Convocation 2008

sherman imageGail Berkeley Sherman
Professor of English & Humanities

“Ancient Laughter”

Thank you, Peter. I am delighted to be speaking here today. Thank you, President Diver, trustees, faculty, students, and family and friends of students, for this opportunity to share some thoughts on the Odyssey. Echoes of ancient laughter reach us anew each time we open Homeric works, but only if we let ourselves really listen to those echoes can we join in that laughter. I want to spend some time listening together this morning.

About 20 years ago, a significant number of years for any reader of the Odyssey, my son, who is now 24, was enjoying a visit with relatives from Israel. Hava speaks English pretty well, but her husband Eliezer has a more limited command of the language. After some lively and laughter-filled conversation - in which Hava translated from time to time for Eliezer, my son asked, ‘Why isn’t Eliezer saying anything?’ I explained as best I could to a four-year-old that Eliezer didn’t really speak English all that well. “He doesn’t speak English?” said my son, trying hard to understand, “But - he laughs in English.”

Like my son at age four, we take shared laughter as the ultimate sign of a shared experience, of common values. We do so across cultures, and we do so across time. But just as Eliezer wasn’t really laughing “in English,” but at his wife’s translations, so when we see laughter represented in literature from a culture as distant in time as Homer’s, we have to ask ourselves how clearly we hear the echoes of ancient laughter, and how we interpret those echoes.

Laughter in the Homeric world may seem merely the necessary correlative of what anthropologists have called a shame culture, one that enforces its norms through externalized signs of approval and disapproval. In this sense, Homeric laughter may fit the paradigm developed by Henri Bergson in the early twentieth century, when he theorized that laughter is the social corrective that keeps us all from becoming cranks and misfits. But instances of laughter in the Odyssey, as in other culturally or temporally remote texts, may also point us toward a deeper understanding of what matters to the textual world, and may help us think about what matters to us today as well.

Although we might think that there’s nothing to laugh about in Achilles’ anger, or Odysseus’ nostos (his longing for a return home), laughter echoes often through the Homeric texts. It’s true, there is no laughter in Ithaka in the opening book of the Odyssey, in which Telemachus daydreams of routing the suitors while Penelope weeps.

But laughter ripples throughout Odysseus’ accounts of his travels, and again in the halls of Ithaka after he returns home in disguise as a beggar. In book eight, all the gods laugh at Hephaistos’ cleverness when he traps his wife Venus with Apollo; Odysseus laughs when he succeeds in tricking the Cyclops, in book nine; in books five and thirteen, Athena and Calypso smile to demonstrate their approval of Odysseus’ trickery; in book sixteen, [one of Penelope’s suitors], Amphinomos, “laughs at Telemachos’ ingenuity in outsmarting the suitors”; and, almost at the end of the poem, Telemachos covers up his intentions with laughter.”

These instances of laughter provide support for what has been called the “superiority theory” of laughter, first developed by Plato. Plato, who does not think highly of laughter, asserts that powerlessness, weakness, lack of self-understanding all call forth laughter, and that such laughter enables us to see ourselves as superior to others. Aristotle called attention to human singularity as the only animal who laughs and warned that excessive laughter is ethically problematic, indeed cruel (Bussie, 12).

Superiority theory and ethical critique don’t adequately account for some of the more complicated instances of narrated laughter in the Odyssey. In book 18, for example, the suitors “whoop with laughter” at the thought of a contest between Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, and Irus, who tries in vain to turn this apparent beggar away from what will turn out to be his own home (18.48 Fagles). Incongruity or absurdity underlies this laughter; as Kant says, “Laughter is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.”

Perhaps the most enigmatic moment of laughter occurs immediately following this contest in book 18, and it is here that I will focus my analysis.

