The Wider the Scope, the Greater the Success
The moment that mankind became advanced enough to ridicule the society that it had created was the moment that it began doing so. This form of societal ridicule known as satire has been around since the time of the Egyptians, though most modern satire is rooted in the writings of Horace and Juvenal, with Horatian satire being built upon wit, and Juvenalian satire being built upon pure unbridled rage. After the deaths of Horace and Juvenal, satire continued to grow and evolve as a medium for confronting social issues in the same fashion until the mid-16th century, when simply targeting one aspect of society at a time was no longer sufficient for some satirists to completely express their general discontentment. The satirist needed to invent a new engine of ridicule so that he or she could properly address the innumerable shortcomings of the world without having to write for years on end. Thus, the picaresque was born.
The picaresque allowed the satirist send his or her main character anywhere, at any time, for no reason, therefore allowing the author to mercilessly deride as many subjects as he or she deemed necessary without having to become bogged down in plot or story development. Of course, the advent of the picaresque soon beget the naïf, which allowed the author to forego character development as well, considering the fact that the hapless, starry-eyed, happy-go-lucky naïf doesn’t require any character development whatsoever for the satire to be successful. Although the naïf picaresque is a commonly used form of satire, questions have been raised about whether or not naïf picaresques can endure as relevant works of art. While it’s certain that many picaresques have been swept away by the sands of time, it’s equally certain that some picaresques can and will endure; it all depends on the message is and the scope of the work. For example, Voltaire’s 1759 novella Candide has withstood the test of time insofar as it is still being read and talked about to this day. However, it can be argued that the only reason it has survived for so long is its intellectual value rather than its actual satirical value or original purpose. After all, neither Leibniz’s assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds, nor the mathematician himself, are relevant anymore, which in theory would make Candide irrelevant as well, as Candide’s primary target is the “best of all possible worlds” theory. For instance, perhaps the most shocking scene in the book comes at a time when James the Anabaptist has fallen into the ocean because of a storm, and Candide is prevented from saving him due to Pangloss’ assurance that “the coast of Lisbon had been made on purpose for the Anabaptist to be drowned there” (Voltaire 25). This scene would have been incredibly powerful at the time given how damaging it was to Pangloss’ still relevant theory, but due to Pangloss’ fall from fame, the scene has lost some potency. Unfortunately, in a book driven by exaggerated horror stories and anecdotes that are meant to shock the reader, any loss of potency might greatly hinder the enduring qualities of the book as a whole. But even though Voltaire’s primary targets are no longer relevant, Voltaire’s work remains as relevant as ever thanks to his ability to not only target Leibniz, but universal human nature as well. Through his work, Voltaire is not only able to attack Leibniz’s theory, but also the quality within people that Leibniz’s theory described: blind optimism; which is still as relevant today as it was back then. It’s true that the text is two and a half centuries old, but basic human nature has not changed in that time. On the surface the work is an attack on Leibniz’s theory, but on a deeper level, the work is an attack on blind faith. So while Candide may no longer seem relevant on the surface, the book will be able to endure long into the future due to Voltaire’s ability to get to the heart of human spirit. It may not be widely read, (although, it never was, considering the fact that in the 18th century only a select group of nobles could read it anyway) but it will be greatly appreciated by those who read it.
Following along the same lines as Candide, Nathanael West’s 1934 novel A Cool Million also addresses blind optimism, but West goes about it in a different way. Rather than speaking to a tendency to be overly optimistic and naïve that is natural and human, West speaks to a tendency to be overly optimistic and naïve that is strictly American. In other words, West directly targets the American dream, or the belief that one can amass a great fortune beyond his or her wildest dreams by merely punching his or her card and catching a break or two. Our hero, Lemuel Pitkin, is first convinced to pursue this lofty goal when Shagpoke Whipple, a former president and new leader of an American-Fascist party, simply states, “This is the land of opportunity. The world is an oyster” (West 73). Once convinced that moving to New York will be the easiest way to put the money together to keep his mother’s house, Lem is literally dismantled, signifying the dismantling of the American dream by West. West does an excellent job in using the naïf throughout the novel. Like Voltaire, he sends his naïf across the landscape, (in this case just coast to coast, rather than from Westphalia to El Dorado) and like Voltaire, he is able to systematically dismantle the notion of false optimism extremely effectively, in this case by taking its eye, leg, scalp, fingers, and cow. However, West’s work is much more concentrated than Voltaire’s. Where Voltaire was able to apply his satire to a much larger scale than his target, West was not, and so the scope of West’s work is not as far reaching. West’s work, when applied to America, and specifically Horatio Alger’s “pluck and luck” notion, is extremely effective, and will be for the foreseeable future. But when the text is taken outside of America, it no longer applies, as West is attacking an idea that is specific to a culture rather than universal for all people. This being the case, it’s hard to imagine that A Cool Million will outlast Candide, simply due to the universality present in Candide and absent from A Cool Million.
Another work that faces this very same problem is Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film Borat, which follows a Kazakhstani gentleman by the name of Borat Sagdiyev as he tries to produce his film Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Like Candide and Lemuel Pitkin, Borat is a naïf who is haphazardly dragged across the landscape in order to satirize as many topics as possible. However, there are two major differences between Borat and the two aforementioned books that ultimately damage the films ability to endure as a piece of art. First of all, the film Borat uses little to no hyperbole or exaggeration to demonstrate a point. True, certain scenarios are set up for a certain result, but almost everything that happens in Borat is unadulterated reality. That being the case, as effective as the film is in making a point (or several points) about America, the film as a whole is really more of a statement of fact rather than a satirical interpretation of it, which immediately calls into question the film’s status as a satire in the first place. Without a doubt it can justly be called a mockumentary, but whether or not the film is a full-fledged satire is ambiguous. Additionally, the scope of Borat is even narrower than the scope of A Cool Million, which even further hurts its ability to become an enduring satire. Not only does Borat mainly focus on problems found in American culture, but it focuses on problems found in American culture specifically in 2006. It’s important to note that the cultural flaws found in America in 2006 are different than the cultural flaws that could be found in 1906, and are different still than flaws that might be found in 2106. Borat is certainly a high-quality film, but because of its temporal and geographical limitations, and its ambiguous status as a satire in the first place, Borat will not endure as a great work of satiric art, but rather as a film that revolutionized mockumentaries.
Although Candide, A Cool Million, and Borat are all influential in their own right, Candide will be the work that truly stands the test of time as a great satire due to its expert use of hyperbole and exaggeration, and its appeal to universal human nature rather than cultural challenges. Even now it is easy to tell just how enduring Candide is, considering it’s still being talked about over two-hundred and fifty years after its initial publication, while A Cool Million is already waning in popularity before even hitting one-hundred. Borat, of course, is still a rather popular film, but due to the amount of quality movies that the US is inundated with annually, it’s difficult to believe that Borat will still be even remotely popular two-hundred and fifty years from now; especially considering how narrow the scope of Borat really is. Although all three naïf picaresques are well done, it is Voltaire’s Candide that is and will always be the satire for the best of all possible worlds.
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