Leunig

Michael Leunig is a Melbourne based cartoonist and social and cultural commentator. His best known works include The Adventures of Vasco Pyjama and the Curly Flats series, which features recurring characters The Duck and Mr Curly.

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Leunig’s drawings are famously sparse, usually in black and white with the human and animal characters.

Over the years he has gained a loyal following for his quirky take on social issues. He has frequently satirised concepts such as globalisation, greed, consumerism, corporations and warmongering, as well as spiritual and religious themes.

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He also iconically presents  a world of whimsy, in contrast to the sorrows of our current world,  featuring characters besotted with teapots, fantastically curled hair and many goats and ducks.

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My own favourite is a recent comic below, satirising leadership. With a few pen strokes Leunig, without a hint of religiosity, puts his finger [or rather pen] to the point of the gospel.

God is love.

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For more Michael Leunig you can follow his Fan Page on Facebook or check out his website here.

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The Idiot

First published in 1868, The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky has long been a favorite of Russian literature.

The novel seeks to expose the tragedy that occurs when a truly good and beautiful human being encounters the rudeness and cruelty of the real world. Its character portrayal is likened to another literary great, the 17th century Spanish classic, Don Quixote.

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The Idiot gains its title from the central character, Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin [Myshkin], a young man troubled by epilepsy which was at the time equated with simplicity of mind, or idiocy.  His condition highlights his goodness and open-hearted simplicity and much of the novels tension is created by his interaction with characters who mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight.

Dostoevsky’s account of one man’s struggle with the conflicts, desires, passions and egoism of worldly society is according to philosopher A.C. Grayling, is:

..one of the most excoriating, compelling and remarkable books ever written; and without question one of the greatest.

So, what happens when the ideal human being comes into the real world?

The world that Prince Myshkin enters is one of moral corruption and decay. With money as the principal object of importance, the value of human dignity and the source of human love are redefined in relationship to it. Beautiful, intelligent women such as Nastassya Filippovna, are objectified, dishonored and consequently destroyed by the people who supposedly love and desire them.

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This world of the novel is also full of drunks and rogues, even murderers,  and a high society full of superficial nothings who are surrounded by self serving underlings seeking a high position.

In contrast to this world, Prince Myshkin stands out with simple goodness.

In the midst of this world Dostoevsky depicts Myshkin as an almost Christ-like character, epitomised so by his immense compassion and love for others.  The novel contains an series of encounters between Myshkin and the other characters, many of whom have committed offenses against him. His attempts at assisting them even after their slights, emphasise his selfless compassion.

The novel is a tragic satire. Dosotoevksy used the novel to discuss and critique Russian Christianity. In it Prince Myshkin describes religion as an immensely strong feeling similar to joy, the joy God feels for his creation. For him, true religion is more akin to a feeling than a set of rules to follow.

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This idiotic sentiment of his leads him only to suffering. Though he attempts to help those around him, he fails and this failure, finally drives him to insanity. The tragedy of the novel is that it would seem his effect on this world is ultimately zero.

Does Myshkin fail to bring good? Is his own goodness inverted and manipulated, leading to the destruction of both himself and his ideal?

Far from it.

The novel remains a classic for its embodiment of true religion, one of compassion and a quest to right injustice. It remains a timely warning against the vices of wealth and privilege and false morality. And it points beyond itself to the truest man, the one who suffered so that we might see inequalities redressed and true humanity valued.

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Candide and ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’

François-Marie Arouet [1694 – 1778], known by his pen name, or nom de plume, Voltaire, was a French Englightenment writer, historian, and philosopher. Voltaire was a prolific writer, despite the strict censorship laws of the time. As a satirist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma, and the French institutions of  his day.

Candide, also L’Optimism is a French satire first published in 1759 by Voltaire. It begins with a young man, Candide, who has lived a sheltered life and indoctrinated with Leibnitzian optimism by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes his slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.

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Written as a playful comedy, behind its amusing façade, there lies very harsh criticism of contemporary European civilization. European governments such as France, Prussia, Portugal and England are each attacked ruthlessly. Organised religion, is also harshly treated. For example, while in Paraguay, Cacambo remarks, “[The Jesuits] are masters of everything, and the people have no money at all …”. Voltaire depicts the Jesuits holding the indigenous peoples as slaves while they claim to be helping them.

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Moreover, Candide was written into the context of mid 1700s natural disasters and war. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 led to a tsunami and city fires which rattled the philosophical optimism of the day, particularly that of Gottfried Leibnitz and his optimist worldview. Voltaire actively rejected Leibnizian optimism after the natural disaster, convinced that if this were the best possible world, it should surely be better than it is, describing the catastrophe as one of the most horrible disasters.

Voltaire concludes with Candide, advocating a deeply practical precept, “we must cultivate our garden“, in stead of the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds“.

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Candide has enjoyed both great success and great scandal. Immediately after its secretive publication, the book was widely banned because it contained religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of satirical amusement. Today, Candide is recognized as Voltaire’s magnum opus and is often listed as part of the Western canon; it is arguably taught more than any other work of French literature. Candide has been listed as one of The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written.