Book eighteen of the Odyssey is full of laughter; it is also full of ironic reversals. Book eighteen begins with a scene that emphasizes the first of many reversals of the suitors’ expectations: although the suitors set up the boxing-match between the real beggar Iros and Odysseus in the guise of a beggar, they are completely unprepared to see Iros knocked out and dragged out the door; the suitors, seeing this, “died laughing” as one translator puts it (Fitzgerald?,18.100). In a second scene, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, delivers a speech on ethical behavior, a speech ironically more characteristic of the wise householder he’ll be revealed to be rather than the homeless wanderer he appears to be.

In the next scene, the single longest in book eighteen (158-303), Penelope reverses her behavior to date and decides to appear before the suitors, to “flutter their hearts” with expectations of marriage, and to shame them into showering her with gifts. The rest of book eighteen concerns interactions among Odysseus, the maid servants, the suitors, and Telemachus, who finally assumes a commanding position, demonstrating that he has indeed begun to show the maturity that Odysseus had advised Penelope to find in her son before deciding to marry, were Odysseus himself not to return from the Trojan expedition. Let me read a few lines, in Fagles’ translation:

But now the goddess Athena with her glinting eyes
Inspired Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, wary, posed,
To display herself to her suitors, fan their hearts,
Inflame them more, and make her even more esteemed
By her husband and her son than she had been before.
Forcing a laugh, she called her maid: “Eurynome,
My spirit longs – though it never did till now –
To appear before my suitors, loathe them as I do.
I’d say a word to my son too, for his own good,
Not to mix so much with that pernicious crowd,
So glib with their friendly talk
But plotting wicked plots they’ll hatch tomorrow.”
                                    (Fagles 18.181-192)

Why and how, in what manner, does Penelope laugh? What is so intriguing about Penelope’s laughter in the scene at the center of book eighteen? Laughter is not in and of itself unusual in the Homeric corpus, the Odyssey, or book eighteen: elsewhere, gods and warriors, and here maidservants and suitors laugh in various ways. But only Penelope’s laughter is described in this way. Penelope’s laughter is akreion; this modifier occurs only this one time in the Odyssey, and only one other time in the entire Homeric corpus, a word whose exact meaning scholars have vigorously debated. P’s laughter is akreion, which commentators explain literally means “useless,” but which might be understood as meaning “inappropriate” or “pointless.” The word akreion has been variously translated as “unnatural “(Loeb), “forced” (Fagles), “confused” (Fitzgerald) and even “inane[ly]” (Cook). So - how does Penelope laugh, “in English”? Normally, we would look to context in other instances of the words use to elucidate its meaning, but the one other instance of the word in the Homeric corpus does not at first glance help us much. Akreion occurs in the second book of the Iliad, and describes, not laughter, but the way Thersites looks around him as he wipes away his tears, after Odysseus reproaches him for scolding Agamemnon. Lattimore translates akreion here as “helplessly:” Thersites, “looking helplessly about, wiped off the tear-drops” (2.269).

At first glance, it’s hard to see what unites Penelope’s and Thersites’ gestures. Penelope laughs akreion in response to a bold, unexpected thought: she wants to show herself to the suitors, to parade before them in order, says a literal translation “to win greater honor from her husband and her son” (Loeb). Thersites, on the other hand, in the Iliad, has just put into words the resentful anger toward Agamemnon that, the epic narrator tells us, all the Greek warriors felt after Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilles. But Thersites, says Odysseus, has no right to “argue with princes” (Lattimore, 2.250), to “throw abuse” at Agamemnon, or to “play the fool.” What features connect the two actions, the queen’s laughter and the motion of the “worst man” of all the Akhaian warriors? The characteristic described by akreion has to be one that can be associated with individuals from disparate classes, in distinct settings: Penelope laughs akreion to herself in the sole company of her maidservant Eurynome, whereas Thersites looks about akreion in the midst of a council of warriors.

