BMCR 2002.07.17

Le rire des Grecs. Anthropologie du rire en Grèce ancienne

Marie-Laurence Desclos, Le rire des Grecs : anthropologie du rire en Grèce ancienne. Collection Horos. Grenoble: Millon, 2000. 632 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2841370976 FF 250.

My apologies to the thirty-nine authors of this collection for taking nearly two years to overcome the debilitations that the weight of this very large volume induced. After visiting Stendahl’s fair city ( olim Cularo on the Drac and the Isère) and climbed its Bastille, I have perused the riches of this Grenoblois volume. It seems odd that neither the introduction nor the cover mentions the circumstance that this volume arose from a conference in December 1998. Many authors pay proper homage to Dominique Arnould’s Le rire et les larmes dans la littérature grecque d’Homère à Platon (Paris 1990; see my review in AJP 113 [1992] 448-52). In English, F.S. Halliwell’s “The uses of laughter in Greek culture,” CQ 41 (1991), provides a useful point for embarkation towards this island in the sea of nonverbal behaviors. Many of the studies in this book depend on the TLG and earlier printed indices and lexica, although rather few writers (e.g., Liviabella Furiani) mention their use.

One can now write an anthropology of anything, so therefore also of Greek smiles, chortles, laughter, and guffaws. Laughter, traversing the deserts and swamps of life, left a record in Hellenic prose, poetry, and pottery images. Laughter has social and political roles that are constructive and viciously destructive in the human and the divine realms. Recorded ancient practice sometimes converges with generalizations and theories concerning gelology (Aristotle: “to laugh is human”). Even the cautious Charles Darwin thought that smiling might be an expression universal (see The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872; cf. Paul Ekman, Telling Lies, 1992 and elsewhere on deceptive smiles). Often one discerns the serious divergences between ideas and events, both in a given society and across times and places.

The papers are divided into five sections, all printed in French whatever the authors’ native languages, to which is added the editor’s introduction and Silvia Milanezi’s helpful 35 page bibliography, organized chronologically and in two parts: extra-Classical investigations and Classical. These five sections are “Words and Images,” “Gods and Men,” “Talking about Laughter,” “Laughter in Social and Political Relations,” and “Laughter in Other Times and Places.” The compartmentalization is rather arbitrary; studies of gelastic words appear in all sections except the last. In an attempt to acquaint the BMCR readership with a profitable volume not likely to be found on all college or university library bookshelves, I briefly describe most of the papers and evaluate but a few. This approach seems the more necessary because many papers study authors or fields that I am incompetent to evaluate. Further, no sane reader can wade through the 6,000 word review necessary for comment on each contribution.

A.L. Eire, opening section one, surveys Greek laughter’s vocabulary ( gelan, median, kanchazein). The first word arises from bright joy and produces bright teeth and eyes (sounds are underplayed here). The second, cognate with English “smile,” also evokes constriction of the lips but no sound. The third, onomatopoetic, word, produces loud sounds, and therefore often evokes social censure. It indeed frequently arises precisely to express censure (Soph. Aj. 198-9; Ar. Nub. 1071-3; Pl. Gorg. 473e, Resp. 337a). These simple distinctions are not maintained, however, especially in compounds: katagelan is standard Ionic and Attic for “deride” (e.g., Hdt. 3.37-8; Vesp. 1304-6). Starting from Aristotle’s rarely read discussion of tickling the armpits (Part. An. 673 a6), he briefly discusses the physiological, then the sociological meanings.

E. Pellizer notes the inordinate ancient attention to laughter among philosophical types, starting from ever laughing Democritus, unsmiling Anaxagoras, and the reflections of Plato, Aristotle, and Theophrastus. He also flags the increased recent attention to the semiotics of laughter (46). He is most interested in laughter as a social mechanism, a resolution of fear of the Other by inverting an aspect of the Other into something ridiculous for the amusement of an audience (illustrated here with a scatter of offputting scholarly letters and arrows). From Homer on, the comic sender, the recipient, and the derided target/victim are mutally implicated.

