The necessity of Satire and of Laughter

From Father Hunwicke’s blog:

Blessed John Henry Newman

Blessed John Henry Newman

Henry Chadwick, the towering Anglican intellectual of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that Blessed John Henry Newman was the most superb writer of Satire and of Irony in the English language. Too true! I wonder if you have read Newman’s semi-autobiographical novel Loss and Gain. He exposes to our laughter the absurdities of popular Evangelicalism; of sonorous and dignified Oxford dons who were … well, actually just plain ridiculous. So were the new religious movements thrown up by the ferment of the 1840s. With exquisite cruelty he analyses the hypocrisies of the comfortable domestic affluence, combined with a dilettante affection for the superficial trappings of Catholicism, enjoyed by a certain type of Establishment, monied, gothic-romanticist Anglican. Clearly, it touched a raw nerve in the Ordinariate’s Patron Blessed John Henry Newman, and the Novel was the only way in which he could express the strength of his feelings. And not much more gentle was his ironic mockery of those who believed that the Birmingham Oratory contained oubliettes in which heiresses were tortured to death for their inheritances.

Newman, frankly, took no prisoners. And his mode of attack is, essentially, to laugh at his adversaries. This, surely, is the most merciless sort of put-down imaginable. If someone criticises you in a flat, humdrum, pathetic, terribly earnest style, he doesn’t get to you. He is a poor, sad, silly old thing. But if he laughs at you … ! And the victims of this sort of attack … to quote the martial figure of Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army … don’t like it up ’em. The grander you are, the more surrounded by people who defer to you and treat you with respect and deference, the less you like the satirist. The more you are a bully, an obsessive oppressive, or a control-freak, the more indignant the satirist makes you feel.

And, in many ways, this age is made for the satirist. Never was there a time when the the Great, the Wise, and the Good, were less able to control a narrative … the narrative … all the narratives. The Internet has done for them and their customary techniques. And if, right now, you would like a neat and brief gem of modern satire, fresh from the Ordinariate stable, turn to Dr Geoffrey Kirk‘s blog, with its frequent pieces on Frankie and his naive correspondent Justin. Perhaps one of the funniest was his recent piece linking our Holy Father’s professed interest in coprophagia with his endless loquacity. Go on, look at it now (via gkirkuk), then come back and finish my piece off.

Right. I hope you enjoyed it.

If, being Intellectuals, you would like an intellectual … indeed, a theological … account and justification of Satire and Laughter, I offer you the collection Essays in Satire by another brilliant Anglican, a generation later than Newman, who brought his satirical gifts into the Catholic Church: Mgr Ronald Knox. In his Introduction, he entertained the argument that “our sense of the ridiculous is not, in its original application, a child’s toy at all, but a weapon, deadly in its efficacy, entrusted to us for exposing the shams and hypocrisies of the world. The tyrant may arm himself in triple mail, may surround himself with bodyguards, may sow his kingdom with a hedge of spikes, so that free speech is crushed and criticism muzzled. Nay, worse, he may so debauch the consciences of his subjects with false history and with sophistical argument that they come to believe him the thing he gives himself out for, a creature half-divine, a heaven-sent deliverer. One thing there is that he still fears; one anxiety still bids him turn this way and that to scan the faces of his slaves. He is afraid of laughter. The satirist stands there, like the little child in the procession when the Emperor walked through the capital in his famous new clothes; his is the tiny voice that interprets the consciousness of a thousand onlookers: ‘But, Mother, he has no clothes on at all!'”

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10 Responses to The necessity of Satire and of Laughter

  1. toadspittle says:

    Magnificent article.I can personally vouch for the veracity of it. Toad is nevercensored for laughing at “…the superficial trappings of Catholicism,” (Well, hardly ever.)

    “The tyrant may arm himself in triple mail, may surround himself with bodyguards, may sow his kingdom with a hedge of spikes, so that free speech is crushed and criticism muzzled.”
    For “tyrant,” read, “moderator.”
    Seriously though is the man saying that there is no aspect of Catholicism that cannot be subject to satire and laughter? I doubt it. Because I occasionally try it – and am rebuffed.
    But it’s heartening to read, on CP&S itself, that Catholicism is just as amenable to being affectionately teased as any other belief system. In other words, “Nothing is sacred.”
    …Although we already knew that, didn’t we? Whether we believe it or not is another thing.

  2. kathleen says:

    But it’s heartening to read, on CP&S itself, that Catholicism is just as amenable to being affectionately teased as any other belief system. In other words, “Nothing is sacred.”

    Not so, Toad. And it is not Catholicism that is deserving of being “teased”, but some of its more liberal and crazy members.
    Well, you know why: we’re victims of The Fall, and all that. Blow that wretched little serpent of puffed up self-pride that keeps getting in the way of our desire for holiness 😉 !

    BTW, you are never “rebuffed” here when you stick to witty, joking, satire, etc. Its your coprophagical (if that’s the word) remarks that get chucked in the bin. We try to keep the blog clean of such things… as you should know by now.

    Yes, Father Hunwicke’s article is truly “magnificent”, very astute, and so are the articles on Dr Geoffrey Kirk’s blog that he links to.

  3. toadspittle says:

    “It’s your coprophagical (if that’s the word) remarks that get chucked in the bin. “
    “Coprophagical”? Moi? When?
    I don’t use vulgar words. Not on CP&S, anyway.

  4. toadspittle says:

    “Henry Chadwick, ,the towering Anglican intellectual of the second half of the twentieth century,”
    Oh. really? An “Anglican intellectual” ? That’s what’s known as an oxymoron, I suppose. Considering that all Anglicans are heretics doomed to Hell. (Except possibly, C.S. Lewis, of course) Anyway, I know a fair bit about the 20th Century. And I’ve never heard of him. But I’m thick.

    And Chadwick “..believed that Blessed John Henry Newman was the most superb writer of Satire and of Irony in the English language.”
    Matter of opinion, of course, but I’d be inclined to award that to Swift. ( or Pope, or Orwell. Or even Waugh or Aldous Huxley ) – before Newman. But I like the sound of the book. And will get it.

  5. Satire works, but you have to be careful. When the German comedian Jan Böhmermann ridiculed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a poem some months ago, Erdogan went ballistic. He tried to have Böhmermann prosecuted under a nineteenth-century German law, still on the books, that bans insulting the “sovereign.” Eventually, the public prosecutor in Mainz said that an investigation had found “no sufficient evidence” of offences committed either by Mr Böhmermann or others involved in the poem’s creation or broadcast. (https://goo.gl/bu30hA)

  6. Mgr Knox was at Balliol with another convert from Anglicanism, although of the Scottish Episcopalian variety, William Theodore Cardinal Heard, who was Dean of the Sacred Roman Rota when created Cardinal Deacon of San Teodoro al Palatino in December of 1959.

  7. I met Henry Chadwick a few times in Cambride. Obviously, as an Anglican, he was only #slightlysaved, but he was indeed a massively intellectual person (like Mr Toad only modest with it), and convivial company (probably unlike Mr Toad). So indeed was his brother Owen Chadwick, whom I only met twice, once when trying to play a practical joke on him. This isn’t important.

  8. *Cambridge* or possible Cambrideshead Revisited.

  9. toadspittle says:

    Toad is thick and uneducated. That’s why he’d never heard of ChadwicK

  10. Deaconette C says:

    Deaconette C considers it necessary, too; and as a creative act satire is quite an enjoyable one.

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