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Looking at Laughter - John R. Clarke

Book Review by Ursus

"Like no other visual form, humor allows us to to know the lives of Ancient Romans - and to enter into their thoughts and feelings." So intones John R. Clarke, the author whose brilliant studies of Roman visual artifacts led to thoroughly enjoyable works on Roman life and Roman sex. When the author graciously offered me a free copy of this latest work on Roman humor, I consented to read and review it for UNRV. I initially was a bit concerned that a study focusing solely on humor might not fully sustain my interest. As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. Looking at Laughter is a somewhat more complicated piece than Clarke's other works, but equally as elucidating of Roman cultural values.

John R. Clarke has rapidly become my favorite scholar of Roman culture and daily life. Most cultural studies focus on the literary works of elite men, many of who practiced a Hellenistic philosophy that the vast majority of their countrymen did not share. By analyzing the various visual media left to posterity, Clarke is able to illuminate the habits and feelings of the rest of the Roman population. One does not need to be a radical post-colonial deconstructionist to applaud the author's efforts in recording the lost voices of Roman civilization: the slave, the working poor, the female, the colonial subjects. The author seems to take delight in furnishing us with a more complete picture of Roman life, and he manages to do so without becoming a militant intellectual crusader with an axe to grand. He lets Romans speak for themselves in all their glory and in all their grime. On that note I think Clarke's scholarship should be the generational benchmark for future cultural inquiries.

The subject under study is Roman humor. What a society finds funny can tell one much about that culture. In his introduction, Clarke provides some historical overviews of how scholars have dissected humor, including the insights of Freud, Bakhtin and Martineau. The author is informed by their views without becoming beholden to any particular one. Clarke relates the most important thing in humor is the observer's position within a particular social group and their relation to other members in and outside that group. In other words, what you find funny has something to do with your particular socio-economic and cultural background and how it interacts with other groups. One of the most common strains of humor has to deal with role reversals - individuals and groups behaving in an unorthodox manner respective to their station in life. Humor is thus a social commentary that allows us to pierce the social attitudes of ancient Romans. As the author explains:

The eye that recognizes humor, like the ear that hears it or the tongue that speaks it, is a socially conditioned eye. To look and laugh is to announce your position within a complex social matrix. To look at laughter, as this book has done, is to decode that matrix through analysis of both the 'what' and the 'who' of visual humor.

For this study, the author used visual artifacts (paintings, ceramics, mosaics, statues, graffiti) from 100 BCE to 250 CE. The bulk of evidence is gleaned from the archaeologically intensive spots of those towns damaged in the wake of Vesuvius. When analyzing a work, the author had four questions in mind: 1) who is the patron that commissioned the art? 2) who is the artist? 3) how is the viewer addressed? 4) who is the viewer? These questions allow the author to analyze who the viewer is in relation to Roman society.

Part one contains four chapters dedicated to visual humor. Under study are words, mime, visual surprises, and apotropaic devices. Part two includes three chapters on social humor. Examined are looks at Roman attempts to depict their (mythical) Egyptian subjects, study of tavern paintings, and parodies of elite visual culture. Part three concludes with two chapters on sexual humor. One chapter is dedicated to mythological sexual subjects, and the other chapter focuses on the purely human.

You may learn quite a bit of new information. You may know that Cicero and his ilk spent much time in the law courts and the Senate ridiculing the physical attributes of their opponents. But do you know why? The Romans believed one's physical appearance was a reflection of their soul, which meant that a physical deformity was indicative of moral and intellectual failings. A Roman believed he could read your personality through reading your face. In pointing out their opponents' physical defects, orators used laughter to gain power over their adversaries. In broader Roman society, anyone with a deformity, such as a dwarf or hunchback, was an object of immediate derisive laughter.

Laughter as a form of power carried over into the spiritual realm as well. Many bizarre depictions of oversized phalli and representations of the Evil Eye abound in common Roman art. They were used as apotropaic devices - charms to ward off evil spirits. Laughter was thought to banish demons and the influences of evil spells. A comical rendering of a phallus in a doorway or crossroads invited the observer to laugh, thus rendering themselves immune to the attack of a nearby malignant spirit or person. The intended viewers of these visual icons are not just human passers-by, but the demons themselves thought to constantly haunt local areas. Amazingly, some slave owners made a point to own and showcase deformed slaves; as the author phrases it, such slaves were "lightening rods" to attract humor, thus dispelling demons away from the slave owner!

One of the most common forms of laughter occurred through role reversals. In Roman pantomime, the most common theme produced was that of an ugly man cuckolded by his adulterous wife. The stupid, unattractive husband has, despite living in a patriarchal society, been emasculated by his wily spouse and her younger, more attractive lover. In tavern art, the clientele often laughed at pictures of their social peers thrust into embarrassing social situations where they become the losers in some scheme. Other tavern art mocks the intellectual pretensions of the upper class - such as having Solon of Athens share his wisdom on defecation.

The nature of imperial power lends itself to occasional humor, working both for and against the imperialists. A popular motif in domestic art is the rendering of pygmies - mythological dwarves imagined by Romans to inhabit Egypt (a land most of them would never see as travel to Egypt required a Senatorial pass). These pygmies are often depicted in less than respectable situations such as defecating on crocodiles. For the Roman, this was a way of mocking a subject of imperial power, and thus by extension asserting their own dominance. (Clarke points out the humorous nature of these pygmy drawings also served an apotropaic device, as well as providing a visual allure of exotic fertility). At the other end of the scale, those who may not have agreed with the Augustan imperial vision owned works depicting the gods and founders of Rome in a less than reverential light. The social elite crowded out by the new imperial family could gather around a denigrating depiction of deities or mythological heroes linked to Augustus and share a collective sneer.

Sexual humor abounds, not the least of which in the homes of the upper crust where sexual antics were certainly not unknown during parties. The bawdy Greek deities and their carnal predilictions were excellent fodder for humorous Roman renderings (some of which again served an apotropaic device). Art depicting human subjects usually have an element of role reversal - the woman becomes totally dominant over the male, or the participants depicted break various Roman sexual taboos.

As in all of Clarke's books, along with the author's clear prose is a delightful feast of illustrations and colored plates. A veritable visual feast is to be had. Given the raucous nature of some of the subjects under study, those with puritanical tastes should beware.

This book was not as a quick and easy read as Roman Life or Roman Sex. It requires more patience and analysis on the part of the reader. Indeed, in my summary above I could only scratch the surface of this penetrating study. This book may not be everyone's cup of tea. But from beginning to end the book should prove enjoyable and informative to anyone truly interested in Roman cultural studies. Those who persevere will be well rewarded. Laughter is, after all, a very serious thing.

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Book Review of Looking at Laughter - John R. Clarke - Related Topic: Daily Life in Ancient Rome


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