MyAmericanFuture

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

August 8, 2012: Not That Innocent

[This week we’re hosting a Chinese exchange student as part of a program at the boys’ elementary school, so I thought I’d return the favor and focus in the week’s series on interesting representations of Americans abroad. This is the third in the series. Your responses, and other suggestions and nominations, very welcome for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the double-edged satire at the heart of Mark Twain’s first big hit.
I haven’t done an exhaustive survey or anything, but it seems to me that most social or political satire is both directed at a particular target and driven by an earnest embrace of some alternative idea. Take perhaps the most famous satirical work of all time, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729): seems to be suggesting that the solution to the problems of Irish poverty and hunger is to eat Irish babies; is really satirizing English bigotry toward the Irish; and so is genuinely (if of course very subtly) pro-Irish instead. Similarly, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) satirizes virtually every aspect of war (even a war as seemingly noble as World War II) while sympathizing quite overtly and poignantly with its soldier protagonists; Heller’s satire would to my mind be entirely unsuccessful if we didn’t come to care about those soldiers. Certainly there are satirical voices which take on all comers (The Onion comes to mind), but for the most part, I’d say that social satire needs the accompanying earnest advocacy to function.
Mark Twain’s most famous character, Huck Finn, proves that point quite precisely: Huck is painfully earnest, almost always unable to recognize humor at all (for example), and it is through that earnest perspective that Twain creates his satires of numerous aspects of antebellum (and postbellum) Southern and American society. But Twain’s first book, the travelogue Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869, revised from 1867 newspaper pieces), is much more confusingly and crucially all-encompassing in its satirizing. At first glance Twain seems to be satirizing the reverent tone and attitude of typical travelogues, and thus too the Old World cultures which demand such reverence; but at the same time, his American travelers, including the author himself, come in for just as much ridicule, most especially for their ignorance of these other cultures and their tendency toward pro-American provincialism. If both communities are ultimately, equally foolish and silly, though, it’s fair to ask whether the satire has a point.
Innocents is unquestionably a messy and sprawling book (reflecting at least in part its origins in those many different newspaper pieces), but I’d argue that its satire is in fact pointed precisely in its multi-directionality. After all, one of the central goals of any satirist must be to create discomfort, to force an audience out of any and all comfort zones and into the space where established narratives or norms are challenged and made literally laughable. While Heller’s book (for example) certainly does so when it comes to any and all pro-war narratives, it might at the same time make already anti-war readers more comfortable, reinforce their existing views and ideas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (again, having an earnest point can make the satire of other points more successful), but there’s something to be said for a satire that doesn’t let any of us get too comfortable in where we are or what we believe. And that’s doubly true for a travel satire—whether we think home is always the best or are just constantly searching for somewhere better, we’re likely to be over-simplifying both places, and Twain’s book forces us to push beyond those simplifications and continue our journey in a more complex perspective.
Next Americans abroad tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses or suggestions of works about Americans abroad?

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