Sunday, February 16, 2014

Jacobs and Menippean Satire Again

Amusingly, Alan Jacobs has decided to double-down on his previous nonsense. And it's really not all that impressive. Some basic points to follow.

(By the way, I'd be willing to bet that Brandon had never heard of the genre before he took it upon himself to tell me that I don't understand it. He clearly hasn't read Bakhtin on the subject, or he would know that the “characterization of the genre” — that's precisely what it is, just look it up and you'll see — doesn't appear in a “philosophy of dialogue” but in a work of literary criticism that at that point is tracing the generic pre-history of Dostoevsky's novels. That was an especially blustery day on Brandon's blog, Pooh! )

I actually, whenever I teach Consolatio Philosophiae, teach Relihan's and Marenbon's interpretation of Boethius in terms of Menippean satire, and just given what he gives in his argument, I have probably read much more in the actual field than Jacobs shows any signs of having done. He shows no signs, for instance, of anything more than a second-hand acquaintance with the genre, whereas I've read most extant Menippean satires at one point or another. The Bakhtin point could certainly have been more clear, I will grant, but Jacobs again shows no signs of recognizing that Bakhtin's handling of the genre is in terms of a broader philosophy of dialogue; and, indeed, it presupposes Bakhtin's specific philosophical commitments on the subject. I would have expected, for instance, that his uncritical acceptance of Bakhtin as straightforward characterization rather than an adaptation for philosophical ends was a result of intense enthusiasm for Bakhtin, for instance; but it's difficult not to conclude that Jacobs has read a few works by Bakhtin and doesn't have any conception of how they fit into Bakhtin's larger projects. (This is a common danger with reading Bakhtin; he is always doing more than he looks like he's doing.)

Much of the rest of Jacobs's ill-formed argument makes an elementary logical confusion. As he says, Menippean satires unite multiple generic subelements. It does not follow that the uniting of generic subelements makes something a Menippean satire. And we see how thoroughly this elementary mistake messes up Jacobs's argument when we look at the next steps in Jacobs's arguments:

And this should be no surprise, because versions of the menippea are scattered throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The combination of dream vision and satire may be found in Piers Plowman; the insertion of long theological debates in fabulous narrative is especially characteristic of Guillame de Lorris's continuation of the Romance of the Rose; the alternation of argument and song may be found not only in The Pilgrim's Progress but also, in a very different way, in a book whose influence on CSL has not been well-enough noted, Sidney's Arcadia.

None of these are Menippean satires. (I am, incidentally, going to do Jacobs the courtesy of assuming that when he, a professor of literature, attributed the continuation of the Romance of the Rose to Guillaume de Lorris, who wrote the initial section which was continued by Jean de Meun, this was a slip of the keys or an unintended effect of an incomplete revision, and not Jacobs showing that he doesn't even know the most basic facts about such a significant piece of literary history.) For one thing, none of these things are satire in the sense that a Menippean satire is (Jacobs seems not to understand that the 'satire' in 'Menippean satire' indicates a very specific kind of indirect intellectual satire, much closer to the irony of Romantic philosophers like Schlegel than satire in the usual sense), but neither the allegory The Pilgrim's Progress nor the polyphonic romance Arcadia are very like Menippean satires at all, as anyone can see who sets them next to the works of Lucian of Samosata, who writes what are probably the best typical Menippean satires (the most widely read Menippean satire in history is the Consolation of Philosophy, but it is in many ways in a class by itself, and not all that typical). (Jean de Meun obviously draws on Boethius and other late Menippean satire; his continuation of the Romance of the Rose is the work on the list that is most like a Menippean satire.) They all have an interest in (at least some) ideas as such; they all make extensive use of the implicit dialogue of juxtaposition (which is one reason, incidentally, for Bakhtin's interest in the genre and its influences) and often explicit dialogue on abstract topics; they occasionally use allegorical elements as ways of tying different levels together; they mix generic subelements. There would certainly be a historical connection -- practically everyone writing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance would have read some genuine Menippean satires (the Consolation, if nothing else), allegorical literature is heavily indebted to Menippean satire in its origins, etc. But this is not a strong genre-connection at all. These are things that might be found anywhere in an infinite variety of forms; if we're using it this broadly, we might as well just say that the bulk of everything written is Menippean satire. We certainly get these things in blogging. Who knew that blogging was really a revival of Menippean satire? (Actually, as a figure of speech or a use of the terms in a stretched sense that wouldn't be a bad characterization. But treating this as genre classification is, indeed, nonsense.)