M. Steinrueck examines some casual comments of Ps.-Longinus on laughter and the sublime in a discussion of an Archilochus fragment (185 West: ape and fox epodic fable). The specific comment that the juxtaposition and alternation of quotidian ideas (displaced onto animals) in iambs and heroic vocabulary and color in hexameter chunks, produces amusement for the hearer may be right; the general concept, however, remains underdeveloped.

A. Sommerstein catalogues 85 explicit examples of laugh and mock vocabulary in Aristophanes. He observes that, in Classical Attic, no discernible distinction appears between smile and laugh. Tragic Athena selects “the pleasures of laughing a laugh at seeing enemies suffer” as humanity’s choicest experience (Soph. Aj. 79, note the cognate accusative). That delight, then, in its more active forms accounts for the prominence of comic mockery and insult (over 50% of Aristophanic passus). Only Paphlagon however stoops so low as to vaunt his shaming and humiliating others (Hipp. 712-13). Philocleon and Strepsiades among others hoot, however, about what sneers and snubs they can inflict. Sommerstein more cheerfully concludes that, although many Aristophanic characters demean others, egoists lose in his comedies, while the poet and audience laugh together, constructively sharing pleasures comparable to the banquet, feast, and other Dionysiac ritual.

P. Liviabella Furiani tackles le rire as nonverbal communication in the Greek novels. She surveys the sometimes friendly, sometimes menacing laughter and smiles of the “Big Five” novelists: how lovers do it, how the empowered inflict it on their chained or otherwise powerless victims. Xenophon is close to humorless, at least in observable intention. Yet, she notes that other nonverbal behaviors are abundantly present in his brief romance: tears, kisses, etc. Achilles Tatius’ women are adept at seductive and terrifying smiles. Heliodorus uniquely analyzes crowd laughter. He rarely allows a character to offer a positive smile encouraging cohesion.

P. Voelke examines risibility of satyrs in satyr plays. Following another remark of Aristotle (Po. 1449a 34-5), who says the geloion partakes of blunders or defects and/or something ugly or embarrassing, Voelke finds the sexuality and wine-appetites of satyrs (and Silenus) excessive by contemporary community standards. Further, their intellectual pretensions in a Sophocles fragment (1130 Radt) show them to be preposterously like — Sophists. Their faulty nature and acts thus distance satyrs (and their plays) from those of civilized Attic audiences. So, “inscribed outside societal norms of life” (106), satyrs acting badly become good to think with, promote audience cohesion. But the transgressions of the satyr [chorus], projected onto the exciting stage, also allow the public indirectly to assume their bawdy identity — as they identify themselves with tragic choruses. My inclination to differ arises here, thinking that individuals “process” plays and not ” le public” (cf. J. Griffin, CQ 1998: “The social function of Attic tragedy”). But why not, since Dionysus includes many opposites, no? Once Voelke himself has acknowledged that le rire has the double function of both including and excluding, one loses the possibility of applying any scientific principle of falsifiability. Again, laughter at someone or something else is transformed into a communal liberating joy. Those Athenians knew how to laugh.

Fr. Lissarrague discusses archaic ceramic laughter evoked again by satyrs. Satyrs do not themselves clearly laugh but are usually laughable on their many pots (sixteen illustrations here). They invert their bodies, literally, into drinking bowls or try to use amphoras as sex objects (actualizing a metaphor of females as containers that is as hoary as Pandora and her double, the pithos). Sex and drink, on pots, preferably simultaneous, show Athenians and their congeners how not to behave in sympotic and other venues. Sometimes, it is hard for us cold North-Atlantic types to “get” the visual joke or surprise that satyr scenes convey for want of comparable materials. We stumble in the dark trying to develop the feel for the nuanced delicacies and indelicacies of Athenian social life. Lissarrague is a good guide. One observes that this “words and images” section privileges words over images by a 6 to 1 ratio.

