QUESTION: Imagine that a curious friend asks just what this "Menippean satire" business is all about.

You give a succinct answer in well-chosen words and precise critical language that is at once a masterpiece of comprehensiveness and a miracle of compression. If that is not quite possible in a mere forty or so minutes, at least this is your chance to show that you have grasped the conceptual basis of the Menippean tradition. You get extra credit if you can remember (or even invent) aspects not covered in Part Two of this exam as you concoct your answer in this essay. ANSWER: To begin at the beginning, because everything has a beginning, although Menippean satire does not always have an ending (much like its explication), back in the fourth century BC there were the cynics, most notably Menippus and Diogenes. The name cynic, which was first created as a derogatory term meaning dog, entailed a jubilant stoic or a pessimist with a sense of humor. They rejected most human pretensions like homes and possessions in their effort to return to a natural, fundamental way of life, like an animal (specifically, like a dog). These cynics were commemorated and celebrated first by Marcus Terentius Varro in the first century BC, and then by Seneca, Patronius, Apuleius and Lucian in the first and second centuries AD. Works like Lucian’s Sale of Philosophies mocked arrogant self-assured philosophies, and his Dialogues of the Dead satirize the weeping wealthy, who now in Hell, are no better off than a beggar. These early Menippean satires were dark, mostly pessimistic, but had a sense of humor that merited the “Menippean” qualifier before the “satire.” What makes Menippean satires Menippean is precisely that mixture of foreboding and laughter, or “spoudogeloios.” The Menippean satire is characterized by a strange quality of joculoserious, or seriocomedy. Death, said the cynics, is inevitable and all-powerful. So they accepted this and moved on to enjoy life while they had it. There is certainly an amount of stoicism in the Menippean tradition, but it is always balanced by the festivity of the carnival. The carnivalesque characteristic that pervades Menippean satire is an inversion of the natural order. In the spirit of the week-long Roman holiday of Saturnalia, the carnival of Menippean satire turns the world upside-down, but only for an extended period of time. There is the apotheosis of the fool to start the carnival in style, but at the end, after the parades and debauchery and cathartic satiety, the fool must be deposed, beaten, and everything must return to normal. Yet, Menippean satire, as a written form, allows this carnival to happen whenever the book is read, without end. The Menippean satire, in its formal quality, often revolves around a carousel plot, with a beginning, a middle, and no end. It is full of episodes that may be moved around at will, cut out, replaced with new ones, or simply skipped. This is like an anatomical analysis: the surgeon-reader can inspect the whole body, and then deeper into the organs, then into the cells, down to the molecules, indefinitely, thus linking macrocosm and microcosm. It is very flexible, but at least one go-round on the carousel is highly recommended. We see that Menippean satire does not always follow traditional linear form of plot, and neither does it conform to the rules of the world. It is often set in a fantastic world, sometimes without a care for even logic’s prize principle of non-contradiction. This fantastic setting, says Mikhail Bakhtin, is to make possible the treatment of “serious philosophical questions.” This aspect, by loosening the rules of narrative and fact, provides a larger playing ground in setting up analogies and allegories, which often take the form of journeys. The Menippean form has often been said to derive partly from the picaresque tradition, and many Menippean satires take the form of the Odyssey plot, wherein the adventurer laboriously travels toward a destination. Often, in the case of Menippean satire, this destination is unreachable, or the effort abandoned, in cynical fashion, to show that the human condition is one of failure and distraction, or more optimistically, to show that the destination is much less important than the journey. An important stylistic trait of Menippean satire is the author’s consciousness of the work and presence therein, often as one of the characters. With the advent of the printing press, the author became

much more involved with the final result of his writing, which expanded his ability to add footnotes, mock prefaces, and facetious chapter headings, among many other things. This allows the author to take on multiple voices, and therefore present a more complex narrative to the reader. Perhaps the most notable, influential characteristic of Menippean satire, however, which evolved into the full-fledged novel, is a polyphony of voices, a heteroglossia that depicts the extreme linguistic diversity of the written tradition. One aspect of this is found in the catalogs and inventories (or copia) that reoccur throughout Menippean satire, signs of verbal exuberance. This multiplicity gives the Menippean satire a greater dynamism that leads into realism in opposition to the tradition of romanticism. Menippean satire is not a genre, but rather a critical tool in judging literary works. Menippean satire, as a term, has been called baggy and therefore useless in grouping literature. Although Northrop Frye categorized all literature into romance, comedy, confession, and anatomy (the last being his term for Menippean satire), a better method is Mikhel Bakhtin’s fourteen traits that Menippean satire uses, each with a reason for utilizing that particular trait. Many authors write Menippean satire without knowing it, without intertextually invoking writers like Rabelais or Cervantes that were famous for their Menippean mode. It is not in the same class as comedy, tragedy, epic, or poetry. It is all of the above. It ranges from prosimetric integrations of poetry and prose, to juxtaposed images of death and youth. Perhaps the most efficient way to conclude is to name a few prominent authors and to make a generalization about what their work intends. From Lucian to Petronius, Rabelais to Cervantes, Swift to Lewis, Twain to Toole, and finally Flann O’Brien, they all take the pains and pleasures of the world, mock the pains, and delight themselves ecstatically in the pleasures—even the little things. They make jokes on street-corners interpolated with an awareness of impending death and an overarching desire to make the most of life while it lasts, every bit of it, from birth to death. CHRISTOPHER BROWN, DECEMBER 16, 2008

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