Vile Bodies is the title of Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel, a satire on the lives and exploits of the Bright Young Things of London’s Mayfair in the 1920s. The phrase itself occurs lodged at the end of a memorably long parenthesis:1
(. . . Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. . . . Those vile bodies . . .)
In this fine piece of writing, Waugh demonstrates what is quintessential to satire: human bodies packed tight and invading one another’s personal space. As Alvin Kernan says: “The scene of satire is always disorderly and crowded, packed to the very point of bursting. The deformed faces of depravity, stupidity, greed, venality, ignorance, and maliciousness group [End Page 247] closely together for a moment, stare boldly out at us, break up, and another tight knot of figures collects . . .” 2 The parties attended in relentless sequence by Waugh’s “vile bodies” maximise the display of the corporeal in the crowded multicultural urban setting so typical of satire.
What is more, Waugh’s description of the parties emphasises the primacy of the body. These bodies are masked and decorated, they are dressed up and undressed (to the point of nudity), they are plied with food and drink and cigarettes—and there is a sub-text of frenetic, monotonous copulation. This demonstrates the profound interconnectedness of satire and the material body. Satirical texts do not shy away from bodily functions. On the contrary, they tend to use bodily functions as an index of human conduct. This explains the prominence in satire of things that enter and leave the body and of the concomitant focus upon the bodily orifices. Eating and drinking, the sexual and excretory functions: whatever breaches the boundaries of the closed, self-sufficient, classical body is the business of satire.
To mention the classical body like this is to imply the grotesquerie of the body in satire. This, in turn, cannot fail to evoke Bakhtin’s views on carnival and on the triumph of the lower bodily stratum. 3 At first sight, it may appear that Waugh’s parties offer a Bakhtinian vision of the carnival in which bodily functions have precedence over the spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic elements of human beings. But this is satire, not comedy. Bakhtin’s view of carnival works well when applied to comedy, particularly Attic Old Comedy, where the release of inhibitions granted by the holiday atmosphere and the celebration of fertility are in strong evidence. We have to think no further than plays such as Aristophanes’ Acharnians and Peace where successful closure is celebrated in the form of coitus. Even in New Comedy, the boy-gets-girl motif which underlies most of the plays (albeit rather buried in some cases) is a manifestation of this impulse towards fertility and the renewal and continuation of the community. In satire, by contrast, any celebration of fertility is at best ambivalent. The treatment of the body is fundamentally different: in satire, the body is negative and sterile. In Freudian terms, if comedy lets the id out to play, satire calls for the superego to lock it up again. [End Page 248]
This volume of essays sets out to explore the role of the body in satire through a range of perspectives, including Bakhtinian and feminist perspectives, that reconnect the voices and bodies of satire. There has, after all, been a significant interest in recent years in the voices of Roman satire which perhaps took its impetus from W. S. Anderson’s ground-breaking work on the concept of persona (“mask”) in Roman satire, in Juvenal especially. 4 It seemed to us that it was...