It might be that the two bodily gestures are akreion, literally “useless,” in that both Penelope and Thersites have just been overcome by a greater force: Thersites’ words, with which the Akhaians agree, have just been rendered powerless by Odysseus’ reproach. Thersites has stepped out of bounds, attacking his social superior, and when Odysseus puts him in his place, he sheds tears, and wipes them away akreion, “helplessly,” in a way that shows he knows he cannot appeal to the other warriors. Penelope laughs akreion when Athena puts it in her heart to show herself to the suitors, to win greater renown from her husband and her son: her laughter might be read as betraying her helplessness before Athena. She too is stepping out of an accustomed position: after she laughs, she acknowledges to her maidservant Eurynome that she now desires, as she has not desired before, to show herself to the suitors, to fan the flames of their desire for marriage, and, she adds, to advise her son Telemachus not to consort with the suitors, who seem to respect him, but bear him no good will. In the ensuing interaction, she chastises Telemachus for allowing the beggar to be abused, then shames the suitors into providing her with the gifts those who court a wealthy woman should expect to woo her with; all that she has named as the desire underlying her laughter, she carries out.

Note that it is not Penelope herself, but her laughter, that is akreion: she does not hide her emotion, as Thersites arguably does by wiping away his tears, but rather reveals it by laughing.

So what does Penelope’s akreion laughter reveal? Perhaps it is a sign of her embarrassment at overstepping her boundaries. Or perhaps it is a sign of her delight at the trick she is about to play on the suitors. Does its “needlessness,” or “uselessness” reveal strength, weakness, or something beyond this antithesis? The critical answer to this question has turned on whether Penelope is seen as relatively weak and controlled by Athena, or more self-confident and powerful: perhaps her laughter is akreion because she feels a desire for which she cannot understand a motivation: it is perhaps Athene’s, but not Penelope’s, motivation to increase Penelope’s renown in the eyes of her son and husband by inciting the suitors’ desire for her and using it to gain gifts from them. Penelope, speaking to Eurynome, provides no real motivation: she has no real need here to speak with her son.

But it is the anatomy of laughter by Henri Bergson, the early twentieth century philosopher, that to me most fully illuminates Penelope’s laughter. Bergson, as I mentioned earlier, sees laughter as a social corrective; and more broadly, he sees it as a response to “the mechanical encrusted on the living.” Laughter is a site and a sign of human freedom for Bergson. In the scene of laughter I quoted above, for example, we might say that Penelope suddenly sees how over the years her response to the suitors has grown mechanical: she can no longer adapt her response to their demands, instead simply thinks of them as a necessary, ever-present evil. How long can she continue with putting off the suitors? Penelope laughs when her mind is enlivened with a new idea: she will flaunt herself, make potential marriage seem a real possibility. As Penelope explains, Odysseus advised her to marry if he did not return, once Telemachus had grown a beard.

Penelope laughs because she sees a change, new possibility: the situation is not fixed, mechanical, unchanging. Telemachus has grown, Penelope can adapt, can try a new approach. Is she hopeful that, as the purported beggar’s words indicate, Odysseus still survives, and indeed approaches Ithaka? Or has she in fact penetrated Odysseus’ disguise? The text gives no clear indication of Penelope’s state of knowledge, but what her laughter indicates is change, openness to possibility.

Another echo of ancient laughter reaches us from a text most brilliantly compared with the Odyssey by a preeminent humanist of the twentieth century, Erich Auerbach. When I lecture on similes in the Iliad in Hum 110, I often call on Auerbach’s signal recognition of the way in which Homeric narrative foregrounds everything equally, the epic narrative, the characters’ speech, narratives within those speeches, the epic similes that cluster in the war scenes in the Iliad and provide a constant reminder of the larger world in which the Homeric warriors do battle. When I lecture on Genesis, I often remind readers of Auerbach’s insight into the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. A Jew exiled by the Nazis from Germany, writing in Istanbul, Auerbach traced the achievements of realistic narrative down to the Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf to what he saw as its roots in the psychologically and ethically fraught narrative mode of the Hebrew Bible.

Auerbach’s construction of biblical narrative was, as he very much recognized, the product of a particular person reading at a particular historical moment. In other words, he implicitly mounted a claim for the value of diverse readings, readings responsive to the text, informed by scholarship, and shaped by the particular life experience of the reader. So today I focus on something Auerbach did not discuss: not Abraham or Odysseus, but Sarah and Penelope; not terse speech, but laughter.

