Contra Theodor Adorno, it is mercifully untrue that the writing of poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Nevertheless, modes of artistic expression do rise and fall as history shuffles from one corridor to another. Just as the certainties of traditionalism expired on the battlefields of Verdun and Passchendaele, so the collapse of Soviet communism discredited socialist realism for our time. Though wokeness, the 21st century’s premier intellectual catastrophe, has yet to settle on a helpmeet genre, its advocates are well into the business of destroying the art form best equipped to resist it. Satire, among the most important aesthetic tools possessed by a free people, is quickly being stripped of its clothes, humiliated, and cast into the unwelcoming darkness.

Unlike more self-sufficient genres, satire depends for its efficacy on a number of social preconditions. A dependent species, it cannot live if free speech vanishes from its ecosystem. Neither can it thrive without the related assurance that vogue ideas are especially ripe for mockery. Most importantly, satire relies on a generally shared sense of the absurd. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” would not have registered as a joke had its audience possessed any doubts about the inadvisability of ingesting “papist” children.

Though literary illustrations of these requirements abound, the book that comes immediately to mind is Jonathan Franzen’s masterpiece The Corrections, which plays as satire precisely because it so obviously meets the aforementioned criteria. Released in 2001 and written during free speech’s “end of history” heyday, The Corrections ridiculed not only Midwestern hypocrisy but the neuroses of the Clinton-era elite. Screwy and hilarious, it offered character studies so in line with the zeitgeist’s preexisting suspicions that only a fool could fail to recognize the humor.

Consider, for instance, Franzen’s deranged alter ego, Chip Lambert, a “cultural studies” professor who can “no longer watch even cartoons,” so intense is his “critical and political anguish.” Published today, that line of prose might mark Chip as an aspirational figure in some quarters, never mind his leather pants and tragicomic drug use. (He “understands the ubiquity of systemic oppressions,” one can almost hear the Twitterverse purring.) In the heady days of the novel’s actual appearance, however, Chip was an indisputable buffoon, a lunatic sporting a demented inner life. Having spent the endless Y2K election cycle in the company of noted pedant Al Gore (to name just one example of fin de siecle establishment maladjustment), American readers were not only primed to spot intellectual self-sabotage. They were practically champing at the bit.

That these satire-friendly circumstances are decidedly inoperative today is perhaps the crucial fact for those who wish to understand the strange reception given to the new novel by Sally Rooney. The author, previously, of the bestsellers Normal People and Conversations with Friends, Rooney published Beautiful World, Where Are You to deserved fanfare in September of this year. Yet despite the well-earned praise — Beautiful World being, in some respects, almost miraculously good — a certain puzzlement quickly rose to the lips of the literary commentariat. Was Rooney’s new book, as seemed possible, a finger in the eye of the spoiled, politically radical millennials who filled her pages? Or did the author share her characters’ concerns, echo their judgments, and intend their obsessions to appear rational, laudable, even necessary?

Like Rooney’s first two novels, Beautiful World, Where Are You considers the social and sexual lives of expensively educated leftists in contemporary Ireland. Alice, a successful but miserable novelist, would like to find a form of happiness but believes that humans lost “the instinct for beauty” when “the Berlin Wall came down.” Eileen, her friend and former roommate, desires the same but is distracted by “the misery and degradation of almost everyone else on earth.” There is, of course, more to Rooney’s characters than this modish ideological anxiety, but an undercurrent of civilizational self-loathing is nonetheless among the book’s most prominent features. Alice and Eileen may have love affairs, chafe against their work, and navigate family squabbles. But they also wonder, without discernible irony, whether they will be required “to go to [their] deaths for the greater good of humanity.”

Confronted with these and other ridiculous pronouncements, critics and readers have largely split on the question of just how seriously Rooney intends to be taken. Writing in the New York Times, the novelist Brandon Taylor has characterized Beautiful World’s political asides as “often profound ruminations.” Yet a prominently featured letter to the editor retorts that the book should be understood as “a satire of current social [and] political … conventions.” In the Nation’s assessment, Rooney’s is a novel that “clarif[ies] its own viewpoints beyond all doubt.” Nevertheless, that august journal can’t help directing readers to the Guardian, which holds that Rooney’s characters are mere limousine revolutionaries. (“Saying ‘I’m a Marxist’ is a more understated way of saying: ‘I went to Trinity.’”)

