- Menippean Satire Reconsidered: From Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century
Menippean satire, "so approximate a genre," as Howard Weinbrot says, has accrued to itself a variegated array of exemplars (4). The list which opens this book, ranging from Satyricon and Gargantua and Pantagruel, through Hamlet and Tristram Shandy, to Moby Dick and Portnoy's Complaint, may happily resemble the lanx satura or farrago of Roman satire, but Weinbrot thinks it is in need of some severe thinning out. Consequently, he postulates a restricted defi nition of Menippean satire, narrowing the broad focus of Mikhail Bakhtin and Northrop Frye to the following: "a kind of satire that uses at least two different languages, genres, tones, or cultural or historical periods to combat a false and threatening orthodoxy" (6). He then subdivides into two "tones"—the "severe" and the "muted"—and four "modes" of Menippean satire: "by addition," "by genre," "by annotation," and "by incursion" (6–7). More colloquially, Menippean satire is "a genre for serious people who see serious trouble and want to do something about it" (xi). In the "severe" form, the satirist sees little or no hope for improvement, while in the "more moderate" version he encourages remedies, and Weinbrot assigns the authors and works he discusses to one or the other category.
The problem with which Weinbrot is the latest to grapple is, of course, that Menippean satire has the most questionable of generic pedigrees. There is no escaping the fact that, in spite of Menippus's fame as a Cynic philosopher and the infl uence which Cynic ideas had on satirical writers like Varro and Lucian, the ancients knew of no genre called Menippean satire. Indeed, only Roman verse satire, as practiced by Lucilius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, can be squeezed into a generic skin (the slippery category of satura), and even that was stretched to bursting point by the unruly "sausage-meat" that made up the contents of the form which Quintilian boldly designated as "uniquely our own." Scholars of ancient satire have never been able to agree on the exact relationship to satura of works like Petronius's Satyricon or Seneca's Apocolocyntosis or even Martial's Epigrams; most often they are described, unsatisfyingly, as "in the satirical tradition" and sometimes, at least in the case of the first two, as "Menippean satire." But we shall return to this matter later, for Weinbrot's book is mainly concerned with eighteenth-century texts and parts of texts which he thinks genuinely deserve the appellation of Menippean satire. [End Page 253]
The category of Menippean satire "by genre," perhaps the easiest to conceptualize, is explained in Part III through a discussion of Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism, which "Menippizes" the excessive rigidity of Nicolas Boileau's Art poetique in order to point up differences between the English and French "literary and political states" (96). As elsewhere in the book, Weinbrot deftly blends historical and bibliographical information with close readings and the elaboration of his generic defi nition. For Menippean satire "by addition," explored in Part II, his main example is Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub, which expands beyond its nominal bounds to incorporate The Battle of the Books and Mechanical Operations of the Spirit in the same volume. Urging "relations among parts" in this complex text, Weinbrot demonstrates how the satirist expands it in order to resist an orthodoxy which becomes ever more threatening. This is an erudite and sophisticated discussion, particularly good on how Swift presents Bentley as the enemy of Homer "whom he would destroy in favor of Modern standards and badly reinvented Homeric truths" (143). In Part IV, the related mode of Menippean satire "by annotation" is examined via Pope's Dunciad, wherein the notes and other prose create what Weinbrot designates as "a mixed but coherent severely dark Menippean satire" (250). Again, there is much in this segment of the book to intrigue both experts on Pope and more general readers alike. In Part V, we are introduced to...