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  • Satire: A Critical Reintroduction
  • J. Douglas Canfield
Dustin Griffin. Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994. Pp. x + 245. $27.

This is the most commonsense general treatment of Western literary satire in a generation, and since the eighteenth century was such a great one for the genre, it is of particular interest to the readers of this journal. Dustin Griffin sets out to reexplore the topic in the light particularly of theoretical changes in the profession since the generation of Northrop Frye, Alvin Kernan, Robert Elliott, Edward Rosenheim, and Ronald Paulson. The older model, with variations, was essentially that satire is an attack, containing at least an implicit standard for judgment, by a moralist on deviant behavior. Affected by post-structuralism, we can no longer be as complacent and self-assured as that generation. Satiric form seems more open-ended; satiric motivation more complex; audience response more complicit with selfish or self-indulgent play. Influenced by M. M. Bakhtin, Griffin wants satiric theory to account for the interpenetration of Menippean into all forms of satire, with the result that none of it can be seen strictly as monologic, that it is all dialogic to some extent. [End Page 330]

After reviewing satiric theory as it has developed in the European tradition, in a chapter entitled “Inquiry and Provocation,” Griffin makes his first solid commonsense point in his analysis of the rhetoric of satire: that the bipolar structure of satire (good/bad, us/them) is simply “the satirist’s point of departure rather than the destination” (37). He can then characterize satire more as an inquiry into rather than as a clear statement of truth. He can portray the satirist as not so much provoked into reforming the world as provoking that world into perhaps seeing itself. He can interpret satire’s irony, pace Wayne Booth, as unstable rather than stable.

Griffin proceeds in subsequent chapters to more commonsense points, points that we have or should have known all along despite our theory: that satire is display of the talent, the wit, the bravura of the satirist as much as it is condemnation; that it has as much to do with play as with morality if not more; that satiric endings generally eschew closure, partly because the satirist’s anger has not been resolved, partly because closure seems too contrived: “It appears that the satirist’s instinct is not to close off an argument but to think of another example, or a qualification, or a digression” (113). Here I think Griffin might have made more of Kernan’s treatment of draconian satiric endings, for example of Volpone (The Cankered Muse [Yale, 1959] 190–91) or, for that matter, of The Dunciad. Such draconian endings seem to me more related to Frank Kermode’s sense of an ending in European literature (in Kermode’s classic study of that title [Oxford, 1967]) as essentially apocalyptic and therefore to militate against the notion of continuation: as Kernan writes of Volpone, “Viciousness and idiocy, the play states through its plot, are incorrigible and can only be chained up, for, once loose, such is their energy that they will soon control the city again” (190).

Despite his nod to our post-structuralist era, Griffin refuses to go all the way with the deconstructionists to make all satire totally open-ended, totally Pyrrhonic: “[F]or all their commitment to inquiry, to the free play of irony and the skeptical intellect, most satirists are at the same time roused by a sense of urgency about moral ugliness or its idiocy, by the sense that something must be done or at least said” (48). Though the statement comes early, one has to wait till the chapter on “Satiric Fictions and Historical Particulars” before Griffin gets to the knotty problem of satirical referentiality. Resisting the old historicists, on the one hand, who often took the fictions of satire as fact, and the New Critics, on the other, who contended that great satire transcends its historical particulars and embodies concrete universals, Griffin insists “that historical particulars in satire always have a curious in-between status, neither wholly fact nor wholly fiction. The excitement of satire (its...

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