Voltaire’s Bastards

In 1992, Candian born political scientist Jonathan Ralston Saul published “Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.” Part of a trilogy of political essays, Saul points out the ills of a dictatorship of reason, unbalanced by other human qualities.

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Saul points out that Voltaire and his contemporaries believed reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the supersititons of relgious dogma. It was the key not only to challenge the powers of kings and aristocracies but also to creating a more just and humane society. This emphasis on reason has become central to modern thought. However, unfortunately, today’s rational society bears little resemblance to the visions of the 17th and 18th century humanist thinkers.

Our ruling elites justify themselves in the name of reason, but all too often their power and methodoloy is based on specialised knowledge and the manipulation of “rational strucutres” rather than reason. The link between justice and reason has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical frameowrk have turned rational calculation into something short sighted and self-serving. This can and does lead to a directioness state that rewards the pursuit of power for power’s sake.

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Moreover, we live in a society fixated on rational solutions, management, expertise and professionalism in almost all areas, from politics and economics to education and cultural affairs. The rationalism Voltaire advocates, captured in Candide’s mantra, “we must cultivate our garden” has birthed has led to the rise of individualism with no regard for the role of society has not created greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation.

He calls for a pursuit of a more humanist ideal in which reason is balanced with other human mental capacities such as common sense, ethics, intuition, creativity, and memory, for the sake of the common good.

In brief

What interests me in this literary debate between political minds is that art and art forms are 100 years ahead of academic thought, most of the time.

The modernist writers of the turn of the century and their melanchology works, the surrealism and absurdism is art and literature and the nihilism produced by many of the war writers and poets – signalled he death knell that pure “rational frameworks” brought to society.  Lost and adrift without meaning, this generation saw the effects of reason driven ideology in Stalin and Hitler and its consequences.

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Children’s writers such as C S Lewis and J K Rowling have made as much sense as Raslton Saul in calling out western rationalism for its hollow promises. Harry Potter’s “muggles” a great example of the non-sense in seeing magical and spiritual things the cause of social ills.

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May we learn in this new generation, to balance celebrate learning and shun supersition without hiding within rational frameworks at the expense of ideology in the form of “truth”, intuition, creativity, spirituality and a framework for justice to work hand in hand with reason.

 

Sonnet CXXX

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Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and in sonnet 130 he turns to satire to mock poetry itself and the tradition of lofty allusions and hypberbole.  By outlining his lover’s human qualities, he mentions the conventional poetic features, eyes, lips, breasts, hair, cheeks, breath, voice, movements as they appear in common day and not in his mind’s eye. Above all things he acknowledges she “treads on the ground” and in doing so,  he claims to be more faithful, for he loves her truest being. 

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

The Importance of not being Earnest

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde was famous for his wit, and satire.  One of the most famous playwrights of the 19th C he specialised in pointing out duplicitous behaviour, vanity and vice. While on the surface he produced witty comedies,  underneath he critiqued society forcing the audience to soften harsh social codes.

“Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.” ― Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband

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Wilde managed to change the behaviour and attitudes of his and subsequent generations by pointing out harsh moral codes such as gender roles, attitudes to illegitimacy, and sexual and religious mores. Wilde also presented his own flamboyant passion aestheticism in the face of Victorian asceticism. How can one man’s literary endavours be so powerful upon society?

“Paradoxically though it may seem, it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” ― Oscar Wilde

How can this be so ? How can art and narrative be so instructive ? This power of story is what I would like to explore. In this case the genre of satire. The following definition begins to analyse the power of satire:

Satire is a genre , in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society. Satire ranges in “degrees of biting” from the hot end to kidding and lesser evils. Teasing however is  limited to a  shallow parody of appearance or nature, drawing empathy towards the individual it is directed towards. Satire instead goes against the power and its oppressors, it is subversive in nature with moral dimension drawing judgement against its targets.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satire

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Narrative shows, as though through dream, the words and actions of another. The protagonist invariably represents the self – their foibles, our human faults, their vices, our human ills.  Such imagery allows the audience to see and to judge with objectivity. The audience can address the “log in one’s own eye”, with the same clarity with which we “remove the speck from our neighbours eye.” The protagonist can bear the weight of judgement, like a scape-goat, effectively allowing behaviour change without deep self-mortification.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” ― Oscar Wilde

The power of satire is what it implies – “the satiric norm”. This is the ideal against which the faults and failings of society, characters and scenes are held. The Satiric norm is the ideal behaviour from which the character has fallen and to which the audience must aspire.  The satiric norm allows the narrative to be instructive, pushing the audience to both hope for a better world and aspire to change themselves.

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Satire differs greatly from the literary genre of absurdism, characteristic of some literature in the 20th century, particularly around or post-world wars. Absurdism is characterised by nihilism, or a disbelief in any over arching meaning to life despite the earnest search on behalf of humanity. Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is a perfect example of absurdism. While sharing characteristics of satire, absurdism has no “norm” against which characters are held and so consequently no hope for a better world or change. The very search for meaning is absurd and thus vice and folly swim adrift alongside love and loyalty.

“Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the cave-man had known how to laugh, History would have been different.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

To me the advent of absurdism signals the end of satire, the end of the ability to laugh at oneself, the end of our ability to hope for a better world or to challenge ourselves to change. The melancholy of absurdism, advented by existentialism, places meaning within the self, and not defined from any external realm of justice or truth.  The significance of “not” being too earnest, of retaining the ability to poke fun and to criticise ourselves and society, means we retain a belief in a better world, one where humans have a standard of behaviour and being conducive to human flourishing.

Art must keep us laughing.

“Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” ― Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

 

The Book of Job as Satire

A favourite genre of mine, wierdly, is Modernist literature. Characteristic of writing between the turn of the century until the 1960s, it is characterised by a heavy cynicism about society, morality.and break with tradition.  Influenced by artistic movements of impressionism, cubism, surrealism and scientific turns from Newtonian physics to Quantum theory, interspersed with two world wars and other social upheavals, the period turned literature into introspective, doubtful and even absurdist narrations of human existence.

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I love Hemmingways experience of life through the senses – almost a verbal impressionism; I love Samuel Beckett’s tirade against reason in Waiting for Godot. I love Joseph Conrad’s journey through Imperial Africa to the heart of darkness. I love J. D Salinger’s depiction of a young man dissolving into madness and Sylia Plath’s depiction of her heroine’s dissolution in the Bell Jar.  Perhaps at the core of my love of Modernist literature is a turn to classical Greek and Roman literature to find meaning beneath life in archetypes and dreams, a kind of Jungian journey into the soul.

A novel that moved me greatly was Joseph Hellier’s “Catch 22”. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter House Five”, It artfully depicted the absurdities of war. Intelligent generals wishing to send young men to their death. Sane young men, not wishing to die but facing the catch. The only way to evade duty was to declare madness, but only the truly mad would go happily go to their death. Thus the sane cannot evade death, though they desire to, and the mad will not evade death, since they will not declare insanity. And so the circle goes – the Catch 22.

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When I heard at school that the Book of Job,  was not only one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world and also one of the most celebrated greats, I was facinated to read it. Unlike any other book in the bible it reads like a play, with behind the scenes notes, and lengthy dialogues between protagonist and antagonists.  Loving Shakespeare and Homer, the Book of Job struck me an epic Jewish classic, fit with mythical beasts and the voice of God from a storm. What delighted me the most was the cutting, at points sarcastic way Job addresses the platitudes of his friends and the way the narrative holds up their views as absurd. It intrigued me. It was almost an anti-text the way much of Modern literature cut against the optimism of society at the turn of the 20th century.

Why did I resonate with this text so much ? Well as an Aussie I love a good deal of cynicsm and sarcasm. It feels realer to me than boundless optimism and it’s candyfloss texture. It increasingly occurred to me that The Book of Job was not unlike “Waiting for Godot” and Job’s complaint not unlike the Catch-22.

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So could Job be satire?

I examined the text and found something interesting. Even though elements of the text may have originated early in Israel’s history, many charactertics of the text resembe Menippean Satire, a form of Greek classical poetry and prose between the 2nd and 3rd century BC. The lofty scenes of heaven set against the gritty reality of earth, the behind the scenes view privy to knowledge not shared by the protagonist, the strange denoument and restoration of Job’s fortunes ten fold. Most interesting was the establishement of the satiric norm – the ideal against which antagonists are placed to point out the absurdity of their views. Scholars believed that the Book of Job was thus compiled late in Jewish tradition, in a period when faith in old platitudes of the wisdom literature, placed into the mouths of the unfeeling friends, rang hollow to the suffering remnant.

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How fascinating?! If Catch 22 and the like were written to a society experiencing bitter disappointment in the wake of the optimism of the 19th century, then Job was written to a Jewish audience experiencing the humiliation of the Roman occupation and the smashing of naive notions of a mechanistic blessing-cursing relationship to the law. Job faces the very real catch 22 of this law – he is as good an upright as any man can be. But man born is born to mischief as the sparks fly up [Job 5:7].   So are we born to condemnation?! No, he will not accept this resolution. Nor will he accept the resolution of the friends that he need simply repent to regain blessing. He pushes through this transactional approach to God and demands a hearing. When the God he calls upon appears, he is cowed – understandably overwhelmed by the awsome display of splendour from the clouds. However, this awesome divinity approves of Job’s faith – for Job sees through to the heart of the matter. Law can only condemn, but faith in the redemptive nature of the divine is commended.  Job cannot save himself through pennitance, but by grasping to God, not cursing nor turning from God, he clings to the knowledge that God alone can provide a solution to the Catch 22.

Unlike Modernist novels, The Book of Job ends “happily ever after”. Another characteristic of Mennipean satire. But here the book affirms biblical themes, those who orient themselves to God in faith are righteous, not those who abide by the law.

Selah.