Satire and parody are among the conspicuous casualties of contemporary cultural radicalism and its grim-faced P.C. brigades. Yet it was not so long ago that these refreshing rhetorical arts still thrived. One thinks, for example, of David Lodge’s Small World (1984), a delicious send-up of the trendy Lit-Crit establishment that supplanted traditional literary studies with an unlovely smorgasbord of deconstruction, neo-Marxism, cultural studies, radical feminism, and kindred other disasters.
One of the chief values of good parody or satire is to be a goad to conscience. By holding the ridiculous up to ridicule, these verbal esprits can help to recall us to sanity. In this sense, parody, like satire, is an incentive to reflection and reform. That is why its disappearance or attenuation is a moral as well as an aesthetic loss.
One of the chief values of good parody or satire is to be a goad to conscience.
The problem is that if parody or satire is to be effective, there must be a discernible distance between the reality and the parodic imitation. If it is to do us any good, we must be able to recognize a parody as a parody: as an exaggerated, absurd, or otherwise hypertrophied metamorphosis of some problematic social reality, not just another run-of-the-mill, business-as-usual instance of it. Had people made a habit of eating babies, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” would have lost much of its bite, so to speak.
And there, alas, is the rub. As we have had occasion to observe in these pages before, the reality of elite academic and cultural life in our society more and more beggars any form of caricature. When the dictates of political correctness reign supreme, as they do today, absurdity threatens to become the norm. Aspiring parodists and satirists are left struggling to stay a half step ahead of the latest folly.
That is one reason we welcomed the appearance of the “LU/English Newsletter,” a hilarious spoof of English-department life that materialized in our mailbox recently. Apparently emanating from Rutgers University, the anonymous eight-page newsletter mercilessly satirizes developments at “Lagado University.” Readers of Gulliver’s Travels will remember that Lagado is the mad kingdom that Lemuel Gulliver visited where frenzied, half-educated professors, having sojourned to a floating island, “came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region.” They “dislike the management of every thing below” in their country, so they set about to “contrive new rules and methods” for all of life, attempting, for example, to extract “sun-beams out of cucumbers.” Inevitable failure only leads them to redouble their efforts. On the evidence of this newsletter, anyway, the English department at Lagado University resembles its counterpart at any number of real-life colleges and universities across the country.
Some of the “news” retailed in this document requires a familiarity with intimacies of the academic scene to be fully appreciated. For example, it helps to know something about the cynical sophistries purveyed by the Duke English professor Stanley Fish—a man whose dazzling and highly remunerative career has sparked as much comment as his studied inconsistencies—in order to savor the item about a lecture by the “academic superstar” named “Stanley Eugene Poseur.” (We especially liked the conclusion: the lecture over, “Prof. Stanley Eugene Poseur collected a handsome fee at the cashier’s office, leapt gracefully into his fire-engine red Aston-Martin and, with a jaunty wave, whizzed off in the direction of the University of Minnesota.”)
But most items featured in the “LU/English Newsletter” are perfectly intelligible without specialized knowledge. There are little things, such as the note promising $25 “for news about any alumnus/a with a full-time job in an academically related field,” or—under the category of “Alumni News”—the information that “Jason Jabolinski, Ph.D. 1987, was interviewed for a job.” We learn, too, that the “Remedial English En/Visioning Committee” recommended by a vote of forty-nine to one to rename “Remedial Pre-remediation English” (“ENG 0.00001”) as “Antepreliminary Compensatory Nonstandard English” because “the faculty feel that the previous name has proven damaging to the students’ self-esteem,” etc. There are also tidbits about sensitivity training, the effects of “secondary carnophagia” (meat eating), and marches “to protest whatever is being currently protested or, when necessary, to protest the lack of protest.”
Perhaps our favorite item, however, came at the end, under the rubrics of “Departmental News” and “Affirmative Action.” Here we read that
the English Department has succeeded in hiring Adamada McGonigle-Gonzalez as full professor in the face of fierce competitive bidding from Berkeley and Stanford. McGonigle-Gonzalez is an epileptic deaf-mute trisexual hermaphrodite dwarf whose one hundred fifty traceable maternal and paternal foremammals over seven generations have been computed to make hir [sic] 13.5 percent African, … 6.25 percent Pequot, … 9.5 percent Latino, … 4 percent Asian, .002 percent Samoan, and .001 percent Aleut.
