“Fun, in fact, is institutionalized. Everyone has pompoms on their desks,
which they shake at celebratory moments.”

– David Streitfeld, “No Gain, Know Pain,” Los Angeles Times for March 2, 2004 [no link – registration required, including personal info.]
(via my brother Steve, who says, “The Brave New World of panopticon corporations!”)

Laughing in church

“‘Consider, therefore, whether you won’t consult a fool.’ ‘Upon my soul,’ replied Panurge, ‘I will. I seem to feel my bowels loosening. A moment before they were all tight and constipated. But just as we have chosen the fine cream of wisdom to advise us, so I should like someone who is a fool of the first water to preside over our new deliberations.’ ‘Triboulet seems sufficient of a fool to me, said Pantagruel. ‘A proper and total fool,’ replied Panurge. ‘A fatal fool.’ ‘A high-toned fool.’ ‘A natural fool.’ ‘A B sharp and B flat fool.’ ‘A celestial fool.’ ‘A terrestrial fool.’ ‘A jovial fool.’ ‘A jolly, mocking fool.’ ‘A mercurial fool.’ ‘A merry, sportive fool.’ ‘A lunatical fool.'” (Etc., for three more pages.)
François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel 3:37-38 (trans. by J. M. Cohen, Penguin, 1963)

In the course of my usual coffee-fueled wool-gathering this morning I realized I have yet to write a single line about Rabelais, or about his foremost interpreter, the 20th-century Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin – like his 16th-century mentor – was the rare example of a scholar who seemed to know a lot about everything, and to remember virtually everything he ever read. Most attempts to develop new theories fail because they attempt to synthesize too much about which the author knows too little. Bakhtin had the sense to restrict his scope to a single author (Rabelais in Rabelais and His World, elsewhere Dostoevsky) and let his discoveries and suggestions about their works ripple outward. Thus, instead of writing a comprehensive history or geography of laughter he situates himself at one pivotal point in human space-time – the Renaissance in Western Europe – and looks in all directions from there.

I was reminded of this while reading some Ashanti folktales about the trickster culture hero Anansi, the spider. It was no more than a tossed-off comment of Bakhtin’s about the original character of religion that first gave me, years ago, what I think is an essential interpretive insight into stories such as these. It’s not that Mircea Eliade’s hypothesis of a separate sacred time existing within but somehow completely apart from ordinary time – illo tempore, as he called it – isn’t useful and important in its own right. But Eliade neglected one key factor: the unique power of laughter to bridge the gap between sacred and secular, between the atemporal utopia and the here-and-now, between the spirit and the body. The king and the fool are born under the same horoscope, says Rabelais. Here is the self-important Anansi, perched ridiculously on a cashew shell “as if he were a chief sitting on a carved stool,” abandoning his role as arbiter among the other animals to claim the right of primogeniture for himself:

“‘If you had come to me first, I would have saved you this argument, for I am the oldest of all creatures. When I was born, the earth itself had not yet been made, and there was nothing to stand on. When my father died, there was no ground to bury him in. So I had to bury him in my head.'”
(Harold Courlander, The Hat-Shaking Dance and Other Ashanti Tales From Ghana, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957)

Laughter pulls the ground out from under us, leaves us hanging, as it were, in mid-air. Ordinary laws are suspended (as in Eliade’s illo tempore) but so, too, is all fear and reverence, all sorrow and anger. In fact, if laughter has been generally outlawed by the so-called world religions, it is because it threatens their monopoly on the primal emotions. You can’t laugh in church. Bakhtin notes that “Early Christianity had already condemned laughter. Tertullian, Cyprian, and John Chrysostom preached against ancient spectacles, especially against the mime and the mime’s jests and laughter. John Chrysostum declared that jests and laughter are not from God but the devil. Only permanent seriousness, remorse, and sorrow for his sins befit the Christian.” (Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana U.P., 1984.)

Bakhtin shows, at least within the Western Christian milieu, the central importance of what he calls “the material bodily element” to the unofficial culture of festive laughter. It is, he writes, a “degrading and regenerating principle.” One has only to read accounts of the sacred clowns of the American Southwest and Mexico (see below) to realize the truth of this insight. If Aristotle was right about laughter being a unique and fundamental human trait, what from the perspective of Christian history appears to be a temporary lapse (in what were, after all, the “Middle Ages”) may instead represent a return to the origins of religious expression: “During the Easter season laughter and jokes were permitted even in church. The priest could tell amusing stories and jokes from the pulpit. Following the days of lenten sadness he could incite his congregation’s gay laughter as a joyous celebration . . . The jokes and stories concerned especially material bodily life, and were of a carnival type. Permission to laugh was granted simultaneously with the permission to eat meat and to resume sexual intercourse.”

