Frontiers

Mock Me Gently

Ralph Rosen's new book explores the dynamics of comic mockery and satire in Greek and Roman poetry
January 2008
The task of critical commentary on art and literature, observes classical-studies professor Ralph Rosen, is to explain the “negotiation between artist and audience … entangled in a messy web of fictions, truths and everything in between.”  Nowhere is that muddle of fact, posturing and in-between stuff more messy than in the satirical poetry of Classical antiquity.  In Making Mockery: The Poetics of Ancient Satire, Rosen pulls apart the various strands of truth, ruse and poetic convention, and looks at how the poets of satire from Homer to Juvenal weave a web of literary ridicule that ensnares audiences – not to mention literary critics. 

Rosen, the Rose Family Endowed Term Professor, is a scholar of Greek literature and intellectual history with a particular focus on ancient comic and satirical poetry.  He is also chair of the graduate group in classical studies and acting department chair for the fall 2007 term.

"Satirists form alliances with their audiences or rouse hostilities in them as unpredictably today as they did in antiquity. Even literary scholars, for all their analytical powers, often cannot quite extricate themselves from the snares that satirical genres carefully lay out." - Ralph Rosen

By poking fun at authority figures, deflating traditional pieties and heaping on irony and insult, satire unsettles audiences, Rosen writes, and forces them “to pay closer attention to that perennially blurred line between fiction and reality than they might under less troubling circumstances.”  Is satire funny or mean, irreverent or insightful?  Some audiences laugh, but others are offended by it.  Which of these groups is the satiric poet targeting?  And should we even trust the satirist’s claim to be telling the truth? 

“I’m always trying to resist the common assumption that there actually are ‘truths’ anywhere really lodged somewhere in satire,” Rosen says. “Usually the ‘truths’ one does seem to find there are not much more than platitudes – it’s bad to embezzle money, for example, or it’s bad to be greedy or gluttonous. Although satirists love to claim a didactic purpose, the actual content of their ‘teaching’ usually turns out to be nothing very profound. So, for all the apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of satire, it’s actually a remarkably elusive mode – some might even say without much stable content at all.

In the age of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, it’s not hard to see that the making of mockery has lost none of its power to entertain, insult and alarm, Rosen notes.  “Satirists form alliances with their audiences or rouse hostilities in them as unpredictably today as they did in antiquity,” he writes, “and even literary scholars, for all their analytical powers, often cannot quite extricate themselves from the snares that satirical genres carefully lay out.”  By examining the art of Greek and Roman satiric poets, Rosen lays bare the traps – “a set of common poetic principles, protocols and tropes” – that wielders of satire have so skillfully set for us.