a collection of statements by Northrop Frye
When thoughtful people look around them, they are struck by aspects of the world that fall far short of what they think they ought to be and often pretend they are. The awareness of this discrepancy between what ideally ought to be and what really is, is an attitude toward experience that we call ironic. Basically, two kinds of reactions may follow from this discovery. The first is bitter resentment and a desire to change man or society for the better. The second reaction is less militant. It insists on coming to terms with human limitations in a clear-sighted and unsentimental way. The first attitude produces a type of literature known as satire; the second produces irony.
Satire may take different forms but has one primary feature: common illusions subjected to mocking exposure. The human deceit exposed in satire has driven its roots deep into society, and the tone is, therefore, one of attack, sometimes funny but often bitter and harsh. The scorn of the author is meant to sting. But it is a sting that might cure human beings of their peculiar blindness toward themselves, and might even help to narrow the gap between what they practice and what they preach.
The form of this exposure is very close to the form of the romance tale. In fact, most satire directly parodies some archetype of romance. An archetype is a basic imaginative pattern--a character type, an image, or a plot that is found over and over again in literature. One story line that recurs in romances is the Cinderella tale, the story of the poor girl who marries a prince and lives happily ever after. Another archetype is that character of the human hero. The daydreams of Walter Mitty are practically an encyclopedia of variations on the archetypal romance hero.
The ˘satirist parodies romances, but he himself is like the questing hero of romance. He is a tiny David firing pebbles from his slingshot at the great Goliath of absurdity. Here is a Hercules facing the beast Society which, like the Hydra, has many poisonous heads. Slicing away at the heads of hypocrisy, pettiness, smugness, and injustice, the satirist finds that, for every head cut off, two grow in its place. But, like Hercules, the satirist will learn in time that only by dipping his barbs in the Hydra's own poison will he ever be victorious in his quest.
Satire, of course, attacks all forms of self-deception, and not all of them are completely serious. The less morally serious the absurdity tackled, the lighter and more humorous the tone of satire tends to be. But whether the target demands the laugh or the lash, the satirist hopes that his work will help close the gap between our heroic pretensions and our considerably smaller performance. The satirist wants us to see that, despite the high moral tone of our social ideals and ethical principles, folly, hypocrisy, and injustice are the rule rather than the exception. And we know that they will continue to be as long as they are not simply inconvenient. Nevertheless, the person who follows and understands the satirist in this act of exposure ultimately stands an excellent chance for survival in this world. For this person will be one of the few not deluded by himself.
The satirist's lash cuts deep; the satirist takes to task the very moral and social conventions by which society is supposedly regulated. Theories and generalizations have now become more important than human experience, the very thing they are supposed to explain; the law itself is more important than the spirit of the law. And, too often, as the satirist sees it, these social conventions are the weapons with which cynical and unscrupulous people gain power and maintain control over their weaker fellows.
In a world where people twist morality to foster their own quest for power and wealth, people can survive by turning into rogues themselves. They can outwit society by using its own hypocrisy against itself. In romances, this is one way for the hero to outwit the evil monarch, who typically sets the hero three impossible tasks, with the loss of his head as penalty for failure. Society is seen as the evil monarch, and it tends to exact a similar penalty for failure. The satiric hero who plays the rogue or fool must be clever enough not to be taken in. This hero must have that extra degree of awareness that will enable the hero to triumph.
Perhaps we see this archetypal character of the rogue most often in stories of the ever-popular TV private detective. He is worldly-wise and in no way restrained by society's stereotyped ideas of good and evil. And, since he is accountable to no one, he seems able to cross the line of legality to a certain degree in his quest for justice. For, aware as he is of the odds against the well-meaning Searcher-for-Truth, he feels that the end will justify the means. And we cheer as he finally outwits the criminal at his own game.
Where there is no rascal in sight, the reader can escape from the bondage of self-righteousness by being allowed to see through the pitfalls that society places in the way of the truly heroic. If Babbitt is allowed to go on talking long enough, the reader becomes aware of Babbitt's bigotries without a rogue having to point them out.
