On What It Isn’t Welcome back to Anti-Wednesday on Thursday, where we discuss the new critical concept of anti-tale. You have indulged my subversion of the days of the week while I indulged in Tomato Soup, so you shall have your reward. I offer for your criticism, thought, and dissemination the following thesis:

Anti-tale does not equal Satire.

Anti-tale can, of course, ]include satire. And some satires are necessarily anti-tales. But the modes should be kept distinct; satires can stand on their own strength, without being necessarily ‘anti’ another text, text itself, or narrative.

Some definitions are in order. Heaven forbid that I should reinvent the definition of satire. For that, I turn to Chesterton.

In Heretics (1905), G. K. Chesteron explains at some length why Whistler was not a satirist. To explain his explanation, he suggests three different postures of satire—that is, the relation of the satirist to the subject, and the constitution of ‘great satire.’ He writes:

There are three distinct classes of great satirists who are also great men—that is to say, three classes of men who can laugh at something without losing their souls. The satirist of the first type is the man who, first of all enjoys himself, and then enjoys his enemies. In this sense he loves his enemy, and by a kind of exaggeration of Christianity he loves his enemy the more the more he becomes an enemy. He has a sort of overwhelming and aggressive happiness in his assertion of anger; his curse is as human as a benediction.  Of this type of satire the great example is Rabelais. This is the first typical example of satire, the satire which is voluble, which is violent, which is indecent, but which is not malicious. […] There is a second type of mind which produces satire with the quality of greatness. That is embodied in the satirist whose passions are released and let go by some intolerable sense of wrong. He is maddened by the sense of men being maddened; his tongue becomes an unruly member, and testifies against all mankind. Such a man was Swift, in whom the saeva indignatio was a bitterness to others, because it was a bitterness to himself.  […]

The third type of great satire is that in which the satirist is enabled to rise superior to his victim in the only serious sense which superiority can bear, in that of pitying the sinner and respecting the man even while he satirises both. Such an achievement can be found in a thing like Pope’s “Atticus” a poem in which the satirist feels that he is satirising the weaknesses which belong specially to literary genius. Consequently he takes a pleasure in pointing out his enemy’s strength before he points out his weakness. That is, perhaps, the highest and most honourable form of satire. (Ch. 17)

To summarise, Chesterton presents us with three modes of ‘great satire.’* These are:

  1. The Satire of Joyful Violence: Chesterton himself a the master of this form; it arises from an enjoyment of life and of the battle of words. It is aggressive but not malicious, and written with laughter.
  2. The Satire of Grievance: In opposition to the Satire of Joyful Violence, which is written from a place of angered delight, this is written from a place of angered sorrow. So Chesterton speaks of ‘great sorrow for the wrong done to human nature,’ which in turn expresses itself through humour and wit. Much of James Thurber’s best writing falls into this category.
  3. The Satire of Empathy: This is the mockery of great individuals or ideals for not being as great as they should be—for not living up to their greatness. This mode of satire can recognise the dignity and inherent greatness of every individual, and can genuinely respect someone whilst lampooning them. ‘To write great satire,’ Chesterton says, ‘to attack a man so that he feels the attack and half acknowledges its justice, it is necessary to have a certain intellectual magnanimity which realises the merits of the opponent as well as his defects’ (Varied Types, ch. 4).

As to what satire itself is—the practice embodied in these modes—Chesterton most frequently taught by example. We are here interested in strict definition, however. The venerable Canadian critic Northrop Frye, then, with his characteristic combination of genius and pedantry, offers an acceptable working theory.

In The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957 [Atheneum, 1965]), Frye suggests that the preoccupation of satire is ‘mental attitudes’; it ‘presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent,’ and ‘relies on the free play of intellectual fancy and they kind of humorous observation that produces caricature’ (ch. 4, § 8). He explains:

The word “satire,” in Roman and Renaissance times, meant either of two specific literary forms, one […] prose and the other verse. Now it means a structural principle or attitude, what we have called a mythos. […] As the name of an attitude, satire is, as we have seen, a combination of fantasy and morality. But as the name of a form, the term satire, though confined to literature (for as a mythos it may appear in any art, a cartoon, for example), is more flexible, and can be either entirely fantastic or entirely moral.

