BMCR 2009.09.69

Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity

, Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xiii, 616. ISBN 9780521717748. $65.00 (pb).

Stephen Halliwell has written a monumental book on the notoriously volatile and elusive phenomenon of laughter. He is well aware of laughter’s unstable nature: ‘ambiguous’, ‘shifting’, ‘fluid’ and similar adjectives are leitmotifs of his discussion. At the end of his final appendix, on ‘Gelastic faces in visual art’, he observes, ‘The material considered in the previous sections yields multiple uncertainty, ambiguity and paradox’ (550)—which could refer to any of the previous sections of the book, not just that on ‘visual art’. So the monumental nature of the book derives not from any monolithic claims about laughter, but from the sheer scope of the material addressed and the punctilio of Halliwell’s readings within it.

Halliwell, indeed, explicitly avoids the monolithic. He rejects the ‘universalising theory’ of both Bergson and Freud for ‘dissociating psychology from history’ (Preface, viii). He refuses to indulge in generalities about the ancient sense of humour, or theories of ‘the comic’ (6). His aim is to situate the ’causes, uses and consequences of laughter’ (8) within an expansive framework of cultural meaning and social interaction. The ethics of laughter—in a given instance, is it moral, immoral, or amoral?—are an abiding concern.

Halliwell’s instincts are taxonomic—but he is far too honest a scholar to force his taxonomies. This was already clear in his admirable 1991 article in Classical Quarterly, ‘The uses of laughter in Greek culture’, and it remains true of this more extensive treatment. His material repeatedly resists organizing principles; and yet time and again, he derives from it statements of unremitting clarity.

The introduction lays out the unstable poles between which instances of laughter oscillate: is it animal or godlike? religious or profane? playful or contemptuous? generative or deathly? salubrious or insane? We might add (prompted by Halliwell’s discussion of ‘laughing down’), dominating or submissive? Of course, laughter may be all of the above and more—sometimes in surprising combinations. The Greeks, writes Halliwell, were aware of the difficulty of pinning down the ‘volatile workings of laughter’ (11): crucial to sociality and commensality, laughter yet played into anxieties about excessive behaviour and loss of control. The subsequent chapters, arranged in loosely chronological order, flesh out these claims with readings of specific texts.

Laughter in Homer—of which Halliwell considers every instance (ch. 2)—covers perhaps the greatest range of any single author. Laughter casts ‘sidelong but revealing illumination on divine and human existence…at moments of…special intensity’ (53). It spans everything from the gentle laughter of Hector and Andromache in Iliad 6 to the unhinged, alienated laughter of the suitors in Odyssey 20. The laughter of the gods in the Iliad gets special consideration: Halliwell insists that the gods are emotionally invested in mortals and do not laugh at mortality. (Must the two be mutually exclusive?) The sheer variety of the instances of laughter mimics the extraordinary emotional range of the poems: ‘laughter [in Homer] is irreducible to a uniform significance’ (98).

Ch. 3 addresses ‘Sympotic elation and resistance to death’, in counterpoise with ch. 4, ‘Ritual laughter and the renewal of life’. We start with specific accounts of symposia, where, in the ‘precariousness of the sympotic moment’, laughter is simultaneously ‘connected…to a simulation of immortality’ (104) and to an earthly, mundane rootedness. Halliwell reads sympotic elegy to demonstrate its recurrent tensions between intimacy and antagonism; he then points out that ‘with its double-sided gelastic associations, the symposium became a metaphor for a whole range of psychological and social experience’ (127) and illustrates the principle with remarkable readings of Cyclops, Alcestis, and Bacchae—each in some way playing with the symposiastic urge to defy death, whether by transcending it or by succumbing to deathly conflict. A final section on Xenophon’s Symposium reflects on Socrates’ ‘teasing instability of manner’ (151).

This instability is seen in a different context in ch. 4, which argues for the variousness of Greek culture’s ritual laughter, subject to ‘”locally” defined expectations and sensitivities’ (158; the inverted commas round ‘locally’ are Halliwell’s own, though I do not understand quite what their force is here). Halliwell systematically musters the evidence for laughter as related to certain festivals (161-91—an invaluable reference section). Here are examples of laughter elicited by brazen, shameless behaviour that in its own context is appropriate; much of the ritual material ‘involves sexual-cum-procreative symbolism’ which, Halliwell argues, relates to ‘communal psychology’, not the magical ‘activation of covert processes’ (197; 199)—but once again, Halliwell’s emphasis is on the specificity of individual instances.

Where is Old Comedy in all this? Aristophanes, says Halliwell, seems to have internalised ritual laughter—and so we sweep on to ‘Aischrology, shame, and Old Comedy’ (ch. 5). Halliwell is particularly good here on the relationship of aischrology to parrhesia—of vulgar, insulting language to free speaking—and of both to democratic practice. Focusing on the agora, he argues that laughter is an ‘inherently unstable’ part of the dynamics of public discourse (237). Meanwhile, comedy is not some sort of organ of democratic expression, but is both pre- and sub-democratic; its relation to a political context is ‘irreducibly ambiguous’ (252).

We move from politics and politicians to those other habitués of the agora, the philosophers, to explore their relation to the ‘ethics of ridicule’ (ch. 6). This begins with anecdotal examples of the doubtful personal relationship of philosophers to laughter—Socrates’ ambiguous association with laughter and mockery is especially noted—and settles into a sympathetic account of ‘how Aristotle makes a virtue of laughter’ (307 ff.): insisting that laughter is fully and uniquely human, Aristotle goes on to explore how its ethics are bound up with excellence of character. Halliwell remarks on the ‘ethical lenience, psychological flexibility and social realism’ of Aristotle’s notions of laughter. It is revealing that these properties should need commenting on: one or another of the three is so often absent in analyses of laughter.