Most fascinating of all from a metacritical perspective is Laura Miller’s write-up in Slate, which finds “the ideological garment-rending and hair-tearing of Rooney’s protagonists [to be] endearingly comical.” In Miller’s view, Rooney may well be a master satirist, but the achievement is entirely accidental. “There’s what Rooney’s characters say, and then there’s what they do,” Miller asserts. “In the gap between these two things is where the comic irony of her novels lies, even if Rooney sometimes seems oblivious to it herself.”

Compositional obtuseness. The death of the author. Notwithstanding postmodern hymns to indeterminacy, this is a strikingly audacious claim given Rooney’s position as one of the most important literary novelists of her generation. If, as Miller suggests, Rooney has written a critique of wokeness only inadvertently, then her book is a forgettable fluke of the monkey-with-typewriter variety. If, however, Miller is mistaken and Rooney is consciously challenging her characters’ near-lunacy, then satire of the Left, from the Left, may already be dead, a casualty of liberals’ refusal to declare any “progressive” idea to be beyond the pale.

Take, for example, a late scene in which Eileen, having become pregnant, confesses that she cannot “stomach the idea of having an abortion just because [she’s] afraid of climate change.” For some readers, the moment will confirm that Eileen is indeed the butt of the novel’s joke. Who but a psychopath could even ponder the termination of a pregnancy under such terms? For others, a handful of whom will have made the very reproductive choice that Eileen rejects, her admission will feel like a close call — a hard-won victory of humanism over legitimate ideological despair. A lifelong Marxist but not obviously a crazy person, Rooney could very well reside in either camp. What is irrefutable is that the uncertain reader cannot turn with any confidence to social norms, which, at least among the literati, are quickly shifting against so-called breeders. Perhaps we ought to eat those babies after all.

Finally, there is the matter of the Anglosphere’s diminishing respect for free speech, an evolution that bodes poorly for satire’s long-term survival. Though readers cannot in this case know whether Rooney felt brave enough to parody the Left, it is an inarguable fact that doing so is harder and costlier than at any point in the West’s living memory. The rigors of “cancel culture,” understood by all, need not be expounded here. However, two supplementary developments, illustrated by recent events, absolutely must.

The first, demonstrated in an Oct. 14 interview on the Atlantic’s website, is the professional Left’s feigned (or actual) inability to comprehend a joke that doesn’t serve its purposes. Conversing with Kyle Mann, editor-in-chief of the Babylon Bee, former staff writer Emma Green drew her respondent’s attention to a January 2020 “headline” stating, “Democrats Call For Flags To Be Flown At Half-Mast To Grieve Death Of [Iranian Gen. Qassem] Soleimani.” For Green, at least professedly, the Bee’s gag was a humorless non sequitur. (“What makes this funny?” the baffled liberal demanded.) What followed was a tortured back-and-forth in which Mann was called upon both to explain his joke and to defend it. Because both tasks are patently unnecessary, the interview descended temporarily into mutual incomprehension.

As the reader will already have gathered, there are exactly two explanations for Green’s failure to grasp the Bee’s joke. Either the Atlantic’s correspondent really didn’t understand the jape, in which case she has committed a kind of self-hypnosis, or she was pretending not to for political gain, something deserving of our scorn.

In neither event does the future of satire look secure, particularly since the “Why is this funny?” shtick is repeated on Twitter whenever a right-wing zinger lands.

The second epiphenomenon that presages ill for satire is the development, identified by Nicholas Clairmont in these pages, of the social media-ready concept of “fauxtire.” Defined by the debunking website That’s Nonsense as “clickbaity fake news” published “under the guise of satire,” “fauxtire” is allegedly distinguishable from its legitimate cousin by a “lack of any obvious humor.” Yet, as the Mann-Green fracas makes clear, the question of “obviousness” is a troubled one, unanswerable in any objective way and ripe for political manipulation. One needn’t be a media expert to recognize that “lacking obvious humor” will inevitably give way to “damaging for Democrats” as the suppression class’s de facto standard. And if “fake news” is to be censored, why on Earth shouldn’t “fake jokes” be?

After all, the elimination of problematic content is no mere byproduct of wokeness but the whole inglorious shebang. Sincere or not, malicious or merely idiotic, the Left’s war on satire is of a piece with its war on dissent more generally, a project all the more insidious for being coy, deniable, and banal. (See, for example, the new-fashioned comedy-show malignancy “clapter.”) Meanwhile, a beloved genre limps on, crippled in both feet and often unrecognizable. We should all pray that it survives.

Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.