Satire for the Ages: Bon Jovi, Aristophanes and Boccaccio’s “Famous Women”
Bon Jovi keeps showing up like a bad penny. This is a phase my mother used to describe a nosey neighbor who would become enshrined as Nosey Parker. I did a double take when my sinus doctor in New York City used the same bad penny phrase, suggesting that he was tired of looking deep into my sinus cavities and seeing the end of his days. To be honest, I expected more from a doctor named Jacob, who might very well have a dark angel waiting for him somewhere in his future. If the bible is accurate, the creature will be behind his left shoulder.
Bon Jovi is still practicing his multi-million dollar scream, doing his best to bring back time. In the compact and time-sensitive television setting, it will mean bringing back a woman’s first love and plopping him down magically between her and the husband who might look on the bright side when he realizes he is no longer bald. There are theatrical versions of the documentary, including the Grumpy Grandfather who becomes the muscular gym rat who remains, throughout time, abidingly short.
I like to watch European soccer and Bon Jovi’s commercials for Verizon Fios are the price I pay for this pleasure. I do want to bring back time, but the singer’s 30-second spot does not take me far or deep enough. I need a stronger medicine. During times like these, I can argue that all that money I spent on a PhD in Philosophy was really worth it.
When the world is too much with me or, rather, when the political cant becomes simply unbearable, I go back to the Greeks, to the early Italian Renaissance or to Jonathan Swift in 17th century England, who wasn’t too happy with the Enlightenment.
My time travel has a purpose, more or less. I am on the lookout for satirists of some note to balance the avalanche of social media trolling that is largely without wit, hope or perspective. I simply wanted to be reminded of how the classical writers went about their task without burning down the country or starting another war. I have been prodded by the moans among the media class that they (or we) haven’t found the right language to deal with the current political circus and the emerging role of women.
Every time I find my way, another grumpy old man named Clint Eastwood shows up, talking to an empty chair on an empty stage or telling men not to be such pussies. Clint, you wrote the perfect ending to “Gran Torino.” Why did you have to ruin that dying work of art?
War is always a good place to start. Since college I’ve been a fan of “Lysistrata,” written in 411 BC by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, about a campaign for women to withhold sexual favors from their husbands until stupid wars are ended. Choruses of Old Men and Old Women provide the perspective and ongoing commentary. Women seize the treasury at the Acropolis, thus halting the money flow. There are side shows and comic relief such as when a Spartan, representing the enemy, shows up sporting a massive erection under his tunic. Husbands are teased and tortured mercilessly until a peace agreement is reached. Bacchus enters the scene and all parties dance the night away.
Beneath the comic relief, there is sharp criticism. Greece was a mess with the thirty-year Peloponnesian War draining the bank. During that period the country had lost two-thirds of its population due to the plague which probably originated in Ethiopia. Athenians thought that the gods had abandoned Greece, with Apollo, the god of Medicine and Disease, shifting sides to Sparta, the place of ferocious warriors and muscular erections. Fans of Hippocrates argued that birds that had consumed flesh of cadavers also died, thus proving that the gods didn’t have their fingers on the scale. Nonetheless, the peasants kept piling the dead in front of Athena’s temple, thus giving the good doctor the middle finger. This effectively meant the end of the Golden Age of Greece.
It’s interesting how 2,500 years ago in a democratic Athens strong women featured in “Lysistrata” brought down a government and compelled it to enter peace talks with Sparta. This kind of broad satire would become quite common but rarely with women in leading positions. There is a long history of writers exposing what Samuel Johnson called “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Juvenal in early Rome was caustic with his satire, taking on known and unknown enemies. His view of the common man who had little interest beyond “bread and circuses” might find a place in contemporary American political life.
The satirist, of course, reflects the age. Chaucer was less sharp than Juvenal, pointing out with much less rancor the foibles of that human procession in “The Canterbury Tales.” I enjoy Chaucer and have participated in the ceremonial Canterbury walk. But, like the modern James Thurber, I don’t find Chaucer dark enough for the modern age. Chaucer and to a certain extent Shakespeare benefitted from the Greeks bearing gifts, in this instance the concept of the Elizabethan Great Chain of Being. In short, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. There’s plenty of room in this dramatic architecture for the bad guys such as Iago in “Othello” to mess with the moral order, but balance is usually restored. And as noted earlier, Jonathan Swift didn’t see such tidiness in the Enlightenment. “Gulliver Travels” can be considered a political and social satire, but the tales also reveal Swift’s concerns about ability of the new man to embrace the realities of an emerging modern world. There is a real darkness here.
One of the most interesting books I have read in the last year was Boccaccio’s “Famous Women. The post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman calls it one of the first feminist books in his “Re-visioning Psychology.” I came across Boccaccio’s work when I was researching and writing the novel, “Chanting the Feminine Down,” about a young woman’s descent into a psychological and theological hell (more details at www.chantingthefemininedown.com).
Giovanni Boccaccio published “Famous Women” in 1374 when his native Florence was on the cusp between medieval sensibilities and what would become the Italian Renaissance. Hillman suggests what was in the Florentine air was a new psychology that focused attention on the inner person. But the Catholic Church still ran the show and Boccaccio had to use screes, personas, and a little wit to write and publish the first exclusive biographies of one hundred famous women. Because it would have been impossible and dangerous to feature Christian women, Boccaccio went back to mythology and featured goddesses and other figures who displayed remarkably human characteristics and psychologies. Boccaccio’s famous women, including those who had lifted fornication to the level of art, appear loving, charitable, kind, forgiving and generous, even when they are scathing in their criticism of men for their pettiness, enslavement of women, war-making and theft from the public treasury. This muscular satire is softened somewhat by Boccaccio’s version of the Greek chorus who question the women’s intentions, but these voices cannot lessen the criticism that seems to come from women who consider themselves the equals of men and hold the inferior sex to their high standards. Boccaccio feints a little here and there, suggesting that the reader rewrite the stories if he or she doesn’t like the ending, but his satire is clear, biting and lasting. In my novel, I introduced “Famous Women” to the Council of Trent attendees in the mid-16th century, informing the all-male clerics what they were missing. Four hundred and fifty three years later Pope Francis is talking about women deacons.
The scholar Virginia Brown writes that “Famous Women” is “a fascination glimpse of medieval attitudes to women at a moment in history when such attitudes were beginning to give way to more modern views of the female sex and its potentialities.”
Ms. Brown is referring to a period more than six hundred years ago.
Boccaccio is not pleased.