(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)
“Satire has to be done en clair. You can’t blunt the edge of wit or the point of satire with obscurity. Try to imagine a famous witty saying that is not immediately clear.” James Thurber
Reading about the murder of twelve people and the wounding of eight others at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the continuing violence as the murderers have taken hostages in two locations in Paris, I recall Satan in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger saying, “No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is.”
“Satire works best when it hews close to the line between the outlandish and the possible—and as that line continues to grow thinner, the satirist’s task becomes even more difficult.” Graydon Carter
When I was in the Eighth Grade, I was momentarily seized with the satirical urge to claim I was God. You may remember how it was before the onset of high school. Having finally gotten the hang of childhood, and for a few glorious months before being knocked senseless by puberty and being placed at the bottom of the teenage heap, we experienced a brief epoch of self-confidence, which for me took the form of satirizing everything and everyone.
“Yes,” I proclaimed to one of my fellow junior high satirists, “I’ve used the name Todd up to now, rather than God, so the world wouldn’t know who I really was until the time was right to reveal the truth. Now that time has come. Let us sally forth and spread the good news. Want to be my first disciple?”
Yes, I was conflating God and Jesus, but so have lots of people.
In any case, after making a silly show of publicly blessing a dozen or so giddy disciples, I tired of claiming to be God and resumed my obsessions with baseball and girls. But satire once loosed upon the world is not so easily withdrawn. One day after school, I was cornered by three large boys intent on punishing me for daring to claim I was God and/or Jesus.
“Think you’re God, huh?” said the largest of the three, punching my shoulder. “Hurt, didn’t it? If you were God, wouldn’t hurt, would it?”
“I’m not God,” I said, gladdened to see a posse of disciples coming to my rescue. “I was joking.”
“Not funny,” said another of the boys, taking a swing at me.
I ducked, his fist hit the cinder block wall, and off I ran.
For the first two years of high school, several of my chums persisted in calling me God. Among these chums was a delicious young woman who greeted me every day with, “Hey, God. What’s going on?” in a sleepy sexy voice that always made me glad I’d been a satirist in junior high. On the other hand, I continued to be confronted by outraged Christians who felt I should be punished for mocking their beliefs. To defuse their righteous indignation, I would sincerely apologize for having been an idiot in my long ago youth, beg their forgiveness, and exit before I started to giggle.
“Satire is focused bitterness.” Leo Rosten
Speaking of bitterness, I recently read most of the stories in The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh, a thick collection of bitingly satirical short stories, and found I most appreciated his few stories in which satire played a part but was not the point. No matter how brilliant the writing, and Waugh was a brilliant writer, when every person in a story is a caricature and every plot twist the result of cruelty or stupidity, I could care less.
“Music is my religion.” Jimi Hendrix
When I got to college in 1967—UC Santa Cruz in its infancy—I made the erroneous assumption that my college comrades and I would be free to say whatever we thought and felt without fear of reprisal. We would, I imagined, delve deep into myriad questions and mysteries arising from our studies and shared experiences, and as the result of such delving our wisdom would grow by leaps and bounds.
A few weeks into my college life, I attended a dance in the Stevenson College dining hall and found myself boogying with a gang of exuberant gals and guys from Los Angeles. We had a wonderful hilarious time, and after the dance retired to the groovacious dorm room of one of the gals, the décor a triumph of paisley, a grandiloquent lava lamp center stage, and heaps of glistening bud to be smoked.
Someone took the Beatles (Rubber Soul) off the turntable just as the boys were getting warmed up, and put on a record by a discordant Los Angeles band I’d never heard of, the drummer rhythm deaf, the guitarists out of synch, the bass player hopeless, the singing god awful. After the first cut, I commented that they sounded like The Grateful Dead meets Sonny & Cher in a dark alley on a bad night. I might as well have declared to a sect of violent Christian fundamentalists that Jesus was a homosexual snake oil salesman.
The knowledge I gained from the anguish and vitriol my insensitive remark aroused has served me well, for I never again made the mistake of saying anything critical of the music beloved by those playing or listening to that music. I learned then, and have confirmed a thousand times since, that a person’s favorite music is sacred to them. To defame the sacred is dangerous, especially nowadays when so many people are willing to use violence in the service of whatever they deem sacred and therefore inviolable.