Al. Ballabriga, opening section two, examines burlesques of the Greek divine from Homer down through Lucian. C. Collobert focuses on Hephaestus in particular in Homer as a source of endless divine laughter. Gr. Arrighetti delves into that usually unhumorous prophet, Hesiod. The necessarily brief study of the ridiculous in the nasty world of grumpy Hesiod (in this respect, too, unlike Homer) digs up Zeus’s laughing house, Zeus’s chortling vengeance on Prometheus, and a warning about placing any confidence on your brother when in court. Deceitful Aphrodite and Prometheus smile to no good end or purpose. Hesiod, however, does once slip up and wish his audience joy — only if, however, they achieve household autonomy (Op. 476, but getheo belongs to the semantic field of joy — unlike any Hesiodic smiles or laughs). St. Halliwell ponders the place of ritual laughter in Old Attic Comedy. K. Thein judges the comic element in Plato, who presents humans as stuck between ignorance and foolishness. J-L. Labarrière asks why Aristotle’s comment, that laughter is unique to humans, appears in a physiological treatise. Finally, J. Hankinson discusses a first-century BCE pseudo-Hippocratic epistolary text on Democritus’ alleged laughing madness. Laughter is rarely a symptom or a feature of diagnosis for paraphrosyne of any type in the doctors’ medical kit. “Hippocrates” travels to Abdera to determine whether the laughing philosopher has a real malady, a lack of manners (like Catullus’ Egnatius, c. 39), or simply the right “take” on a perverse world obsessed with “getting and spending.” He is adjudged sane and sage — rather godlike (198; ambiguous praise, as in Aristotle’s Politics).

C. Darbo-Peschanksi, inaugurating the third section, plunges into the laughable in the history of historiography — viz F. Jacoby’s enthusiasm for Hecataeus’ castigation of Hellenic logoi geloioi (FgrHist. Vol. 1A, #1 F1). This Milesian with his mocking rational criticism (and proto-history writing) irrupts into a superstition-filled and otherwise benighted Aegean world. His supposedly destructive evaluations of past accounts describing terrestrial affairs oddly gains but one faulty imitator — the tradition-preserving, less critical Herodotus. Thereafter, history does not show itself “fond of laughter” (206). Greek grief has a much richer showing than chuckles in its vocabulary and recorded historical instances. We find not a laugh in propria persona from Thucydides, Diodorus, Dionysius, Ephorus, Theompompus, Duris, or Timaeus. (Polybius provides an unanticipated partial exception, laughing twice, at Ephorus and Aulus Postumus [12.25, 39.1.9]. What happened to Xenophon?) Their personages do laugh but usually from intemperance (e.g. Thuc. 4.28.5; Polyb. 26.1.14; on Herodotus, cf. my article, “No laughing matter …,” TAPA 107 [1977]). Jacoby had a positivist, genetic conception of the development of historiography with Hecataeus as inseminator and illuminator. He read rationalism and science into Hecataeus’ simple (or at least uncontextualized) laugh. How can the isolated laugh found the genre of historical inquiry, D.-P. asks pertinently. She sees Jacoby as victim of his own turn-of-the-century, German-Romantic fondness for the fragment (211-12). Thus he over-interpreted Hecataeus to fit his own speculative grid on terra incognita — earliest Greek historiography.

