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  • Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity
  • Charles Platter
Stephen Halliwell. Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xiii + 616 pp. Cloth, $140; paper, $60.

In 1991, Stephen Halliwell published "The Uses of Laughter in Greek Culture" (CQ 41:279-96), an essay that, among other things, rejected totalizing definitions of laughter and the laughable in favor of a more nuanced view that emphasized a distinction between laughter perceived as friendly and non-consequential, i.e., not injurious to the reputation of anyone, and laughter seen as abusive, hostile, or belittling, and so deleterious to the reputation of the target. His point was not that laughter could be classified so easily but that there was a gray area at the interface of these two categories, capable of being perceived either way, and that even for non-problematic cases the dynamic quality of the phenomenon allowed non-consequential laughter to metamorphose with alarming speed into laughter perceived as aggressive, confrontational, and potentially violent.

Greek Laughter extends the analysis of the irreducible ambivalence of laughter through a broad range of topics and authors, from Athens to Alexandria, over the course of over more than a millennium. Halliwell's scope is therefore vast, and he does not aim at comprehensiveness. A look at his chapter titles shows that his approach is primarily literary—unsurprising, given the richness of the evidence. Still, the fact that only two of the ten chapters are organized primarily around practices (symposia, ritual) rather than literature (although there is a separate appendix on gelastic faces in visual art) will leave open the degree to which the attitudes revealed reflect cultural norms in the broadest sense. The upside of this literary focus, however, is that Halliwell reads carefully and teases out new and interesting conclusions about laughter from dozens of passages, many of which the reader feels he or she already knows well.

The first chapter sets out to discuss the history of laughter not as a phenomenon uniquely characteristic of man (although Halliwell leaves open the possibility that it could be) but as a set of social behaviors tightly woven into the fabric of daily life, and thus resistant to universalizing definitions. The distinction between inconsequential and consequential laughter remains important here and illustrates well the complexities of the subject. Take for example Demosthenes 53, Against Conon, where the plaintiff Ariston is prosecuting Conon for aselgia ("assault"), after a confrontation that continued with an attack on Ariston by Conon and his sons, and culminated in a "victory-dance" by Conon himself, which mimicked the behavior of a victorious fighting-cock. Ariston maintains that the severity of his injuries and the outrageous behavior of Conon would have justified an even more serious charge of hubris. He predicts, however, that Conon will attempt to excuse his actions as an innocent joke that no one ought to take too seriously. For Halliwell, the case exhibits well the rhetorical slipperiness of laughter as a cultural phenomenon: "What one party alleges to be a case of vicious assault and hubris, the other will explain away as the innocent capers of the young" (36). This dialectic between play and seriousness that would have been key for the [End Page 529] jury's determination of this case (the verdict is unknown) is not the only type of ambivalent laughter considered by Halliwell, but it illustrates well the dynamic instability that frequently accompanies laughter and problematizes the intentions of those who laugh.

It would be folly to attempt to summarize the chapters in detail. Each ranges widely and is supported by a mass of documentation, including some 1,300 footnotes. Indeed, most of the notes themselves comprise the rudiments of substantive new arguments. The result is a book of extraordinary richness and penetrating insight, one that presents Greek laughter as a phenomenon sufficiently complex as to be believable, given the fine distinctions we are accustomed to make in regard to our own gelastic practices. The notes that follow are nevertheless included to give a sense of the themes of each chapter.

Chapter 2 concerns the Homeric poems, particularly the Thersites...


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