The Great Menippean Tradition

I’ll admit my heritage is with the long line of pessimistic realists… the Great Menippeans!

The Encyclopedia Britannica will give us this rendition on Menippean satire: it is a seriocomic genre, chiefly in ancient Greek literature and Latin literature, in which contemporary institutions, conventions, and ideas were criticized in a mocking satiric style that mingled prose and verse. The form often employed a variety of striking and unusual settings, such as the descent into Hades. Developed by the Greek satirist Menippus of Gadara in the early 3rd century bce, Menippean satire was introduced to Rome in the 1st century bce by the scholar Varro in Saturae Menippeae. It was imitated by Seneca and the Greek satirist Lucian and influenced the development of Latin satire by Horace and Juvenal. The 1st-century-ce Satyricon of Petronius, a picaresque tale in verse and prose containing long digressions in which the author airs his views on topics having nothing to do with the plot, is in the Menippean tradition.

Oxford will tell us this Menippean satire is a form of intellectually humorous work characterized by miscellaneous contents, displays of curious erudition, and comical discussions on philosophical topics. The name comes from the Greek Cynic philosopher Menippus (3rd century bce), whose works are lost, but who was imitated by the Roman writer Varro (1st century bce) among others. The Canadian critic Northrop Frye revived the term in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) while also introducing the overlapping term anatomy after a famous example of Menippean satire, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). The best‐known example of the form is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865); other examples include the novels of Thomas Love Peacock, and John Barth’s campus novel Giles Goat‐Boy (1966). The humour in these works is more cheerfully intellectual and less aggressive than in those works which we would usually call satires, although it holds up contemporary intellectual life to gentle ridicule.

Yet, during the modern and postmodern eras – so called, we saw the rise of what many term now the drift between maximalist and minimalist forms of Menippean satire, a fusion of socio-cultural critique that would take on the whole of ancient humanism as its target, undermining the very foundations of anthropocentric authority and exceptionalism. In the paradigmatic work of its age James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake would undermine the whole tradition stemming for Aquinas to the Great War flying past the world of race, religion, and nation, producing a work that would go even as far as smashing the world of language itself: abnihilization of the etym” (Wake). For Joyce Western Civilization was already dead and he would bury it in his book along with undermining any sense of resurrectionist ideology and pretense of reviving it. He would undermine the fascist stance of such authoritarian poetics of the Occult complicity of poets like W.B. Yeats and their ilk, along with a detailed undermining of the Catholic Church and its hold on politics and Ireland. He would also disallow any form of nationalist discourse, but would seek to explode the very roots of our rhetorical strategies by including a detailed comedy of politics as part of his drunken satyr play and Saturnalian festival.

Many of the young scholars today are much too lazy to actually delve into the great spread of ancient, modern, and postmodern thought, literature, and philosophy and discover or invent a path forward for our world.   The only lost potential failure in our time is the failure of imagination and reason: it is the failure to do nothing at all, to sit back and allow authoritarian power to diminish us, to strip us of our dignity, our rights, our ways of life. As I show below, there has always been times when authoritarianism ruled, and yet many artisans of that ancient light of reason, the great Menippeans pulled out the truth of their time and shined a light on the darkness with verve and energy of satire, wit, and critique that allowed people to learn the truth by other means: laughter. As Bataille would make this the cornerstone of critique, as would Nietzsche before him… people forget that the tools for battling authority are always ready to hand for those intelligent enough to use them. No matter the darkness of authoritarianism surrounding them. Only those who give up and allow the authorities to win are the true cowards.

There’s a whole world of past literature and culture that many seem ready to obliterate that could teach them a thing or two about the use of language as a weapon: the whole tradition of Menippean satire from Lucian to Pynchon brought to bare every aspect of this technique, which in times of authoritarian rule becomes the low-brow path of critique through sardonic laughter and sadness. The great pessimist realists were all Comic satirists of their age: Chaucer, François Rabelais, Robert Burton, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Nikolai Gogol, James Joyce, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Stanislaw Lem, Mikhail Bulgakov., DeLillo.. just to scratch the surface. So I’m in good company… I could as well bring in the great writers of the Third World nations, too. From the Middle-East, Africa, South and Middle America, China, and the Island nations, India, the whole world has a literature awaiting us… my only regret at sixty-five is that I had to plunder whole forests to discover the narrow world of my current list of great thinkers, poets, satirists, essayists, etc.

Most of us find our way in the dark forests of an overwhelming and overloaded world of thought. Some term our age the Infobomb implosion because we are stuffed with too much information, too many books, millions of bits of useless data with no rhyme or reason, organization or path into its maze. There was a time when the literary critics task was exemplary at weeding and filtering the wheat from the shaft in current literature, philosophy, historical writing, scientific literature, etc. Now we live with well paid ad men and women who work to promote not truth but the well-paid propaganda of their overlords. We lack the power of the critical gaze, we’ve even begun to shrink from the tradition of ‘critique’ as if it, too, were passé – a dead issue. People turn blankly at the online libraries, blogs, Face Books, Twitters, Linkins, etc. for something worthwhile and find only the echo chamber of their own miniscule minds thrown back at them. The sigh, or get angry, rage at the stupidity of the world. They are blind to the links from the great traditions of thought, literature, philosophy, etc. that would give them the necessary tools to actually think their own thoughts. Rather academics specialize in exceptional vocabularies that no longer speak to the common reader, the regular man and woman in the streets who could use their vast knowledge base. This is where the great books of the Mennipeans came in to fill in that gap in learning and provide in a humorous and equitable feast of mind and eye a festival of thought and learning palatable for all to enter into and bring away something no matter their education, race, gender, or class relations. These were the true democrats of thought …

In many ways the premier writer’s writer of the postmodern age was John Barth whose localized rendition of the whole metaficitonal sequence of writing was none other than a learned discourse on the rhetoric’s underpinning the ancient world of the Menippean satire from its maximalist to minimalist designs, styles, theories, critiques, parodies, pastiche… a school of wit, comedy, and gentle persuasion, a slow learner’s manual for understanding the inner workings of Western Enlightenment traditions, and its tools of critique and rhetorical strategies and forms, etc. Pynchon would do the obverse, he would run the gamut of categories: exposing the diseases of intellect underpinning our fall into fascism and authoritarian rule. Others like Twain and Vonnegut would strip the illusions that keep us bound to our stupid factor, bound to the chains of our own self-made delusions. Lem and Bulgakov would center on the great institutions of middle-managerial power that automates society in an endless bureaucracy. DeLillo and Wallace would show the bottom-feeder world between paranoia and hysterics where people have become the utter victims of a duplicitous crime world. Zadie Smith would bring to bare the voice of the downtrodden and gender and racial extremes of our cultural malaise, expose the stupidity of allowing our world to continue in this putrid state of imbecility. All would scope the tools necessary for us to rise above it and build another world worth living in.

I could go on and on… but why be a bore. Explore it yourself. Do something creative, today. Pick up a book, begin the long road of recovery. Begin!

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