John Keats criticized Lord Byron for treating serious things lightly and light things seriously. The latter is the lesser of the evils and not at issue here. As to the former, Byron’s treatment of shipwrecked, starving sailors resorting to cannibalism in “Don Juan” is a good example. There is nothing of the truth of the suffering, anguish, desperation, or horror of such a plight, but rather a jaunty rhyme with a humorous tone. The disunion of topic and style reminds me of certain songs where the lyrics address serious subjects like child abuse but are conveyed by a rollicking tune in a major key. There are two possible literary justifications for making light of horrible circumstances: satire and black humor. Serious and even horrible events are presented with humor fueled by exaggeration or understatement in order to expose human foibles, such as hypocrisy, ignorance, intolerance, and so many more. Candide comes to mind as the standout example of that. Second, black humor has a deeper purpose than simply treating awful things in a funny manner. With a nihilistic bent, writers of black humor look at suffering as absurd rather than pitiful, purposefully turning away from the usual and natural emotional reaction to make a point about pointlessness. However, satire is not Byron’s objective or effect at least in those scenes such as the shipwreck, and Keats did not exculpate Bryon by considering him satirical rather than grossly insensitive. Not only does Byron not come across as a satirist, he does not qualify as a nihilist. He is too truly a Romantic to be a nihilist.
Keats’s criticism of Byron came to mind while I was reading a moderately engaging and alternately off-putting novel by Jane Smiley, Moo University, because I found myself reacting to her description of the life and death of a pig as Keats did to Byron’s shipwrecked sailors. In this novel, horrible things are happening to a pig, but the author insists on treating the situation with levity suitable for outright comedy, tricking the uninitiated into thinking that there is nothing wrong with the treatment of the pig. The pig has a name and is taken out of commodity-status and made individual not only by having a name but by having thoughts that the omniscient narrator relates, just as she does the thoughts of the humans in the story. Purportedly getting into the mind of nonhuman animals is something of a signature for Smiley but she betrays them at every turn in this novel and might not even be close to right about their thoughts in her other novels, such as Horse Heaven. In the novel in question, the pig is kept hidden in total isolation, inside, on a concrete floor without any contact except a student who shows up to clean out his stall and give him food, and such food is part of the abuse because he is overfed purposefully to the point of causing him pain throughout his legs and feet. A climax of one of the story lines occurs when the building in which the big has been imprisoned is bulldozed; the terrified creature runs across campus and drops dead. He then is butchered and eaten. As I write those bare incidents, it would seem very difficult to portray any humor in that situation, so I suppose it is to Smiley’s credit as a writer that she can pull that off (assuming she does and readers join in the “fun”); but it is equally to her discredit if she does so succeed and that she uses her talents to that end. If Smiley thought that readers were insightful and thoughtful enough to see past her overtly light-hearted treatment of the pig to realize that she was actually encouraging readers to see the evil, she is wrong — there is no evidence to suggest she aimed at leading readers to conclude that treating pigs as commodities is cruel. If she intended some form of satire, she fails because most readers will take it at face value. In this novel, the abuse of the pig is nothing and it is merely mildly humorous how he gets free and runs despite how grossly fat he is and, hee! hee!, winds up as bacon!
Shame on you Jane Smiley. Anyone who has the ability to affect the way the ordinary person considers nonhuman animals has an opportunity—you not only missed it, you added to the ignorant immorality rife among us.