The problem with parody

28 April, 2009

donkeyIt has often been noted that in some cases parody becomes almost impossible. The idea of parody is to take ideas to their extremes, but what if your subject is more extreme than can be believed? This is most apparent in trying to distinguish parody like the Landover Baptist church from the real (if equally insane) Westboro Baptist church. At what stage of ridiculous can you tell that something is parody? Fox News has in the past, on occasion, trumped the Onion for laughs – until you realise they are being serious.

With ancient writings distinguishing between serious statements and humour can also be difficult. The Golden Ass, an ancient Latin novel written by Lucius Apuleius, is at first glance a ribald vaudeville. The main plot of the book is broken up with many sub stories (ala The Arabian Nights), most of which are bizarre and amusing. Indeed the overall story, wherein the narrator is turned into an ass and searches for a rose to eat in order to transform back into a human, is hardly the stuff of serious literature. And yet in the end it is not a flower that enables the hero (perhaps protagonist is a better description) to regain his humanity, but a revelation from the Goddess Isis. The final chapter of the book stands in contrast to the others showing the redemption of the ass-like narrator and his new life as an initiate of the cult of Osiris.

The writing and description of his revelation has been compared to others who have written conversion stories, notably St. Augustine. Many are convinced that by the change in style of this final chapter that it is an authentic description of the real life conversion of the author. And yet it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this chapter too is a caricature, a continuation of the life lead as an ass. He finally wanders around Rome with his head shaved – a buffoonish character as seen by contemporaries. It is still a matter of debate amongst scholars over whether this final chapter is a revelation, or yet another caricature of the credulous.

At the very start of the novel, the narrator encounters a traveler who sneers at the notions of magic. This skeptic proclaims: “These lies are just as true as it would be to say that because of magic rivers can suddenly reverse their flow, the sea be becalmed, the winds cease to blow, the sun stand still, the moon be milked of her dew, the stars uprooted, the daylight banished, the night prolonged.” In response to this disbelieving of the power of magic Lucius has to respond. He relates of the fact that he had recently eaten a cheesecake and it had become trapped in his throat. He was very nearly a goner. And yet in contrast to this he had seen a sword swallower take a lance and push the blade into his throat and down further, and then on the shaft of the lance a boy had appeared and danced around the wooden pole. Surely, the reasoning goes, if such a miraculous thing is possible, then anything is possible.

Such shoddy logic is still used today by many people who see something a little unusual and so assume something else implausible sounding must be true. Was Lucius agreeing with this notion? Or was he pillorying it? I like to assume that Lucius was a satirist, it certainly makes the novel funnier and more enjoyable for it. And who knows, perhaps in several thousands years scholars will wonder if Westboro was satire, and if the Landover Baptists were real.

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2 Responses to “The problem with parody”

  1. David Says:

    I’d never heard of Westboro before. Wow. A lot of someones need counseling.

    I have The Golden Ass sitting on my shelf but haven’t gotten to it yet. This has inspired me to move it up the reading list.

    Many a time as I was sitting in a college class hearing a lecture about an ancient text, I wondered: “Are you sure that’s what the text means? Because you could read that another way, you know?” It’s hard enough to pick up on irony and satire between modern languages/cultures.

  2. magisteria Says:

    I’d recommend the Golden Ass if you are into classics 🙂 It’s very accessible and moves at a good pace. The robbers stories are fun, the large middle story of Psyche and Cupid is a cross between Ovid and a Fairy Tale, and if the misogyny of the end stories, along with incessant pain visited upon the poor ass, get too much it all changes in the rather fanciful final chapter.

    As for Westboro, yeah, there’s a bunch of people with serious issues…


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