In ch. 7, ‘the human’ is pressed literally ad absurdum, in ‘Greek laughter and the problem of the absurd’. Halliwell divides the notion of absurdity into ‘contextual’ and ‘global’, in which the latter ‘ironically usurps the role of an absolute in an absolute-free universe’ (334; note the ambiguity of ‘ironically’). This is the more interesting phenomenon, and Halliwell traces it in posthumous legends of Democritus and in the special case of the Cynics, whose extreme self-sufficiency simultaneously bespeaks an immunity to charges of absurdity and the liberty to consider the world absurd. ‘Instability’ (383, e.g.) is again a leitmotif.

We conclude with three more specific chapters: on Menander, for whom the channels of laughter were ‘erratic’ (390), sometimes blocked altogether, and who leaves the audience in a confused, fluid position of response; on Lucian, of whom Halliwell concludes ‘it is almost as if … laughter is itself the prime source of energy in the Lucianic universe’ (470); and on a particularly grim trio of early Christian thinkers (Clement, Chrysostom, and Basil), whose attitudes are well summed up in the chapter title, ‘Laughter denied, laughter deferred’ (i.e. until the Christian afterlife). Two appendices, on the distinction between laughter and smiling (hard to draw, though Halliwell reserves special scorn for the notion that ‘shining’ is the primary meaning of γελᾶν) and on artistic representations of laughter, close the volume.

This book is an extraordinary resource. It covers a vast chronological and textual span, and anyone thinking about laughter in Greek culture, or any of the literary genres, religious practices, or social phenomena that impinge upon it, will need to start here. Like all great surveys, it suggests further questions, a few of which I shall assay here.

Halliwell’s reluctance to subsume the specificity of the cultural moment of laughter under any unitary or ‘universalising’ theory I have noted above. Insisting on specificity is, I think, an important part of the analysis of laughter. But at times a wider interpretative matrix might have enriched the analysis. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens hovers behind the description of playful laughter as a reciprocally-agreed ‘game’ (21, e.g.). And, whether we like it or not, Freud has unavoidably shaped the way that we think and talk about laughter and its effects. ‘The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious’ may be flawed and partial and over-dependent on the model of ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’; but it is also a brilliant, forceful argument with at least some explanatory power. When Halliwell observes (466, of Lucian’s De Morte Peregrini) ‘we ought to wonder whether laughter is being employed to suppress or camouflage … darker questions’, do we not have some provisional way of investigating those dynamics already to hand? I missed Freud especially in the chapter on symposia: Freud’s exuberant tribute to the disinhibiting effects of alcohol (‘Altering our state of mind is the most valuable thing that alcohol has done for humankind’), which returns the subject to a childlike state, might have enriched the links being drawn here.

Incidentally, Halliwell chooses a marvellous epigraph for the chapter on laughter and philosophy, in which Nietzsche—in typically, infuriatingly paradoxical mode—says that he would rank philosophers ‘according to the importance of their laughter’. What does the notion mean? Could reflection on ‘important laughter’ have nuanced the philosophical discussion?

One of the few places in which Halliwell breaks his own rule about universalising theory is in his discussion of Bakhtin’s ‘carnivalesque’ and Greek ritual laughter (204-6); he concludes, surely rightly, that Bakhtin is of only limited relevance in the Greek context. But, idiosyncratic and circular though Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ may be, it does take seriously the presence of women and the effect of their laughter. Again and again I wondered as I read, where are the women? The question plays out both objectively—how, for example, might the flute girls of Aristophanic comedy contribute to the merriment? or the women in a ritual procession? – and subjectively—what, in all this, were women laughing at? the same things, or something quite removed and other? The fact that this is largely unanswerable does not mean that it is not worth posing the question. We get tiny glimpses of women, and the complexities of interpreting female response—Xanthippe (146), women in Demetrian rituals (172), the possibility of ‘distortion by male fantasy’ in reports of such rituals (173)—and, by extension, we see anxieties around ‘the easily “effeminized” body’ (494, e.g.) and the need to control and contain it. But, in a culture that actually has a specific word for the (mocking?) exposure of female genitals— ανασυρμός —there must be more to say.

Indeed, the specificity and range of the Greek vocabulary for laughter, mockery, and derision is a thing to marvel at: is there another language so rich in this respect? Τωθάσμος, ‘vigorous mockery’; katasobareu/esqai, ‘to put people down contemptuously’; γεφυρισμός, ‘abuse from a bridge’. On it goes. Halliwell’s index of selected Greek terms contains well over 100 words related to laughter and mockery; there are more in the general index. For all the leitmotifs of ambiguity and multivalence in the discussion here, what are we to make of the fact that Greek language tried to pin down certain instances of laughter and certain causes of laughter with such precision? Are these coinages fighting ambiguity, or celebrating and elaborating upon it by suggesting the infinite possibility of further specifications?

This leads to my final set of questions. The most persistent leitmotif in this work is the instability of (the causes of, the manifestations of, the interpretation of) laughter. What is it possible to make of a category—laughter—which may ‘mean’ in such radically different ways even in a single instance? Does it remain a useful category? Or is it, in the end, too billowing, too amorphous, to do any interpretative work? One way of approaching this would be to press on the notion of instability itself, rather than charting the individual characteristics at either pole of oscillation. Clearly, the ‘instability’ of laughter is somehow a crucial part of what makes laughter itself—but how can this be? And to what critical use can we put this realization?

I hope it is clear that I am reading against Halliwell’s grain here. He has laid out very different parameters, and delivered fully within them. The trouble with laughter—and the delight of it—is that it impinges on practically every socio-cultural dynamic imaginable. Halliwell has given us a rich and remarkable starting point for thinking about such dynamics. That is why every student of the ancient world should attend to this book.