Ancients on Scepticism and Humour

Humour is one of the things that is difficult to judge and transmit, especially across cultures and eras. Consul, rhetorician and sceptic, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was also famed as “one of the two funniest men in history”[i]. Both in the Senate and the law court, Cicero was notorious for being hardly able to contain his wit and hold back his barbs when it would have prudent so to do.

Michael Fontaine, editor and translator of this selection of Cicero’s texts relating to humour, presents comedian Mark Saltveit’s assessment of stand-up comedy. Improvised spoken comedy is dependent on context – exploiting a mood or spiking a person’s transitory attitude – and that comic sensibility cannot be taught, even if turns of phrase, delivery, timing and so forth can be imparted and improved upon. Fontaine has gone for a deliberately broad translation (rather than a literal or detailed one) in order for us to get the mood and meaning.

Cicero wrote that he thought humour was hard to analyse and impossible to teach. He divides spoken humour into – on one hand – quips and retorts and, on the other, prepared routines. The quickness of quips dazzles and that in itself adds to the delight of listeners. “In general, our comebacks are more impressive than our unprovoked cut-downs, for two reasons: (1) the quickness of a person’s mind appears greater in a response, and (2) comebacks are indicative of good manners, since they suggest we never would’ve said anything if we hadn’t been attacked.”

In oratory, making the audience laugh is advantageous because (1) people side with you, (2) “Everyone admires a zinger”, (3) “It crushes an opponent: trips him up, ridicules him, deters him, defeats him”, (4) “It shows you that the orator himself is sophisticated, that he’s educated, urbane” and (5) “It eases hurt and breaks the tension”. He writes about adopting the manners and argot of the city or country to make a humorous point.

As for boundaries, Cicero says the only rule is “THOU SHALT TELL NO UNFUNNY JOKE”. Even deformities can the subject of ridicule, according to Cicero. The sort of humour he admires can be cruel. “When a friend was wailing that his wife had hung herself from a fig tree, the Sicilian said, “Any chance I could get a few cuttings from that tree to plant?””

His examples are – regrettably – not very funny, notwithstanding the difficulties in cultural and linguistic distance from us. “A: What are you crying for, dad? B: What, I should be singing? I just lost my case in court!” (Sound of crickets here.) I guess it’s the way you tell them.

The best is as following: “[…] Soldier, Titius, liked to kick a soccer ball around at night ad was suspected of breaking some important statues. When his friends why he hadn’t shown up for his platoon’s morning workout, Terentius Vespa quipped, “Oh, it’s okay – he said he broke an arm.”” “A: In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto? B: A slow one.” Not bad.

How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor is not a source book for best-man speech jokes. However, it is a useful reminder that while wit – and admiration for wit – is constant, jokes are rarely as durable. Wit can also be dangerous, as Cicero found to his cost. “Cicero was hunted down and murdered twelve years after publishing this treatise […] by Mark Anthony, a politician-turned-warlord that Cicero had roasted in a merciless series of political speeches.”

Sextus Empiricus (fecit c. 200 AD) was a sceptic of the Pyrrhonist Empiric school. Sextus is an important writer because of the extensive body of his writings which not only survived but also influenced founders of the Enlightenment. Sextus followed the teachings of Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-270 BC), who supposedly travelled to India on Alexander the Great’s campaign to the Indus, where he met Buddhist and Ajñāna holy men. There are no claims to Sextus being an originator but of being a notable late exponent of Pyrrhonistic thinking, which was known for its radical scepticism in place of advocating a positive worldview. Although the Pyrrhonist school is not considered Stoic, its ataraxia (imperturbability) is a detachment common to Stoicism, Ajñāna and Buddhism.

Richard Bett has selected some of Sextus’s writings in How to Keep an Open Mind, mainly consisting of extracts from Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Sextus presented scepticism not a philosophy but as a method of questioning knowledge and received wisdom. “The skeptical ability is one that produces oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought in any way whatsoever, from which, because of the equal strength in the opposing objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment, and after that to tranquility.”

