Often ebullient, but sometimes just gassy, this ambitious study sketches a counterhistory of Western thought by tracing the salient roles of laughter. Toward the end of this book, Sanders (A is for Ox, 1994; English and History of Ideas/Pitzer College) reveals himself as a devotee of Lenny Bruce's comedy. Impassioned arguments for the cultural significance of Bruce's vitriolic routinese.g., that they exposed the workings of racismmake clear Sanders's investment in his titular theme of subversion. It's unfortunate that this meditation on Bruce doesn't go deeper and didn't come sooner, for Sanders never quite nails down why laughter should necessarily be considered subversive, and he only convinces the reader of his own passion for the subject when he gets to Bruce. That said, the landscape he tours is indeed a glorious one. Highlights include: the deep unity of laughter and weeping in the Hebrew tradition; the birth of irony in the Socratic style; the animus of the Christian tradition to laughter; and the revolutionary outbursts of humor in medieval carnivaleruptions brilliantly captured, Sanders shows, by Chaucer. Sanders astutely notes the links between jesting, aggression, and envy. He nevertheless insists on opposing humor to power, narrating how humor is a liberating force. It seems, however, that humor could just as well be a safety valve, a way of blowing off steam while leaving the system intact. There are other flaws here. Sanders takes too much delight in tracing out etymologies (which, like dreams, too often fall flat when recounted). Also, he repeatedly invokes the distinction between oral and literate modes of culture, a key theme in his previous work that can seem beside the point here. Overall, though, Sanders wears his learning lightly enough. Refreshing, although the promise of subversion fizzles.
Read full book review >