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This article scrutinises one of the most challenging theses of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, that only as an aesthetic phenomenon can existence and the world be (or appear to be) ‘justified’. Through a close examination of the work's frequently masked revaluation of a series of Greek sources of thinking, not least its ‘inversion’ of both the metaphysics and the aesthetics of Plato's Republic, the article shows how the thesis of aesthetic ‘justification’ is caught up in a tension between Apolline and Dionysian interpretations, the first entailing a quasi-Homeric sense that the Olympians justify human existence by living a transfigured form of it themselves, the second involving a tragic insight into reality as itself the creative work of a ‘world-artist’, the latter allusively associated by Nietzsche with the philosophy of Heraclitus.
([In the picture] Dionysus himself is coming by sea to take part in a kōmos on Andros … He is bringing with him Laughter and Kōmos, the most exuberant of deities and the most fitting for a symposium …)
Philostratus major, Imagines
Dreaming of immortality
Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia, is a deity who has many affinities, even an intimate familiarity, with laughter. In Book 8 of the Odyssey, as we saw in the previous chapter, it was Hermes who told Apollo, amidst the gods' general mirth at the sight of adulterous Ares and Aphrodite ensnared in Hephaestus' trap, that he would consider such a price, and more, well worth paying for the chance to have sex with the goddess of love herself. His remark reignited the laughter of the Olympians, the sullen Poseidon excepted. Hermes' connections with the scope of laughter were of interest also to the poet of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, a work generally assigned to the late sixth century. Twice in this poem Hermes' persona as a sly trickster, the trademark he shows practically from birth, elicits laughter from other gods: first from Apollo (281), whose cattle Hermes has stolen, then from Zeus himself (389), who bursts into loud laughter when his son lies to him shamelessly but with expert guile about the theft of the cattle.
(Zeus: ‘Why did you guffaw like that, Momus? What we're dealing with really isn't funny at all. Stop it, you wretch! You'll choke yourself laughing.’)
Lucian, Iuppiter Tragoedus
Der Tod is gross.
Wir sind die Seinen
(Death is great.
We belong to him
with our laughing mouths.)
THE VIEW FROM THE MOON
In one of his many Lucianic incarnations, Menippus of Gadara – supposed Cynic, inventor of a genre of satirical burlesque that amalgamated the traditions of comedy and philosophy, and a literary influence on Lucian's own writing – explains to a friend how a realisation that human affairs are ludicrous helped throw him into a state of existential aporia. Having lifted his vision to the totality of the cosmos, he was utterly perplexed. ‘I could not discover’, he confides, ‘how it came into being, who made it, what its beginning or end was.’ The philosophers he consulted were of no use to him. All equally doctrinaire, they nonetheless disagreed utterly about such vast concepts as time and space, infinity, the plurality of worlds and the existence of gods. Taking matters into his own hands like an Aristophanic Trygaeus or Peisetaerus, Menippus strapped on wings and flew up to the moon.
Gods take delight in mockery: it seems they cannot suppress laughter even during sacred rites.
WORSHIPPING THE GODS WITH LAUGHTER
In a bizarre anecdote related by Theophrastus in his lost work On Comedy and preserved in paraphrase by Athenaeus, we are told that the people of Tiryns in the north-east Peloponnese once suffered from a pathological addiction to laughter which incapacitated them for the serious business of life. They consulted the Delphic oracle, which told them they could escape their affliction by throwing a bull into the sea as a sacrifice to Poseidon, but on one strict condition: that they did so in an atmosphere free from laughter (ἀγελαστί). Anxious to adhere to Apollo's instructions, the Tirynthians took the precaution of excluding children from the sacrificial ritual. But one child infiltrated the crowd. When caught and rebuked, he asked: ‘What's the matter? Are you afraid I'll upset your bull/bowl?’ The Tirynthians burst into laughter, apparently at an (accidental) pun on two senses of ‘upsetting’, i.e. enraging the sacrificial victim and overturning the bowl – a play on the imagery of wine and animal sacrifice that may also allude to the Tirynthians' reputation for intoxication. The episode taught the city just how hard if not impossible it was to be ‘cured’ of an inveterate habit.
Laughter … is a reflex that characterises man alone and has its own history … We do not laugh now as people once laughed … a definition [of the comic and of laughter] can be only historical.
Men have been wise in many different modes, but they have always laughed the same way.
NATURE AND CULTURE, BODIES AND MINDS
When ancient Greeks laughed, did they take themselves to be yielding to an instinct rooted in their animal bodies or displaying a characteristic they shared with their gods? Might they have imagined, for that matter, that they were doing both those things at the same time?
In broaching such large, scene-setting questions, it is hard to avoid taking initial orientation from Aristotle's famous obiter dictum in the Parts of Animals that humans are the only living things capable of laughter. This proposition – sometimes replaced in antiquity, and even conflated (as it occasionally still is), with the logically distinct idea of laughter as part of the essence of humans – addresses an issue which has continued to provoke debate right up to the contemporary study of animal behaviour. It would be unreasonable to expect Aristotle, for all his wide-ranging biological interests, to have anticipated the findings of the modern science of ethology, which claims to identify among other primates (and possibly elsewhere too) forms of behaviour that are physically and even socially analogous to laughter (and smiling) and that can help shed light on the evolution of these types of body language among humans.
(Human affairs are really not worth much seriousness, yet all the same we can't escape taking them seriously.)
Nostre propre et peculiere condition est autant ridicule que risible.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
T. S. Eliot
EXISTENTIAL ABSURDITY: PREDICAMENTS ANCIENT AND MODERN
The eponymous protagonist of Samuel Beckett's early novel Murphy spends most of his time in search of an escape from the burden of mundane consciousness, or from what the novel calls his ‘unredeemed split self’. Murphy survives by cultivating a sort of impassivity: in Beckett's words, a ‘self-immersed indifference to the contingencies of the contingent world which he had chosen for himself as the only felicity’. Such impassivity is a version of Greek ataraxia, and the novel itself invites us to think of Murphy's mental life as a whole in the terms of Greek philosophy. We learn, for one thing, how Murphy had studied with the eccentrically Pythagorean Neary, whose attempt to inculcate an ‘attunement’ and blending of ‘the opposites in Murphy's heart’ had proved fruitless. An entire chapter, moreover, is devoted to the depiction of Murphy's mind as both markedly tripartite and as a kind of private Platonic Cave, divided into zones of light, half light and darkness.
The ritualised performances investigated in the previous chapter are characterised not only by a general association with the symbolic arousal of laughter, but also by a marked tendency towards the use of aischrologia, ‘shameful’ or offensive speech. In sacred contexts, such aischrology is a pointedly paradoxical transgression of the normal religious requirement of euphēmia (auspicious, pure speech, often equated with ‘silence’). But at the same time it is observably framed and protected by the ritual setting itself, and thereby converted into a function of the worship and celebration of a deity. However difficult it may be for us to recover the authentic mentality of those who participated in such events, we can see that ritual aischrology, together with the laughter which typically accompanies it, is controlled and made somehow acceptable by its inclusion within a culturally codified set of protocols. Outside such frameworks, by contrast, aischrologic behaviour takes on the appearance of an intrinsically shameful, aggressive and destabilising phenomenon, a threat to communal necessities of restraint, cooperation and order. In the common flow of social life, moreover, aischrology seems to possess a sort of doubleness in relation to the workings of shame.