- The Laughter of Sarah: Biblical Exegesis, Feminist Theory, and the Concept of Delight by Catherine Conybeare
This short book proposes a very large [End Page 237] agenda for itself and in doing so becomes paradoxical on more than one level. Its starting-point is “the grounding instance of laughter in Judeo-Christian narrative” (x), Sarah’s laughter (if that is exactly what it is) at the birth of Isaac (Gen 21.6). While admitting the compressed ambiguities of the text, Conybeare commits herself to treating this narrative moment as a paradigm of what she calls “the laughter of delight.” The book unfolds as a set of reflections which advance from a reading of the biblical passage itself to a survey of the problems it posed for the early church fathers, then to a selective critique of several modern theorists of laughter (Bergson, Freud, Bakhtin)—and ultimately to an ambitious series of claims, couched in a mode of feminist phenomenology, on how the laughter of delight is so powerful that it can even challenge our ideas of agency, meaning, ontology, and time. That is a huge journey to undertake in little more than a hundred pages.
In chapters 1 and 2, Conybeare shows that the early church fathers (including Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, and Augustine) could not easily come to terms with Gen 21.6 as an instance of authentically corporeal and female laughter. They either elided the idea of laughter as such or else read it in symbolic/allegorical ways which sought to escape its narrative particularity: the earthly experience of an old, exultant woman gets left behind in a mass of theological abstractions. Even before Christianity, the Platonizing Judaism of Philo had read Isaac as a trope for eternal, god-given joy which explicitly removed it from the realm of “all female emotion” (33–34). For all these readers (though less so for the more generous hermeneutics of the Midrash), laughter “evaporat[es] in transcendence” (35) and is subordinated to a teleological worldview that Conybeare wishes to repudiate.
Modern theories of laughter also struggle, according to Conybeare, with the particularity, instability, and the sheer existential charge of the material with which she is concerned. In their different ways, Bergson and Freud (the main subjects of chapter 3) over-schematise the subject, Bergson by trying to exclude emotion from laughter, Freud (despite intermittent references to the pure pleasure of childlike play) by linking laughter too closely to acts of aggression directed at a target. The laughter of delight cannot be captured by universalising theory; Sarah’s laughter is not at anything (51).
A Bakhtinian perspective on laughter (chap. 4) seems more promising, given its emphasis on corporeality. But despite recognising laughter’s “opennness” and its social aspects, Bakhtin too falls short of Conybeare’s key requirements: he tends to collapse the individual into the group, and there are troublingly negative associations attached to the place of women’s bodies in his thinking. Better is the philosophical anthropologist Helmuth Plessner, who locates laughter in relation to what he sees as the incommensurability humans are bound to experience between body and soul.
In the book’s remaining three chapters, Conybeare finds inspiration chiefly in a series of radical female writers, among them Arendt, de Beauvoir, Butler, Kristeva, Irigaray, Cavarero, Cixous and Parvulescu (unfortunately misspelt throughout as “Parvalescu”). Dipping in and out of their work (much of it, of course, on topics other than laughter) she constructs a version of “the laughter of Sarah” which stresses instability, multivalence, uncertainty, and yet also [End Page 238] a joyful acceptance of the ambiguities of existence itself. Along the way she makes an extraordinarily bold series of claims (amounting, ironically, to a sort of “negative theology” of laughter): that laughter (of delight) dissolves agency (thereby undermining any notion of the “sovereignty” of the individual), “dislocates meaning” (76), resists representation (81), “signifies nothing but itself” (84), takes us back to a pre-oedipal, pre-linguistic “semiotic” realm (Kristeva’s term), “challenges...