The weakness of the setting up of a series of oppositional propositions in order to establish equilibrium is that it allows the sceptic to excuse himself from taking a qualified position in favour or opposing a proposition that has a predominance of evidence undermining it. It can become a system to insulate the sceptic from committing and – in a sense – even engaging fully. However, Sextus was aware of this trap and advised using the technique to question theories of reality and knowledge, rather than applying such analysis to matters of daily life. In a similar way, we can see Post-Modernists ignoring their own principles when it comes to living life and only applying deconstruction of language in the fields of politics, philosophy and intellectual pursuits and then only when advantageous.  

Bett offers Sextus as a model for detachment in an age of polarisation. “[…] if we don’t try to go all the way with Sextus, but still take his method seriously where we can, we may find something useful. To conclude: if Sextus can serve as a model for us, it is perhaps as a model of willingness to look at all sides of any question and not to judge things too quickly – something we could probably use more of in the present state of the world.”

Sextus outlines the method of scepticism and why it is used. “We say up to now that the skeptic’s aim is tranquility in things to do with opinion and moderate reactions in things that are forced on us.” “Arguments to Have up Your Sleeve” is a section dedicated to 15 modes or approaches that allow sceptics to undermine claims to certain knowledge. Sextus warns against inductive reasoning because it is not inclusive of all examples, which allows a degree of uncertainty about the universality of conclusions drawn from induction. Sextus provides a touchstone for the sceptical position generally in late antiquity.

As is usual in the series, extracts of text in the original language faces an English translation, with introduction, glossaries and footnotes in English. These handsome little hardbacks continue the series in a set format with attractive designs and thereby extending Princeton’s library of the ancients.  

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Michael Fontaine (ed., trans.), How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor, Princeton University Press, March 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 292pp + xxxiii, English/Latin text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6165

Sextus Empiricus, Richard Bett (trans.), How to Keep an Open Mind, Princeton University Press, April 2021, hardback, 225pp + xlviii, English/Greek text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6042

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Miriam Elia: We do Lockdown

Dung Beetle Books have published We do Lockdown, a new book to inform younger readers about life under COVID. The author, Miriam Elia, helps children learn about the new normal in a manner that is reassuringly numbing. What may at first appear to be logical fallacies, hypocrisy and outright absurdity in our government’s wholly balanced and scientifically grounded response to the current health crisis are explained to the sceptical. We do Lockdown is the fifth book in the Learning Series, which includes We go to the Gallery, the author’s bestselling introduction to contemporary art for young learners.

Helpful word boxes highlight new words for learners. They include “risk, averse, agoraphobia”, “obsessive, compulsive, disorder” and “playing, is, hazardous”. Personally, I consider “despotic, misanthropic, existence” too advanced for readers aged 6-8 years old, but I applaud the author’s ambition. Legible and colourful illustrations and clear text complement each other. Ms Elia’s competence is to be applauded. The Ladybird-style format hardback gives purchasers confidence in the product.  

[Image:  Bog roll apocalypse from We do Lockdown by Miriam Elia. © Miriam Elia 2020.]

In We do Lockdown, readers follow John and Susan and their mother through everyday life in our newly health-conscious times. We join the unnamed family as they prepare to watch the death count on the television news and see them on the doorstep applauding our NHS. All of this provides some social instruction alongside the expansion of the target reader’s vocabulary and grammar. Ms Elia’s delightful vignettes dispel notions of cultivated paranoia, government control, media hysteria and social enforcement of petty and ineffective acts of compliance. We get a comprehensive overview of our future in a manner both informative and – dare I add – a touch old-fashioned in execution. This latter aspect will appeal to the so-called “hipster crowd” without alienating the rest of us.

[Image: Caring on Tap from We do Lockdown by Miriam Elia. © Miriam Elia 2020.]