Sarah’s laughter in chapter 18 of Genesis echoes the laughter of Abraham (17:17) in the preceding chapter. Laughter is Sarah’s response, as it is Abraham’s, to the divine promise of a child. Abraham laughs “b’libo,” in his heart, and thinks, “To a man of a hundred years shall there be born [a child]? And shall Sarah, at ninety years old – give birth?” The incongruity that calls forth Abraham’s laughter is simply the incongruity between advanced age and childbirth.

But the narrative of Sarah’s laughter, like the account of Penelope’s laughter in Odyssey 18, is marked by greater complexity. First of all, Sarah laughs, not “b’libaH,” “in her heart,” like Abraham, but “b’kirbaH,” “in her gut,” or even “at her insides:” she has a real belly laugh. Even more unusual and striking, however, is the language of Sarah’s self-interrogation in the face of this laughter. Sarah says to herself, “After I have become withered, am I to have pleasure? – And my husband is old!” “Acharei bilti, haita li ednah? V’adoni zaken.”

Like Abraham, Sarah responds to the divine announcement of a future child by remembering age. Many commentators have focused on this last part of Sarah’s response. In the Talmud for example, the rabbis note that when the divine voice transmits this response of Sarah’s to Abraham, it leaves out the phrase about Abraham’s advanced age. The rabbis interpret this omission as a sign of the preeminent value of peace, noting that even God changed the words someone said in order to protect marital accord.

But I want to focus on what those ancient commentators overlook. Sarah’s laughter, and her comment on it, echoes differently in my ears. As in the account of Penelope’s laughter in the Odyssey, there’s a strange word here. The word usually translated “pleasure,” “ednah” is a hapax legomenon; that is, it occurs only here, and nowhere else, in the Bible. According to historians of the Hebrew language, the word “ednah” is cognate with “Eden,” as in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, or paradise. “The name of the Garden of Eden, or gan eden, is usually explained as ‘the place of delight,’” and the Ugaritic root connotes “a place that is well watered throughout.”

Sarah’s laughter, and the internal reflection that it signals, in other words, calls up not simply a vision of a long-desired child, important as such a vision would have been in the patriarchal culture of Genesis. Sarah’s laughter signals a hope for renewed pleasure and delight, an edenic vision. Sarah’s laughter marks a restoration of creativity. She laughs at the prospect of “ednah,” and laughter becomes a sign of openness to change and possibility, to the ability to restore life to what has withered, whether this is a bodily organ of pleasure and procreation, an individual, a family line, or an apparently irretrievable past and disbelieved-in future. Laughter signals not just a release, as Freud would have it, not superiority as Plato would have it, not simply a social corrective as Bergson has it, but an opening to an edenic perspective on life. With this difference: Sarah, and her husband, are old; this laughter is not the simple wonder of a child, but the restoration after a demanding life of an openness to change, to freedom, to discovery. Sarah’s laughter reminds us of the possibility of an edenic perspective even after ninety years of disappointment -- which I believe none of us in this room at least have yet had to experience.

Although Auerbach is surely right to trace significant differences in the Homeric and biblical narratives, I hear similarities in the echoes of the laughter of Penelope and Sarah in these texts. Although one laugh highlights confusion giving way to the recognition and exercise of power, and the other signals a move from disappointment and disbelief to pleasure, both underscore the function of laughter as a sign of human freedom and openness to change. Both passages represent laughter as a valid and significant response to the interaction between a human being and forces she cannot entirely comprehend, a force these texts call divine.

Like Penelope’s laughter, Sarah’s laughter signals a change in perspective. As we listen to the echoes of ancient laughter, let me suggest that we change our perspective, that we make more of an effort to appreciate and pay attention to laughter wherever we find it, in old as well as new texts, in social as well as solitary settings. Laughter can signal, possibly even enable, new life, continuity and change, not just for old texts and characters, but for us as individuals, intellectuals, and social, creative beings, at Reed or wherever our own odysseys take us.