Laughing At, And With, Ancient Rome

romelaughThis post is about as random as we get on this blog, but still, there is a mission-driven point. Along with all our work, there must also be reflection and communication; education in the classics strikes us as an excellent preparation, as excellent as any, for our line of work. In further honor of James during the last week of his work in person at Xandari, we share a book review to help us understand laughter in the olden days:

…Even a simple comic device can land us in deep water, psychologically speaking.

What, if anything, does Geng’s piece have in common with the movie Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment? What does either have in common with knock-knock jokes, or with Gilbert Gottfried’s famous performance of “The Aristocrats” a few weeks after September 11? These are not easy questions to answer, even for a culture we know from the inside. And the difficulties only multiply when we confront the humor of another time and language. It is that challenge that Mary Beard sets herself in Laughter in Ancient Rome, the printed version of her lectures as the 2008–2009 Sather Professor at Berkeley.

Delivering the Sathers is one of the most honorific prizes in classical studies. Scholarly distinction is a given, but the ideal lecturer will also be able to communicate with an audience beyond the field, and on a topic of wider relevance. From this perspective Mary Beard must have seemed a natural choice. Professor of classics at Cambridge, Beard is the author or coauthor of academic books on Roman religion and the Roman triumph, as well as more popularizing (but no less solid) ones on the Colosseum and Pompeii. She is a consulting editor of the Times Literary Supplement, a frequent presenter on the BBC, and writes one of Britain’s leading academic blogs, A Don’s Life. She is about as close to a public intellectual as the field of Roman studies currently has.

Various as they are, Beard’s previous publications show some common threads. One of her persistent obsessions is how we know—or can know—anything at all about the Roman world. Her 2007 study of the Roman triumph showed how fragile are many of the familiar “facts” about this ritual: the fixed route, the execution of prisoners, the general’s face reddened with cinnabar, the slave who whispers “remember that you are mortal”—all dissolve or at least grow fuzzy on closer inspection. In The Fires of Vesuvius (2008) she delighted in pointing out how much of our “Pompeii” has been shaped by dubious inference and hopeful restoration. (The frescoes at the Villa of the Mysteries are an unsung masterpiece of early-twentieth-century art.)

The problem is not just a shortage of reliable evidence, although that’s part of it. It also stems from the nature of human social practices. For some scholars ancient institutions are like artichokes: if we could just peel away extraneous accretions we could get back to their “original” significance—the “true meaning of Christmas,” as it were—which is what we’re really interested in. For Beard, by contrast, ancient institutions are like onions: the extraneous layers are the whole thing. If we could somehow conjure up actual Romans and ask them what the triumph ritual “meant,” they might have an answer for us, but it would never be the answer, only a debatable and contested interpretation.

Beard’s title in this study is not a metaphor. Her book has a good deal to say about humor and comedy but it is even more fundamentally about laughter. As she notes, the history of laughter is as fraught with problems as the history of sex, and for many of the same reasons. Laughter can be set off by physical stimuli like tickling or nitrous oxide. But it is also generated by sights, sounds, and catchphrases, which vary from age to age and culture to culture. Elizabethans joked about cuckoldry and venereal disease. Roman audiences laughed at crucifixion jokes, bald men, and dwarves. The epigrams of the early imperial poet Martial circle back again and again to sniggering innuendos about bad breath and oral sex (“the old wearisome indecency,” sighed A.E. Housman, “ever fresh and entertaining to Martial and his public”). The rules for what is laughable are not always consistent or predictable even within a particular society; twenty-first-century Americans who would never dream of mocking physical handicaps can joke casually about prison rape.

One of Beard’s aims in looking at Roman laughter is confessedly “to make it a messier rather than a tidier subject.” This comes through even in individual sentences. One passage from an ancient author is “frustratingly hard to make full sense of.” Another is “more puzzling than it seems,” a third “more puzzling…than my quotations suggest.” She is distrustful of one-size-fits-all explanations, and briskly skeptical of the monolithic modern theories (incongruity, superiority, displacement) alluded to above. All of these might account for some laughter, which can be variously aggressive, absurdist, and nervous, but none is all-embracing. And of course a lot of laughter is really a second-order response, triggered merely by the setting (we laugh at sitcoms because the studio audience is laughing) or by pleasure at the closing of a familiar circuit (in Soviet Russia, joke tell you).

Beard has always had a nose for the scholarly equivalent of urban legends—much-cited factoids that crumble when one asks what exactly the evidence for them is. One small example here is a claim about pygmies, regularly trotted out to show the cultural variability of laughing. When pygmies are amused, authorities tell us, they throw themselves on the ground, kicking their tiny feet in paroxysms of laughter. As it turns out, all invocations of this “fact” can be traced back to a single passage in Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People, a work often criticized (like his later work on the Ugandan Ik) for naiveté, misunderstanding, and projection.

More centrally, Beard demolishes the notion, popular with many theorists of humor, that there was an overarching “classical theory of laughter,” attributable to Aristotle and laid out in the (conveniently lost) second book of his Poetics. Readers of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose will recall the crucial part that work plays in the novel, and Eco was hardly the first to invest it with such numinous significance. Yet there is little sign that it had much influence in antiquity. And Beard is probably right to think that if we had “Aristotle on comedy” it would not prove a master key to anything, but would be as frustrating, cryptic, and unhelpful as…well, as Aristotle on tragedy…

Read the whole review here.

One thought on “Laughing At, And With, Ancient Rome

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare, Crown Toady? | Raxa Collective

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