Under a complex agreement negotiated by a committee of senior administrators chaired by Dean Janus Farandole of the Office of Multicultural Goals-Not-Quotas, Professor McGonigle-Gonzalez will be given the use of President Bleatly’s office, residence, dog, and daughter, a five percent commission on all federal grants received over the next ten years, a pre-emptive customized apology from President Francis Leo Lawrence of Rutgers University, concurrent full professorships in the Theology, Sociology, and Philosophy Departments and full tuition to complete hir undergraduate and graduate education.
Anyone familiar with the effects of political correctness and so-called “affirmative action” on the hiring practices of our institutions of higher education knows that this little tableau is right on the money. It exaggerates, but only slightly: there really is fierce competition among universities to find teachers of the “correct” ethnic, sexual, and behavioral complexion; candidates who pass these tests are given carte blanche when it comes to jobs and preferments.
And there is more. The front page of the newsletter celebrates “Onanastics: The Review of One-Handed Literature,” “a quarterly devoted to explorations of pornology in all its ranges, planes, and facets.” This, of course, is meant to spoof the academy’s obsession with outré sexuality. We learn about “scholarly” articles that ponder “homoerotic interrogations of the lower digestive tract in recent autoerogenous literature,” “the homo- and heteroerogenous potentialities of so-called scratch-and-sniff technology,” and so on; a “Faculty News” column introduces us to such new books as Below the Belly of the Beast: Phallomorphisms in Wholesale Plumbing Fixtures Catalogues and The Sty that Binds: Analyzing Transpecies Bondage in Augustus Whiffle’s “On the Care of the Pig.”
On first acquaintance, then, the “LU/ English Newsletter” seemed like delightful parody. But it did not take long for reality to catch up. A few days after receiving the newsletter we opened the mail to find a new book from the trendiest of trendy publishers, Routledge, called Solitary Pleasures: The Historical, Literary, and Artistic Discourses of Autoeroticism, edited by Paula Bennett and Vernon A. Rosario II. In it one will find articles on “The Politics of Solitary Pleasures,” “Playing With Herself: Feminine Sexuality and Aesthetic Indifference,” and “Coming in Handy: The J/O Spectacle and the Gay Male Subject in Almodóvar.” Also reprinted is the notorious essay “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”—an MLA classic—as well as an essay on the important question “Can Robinson Crusoe Find True Happiness (Alone)? Beyond the Genitals and History on the Island of Hope.” According to the editors, one of the main points of the volume is to demonstrate “the myriad ways in which masturbation has . . . served as a locus for creative effort as well as for political resistance. . . . [a]nd therefore [is] basic to much that is good and enriching in human life.” So now you know.
In manner, these essays epitomize the grotesque parody of scholarship that disfigures so much “cutting-edge” academic writing in the humanities today. It contains equal portions of outlandish sex, hermetic “theory,” and left-wing proselytizing. In substance, the essays are so many advocacy pieces for normalizing depravity and rendering sex the predominant, and practically the exclusive, interest of literary studies. When even Sense and Sensibility is transformed into an allegory of perversion, something very basic has gone awry.
When even Sense and Sensibility is transformed into an allegory of perversion, something very basic has gone awry.
From one point of view, of course, books like Solitary Pleasures are simply instances of academic buffoonery: intellectually quite worthless, to be sure, but as amusingly outrageous and absurd as an imaginary book about bondage in Augustus Whiffle’s On the Care of the Pig. (Would that P. G. Wodehouse were here for that!)
In other respects, however, such books are alternately pathetic and profoundly disturbing. They are pathetic when we consider the extent to which their authors seem trapped in the intellectual and moral wasteland they celebrate. There is at any rate a sense in which these people are more to be pitied than scolded. But books like Solitary Pleasures are disturbing indeed when we remember that their authors are among the men and women whom society has entrusted to preserve the riches of our civilization and to impart those riches to today’s college students. Are these really the kind of people we should be employing as teachers of the young? It is a sad and ultimately an intolerable situation, and not least because it has made the practice of effective satire or parody all but impossible.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 4, on page 1
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