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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 5 (1998)
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Subversive Laughter:
Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History
by Barry Sanders

(Beacon Press, 1995)

A review by Tim W. Brown
Copyright 1998 Tim W. Brown

Not long ago I had occasion to fire off a letter-to-the-editor to Harpers Magazine. Provoking my ire was an essay written by Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres and Moo, in which she made the preposterous claim that Uncle Tom's Cabin was a superior book to Huckleberry Finn.

Much of the difficulty I had with Smiley's piece related to the fact she was pitting apples against oranges, a sentimental novel written at the height of the antebellum abolitionist movement versus a comic novel written after the Civil War had been fought and slaves had been freed. Among a number of points about which she was just plain wrong, Smiley was most wrong-headed in her contention that Huckleberry Finn was not a serious novel, her fundamental problem with the book. In my response I took great pains to explain that Smiley was missing what I believed was an obvious point: deadly serious intentions are often behind comic or satiric writing, and, in any case, the greatest writing is not merely serious, but encompasses a fuller range of moods, from comic to tragic. I stopped short of commenting on the irony of having a last name like Smiley and taking such a sourpuss view of literature.

Alas, Smiley is not alone. It has been my experience that many readers and editors hold comic literature in low esteem. They could be the most politically progressive and culturally aware people you will ever meet. They probably appreciate angry, frontal attacks on such things as greed, brutality and ignorance. But they dont take you seriously if you address these topics through comedy or satire. I know this from trying to publish my two novels, On Sangamon and Deconstruction Acres. Both books barbecue a number of institutions, including academia, big business, landlords, city government, culture snobs, God himself. This probably is why publication has been slow in coming: I'm pissing off people who grew up among and are fully vested in these institutions.

Yet it's interesting to note that Americans generally have an almost insatiable appetite for comedy, reflected in the glut of sitcoms on television and lowbrow comedies at the cinema. Television producers are tripping all over each other to locate the proper vehicle for the latest stand-up phenom; movie execs are signing comic actors like Jim Carrey to unprecedented multi-million dollar contracts. The current interest in comedy is not restricted only to TV or film; stand-up and improv comedy remain as popular as ever. Even performance poetry, literature of a sort, regularly stirs laughter. Why have writers for publication not learned from their performance brethren about comedys effects on an audience? Why is the world of letters dominated by a bunch of humorless fucks in New York and a few select college towns?

Answers to these and other questions you had about laughter and literature can be found in Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History by Barry Sanders, who maintains that laughter is dangerous stuff, especially to those in positions of power, be they royalty, clergy or corporations.

Sanders attempts no less than a history of laughter spanning the entire length of (western) civilization. He begins with the Israelites of the Old Testament, who, considering later peoples in his history, were a pretty humorless group. Living under a sentence of death from an angry God owing to Adam and Eve's sins brought them little joy, although Sanders credits the invention of irony to Jews who wanted to joke and laugh but who, religion dictated, had to keep up a grave, sober appearance.

A more realistic attitude toward laughter emerged during the Classical Period. Sanders quotes Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Cicero on man's propensity to laugh at humorous situations. Indeed, as Sanders points out, Aristotle referred to the human species as animal ridens, the beast who laughs. But, given laughter was often drawn by finding someone else's misfortune funny -- the Sudden Glory of feeling yourself on top and your neighbor on the bottom -- each of these philosophers urged moderation, so as not to seem uncharitable. Plato was particularly emphatic on this point, for uncontrolled laughter could seriously undermine the authority of those who ruled over his idealized republic.

Sanders argues laughter took a giant step forward in the Medieval Period, mainly through the person of Geoffrey Chaucer. Despite the best efforts of the Roman Catholic Church to enforce limits on its parishioners' behavior (laughter being unseemly to God according to Medieval theologians), people laughed anyhow, their way of surviving life under oppressive popes and capricious kings. Sanders writes that the laughter heard during this period erupted mainly from the throats and lungs of peasants. This leads Sanders to one of the book's important conclusions: throughout history, laughter has tended to rise from the lower classes, much to the embarrassment of the upper classes. Laughter acted as check against the worst excesses of the ruling class; if a priest or nobleman wasnt careful in his dealings with the local peasantry, the resulting mockery could render him impotent.

It is widely acknowledged that Chaucer's great accomplishment was to bring the voice and attitude of the commoner into the Canterbury Tales. Of greater significance to Sanders' study, Chaucer invented a whole new genre by placing a humorous story in a literary context. Through a lengthy exegesis of The Millers Tale, Sanders shows that Chaucer was no less than the first writer of fiction in English. Moreover, the first English fiction was comic in tone.

Chaucer is clearly the hero of Sudden Glory; Sanders argument culminates with the chapter in which he is discussed. Ensuing historical periods are handled in more cursory fashion. Persuaded by newly discovered classical texts or bullied by Puritans eager to stamp out sin, humans returned to their old humorless selves during the Renaissance and Reformation. Things brightened a little during the Enlightenment, when wit and irony made big comebacks in literature, especially in the work of Jonathan Swift. And so things went with the social stew, the lid clamped a little tighter or looser from century to century, until Sigmund Freud blew the lid completely off in the twentieth century, releasing hilarity among other pent-up feelings and desires. Sanders concludes his book with a personal reflection on the career of Lenny Bruce, who in our own time pissed off the authorities with his caustic brand of humor and suffered fatal consequences. (Sanders wonders if Bruce's heroin overdose wasn't a hot shot cooked up for him courtesy of the police.)

Surveying the history of laughter in exactly the right proportions, Sudden Glory rarely fails to engage the reader's interest. Sanders immerses the reader in a multitude of sources, including the Bible, classical fragments, monastic manuscripts, books on manners, psychology journals, popular novels and theoretical texts. He also examines visual art to help him take a given times comic pulse. This leads to an interesting aside: at least one of the artists drawing on cave walls at Lascaux 30,000 years ago had a funny bone. Sanders writes that a drawing has been discovered depicting a bent-over man about to get reamed in the ass by the horns of a charging bull. Further interesting info can be found in the books copious notes. Here Sanders inserts a number of comments on etymology. For example, buttressing Sanders argument that fiction arose from the comic tradition, he notes that the Middle English geste (jest today) originally meant either joke or story.

This book couldn't have come at a better time for me. Like many poets and writers, I spend an unhealthy amount of time brooding over my career. Sudden Glory boosted my spirits through honoring the type of writing I practice and enjoy reading. One hopes that the very unfunny folks who run publishing companies or teach at stuffy universities will read this book and lighten up a little. They are the first to lament the demise of reading, yet they refuse to offer the public anything but dreary, predictable books.


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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