23 January 2015
The conservatism of satire?
This week's New Yorker -- the one with the "Dream of Reconciliation" cover -- has an article about French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Submission, a fantasy about an Islamic takeover of his country, looks to be one of the hot-topic books of the year. I've read several of Houellebecq's novels and am looking forward to this one, but the words that caught my eye in Adam Gopnik's article were: "Like most satirists worth reading, Houellebecq is a conservative....Satire depends on comparing the crazy place we're going to with the implicitly sane place we left behind." It's a strange comment but there may be something to it. It's strange because Gopnik ranks George Orwell among the satirists and describes 1984 as a satire. To my knowledge, Orwell remained a Socialist his entire life, though he might be considered conservative relative to Stalin, depending on whether you define Stalin by his radicalism or his authoritarianism, and arguably a cultural conservative to some extent, as certain remarks reveal him to be something of a homophobe and someone who would have despised hippies had he lived to see them. Many people certainly have adopted 1984 as a conservative book, seeing Big Brother's regime as the inevitable end point of all socialist experiments if not any expansion of Big Government, but does Orwell's satire of totalitarianism imply his satisfaction with the world he lived in? The evidence of his writing suggests otherwise. The problem with Gopnik's formulation is that he confuses conservatism with a certain pessimism that more likely is essential to satire. Satire is not reactionary, but it is skeptical. Is it possible to write satire with a conviction that the world can be changed creatively for the better? I wouldn't rule it out but it probably would be a challenge. Satire needn't presume that things were better in the past; I'm not sure how many of the great satirists actually assume that. But satire seems grounded in an irrepressible awareness of human futility or plain old stupidity. Satire would become its opposite if it assumed that present or past was the best of all possible worlds, but while it may satirize both present and past, it tends to imagine that things can always get worse. It's understandable that progressives and the left in general may find satire conservative if not reactionary (or treasonous), but conservatives finding their own values satirized might tell a different story.