Does Satire Ever Get Old? Christopher Kelk on Juvenal

April 11, 2018 | Steven

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Join us on Saturday, April 14th at 2 pm, at the Toronto Reference Library in the Discussion Room (3rd Floor), for a talk by Christopher Kelk entitled:

"Juvenal: Ancient Rome's Greatest Curmudgeon! Why was He So Angry?"

 Christopher Kelk portrait

Photo used by permission 

Quintilian (Institutes 10.1.93-5) claimed that satire was a uniquely Roman invention, but satire is probably as old as humanity itself. Still Roman poets, such as Horace and Juvenal, set new standards in the genre. In his first satire, Juvenal wrote (Kelk’s translation) “There’s nothing more posterity may see, iniquity is at its apogee.” Has it been all downhill since Juvenal ranted and raved against Roman society in the second century?
Cover of Satires of JuvenalCome and hear renowned Shakespearean actor and classics Ph.D. Christopher Kelk discuss Juvenal’s satire and read selections from his verse translation The Satires of Juvenal published in 2010. Juvenal had a lot at which to direct his anger, including corruption, money-grubbing, gluttony, decadent dining and sycophancy. He sees the Roman imperial aristocracy has having abandoned the hard-working, self-reliant lifestyle of the Roman Republic and having adopted a luxurious and spendthrift lifestyle. In this situation, as Juvenal says, “it is difficult not to write satire” (difficile est saturam non scribere)!

Just as satire did not start with the Romans, the genre did not end with them either. One of the most famous examples of satire is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726); this is a satire on human nature, as well as on travel writing.  For example, Swift pokes fun at human rationality with the Houyhnhnms, a race of horses that personify the scientific devotion to reason.

Gulliver's Travels

A more recent example of satire is George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945). This Aesopian tale refers to Stalin’s Russia, where the Russian people are the animals on a farm, dominated by the pigs. The pigs represent the Russian communists, who espouse equal rights for all but who seem to take all the rewards for themselves.
Animal Farm

Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 (1961) coined the phrase for a situation in which there is no clear escape from conflicting conditions. Dealing with World War II, the novel reflects the irrationality of war and the hypocrisy of bureaucracies that give orders that cannot reasonably be followed.
Catch 22

Science fiction frequently can be read as satire as well. One good example is the Discworld series of Terry Pratchett. For example, Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment (2003) deals with the follies of war and the issue of women in the military.

Monsrous regiment

The role of satire really hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Often with an element of humour, there is an underlying purpose of exposing the faults and weaknesses of society with an aim to warn the public and to improve the living conditions for all.