Dung Beetle Books is a surprisingly venerable publishing house. It is “an educational publishing house founded in 1936”. “Dung Beetle’s first success came in 1938 with the publication of Why We Burn Books, an early learning guide to fascism, which sold particularly well in Central and Eastern Europe.” I recommend that Amazon reissue that book with updates. The new edition could explain why online retailers de-list books spreading so-called “science” designed to promote hatred. It is reassuring that big tech, online retailers and traditional publishers are combining to make us safer and less confused about vital issues by protecting us from hate speech.

We do Lockdown is a necessary, timely and deeply responsible book which children will appreciate and parents can trust. We salute the good folks at Dung Beetle Books for another sterling effort. We recommend this title as a Christmas purchase.

Miriam Elia, We do Lockdown, Dung Beetle Books, 2020, 46pp, fully col. illus., hardback, £8.99, https://dungbeetlebooks.com/

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

A Confederacy of Dunces

CFD_S_11“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting

In John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) (reissued in an illustrated edition by the Folio Society) Ignatius J. Reilly is that genius. He dresses oddly, refuses to convert his university education into productive employment and lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is ashamed of his mother, who likes to drink and socialise, and she is beginning to tire of him. He speaks like so to a policeman: “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.”

Ignatius mission is to act as truth teller for the 1960s. He attends the cinema to observe the lewd and tawdry content of films purely to glean insights into the descent of culture. “With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy,” he declares in his treatise on the decline of the Western world, written on pads which he illustrates.

Finally at the age of 30, forced by circumstance, Ignatius takes a clerical position at decrepit Levy Pants. In its squalid premises he seeks apply his acumen to the ignoble task of pursing trade. He engages in business correspondence with the arrogant vitriol of which society so necessarily curtails expression. “Mr I. Abelman, Mongoloid, Esq.: We have received via post your absurd comments about our trousers, the comments revealing, as they did, your total lack of contact with reality.”

Announcing that “I cannot tolerate social injustice,” Ignatius visits the factory floor to observe the inequities of capitalism in action. He is astute enough to realise that the black workers’ responses to jazz on the PA is mere Palovian conditioning, which the subjects mistake for pleasure. “In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because of its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the Negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I can not imagine why. […] However, if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business.”

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

Fired from Levy Pants for organising a (failed) riot, Ignatius becomes the world’s (or at least New Orleans’s) least satisfactory hot-dog vendor: arguing with customers, fighting bystanders and consuming the hot dogs himself. This brings him into contact with the seedy underbelly of New Orleans and into the orbit of yet more odd characters, which drive the story to a satisfying denouement.

Toole gives us some comedic set pieces without too much contrivance. These include an incipient lecture “Sex in Politics: Erotic Liberty as a Weapon Against Reactionaries”, the luncheon party and Ignatius’s follies. There is a plot and plenty of action and thus A Confederacy of Dunces does not suffer from the usual weaknesses of comic novels: passages of self-regarding clever prose and contrived authorial observations. The reader feels he is in the world of these characters and is invested in what happens to them. He is never irritated by the author incongruously taking him aside to deliver witty barbs about modern life.

Ignatius is a comic protagonist: he is a liar, glutton, sluggard, prig and sneak. Yet Toole keeps us engaged and we never lose sympathy despite our disapproval for his main character, who is somewhere between hero and anti-hero. Ignatius suffers consequences of his character flaws and his actions drive the plot. Ignatius is unfettered by social convention and we get the delight of seeing a person overturning politeness and saying the unsayable. He seems to lack the filter that most people have that prevents them from immediately voicing our views out loud. On the other hand, by reading his journal we see that he is driven by folie de grandeur and a series of peculiar convictions which distort his understanding. Thus Ignatius is both liberated by self-belief (having few behavioural inhibitions) and constricted in by delusion (having little wisdom). It is that friction between liberation and ignorance that makes Ignatius compelling as a character. That is why we can find him loveable – or at least appealing – while being aware of his foolishness and inadequacy.

