Tuesday, April 22, 2014



Satire done well, is probably one of my very favorite forms of humor. The very best satirists will showcase a weakness, or something that is utterly foolish within a society or government, to an extreme. It is an extremely sophisticated form of humor and one that is hard to pull off, whether it be in a movie or in books.

sat· ire noun \'sa-,tī(-ǝ)r\

: a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc. : humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a peson, government, society, etc.

: a book, movie, etc., that uses satire

Two of the finest examples of this interestingly enough, lampoon both Russian government and Russians themselves. The first is the awesome Love and Death, a 1975 movie by Woody Allen. 


Love and Death, theatrical trailer. The musical score is by Sergei Prokofiev and is the Lt. Kije Suite, in itself a satirical piece about a Lieutenant who never existed in the Russian Army.

Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls is one of the most interesting reads in Russian Literature. First published in 1842, Gogol died before finishing it, and parts of it were destroyed, but from his notes, it's an amalgam of The Iliad and The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and the third part was to have been a poem. Gogol destroyed part of it, before his death. Gogol himself saw it as an epic poem in prose. I rather thought it like a sort of anti-Candide, but then Gogol's main purpose was to expose the moral rot of the Russian landowner and the exploitation of the serfs, despite what modernist critics like Vladimir Nabakov had to say. They felt that the book was not satirical in tone or content, regarded the work as unimportant and Gogol as a great writer.

Nevertheless, the plot belies such statements. Chichikov is the modern equivalent of a middle-class gentleman. he arrives in an unnamed village and turns on the charm, to quickly make friends with the local officials and important townspeople, but without letting on what he's about. 

Chichikov in the house of M. Korobochka, dickering for her Dead Souls.

The government would tax landowners on the number of serfs (or 'souls') the landowner possessed, determined by the census. Censuses in these periods were infrequent, so landowners were paying for souls that no longer existed. Chichikov was seeking to buy these dead souls, existing on paper only, telling the current owners that he merely has a use for them, and that the landowners will be spared the burden of paying for souls that they no longer own. 

He travels to surrounding estates and manages to purchase 400 such dead souls. Upon his return to the village and turns on the smarm. Thinking that the locals are really buying into this, when they agree to throw a celebration for his purchase of 400 dead souls, he begins to spin more and more elaborate yarns, which then become misinterpreted for everything from "He's Napolean!" to "he's going to marry so-and-so's daughter!" Chichikov is summarily run out of town on a rail, until he pops up somewhere else with another get-rich-quick scheme. In reality, Chichikov is a disgraced mid-level government worker, always trying to make a quick buck.

The locals are no dumber or smarter than any found in any other country. Gogol's satire is pointed squarely at the government, and he, no less than Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky and Alexander Pushkin would lampoon and satirize the government, until it became lethal to do so. 

                                                                                                                                                                     courtesy: The Nation

I don't know if satire has ever changed a government, or society, but as one who lived through eight years of George W. Bush, I can honestly say, as much as it was a disaster, it was a field day for the comedians and satirists in this country. About as much fun as the Brits had with Edward Heath, I understand.

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