Anna Beltrametti examines the tragicomedies of pairs in Plautus, Aristophanes, and Plato, both sexual pairs and master-slave couples. N.-L. Cordero asks whether in fact Democritus laughed. His answer is “no.” The evidence for the legend begins only from Horace (Epist. [not Sat.] 2.1.194) and perhaps is founded on Democritus’ treatise entitled “Good Spirits.” In fact, more a melancholic (Ff. 70, 107a), the “laughologist” Democritus need not have laughed any more than criminologists need to commit crimes (238). His (Epicurean-endorsed?) figure supplied a neat contrast to weeping Heraclitus. A. Bernard pursues several ideas about the connection between mathematics, humor, the Sophists, and the Cynics. L. Rossetti shows high-handed Socrates and his pupils using ridicule as a weapon. His “implacable psychological destruction” (255) was nothing funny for Socrates’ victims. The Sophists, generals, and men of business who fell into his clutches became trapped, embarrassed, and disoriented. The stages of Socratic demolition ( elenchos) are laid out with examples such as Euthyphro, Euthydemos, Dionysodorus, Polus, Callicles, Thrasymachus, [Hippias Maior], and Meletus. The method parallels those of the Dissoi Logoi, the CloudsHetton Logos, etc. This mode of humiliation might not have been simply gratuitous fun but a cathartic step towards metanoia (265). R. touches upon Socrates’ paraverbal aggression (266) but ignores the extensive nonverbal element to be found in it (a topic that I am presently studying). St. Pieri examines the role of derision in styles and discourses of refutation. M. Narcy further disengages the connections between the comic and Socratic irony, while M. Augusto focuses more narrowly on the power of Socratic smiles and laughter in Republic V and what they share with Platonic metaphysics. D. Schulthess discusses Plato’s superficial (if I may say so) analysis of laughter at Philebus 48a-50e, in particular whether one can laugh in or out of ignorance. A. Jaulin catalogues and compares Aristotle’s use of the word geloion. W. Fortenbaugh extensively discusses what Aristotle and Theophrastus have to say about laughter.

In part four, M. Silva discusses why Aristophanes (Hipp. 516-17) describes comic production as the most difficult art of all, in his “privileged space,” the parabasis. Laughter requires a balance between convention and novelty. S. Milanezi peruses laughter in Greek politics. A. Moreau studies laughter words in Aeschylus and C. Miralles does the same for Sophocles. Words for laughter (neatly catalogued) emerge eighteen times in epic-beholden Aeschylus: in Satyr-drama (including the Dictyoulkoi), of course, but also in paranoid, humiliating, and sadistic scenes in which Electra and Cassandra fear risibility, while Clytemnestra, Ares, and the Erinyes enjoy it. Moreau, more daringly, interprets certain Aeschylean tragic scenes as intended to arouse audience smiles (in a Shakespearian way?): returned Agamemnon’s pomposity, the Atreid nurse’s references to baby’s urges and diapers, and Odysseus’ dung-covered head (Agam. 890-1, Cho. 749-60, Ostologoi F 180 Radt — if tragic). D. Bouvier notes the popularity of Socrates as a comic target in the 420’s. He discusses why the death of Socrates could be such a rich vein for Greek comedy. M.-L Desclos ponders the use of laughter in anecdotes, from Aesop and Socrates to Plato and Aristotle, as a paedagogic tool to encourage right conduct. M. Stella re-imagines laughter in the face of death in Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo.

Fr. Frazier finds 69 laughs and laughers plus 36 smiles in Plutarch’s works. His laughs are almost entirely unilateral and superior — examples from philosophers that he approves of and examples from historical figures whose laughter is usually condemned. There is but one guffaw, not surprisingly the buffoon Antony’s (Ant. 20.4; cf. Dem. 25.7). Laughing, morally situated, however, is part of an approved geniality — character and conduct expressing a dignified sensibility appropriate to Plutarch’s milieu in the late first century CE. But Plutarch never offers an analysis of le rire. They appear merely as anecdotal and illustrative affirmations of character (471, 493). For a metriopathic philosopher, an endorser of moderate pleasures, Periclean, Phocionic, and Catonic sobersidedness seems unsociable (Per. 5.1, 7.5-6; Phoc. 4.3; Cato Min. 1.3-5), uncharitable in the root sense. The distancing rire (anger, scorn, ill wishing) far outnumbers the convivial one in Plutarch, although the latter is essential to “the policed social life” (488). The political and military laugh sounds cruel, while the Cynic and Epicurean one is more justifiable — provocatively paideutic. It invites the victim’s improvement. Laughter, however small a thing, can have cataclysmic consequences (de coh. ira 454d). The convivial laugh itself comes under fire in the case of “le fêtard Antoine” whose buffoonish banquets cultivated going (way) over the top. But, like Hesiod’s Erides, several laughters walk the earth (493).