Myrna Minkoff is Ignatius’s long-distance on-and-off-again Beatnik girlfriend. She wears black clothes, a beret and glasses purely to demonstrate her seriousness. From New York she writes letters diagnosing Ignatius’s dysfunction and urging sexual liberation. (To be fair, in this case Ignatius’s sexual repression does seem a contributing factor to his abnormal behaviour.) She reports on her activism. “At the moment my every waking hour is spent in helping some dedicated friends raise money for a bold and shattering movie that they are planning to film about interracial marriage. Although it will be a low-budget number, the script itself is chock full of disturbing truths and has the most fascinating tonalities and ironies.” She makes it her place to befriend the black actress. “She is such a real, vital person that I have made her my closest friend. I discuss her racial problems with her constantly, drawing her out even when she doesn’t feel like discussing them.” She carries a valise full of pamphlets on left-wing campaigns. Toole indirectly shows that her defiance of her parents is bound up with her libido. Although outwardly agitating for racial equality through political conviction, it is Myrna’s sex drive that directs her towards race-mixing and reveals a fetishisation of interracial relationships.

She is a great comic creation, although admittedly one drawn from Toole’s real-life experience. In her relentless moralism, lack of inhibition and absence of self-awareness, Myrna stands as a cutting portrait of a proto-SJW. Ignatius, likewise, is a precursor of a disaffected university-graduate anarchist who rails against the middle class whilst living with his mother. He suspects he is slandered by the forces of white supremacists. He is an armchair revolutionary who muses on how to restructure society and abolish the tyranny of commerce. He could be persuaded to engage in terrorism. “I am not above tossing a Molotov cocktail or two,” he confesses. His class solidarity allows him boundless compassion towards the masses but no patience in their execrable company.

In their forceful views, profanity, volcanic tempers and quick resorts to violence, Ignatius and Myrna are the embodiment of the minority-adulating, self-appointed class warriors.

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

The secondary characters are distinctive. Hapless Patrolman Mancuso, operates undercover as a vice operative; factory owner Mr Levy is a distracted and uninterested owner of a failing concern; his wife is discontent, mildly guilty about their income, she nags her husband to better himself; Darlene, the barmaid, wants to develop a striptease act with her pet cockatoo removing her garments; her boss Lana is a penny-pinching martinet overseeing a dive bar; Dorian Greene is a party-hopping trust-fund homosexual with a line of catty banter. Burma Jones is a stand-out character; he is a cool streetwise black man living on the boundary of the licit. Toole captures his patois accurately and without condescension. When he is employed to clean a bar for below minimum wage, Jones sourly rehearses a conversation he could have with the policeman who has harassed him to get a job. “Well, I gonna tell that po-lice I gainfully employ, keep him off my back, tell him I met up with a humanitaria payin me twenty dollar a week. He say “That fine, boy. I’m glad to see you straighten out.” And I say, “Hey!” And he say, “Now maybe you becomin a member of the community.” And I say, “Yeah, I got me a nigger job and nigger pay. Now I really a member of the community. Now I a real nigger. No vagran. Just nigger.””

Jones’s backchat with his employer shows him moving between leveraging historical injustice and following self-interest in a seamless manner, yet he is sympathetic and believable. He is not a rake, criminal or grifter but a smart-yet-lazy man who follows the line of least resistance, able to provide a dry self-deprecating commentary on his situation. We enjoy his company, appreciate his intelligent insight and wish him well. He is the closest to a neutral reader-perspective character in the book. It would be wrong to call A Confederacy of Dunces a collection of grotesques. Toole’s characters do not seem calculated to make social critiques or embody types but seem to have an internal life and faithfulness to life (albeit heightened) that renders them truer than outright caricatures.

