Friday, August 19, 2016

Leacock, humourist and satirist

     Stephen Leacock. Literary Lapses and Winnowed Wisdom (1910 & 1926) Leacock suffers from his reputation as Our Great Canadian Humourist. He does write humorous pieces and some wonderfully bizarre fantasies, his sense of the absurd is exquisite, but his real strength I think is satire. His taught economics, the dismal science, which isn’t a science but is dismal, especially when its practitioners have a political or philosophical axe to grind. There’s only one law of economics: trading is an exchange of wealth. Everything else is ideology, psychology, and (mostly) superstition. Leacock understood this, and his savage attacks on the rich, their greed, indifference, and ignorance, are disguised by a veneer of absurdity, or surrealism, or a bonhomie that may trick you into thinking that a snarl is a grin.
     Leacock likes to use the naif as his narrator, as in How to Make a Million Dollars, not nearly as well known as My Financial Career, and not nearly as pleasant to read. It begins “I like millionaires”, and pretty soon we realise that the millionaires are venal, self-indulgent, greedy, and more or less corrupt. But the narrator sees only the fine clothes, fine food, fine houses, and fine drink, all which he would like to have more of himself. He can’t make a million dollars, but he can ingratiate himself into millionaire society: they will feed him well in exchange for his flatteries.
     Leacock knew his audience, and was careful to write the nonsense that elicits laughter rather than awareness. He was a complex man, who knew perfectly well that humans are a good deal less than they wish to be and persuade themselves they are. His need for approval often made him pull his punches and sheathe his claws. His best pieces are those in which he can indulge his sense of the absurdity of daily life without risking satire, such as The Men who have Shaved Me, or The Everlasting Angler (he was an avid fisher all his life). But his most powerful ones are the satires, see Summer Sorrows of the Super Rich.
     Reprinted in A Treasury of Stephen Leacock (1999), along with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I bought it for $1 at a yard sale, excellent value. Recommended. ****

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