Satire, then, is both attitude and form. The attitude reflects a certain squint at morality—the three modes of Chesterton—in fantastical dress: corrupt politicians are penguins who own a dancing bear, religious abusers are conquistadors in a dark-slapstick tale of colonisation and apocalypse. It is thus not ‘anti’ in the sense that anti-ness implies the opposition of one form or work to another; a satire in any of the three modes may emerge from the dream consciousness as a new tale. It seems anti-tale must of necessity begin in opposition to another tale.

Satire is a posture of anti-tale, but it is not its essence. Many good anti-tales are satires, but it would be a mistake to assume that satire is necessarily anti-tale, or conversely that anti-tale demands satire. When anti-tale speaks with wit and clarity, then, perhaps, it is both anti-tale and satire. But to suggest synonymy appears to be inaccurate.

An anti-tale, then, can take the attitude and form of satire, and it can assume any of Chesterton’s three modes. But it can also be other than satire—it can be not satirical at all, in fact. Perhaps to understand anti-tale and the anti-ness that characterises it, we should consider Chesterton’s description of antithesis:

I shall have occasion more than once to point out that nothing in the world has ever been artificial. But certainly antithesis is not artificial. An element of paradox runs through the whole of existence itself. It begins in the realm of ultimate physics and metaphysics, in the two facts that we cannot imagine a space that is infinite, and that we cannot imagine a space that is finite. It runs through the inmost complications of divinity, in that we cannot conceive that Christ in the wilderness was truly pure, unless we also conceive that he desired to sin. It runs, in the same manner, through all the minor matters of morals, so that we cannot imagine courage existing except in conjunction with fear, or magnanimity existing except in conjunction with some temptation to meanness. (Varied Types, ch. 4)

To extrapolate this existential paradox, we cannot—or perhaps dare not—imagine tale without anti-tale. The anti-tale is the shadow, the dark echo, the speaking mirror on the wall that reorders and reorients the narratives in our lives. Through such a reordering, the anti-tale becomes its own tale, and a new anti-tale is created out of it. Then tension between them is where we live, the actual patterns of being we try to understand.

So anti-tale is like satire in this: it is needful. It is part of the process of living. As are, I suppose, all good tales.

Questions, comments, additions and corrections always welcome.


*Presumably  these are opposed to the constrained, self-centred satire of Whistler, to snark and ill-humour, and to farce and burlesque; satire, if it is to merit the name, requires poise, delicacy, and wit. All of which are devastatingly absent in most current public discourse about—anything.


4 thoughts on “anti-wednesday

  1. Fascinating piece! Your delineation of Chesterton’s three types of satire, and the endnote about what each type opposes, were particularly interesting.

    When I read your introduction to anti-tales, I don’t recall that satire crossed my mind; now, reading this, I get a better glimpse of how they’re related. And clearly separate, of course. 🙂

    My usual response to anti-tale–to be honest, and despite my confidence in Chesterton’s ideals of paradoxical truth–is the annoyance of the traditionalist, so I’m interested to hear your further thoughts in this series.

  2. thank you for drawing the distinction between satire and anti-tale.

    It was a wonderful read as usual

  3. Chesterton also memorably drew the important distinction between satire and nonsense literature: “There is all the difference in the world between the instinct of satire, which, seeing in the Kaiser’s moustaches something typical of him, draws them continually larger and larger; and the instinct of nonsense which, for no reason whatever, imagines what those moustaches would look like on the present Archbishop of Canterbury if he grew them in a fit of absence of mind.” —A Defence of Nonsense

    In Thurberian terms, it’s the difference between “You can fool too many of the people too much of the time” and “All right, have it your way–you heard a seal bark!”

    Unless I’m badly mistaken, anti-tales can also fall within the realm of nonsense literature (Carroll, Lear, Nash, bits of Thurber, Fractured Fairy Tales), which of course is an equally valid way of looking at life, and rather more enjoyable to my mind. On the other hand, one might point out Kafka’s stories as nonsense literature played for the darkest sort of nihilism.

    If a tale comes into contact with an anti-tale, do they both explode?

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