Menippean Satire

voltaire by Dylan Meconis

The genre of Menippean [meh-nip-pee-uhnsatire is a form of satire (ridicule of foolishness and moral failings), usually in prose, which has a length and structure similar to a novel and is characterized by attacking mental attitudes instead of specific individuals. Other features found in Menippean satire are different forms of parody and mythological burlesque (humorous caricatures of the gods), a critique of the myths inherited from traditional culture, a rhapsodic nature, a fragmented narrative, the combination of many different targets, and the rapid moving between styles and points of view.

The term is used by classical grammarians and by philologists mostly to refer to satires in prose. Typical mental attitudes attacked and ridiculed by Menippean satires are ‘pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds,’ which are treated as diseases of the intellect. The term Menippean satire distinguishes it from the earlier satire pioneered by Aristophanes, which was based on personal attacks.

The form is named after the Greek cynic parodist and polemicist Menippus (third century BCE). His works, now lost, influenced the works of Lucian and Marcus Terentius Varro; such satires are sometimes also termed Varronian satire. M. H. Abrams classifies Menippean satire as one form of indirect satire, the category opposed to the formal satire of direct criticism in the first person.

Professor of humanities Paul Salzman, taking Menippean satire as a genre as ‘rather ill-defined,’ describes it as a mixture of allegory, picaresque narrative and satirical commentary. Noted literary theorist Northrop Frye found the term ‘cumbersome and in modern terms rather misleading,’ and proposed as replacement the term ‘anatomy’ (taken from Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’). A literary anatomy is  a book that divides a topic into parts for detailed examination or analysis; in Frye’s theory of prose fiction it occupies the fourth place with the novel, romance, and confession.

Frye noted that Menippean satire moves rapidly between styles and points of view. Such satires deal less with human characters than with the single-minded mental attitudes, or ‘humours,’ that they represent: the pedant, the braggart, the bigot, the miser, the quack, the seducer, etc. Frye observed, ‘The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect.’ He illustrated this distinction by positing Squire Western (from ‘Tom Jones’) as a character rooted in novelistic realism, but the tutors Thwackum and Square as figures of Menippean satire.

Varro’s own 150 books of Menippean satires survive only through quotations. The genre continued with Seneca the Younger, whose ‘Apocolocyntosis,’ or ‘Pumpkinification,’ is the only near-complete classical Menippean satire to survive. It consisted in an irreverent parody of the deification of Emperor Claudius. The Menippean tradition is also evident in Petronius’ ‘Satyricon,’ especially in the banquet scene ‘Cena Trimalchionis,’ which combines epic form, tragedy, and philosophy with verse and prose; and in Apuleius’ ‘Golden Ass,’ the form is combined with the comic novel.

In the 20th century, after having been mostly overlooked for centuries, Menippean satire significantly influenced postmodern literature. Contemporary scholars including Frye classify the following works as Menippean satires: ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’ (1564) by François Rabelais, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726) by Jonathan Swift, ‘Candide’ (1759) by Voltaire, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1865) by Lewis Carroll, ‘Finnegans Wake’ (1939) by James Joyce, and ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (1979) by Douglas Adams. Canadian philosopher of communication theory Marshall McLuhan also made extensive use of Menippean satire, as he himself suggested: ‘Most of my writing is Menippean satire, presenting the actual surface of the world we live in as a ludicrous image.’

Menippean satire plays a special role in Russian semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the novel. In ‘Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics,’ Bakhtin treats Menippean satire as one of the classical ‘serio-comic’ genres, alongside Socratic dialogue and other forms that he claims are united by a ‘carnival sense of the world,’ wherein ‘carnival is the past millennia’s way of sensing the world as one great communal performance’ and is ‘opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change.’ Authors of ‘Menippea’ in Bakhtin’s sense include Voltaire, Diderot, and E.T.A. Hoffmann.

In a series of articles, Edward Milowicki and Robert Rawdon Wilson at Johns Hopkins University, building upon Bakhtin’s theory, have argued that Menippean is not a period-specific term, as many Classicists have claimed, but a term for discursive analysis that instructively applies to many kinds of writing from many historical periods including the modern. As a type of discourse, ‘Menippean’ signifies a mixed, often discontinuous way of writing that draws upon distinct, multiple traditions. It is normally highly intellectual and typically embodies an idea, an ideology or a mind-set in the figure of a grotesque, even disgusting, comic character. According to Milowicki and Wilson: ‘The power of very physical images to satirize, or otherwise comment upon, ideas lies at the heart of Menippean satire.’


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