This volume consists of the corrected text of the novel, an introduction covering the writing and publication history of the book and a preface by Bill Bailey, comedian and musician, explaining why he – like many comedians – finds Toole’s story strikes a chord. Production values of the Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces are characteristically high. Carefully designed, well printed and using high-quality materials, the book is a pleasure to read. Jonny Hannah has provided new illustrations for this edition. It comprises 7 illustrations plus a frontispiece, all full colour. He has also designed endpapers, cover and the design of the pictorial slipcase, as well as incidental figures in black and white, making the book a complete experience. The images are painted and drawn in a collage style, vigorous and striking. This riotous, informal and vibrant approach perfectly matches the tone and contents of the novel. Reading this new Folio Society is like being immersed in one of the best comic novels of the Twentieth Century.

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, Folio Society, 2019, cloth hardback in pictorial slipcase, 332pp, 8 col. illus., £39.95. The Folio Society edition of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, with preface by Bill Bailey and illustrated by Jonny Hannah, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Theophrastus’s Satirical Characters

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Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour is a book of character sketches which describes common types that recur in perpetuity. These types survive today. Although we refuse to recognise ourselves among these characters, we all find some individuals here that we know in person. This attractive little book with new illustrations brings these eternal types to a new generation.

Tyrtamus, called Theophrastus (“divine in speech”) (c. 371-c. 287 BC) was a respected philosopher and teacher, who came from Lesbos to join Plato’s Academy, later studying with Aristotle in Athens. He became a favourite student of Aristotle. He survived the vicissitudes of Athenian politics through a combination of wits, rhetoric and popularity. His lectures drew large audiences. He went on to become a wealthy property owner – no mean feat for a foreigner with no voting rights or other entitlements of Athenian citizens. Most of his essays on grammar, ethics, history and nature are lost. His Characters has come down to us in damaged form.

The collection of comic portrait sketches is satirical, mocking the bad behaviour of Athenians, especially their venality. These were written during the immediate post-Alexandrian period, though only mention contemporary events rarely and tangentially and these types are universal rather than specific. Each description is only a page or so long. There is relatively little that is historically dependent in the text. In cases where amounts, places, people and customs are referred to there are footnotes. We pick up on the importance in Alexandrian Athens of public status, private litigation and personal money from Theophrastus’s targets and approaches.

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[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Authoritarian (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The Babbler is an incessant talker who bores and distracts all around him. He prevents theatre-goers from enjoying the play and diners from eating in peace. His children tease him by, at bedtime, imploring him to bore them to sleep. The Obnoxious Man exhibits his genitals in public, belches loudly and makes a nuisance of himself at the theatre in order to attract attention. He stops in at the barbershop to announce that he is on his way to get drunk. “The Distrustful Man is the sort who, when he’s sent his slave to do some shopping, sends another along to find out how much the first one spent. Though he’s carrying his money himself, he sits down every two hundred yards to count it.”[i] Theophrastus describes him getting up at night to check that the doors and windows are locked, despite the assurances of his wife.

Particularly good is the Coward, who deliberately hides his sword under the pillow in his tent, so that he has to go through the pantomime of searching for it before he can go out to battle. His terror at being at sea is genuinely comic. The Authoritarian is today’s know-nothing, offering his opinion unwanted; he is the elitist who believes he is immune to the faults he ascribes to others. Others include the Social Climber, the Charlatan, the Vulgar Man (more an inconsiderate man, readers may think), the Arrogant Man and the Slanderer. There are multiple versions of the miser – Theophrastus obviously had strong feelings on the subject of parsimony…

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[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Slanderer (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The illustrations by Andre Carrilho are vigorous, bold and highly stylised. Each character gets a drawing. The figures are both ancient and modern. The mixture of sweeping curves in line and shaded details used sparingly is distinctive and redolent of The New Yorker, a publication for which Carrilho has worked. The introduction is informative and the translation is very approachable whilst preserving the literal examples of obols, drachmas and agora as written by Theophrastus. The design is attractive and the binding a handsome scarlet cloth.

 

Theophrastus, Pamela Mensch (trans.), James Romm (introduction), Andre Carrilho (illus.), Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour, Callaway, 2018, cloth hardback, $24.95, 111pp, mono illus., ISBN 978 0 935112 37 5

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art