And when we take, as Jacobs does, to treating Kierkegaard as Menippean satire we are clearly engaging in an abuse of terms. He's clearly getting it from Bakhtin again, since it is only as colored by Bakhtin's more abstract philosophical interests that one would take Kierkegaard to be writing Menippean satire, rather than writing something that has certain loose analogies to Menippean satire. Kierkegaard, at least, is a much, much better candidate for being counted in the genre than almost any other work Jacobs has mentioned -- the continuation of the Romance of the Rose perhaps is the only better candidate. (And I can't help but notice that Jacobs has mentioned no obvious Menippean satires -- nothing at all from the era of Apocolyntosis, which, while certainly not the first Menippean satire, is the earliest extant, to the era of the Consolation, in which our ability to trace direct participation in the genre as a literary tradition begins to break down. We've gotten abstract ideas from Frye and Bakhtin -- but talk of 'menippea' is talking not about the genre but about an abstract concept derived from selecting out certain features of actual Menippean satires; we've gotten a list that is dangerously near to turning into a list of all major works of fiction prior to the novel. But nothing that's actually, unquestionably, a Menippean satire, even when defending his appeal to it. Not one. The obvious way to defend the claim that X is a Menippean satire is to do direct comparison with Menippean satires. This is what Relihan et al. have done with Boethius, for instance. But actually doing that would show that even That Hideous Strength, the Lewis work most like a Menippean satire, is not all that much like one.)

So, no, my assessment of his botching of the genre of Menippean satire not only stands; it is confirmed in spades. (Jacobs doesn't respond to what primarily led me to call his original post nonsense, namely, the putting of his own personal tastes in the place of critical taste, which must draw out the riches of the common experiences of readers. The point he actually attacks is the point that I explicitly said I wasn't going to treat in detail. So all the weight gets put on it here; it is not what I thought was most important to criticize in Jacobs's argument.)


Having read back over this post, I want to reiterate an essential point noted in my prior post: Jacobs's original argument was against Lewis's storytelling. But Menippean satires are a form of storytelling. Indeed, even if we were to look only at what Jacobs himself has explicitly committed to as menippea, we see this as a blindingly obvious truth. So if Lewis were writing Menippean satire, the standard for his storytelling would be the kind of storytelling relevant to Menippean satires. If Lewis were a good writer of Menippean satire, his work would be good storytelling in the Menippean satire form; if Lewis were a weak storyteller and a Menippean satirist, he would be a weak writer of Menippean satire. Menippean satire is not merely story, and it would suffer less from bad or weak storytelling than the novel. It also has its own storytelling standards. But storytelling is an essential part of it. This whole part of Jacobs's argument, besides being poorly built, is poorly suited for supporting his original claims.


  1. Ethan_C10:56 AM

    It seems to me that you have quite clear ideas of what the boundaries of Menippean satire are, and that those boundaries are importantly different from Bakhtin's and Frye's (and therefore from Jacobs's). Perhaps you could clear things up a bit by articulating exactly what these boundaries are. Jacobs asserts that his examples are "versions of the menippea" and you assert that they are not; what precisely are your grounds for that assertion?

