English 184rf. Rogue Fictions: Satire, Fantasy and the Literature of Lost Illusions

Instructor: Matthew Ocheltree
Tuesday & Thursday, 1:30-2:45pm | Location: TBA

“The age of levity is over,” a columnist for The Guardian declared a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, arguing that moments of crisis are no time for foolish jesting. But are levity and gravity, exuberance and sobriety, really so opposed? This course will challenge such assumptions and explore the idea that laughter can be a profound and, indeed, deadly serious means of engaging with both the harshness of reality and the folly of idealism. We will do so by reading within the seriocomic tradition of satire, which addresses and operates in the gap between desire and reality that has become an increasingly inescapable structural feature of contemporary life. Satire offers a clear-eyed, critical vision of the present; at the same time, it recognizes that we need fantasies in order to live and provides strategies for reorganizing our fantasy lives when our hopes, aspirations, and ideas about the way the world works are dashed—or when the struggle to make those dreams a reality proves hollow and even harmful to our happiness and well-being, a trap that literary theorist Lauren Berlant has called ‘cruel optimism’.

We will focus on two lesser known but vitally important genres that combine satire and fantasy in the service of a deeper realism: Menippean satire and the picaresque. Although they approach the task from the opposing perspectives of learned privilege and precarious marginality, they each take aim at orthodoxies and hypocrisies of all stripes, undermining anyone who claims a monopoly on truth and power to restrict access to ‘the good life’. Both genres draw on the roots of satire (Greek satyr, Roman satura), but what makes them distinctly modern, perhaps even postmodern, is their common embrace of the baroque idea of desengaño (‘disillusionment,’ ‘disappointment’): if everything is illusion, then one must traffic in illusion and deception in order to catch an indirect glimpse of the real. We will trace the effects of this game in the internal divisions felt by characters (and texts) that are forced to endure a painful ambivalence or double consciousness in relation to society. We will examine the relationship between affective moods and aesthetic modes in analyzing the workings of cynicism and optimism, humor and melancholy, the carnivalesque and grotesque, allegory and irony. And we will consider the ways in which satirists use fantasy and humor to provide us with imaginative resources for navigating the ongoing, overlapping economic, environmental, epistemological and ethical crises in which we often find ourselves uncomfortably implicated.

Menippean satire and the picaresque have often been regarded as counter-genres or anti-genres, parasites that infiltrate and mutate other literary forms from the inside. Their emergence precedes and make possible the novel’s rise, even as their persistence constantly disrupts the formal and ideological consolidation of the novel’s major bourgeois genres (comedy and romance, the sentimental novel and the Bildungsroman). We will track this generic interplay starting with the Baroque period in England, Spain and Germany, before concentrating our attention on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writing in Britain, France and America. After a turn into the existentialist terrain of Victorian nonsense and modernist absurdism, we will conclude by surveying the flourishing legacy of these genres in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (memoir and ecological writing, race studies and queer theory, film and prestige television). Likely readings include: Rabelais, the author of Lazarillo de Tormes; Jonson, Burton, Grimmelshausen; Defoe, Swift, Pope, Hogarth; Voltaire, Diderot, Sterne; Byron, Thackeray, Melville, Carroll; Kafka, Schuyler, McKay; Chandler, Barthes, Carson; Mad Men.


This course satisfies the “1700-1900 Guided Elective" requirement for English concentrators and Secondary Field students.