Oliver Wendell Holmes described the bed-rock of American justice in these words: "Common law is common sense." If you know the facts, you will know instinctively what is right. But what seems sensible and right to an individual is not always either obvious or convenient to society. The function of satire, therefore, is to expose all restrictions to the free movement of society. For human experience is more infinitely varied than any simple set of social beliefs about it. And we find that when an odious situation or convention is exposed by reducing it to its most ridiculous form, it cannot exist for very long.
The satirist shows us the flimsiness of most of the social rules and regulations in this life that make us act the way we do. And, perhaps, the last rule to come under attack is the rule of common sense. To common sense, the "facts" of life, of existence, must always be consistent with the laws of physics, or mathematics, or biology. Common sense operates on the assumption that our ordinary relationships with things are logically predictable, that they are based on certain constants of experience. But are things, in fact, exactly as they appear in the world of common sense? Perhaps the things we "see" in our dreams and deliriums are really there. Suppose animals could talk. What if an angel did appear in the neighborhood? What if a miniature man offered to commit murder for us, just as a simple courtesy? What would happen to men and women if things like these were as "real" as tables and chairs, but were invisible in our
ordinary waking world? Would our actions differ from the usual? These are some of the questions that the satirist asks.
Fantasy in literature allows our imagination to explore strange ideas by placing the logically impossible in an otherwise plausible context. Fantasy, of course, is most often found in romances: in the fairy stories of giants and trolls, in ghost stories, in tales where the hero kills dragons or rescues maidens from enchanted castles. In romance stories, the giants, trolls, and dragons are all archetypes, or imaginative devices, used by the storyteller to emphasize the great nobility or bravery of the hero. Satiric fantasy parodies, or twists, these romantic archetypes. In satiric fantasy, the human being is usually shown to be mean, petty, or ridiculous by the very human bird or the articulate ape. You will probably recognize this sort of contrast from those worlds visited by Gulliver, which were inhabited by tiny people and wise horses. It should be understood, however, that the reader must show himself the message. Satiric fantasy suggests to us that the distinction between the plausible and the fantastic is not so clear as common sense would have us believe. And it may even go slightly further. It may even suggest that ordinary and understandable human behavior is more morally outrageous than the existence of these logical impossibilities.
But most of all with the sudden change of perspective so typical of satiric fantasy, we become acutely aware of how seriously human beings insist on taking themselves, and how infrequently there is any reason to do so. Then, in that moment, we understand Pallades the Egyptian: "All life is a stage and a game; either learn to play it, laying by seriousness, or bear its pain." Each time we make a discovery like this, our own imagination frees us a little more and enables us to live in a slightly broader realm of consciousness. We have come one small step nearer to the truly human society, the society that the satirist believes we are capable of building if we really tried.
The major difference between patterns of satire and irony is that in irony we find no militant, scornful or humorously mocking tone on the part of the narrator or author. In fact, in irony it may seem quite difficult to determine just what the author feels about the subject. This is intentional: writers at times will deliberately use what we call a detached tone. Writers of irony are often trying to offer an objective picture of what they think the world is really like. A clear-headed awareness of the far-from-ideal and far-from-heroic character of everyday life is part of what helps keep our emotional balance in this world.
The ironic contrasts are simply between some ideal and the reality of experience. In irony there is often the sense that the heroic is something long past, something that nowadays we either cannot afford, have forgotten, or have lost forever.
In irony, the figures are all too human. They are not important enough to provoke some force like the Fates. Their less-than-heroic failures can be explained as something entirely human--physical weakness, the limitations of poverty, neurosis, their environment, or simply the passage of time. Human beings are ordinary, everyday human beings, no more, no less. It is not our fault that the simpler age of the hero is past. Our agony is to survive in the disillusionment of a drab, limited, and vastly more complicated world which is here and now.