  2. branemrys11:54 AM

    Actually, Jacobs asserts that his exampels are 'versions of the menippea', and I deny that they are Menippean satires, which was the point Jacobs was supposed to be addressing. As I explicitly note, if you want to use 'menippea' as a figure of speech or in an extended sense, that's perfectly fine; just don't pretend that it's a serious genre classification. You could call the Bayard tapestry a novel, and make perfect sense; trying to classify the Bayard tapestry as falling in the genre of the novel is quite obviously nonsense. Likewise, you can make perfect sense of calling Baum's Oz works 'menippea'; trying to pretend that this figurative use means that they should be considered as genuinely falling within the genre of Menippean satires, which is the sort of thing Jacobs's argument requires, is quite as absurd as saying that the Bayard tapestry is an example of a work in the genre of a novel.

    In addition, it's a serious mistake to talk about 'bounds' of a genre; genre classification is typological, not essentialist, and thus it works not by bounds but by typical commonalities. It thus requires clear points of reference to serve as evidential anchors. I was quite clear about the points of reference and grounds of assertion in the post: there are works that are unquestionably Menippean satires. There is no controversy whatsoever about this. There are works, written with the intent to be Menippean satires, by people who were intimately familiar with the genre, and I noted several explicitly: Apocolocyntosis attributed to Seneca, the works of Lucian of Samosata, and Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. Other authors, like Martianus Capella, are also well-known. Anyone who is using the term 'Menippean satire' without regard for the features of these works are equivocating on the term. Nothing counts as a Menippean satire except insofar as it has a high degree of similarity to works that are uncontroversially, intentionally, and historically recognizable as Menippean satires. This was all explicitly noted in the post. If, however, one wants some broad guidelines, they are found in one of the great Menippean satires, Lucian's Fugitivi, in which he defends his use of the form against his critics; while not a rigorous analysis of the genre, it makes clear what a writer of a typical Menippean satire is trying to do.

  3. Ethan_C12:48 PM

    Fair enough on the typological definition of genre; though I still find it difficult to find in your post exactly where you articulate those typical elements. But as I said, apparently your definition is significantly different from Frye and Bakhtin's, but it's hard for me to understand exactly in what manner. To be clear, I'd never heard the term "Menippean satire" before reading your exchange with Jacobs, so I'm quite honestly looking for some illumination.

    Or is it more a case that Frye, Bakhtin, and Jacobs are using the term "Menippean" to refer to something besides the genre that you're defining? As you say, they seem to be using the term in a rather loose, figurative sense. If so, then aren't you and Jacobs really talking about two completely different things?

    After all, Jacobs only employs the term to contrast "Menippean satire" with "novelistic storytelling." You reject his definition of "storytelling" as too narrow, asserting that basically all types of narrative discourse are "storytelling," including Menippean satire; and then you reject his definition of "Menippean satire" as too broad, expecting him to only use the term to refer to works in the specific genre.

    Is Jacobs's problem primarily one of terminology? If he had devised some different terms to contrast, for example, Lewis's tendency to stop his plot to talk to the reader in Perelandra against his more consistently-paced action in The Horse and His Boy, would that have solved the problem?

    If not, then what of Jacobs's essential conclusion: that Lewis is certainly doing something differently from Hemingway or Dickens in his style, and that this seems like a "fault" to people expecting a straightforward narrative novel, but not like a fault at all to those who appreciate Lewis's mode of commentary? Is Jacobs wrong about that?

  4. branemrys1:35 PM

    Your mention of 'typical elements' strongly suggests that you are still conflating typological classification with essentialist classification; there is no exhaustive list of typical elements in a typological classification, because the classification occurs by distance from definite cases. Any list of typical elements is merely rule of thumb and can only be understood in light of the points of reference.