In part V, Cl. Herrenschmidt dissects Pliny’s report (hist. nat. 7.72) of Zarathustra’s Iranian laughter on the day of his birth. Pedro Paul Funari (not Furiani — as printed in the table of contents, the article’s first page, and the page headers) reproduces a sample of Pompeian wall humor — verbal and imaged. These popular messages in vulgar Latin — usually sexual and often imagines ridiculae — rarely find mention in the high literary tradition (Petronius and Martial are honorable exceptions). As Funari claims, the caricatures and insults permit us to hear a distant echo of popular culture, the little folk of antiquity.

N. Ordine introduced me to the concept of therapeutic laughter in the Renaissance from Boccaccio’s architexte to the sixteenth century philosophical texts of V. Maggi ( de ridiculis, 1550) and Castelvetro’s commentary on the Poetics. Cl. Mossé briefly discusses the French journalist and revolutionary Camille Desmoulins, fellow student with Robespierre but later a victim of the terror. He praised Athenian liberty, tolerance, history’s first amnesty, and Aristophanes’ freedom to mock even the people itself — without fear of censorship or the guillotine. He invoked Athens in an unsuccessful effort to recall the French people’s ability to laugh at itself. Chr. Galaverna describes the rare African masks that represent laughers or produce laughter. J.-P. Molinari discusses, in the volume’s final essay, Democritean (unofficial if not democratic) laughter of the Twentieth-century working class, the laugh sociologically considered.

Another French volume on the ridiculous may have escaped the notice of the BMCR readership, as it did mine (only one copy in all learned Ohio). Le Rire des anciens (328 pp; 180 φφ based on a Rouen colloquium in January 1995 and edited by Monique Trédé and Philippe Hoffmann with the assistance of Clara Auvray-Assayas, was published at Paris in 1998. Equally divided between the Greek and Roman worlds, it contains ten essays on the comic poets (including here, Martial, Juvenal, and Achilles Tatius [!]), five essays on other kinds of poets, and six essays on philosophers, orators, and rhetoricians. Half the length of the volume under review and containing about half as many essays, it complements the Desclos volume with little overlap of topics or scholars. Homer receives less attention in both these volumes than one might expect. The important articles on divine laughter written by L. Friedlaender (Die Antike, 1934) and W. Burkert (Rh. M., 1960) are acknowledged, but my discussion of human laughter and smiles ( Sardonic Smile, 1995) occurs only in the bibliography. Brian Krostenko produced last year a more extended, philological and complementary analysis of (Greek-based) Roman concepts of charm, wit, and disdain: Cicero, Catullus, and the Language of Social Performance (Chicago 2001), e.g., 220 n.59, with A. Dyck’s BMCR review (2001.09.16) and mine in Semiotica (forthcoming 2003).

Both these collections observe the useful convention of page numbers but neither collection provides any index whatsoever (of people, places, topics, or ancient passages discussed). This serious flaw prevents readers from quickly — or ever — finding what they want (e.g., considerations of Aristophanes’ Nubes). This handicap mars (too) many such collections and ill serves their authors as well. Let’s hire graduate students and change the “tradition.” We close with an apt and salubrious Ciceronian quotation appended to Ordine’s essay (552) — intending no reflection on this bouillabaisse:

Itaque cum quosdam Graecos inscriptos libros esse vidissem de ridiculis, nonnullam in spem veneram posse me ex iis aliquid discere…. sed qui eius rationem quandam conati sunt artemque tradere, sic insulsi exstiterunt ut nihil aliud eorum nisi ipsa insulsitas rideatur. (de orat. 2.217)

“So when I had looked at several Greek books entitled “How to Make ‘Em laugh,” I began to hope I might learn something from them…. But, those who have tried to supply a theory [for humor] and to explain the knack for it appear so witless and insipid that nothing other than their own witlessness can be laughed at.” Caveat eruditus !