Brutality in Satire: The Similarities of A Modest Proposal and American Psycho
One of the biggest risks a satirist can face is his or her readers entirely missing the point of the work. Two clear instances of this have taken place decades apart from one another, and on different continents. Both Jonathan Swift’s absurdly famous A Modest Proposal (1729) and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991) were met with extreme critical backlash at the times of their releases. The cause of such outrage was noble but misguided; both works are depraved and appalling to any reader who failed to see them through a satirical lens.
As we discuss the true intentions of both works, I think it’s important to elaborate the aspects within that make both pieces so disgusting when taken out of context. Swift was enraged over the hardscrabble lives he saw his fellow Irish living in. The common citizens were often starving and destitute – to the point that mothers would die and leave very young orphans behind. A essay from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia explains that:
“Relations between England and Ireland were far from good, with a long and complicated history of religious differences and war. As a result of all the raiding and unrest, Ireland was a very poor country and was terribly disadvantaged by direct rule from London. The politicians in England did not really care what happened to the Irish, who suffered because of cruel, exploitative landlords and because they did not have fair trading terms.” (Satire in “A Modest Proposal”).
In response to this, Swift crafted what may be considered his magnum opus – a proposal to buy and cannibalize the babies of the poor in order to alleviate overpopulation and poverty. He recommends consuming children of approximately one year old, lest their meat grow too tough from physical activity. What’s morbidly funny is how in-depth he goes into the process, saying that fricassee and ragout are the best dishes to make with the infants. Mothers would benefit monetarily from selling their children, the rich would enjoy a rare delicacy for a meal, and the population would slowly ebb, meaning more food for all.
Fast-forward to America in 1991, and we have a visceral and truly perturbing novel about a twenty-six year old man named Patrick Bateman. Much like Swift, author Bret Easton Ellis felt much disdain over the society he lived in and felt compelled to attack it through literature. However instead of poverty and starvation, Ellis took offense to the exuberant consumerism of the “yuppie” culture of the ’80s. He saw the vanity of the Wall Street types and how socially careless they were. These were the kinds of people that held high-paying corporate jobs, but would host cocaine addled parties and hire prostitutes on a biweekly basis. Capitalism’s flaws were really highlighted by this type of superficiality. The resulting damage from this irreverent lifestyle was best shown by its extreme – the character Patrick Bateman in the novel American Psycho.
Bateman is horribly vain, self-obsessed, and flippant to the existence of others. (There’s a hilarious scene in the movie adaptation where he all but suffers an anxiety attack because his colleague presents a “better” business card than his.) Bateman is a perfect caricature of a Wall Street yuppie, except that he’s one of the most brutal serial killers created in recent decades. It’s hard to say which author achieved a higher shock value with his work – Swift or Ellis. While Swift talked about consuming babies, Ellis depicts frighteningly graphic scenes of murder, torture, rape, cannibalism, disembowelment (most of these aimed at women,) and drug use.
Controversy erupted immediately after the release of American Psycho. Many critics derided the book for its over-the-top depiction of violence and its terrible treatment of women. In Australia, the book was rated unsuitable for minors, and was only sold in shrink-wrapped copies. An amusing article from The Guardian describes a police raid that occurred simply because a bookseller received copies of the book that weren’t shrink-wrapped! While objection to the book is expected and commonplace, I find this happening quite funny and nothing more than a byproduct of our hypersensitive society. As if a police raid wasn’t enough, an actual serial killer/rapist named Paul Bernando was known to have read American Psycho “as his bible,” as explained here in a 1995 article from the feminist site The Free Radical.
While perhaps not evoking police attention, Swift’s Proposal appalled those who didn’t get the point. His tone is so serious and his logic so solid that anyone not keen to his intent might be offended. Though not much information is available, apparently Swift’s patronage suffered as a result of his work’s publication. This is why it is critically important to ensure satirical works can always be identified as such. This can absolutely be achieved without sacrificing wit and effectiveness, as we see with A Modest Proposal. While there was certainly a reactionary backlash to it, it doesn’t appear to be received as poorly as American Psycho. Ellis allegedly received death threats because of his book.
Why does this happen? Why is it sometimes so difficult and costly to create meaningful satirical works? A lot of the problem lies simply with the audience and their failure to interpret literature correctly. Nobody in the English upper class of 1729 expected such a graphic critique of society and responded in a knee-jerk manner, rather than granting the piece enough respect to find its meaning. This same notion of public disdain is what happened to Ellis and his novel, although apparently amplified significantly. His novel is more repulsive than Swift’s, but public reception today is still plagued by easy offense and hypersensitive notions of immorality.
Clearly these types of works are effective – extremely so! Both authors have ultimately succeeded in their goal of illuminating the social ills of their times. It just so happens that they did this by creating nationwide infamy and basking in the surrounding controversy of their works. As long as the public continues to overreact (in often comical fashions), brutal satires will never lose their potency, and may indeed be used in the future to revolt and ultimately educate readers.
Cover picture taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AmericanPsychoBook.jpg
“Satire –As in ‘a Modest Proposal’ by Jonathan Swift.” The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide. Abington: Helicon, 2015. Credo Reference. Web. 28 Sep 2015.
Flood, Allison. “American Psycho Pulled from Shelves by Police in Australia.” The Guardian. N.p., 20 July 2015. Web. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/20/american-psycho-pulled-police-australia>.
Cairns, Alan, and Scott Burnside. “Life Imitates ‘art’ in Bernardo ‘bible'”Life Imitates Art in Bernardo “bible” (American Psycho). N.p., 1 Sept. 1995. Web. 28 Sept. 2015. <http://www.thefreeradical.ca/copycatCrimes/lifeImitatesArtInBernardoBible.html>.
Watley, E. F. “Perspectives: Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal.”Checkplease.humorfeed.com. Check Please!, 24 Oct. 2005. Web. <http://checkplease.humorfeed.com/issues/0201/20051024swift.php>.