    I think it is a mistake, incidentally, to conflate Jacobs and Bakhtin and Frye; while Jacobs is clearly drawing on the latter two, all three are doing rather different things. Bakhtin isn't 'defining' Menippean satire at all; he's taking real Menippean satires as a starting point and extending the idea for the purpose of making more general philosophical claims that pertain to his general philosophical accounts of dialogue, carnival, and the novel. Frye I haven't read in years and years, but if I'm not misremembering, Frye explicitly says that there aren't any clear criteria for Menippean satire; and in his classification, the label seems to me to be functioning as a synecdoche -- he needs a name for a contrast case for other categories in his classification, and he's using the name previously given to the most notable example of works falling within that category to label the category. This isn't giving a different definition to the genre; it also depends on knowing the original reference class. Jacobs is using their work, but his use fails to give any place at all for the reference class. Jacobs quite clearly doesn't claim to be talking about something completely different; he can't be talking about an entirely different things if he's really influenced by Bakhtin, who, despite extending the terms, actually knows what Menippean satires are. And even if he were, he's using the term incorrectly. It's not an accident that he's using the term 'Menippean satire', as if he arbitrarily came up with the name and it accidentally happened to be the name of a genre; he's using the name of the genre and applying it without any regard for what actually and indisputably falls within that genre.

    If you want illumination on Menippean satires, again, I recommend you read Menippean satires, and in particular, for the particular question you are asking, Lucian's Double Indictment is especially relevant.

  5. Ethan_C2:06 PM

    I feel like I'm understanding your explanation a bit better, I'm afraid I still don't quite feel as though I'm getting it; if I pick up a book off the Medieval literature shelf and commence reading, how am I to tell if I'm reading a Menippean satire? Or more directly to your argument, how am I to tell that it's _not_ a Menippean satire? Or would that judgment be impossible unless I had already read some Menippean satires?

  6. branemrys2:12 PM

    You'd need to be doing direct comparison to actual Menippean satires. But that's not surprising. Suppose you had never read any romances or novels. How would you pick up a work of fiction at random and determine whether it is a novel? You'd just be guessing; perhaps it would be an educated guess if you'd read lots of descriptions of particular novels, but it would just be a guess.

  7. As I said, when you've got something more than the merest assertions of your own knowledge, I'd be happy to talk. You haven't quoted or cited anything specific from one text, whether literary, philosophical, or scholarly. Listing titles of works doesn't quite cut it, you know? Actually, you don't know — which is not a problem on a blog, fortunately for you.

  8. branemrys10:47 PM

    Again, the passage in the book that you note does not say what you claim it says; Bakhtin is explicit that he is abstracting a concept that is distinct from the genre proper -- what in the world do you think his talk about essence and its distinction from genre canons is? It is, in addition, required by the structure of his argument. You are twisting the chapter into something that it does not say -- indeed, something massively more simplistic than what he actually says.

    Suppose you don't think I know anything about Menippean satires, despite having said a great deal more about actual Menippean satires like the Double Indictment and the Consolation than you have. What does it matter? Does it change the fact that you have repeatedly failed to show any understanding of the particular Menippean satires Bakhtin himself starts with? No. Does it change the fact that you have failed to argue for your genre claims on the basis of actual Menippean satires, which, if you really were following Bakhtin (who explicitly does this with Dostoevsky), you would do? No. It is you who dimwittedly keep trying to make it about me; all I've done is point out your scurrility in doing so and denied your insinuations. You've gone on and on and on about the subject, and how far has argument progressed to show that your claims about Menippean satires are true? Since you haven't actually addressed how your claims related to Menippean satires in terms of actual Menippean satires, it hasn't progressed at all. It was you who started it off with your claims about Menippean satire, and almost all we've got is some secondhand appeals to Bakhtin, accepted uncritically as if there weren't critics like Rene Wellek who have pointed out that Bakhtin's claims risk being misinterpreted in exactly the way you're interpreting them, and no actual examination, as we would get were you actually taking Bakhtin as a model, of real Menippean satires, despite my pointing out to you many of them. Indeed, you tried to dismiss my appeal to these, despite the fact that Bakhtin's own argument depends precisely on such an appeal, so that he appeals to them over and over and over again.

    Indeed, the fact that you dimwittedly seem to think of this as a pissing contest rather than as what it really is, my repeated insistence, based on having read Menippean satires, that your claims are not consistent with actual Menippean satires, and your failure ever actually to show otherwise, is a sign of just how broken your argument is. Because it is about the argument, which I claim was thoroughly broken from the beginning and which you still haven't shown to be otherwise, preferring instead to attack my character and then whine when I defend myself.


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