its corrosive effect on those liberties the "pure republicanism of early America" (to use Parini's phrase) intended to preserve.

I could bolster my argument with further examples, but my point is this: Gore Vidal's bad temper (he was once described as "a bomb waiting to go off") and his celebrated verbal savagery served a core of moral seriousness, bracing in its Juvenalian severity. As Vidal once said of himself: "I'm exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water." Not the sort, perhaps, to invite over for a relaxing evening chat, but—unlike those cynics from my college days—his wrath had roots. He thought carefully about words, and one could be sure he meant the words he spoke or wrote. No doubt the motives behind Vidal's literary feuds were complex but, to hear him talk, they arose from an oddly Augustinian sense that lying is unforgiveable.

I don't mean to make Vidal sound better in death than he was in life. He was a deeply flawed man who pursued what he understood to be good, if not precisely "The Good." That makes him rather like me, though he had more writing talent in his fingernail than I have in my entire body. Perhaps it takes a Horatian sensibility to rightly appreciate so fierce a Juvenalian. (I can picture Vidal hearing that, leaning back in his upholstered chair and saying, "Yes, just as it takes a pig to find the best truffles.") I'd also like to believe Horatians are better seen through a Juvenalian lens, though that's harder for me to fathom. Whatever team we're on, though, we all leave, some more quietly than others, by "that common door." If Vidal spoke and wrote like a patrician, he was at heart a populist, and knew well enough there's but one exit for us all, silently waiting to steal away every elitist pretension. It's how we speak and act before we cross that threshold that mattered to him. Despite my dissent from many of his judgments and passions, that's one I can learn from until the day my own hand's on the common doorknob. In the meantime, I'm campaigning for satire's moral sense to get its due. As a lifelong fan of irony, I say that in all sincerity.

Topics: Literature

Brian Volck is a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. He co-authored Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine (Brazos Press, 2006). He is writing a memoir and researching a book on the intersection of history, culture, and health among the Navajo people.