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Open To Thinking: Satire and Freedom
A recurring column
by Nick Patricca
2015-02-04

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I once saw a production of Lysistrata—one of several anti-war plays by the ancient Greek writer Aristophanes—in which the chorus of old men sit on chamber pots complaining about the state of affairs in Athens as they try to move their bowels while suffering uncomfortable erections of their oversized but obviously elderly penises.

The old men had failed in their attempt to burn out the women barricaded in the temple of love to protest the endless war against Sparta. The men had carried hot coals in their chamber pots to burn down the temple doors but the chorus of old women carrying their own chamber pots full of water doused the fires in the men's pots.

The old men—the ruling elders of Athens—sit on their vanquished pots lamenting cranky bowels, lack of sex, and the reluctance of the young to fight and die. The women of Athens refuse to make love until the men make peace. Thus: the more or less permanent semi-erect penises.

In the midst of the social, financial, and personal crises caused by the seemingly endless and meaningless Peloponnesian war ( 431—404 BCE ), Aristophanes wrote his plays against war, against the Athenian ruling classes ( at times citing individuals by name ), against the slaughter of the young to save the vanity of the old, against the greed of those who profited from war, against the false patriotism that continued war in the name of honor.

These plays of Aristophanes, which mocked the stupidities, vices, follies, and foibles of the Establishment, were produced, sometimes with city-state support. And just as often, the plays won first place in the drama competitions of the Dionysia or Lenaia, the great festivals of ancient Athens to honor the god Dionysius.

Most scholars judge the plays of Aristophanes to be the beginning of our Western tradition of satire. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the word satire does not come from the Greek word satyr and satirical drama does not come from Greek satyr plays. Rather, our word satire comes from the Latin word 'satura' which means a 'full dish of various fruits' and refers to a type of Latin metered poetry full of social criticism invented by Gaius Lucilius ( 180—103 BCE ). I'd like to believe our contemporary English slang 'to dish' comes from this etymology.

Aristophanes in his plays and Gaius in his poetry ridiculed religion, politics, sex, arrogance, vanity, pomposity, and power, sometimes in the most exaggerated, even grotesque ways. To be sure, there were those who wanted to silence these blasphemers, but their societies protected them. Ancient Athens and ancient Rome not only tolerated these critical poets, they encouraged them. Why? The wit—sometimes abusive, always aggressive—of their art had but one single goal: the improvement of their societies. The burlesque, the exaggeration, the reductio ad absurdum serve the purpose of constructive social criticism.

Charlie Hebdo belongs to this ancient tradition of satire which has an unbroken history throughout European and Mediterranean cultures right up to the present. The graphic art and the texts of Charlie Hebdo participate in this distinguished artistic culture which is essential to the values and the goals of Western civilization. This type of satire has flourished in various Muslim cultures since the very beginning of Islam.

From the rustic farces of Southern Italy through commedia dell'arte to the French and German Cabaret, from the music and burlesque halls of England and the United States through the cartoons and editorials of Punch to Monty Python, Laugh-In, The Onion and Saturday Night Live, no person, no topic is safe from the sting of a good barb and a good laugh.

Neither Jesus nor Moses nor God nor Allah nor Muhamad nor Mary nor popes nor imams nor priests nor Mormons nor nuns nor Jews nor Muslims nor Ayatollahs nor Catholics nor atheists nor angels nor devils nor politicians nor rabbis nor actors nor poets nor journalists nor artists nor satirists nor drama critics can escape the mocking weapon of the pencil or pen or brush or word processor—nor should they.

A mature civilization has no fear of art. A mature religion has no fear of art.

Chaucer, Boccaccio, Mullah Nasreddin, Rabelais, Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Defoe, Pope, Twain, Orwell, Huxley, Dorothy Parker, Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Charlie Chaplin, Lenny Bruce, John Cleese, Stephen Colbert, Joan Rivers, Dario Fo, Gozzi, the Marx Brothers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Gary Trudeau, Al Capp, Bassem Youssef, Ugur Mumcu, Azhar Usman and …

Stéphane Charbonnier, Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut, Bernard Maris, Bernard Verlhac, Philippe Honoré, Elsa Cayat, Frédéric Boisseau, Mustapha Ourrad, Tignous,

and so on forever … .

© nicholas.patricca@gmail.com .

Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.


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