Literary parody can take two forms, mocking either form or content, style or idea, and sometimes they blend so completely we find difficult to unravel them. For example, one cannot easily distinguish between these two kinds of satire in Max Beerbohm’s “Diminuendo.” Beerbohm’s preacherly first-person speaker, who is abstinent to a Puritanical extreme, harangues the many moral laxities of “modern” British society — laxities that have led the protagonist to ultimately dissociate himself from the outside world. The showy learnedness with which he supports his convictions about the hedonism of society and the superiority of classic literature reads on one hand as a satire of content, but it is also somewhat reinforced by the pretentiousness of Beerbohm’s satirical language, which borrows from one of the most histrionic of styles, the Greek tragedy: “[t]hanks be to Athene, who threw her shadow over me in those moments of weak folly!” Thus in Beerbohm’s text both forms of satire work together to form a biting portrayal of a pretentiously “disillusioned” character:
I shall look forth from my window, the laburnum and the mountain-ash becoming mere silhouettes in the foreground of my vision. I shall look forth and, in my remoteness, appreciate the distant pageant of the world. Humanity will range itself in the column of my morning paper. No pulse of life will escape me. The strife of politics, the intriguing of courts, the wreck of great vessels, wars, dramas, earthquakes, national griefs or joys; the strange sequels to divorces, even, and the mysterious suicides of land-agents at Ipswich-in all such phenomena I shall steep my exhaurient mind. Delicias quoque bibliothecae experiar [I'll also experience the pleasures of books]. Tragedy, comedy, chivalry, philosophy will be mine. I shall listen to their music perpetually and their colours will dance before my eyes. I shall soar from terraces of stone upon dragons with shining wings and make war upon Olympus. From the peaks of hills I shall swoop into recondite valleys and drive the pigmies, shrieking little curses, to their caverns. It may be my whim to wander through infinite parks where the deer lie under the clustering shadow of their antlers and flee lightly over the grass; to whisper with white prophets under the elms or bind a child with a daisychain or, with a lady, tread my way through the acacias. I shall swim down rivers into the sea and outstrip all ships. Unhindered I shall penetrate all sanctuaries and snatch the secrets of every dim confessional.
Here Beerbohm’s reclusive narrator shows no hesitation for any great and adventurous experience — just as long as such experiences are safely and vicariously absorbed through literature alone. The sheer arrogance of his certainty, his idea that through his many books he will “snatch the secrets out of every dim confessional,” sidesteps the notion that, as a hermit, he will be unable to relay or relate any great confession that he might uncover, thus keeping it secret. Beerbohm’s essay derives much of its humor from these paradoxes of grandeur and isolation: how the protagonist must separate himself from mankind in his effort to reclaim some universal, all-encompassing sense of learnedness and “shall write no more” as a consequence. But since “writ[ing] no more” in an attempt to acquire knowledge for oneself is the exact opposite of the duty that the sage takes upon himself, Beerbohm’s satiric sage subject is of course not a “real” or dutiful sage, but a self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing one.
1. Of the two most obvious forms of satire in this essay — of style and of content, which I concede are somewhat blurred and not totally separable — which is the most noticeable in terms Beerbohm’s cueing in the reader to his satire? Does this protagonist’s particular use of language best notify the reader of his unreliability or do his convictions? If ridded of this kind of overly erudite style, could his observations about society be seen as somewhat valid, i.e. something that Beerbohm himself might actually buy into?
2. We talked in class about how Beerbohm’s sense of satire is especially difficult to decipher, since one cannot always tell when he’s being serious and when he’s obviously being ironic. What is an example of this truth-or-satire confusion that manifests in this passage? How might one draw out a sense of truth from Beerbohm’s irony?
3. In this essay, how exactly is Beerbohm approaching the job to which the wizened sage appoints himself? Should a “good” sage try to educate himself as much as Beerbohm’s narrator contends? If so, does this narrator’s only disservice to his profession rest with the fact that he will keep his discoveries only to himself — or is there something else that’s wrong with the way this protagonist approaches his profession?
4. What effect do the literary allusions, which compose a substantial part of this passage, have on the reader? How might one read these if they weren’t yet certain that Beerbohm was in fact being ironic?
Last modified 7 March 2011