Laughter and the grotesque were (are) opposed to death and the fear of death through their very celebration of change and renewal. Bakhtin stresses “the essential relation of festive laughter to time and to the change of season. . . . The gay aspect of the feast presented this happier future of a general material affluence, equality, and freedom, just as the Roman Saturnalia announced the return of the Golden Age. Thus, the medieval feast had, as it were, the face of Janus. Its official, ecclesiastical face was turned to the past and sanctioned the existing order, but the face of the people of the marketplace looked into the future and laughed, attending the funeral of the past and the present.” The comic inversions of the folk festivals included travesty/transvestitism; the reversal of hierarchical orders (jesters turned into kings and bishops); parodies of sacred rituals; and of course the celebration of all that was forbidden: drunkenness, gluttony, debauchery.

If I differ with Bakhtin at all it is only in my sense of the relative value of the spiritual/sacred versus the material/festive. My reading of ethnography over the past several years has convinced me that these two principles need not be ideologically opposed; we don’t need to choose between them. I do agree they we would be better to return to a more Rabelaisian, holistic appreciation of laughter. I think Bakhtin describes very well the diminished role of laughter in the post-16th century West, where “the essential truth about the world and about man cannot be told in laughter.”

Our conception of the body has narrowed as well. In contrast to the grotesque and universal body of the carnival, in the modern view bodies are smooth, closed off, private. Serious art and literature studiously ignores nose, mouth, belly and genitals, concentrating instead on eyes and hands. (Think of the language of love poetry, or the Victorian novel.) Whereas “the grotesque body . . is a body in the act of becoming,” the modern body is complete and strictly limited. I can’t help picturing the contrast between the bodies of local working-class people I know – and the kind of earthy humor they tend to indulge in – and the ideal bodily images of Hollywood and Madison Avenue: “That which protrudes, bulges, sprouts, or branches off (when a body transgresses its limits and a new one begins) is eliminated, hidden or moderated. All orifices of the body are closed. The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable facade. The opaque surface and the body’s ‘valleys’ acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world. All attributes of the unfinished world are carefully removed . . . The verbal norms of official and literary language . . . prohibit all that is linked with fecundation, pregnancy, childbirth. There is a sharp line of division between familiar speech and ‘correct’ language.” Well, fuck that!

Here’s anthropologist Barbara Tedlock (The Beautiful and the Dangerous, Penguin, 1992) describing one of the two main orders of Zuni clowns:

“I gazed at the ten silly-looking, but nonetheless sacred, serious, even dangerous, Mudhead clowns. Adobe-colored beings in tight-fitting cotton masks with inside-out eyes and doughnut-shaped mouths, simultaneously expressing eternal amazement and voracious hunger. Ears, antennae, and genitals (stuffed with hand-spun cotton, garden seeds, and the dust of human footprints) protruded knoblike from their heads. Without noses or hair, they were naked except for lumpy orange-brown body paint, feathered ear ornaments, black neck scarves, men’s woolen kilts, and women’s blanket dresses, concealing their tied-down penises.”

These ten Mudheads – or Dickheads, we should probably call them – were born through a primordial act of incest, and were the original inhabitants of the Zuni land of the dead, Kachina Village. As real beings who somehow inhabit the bodies of the men who play them every year, they represent more than archetypes: each possesses “a distinguishing personality trait and a sacred gift for humankind.

“Molanhakto, with a miniature rabbit snare dangling from his right earlobe, brought native squash. The Speaker, a daydreamer who rarely spoke, and then only irreverently, carried yellow corn. Great Warrior Priest, a coward, brought blue corn. Bat, in his blanket dress, who feared the dark but saw marvelously well in daylight, red corn. Small Horn, who thought he was invisible, white corn. Small Mouth the glum, gabbling and cackling constantly, offered sweet corn. Old Buck, frisky and giggly as a young girl, black corn. Gamekeeper, in his woman’s dress, speckled corn. Water Drinker, always thirsty, toted his water gourd. And Old Youth, the self-centered, thoughtless adviser of the team, brought the clairvoyance locked tightly within the tiny cracks in parched corn.”

In short, a pretty corny lot.

But what about us, us U.S.ians? By and large, for all the vaunted liberation of sexual mores, the tyranny of the official body remains nearly absolute. Freud, by reducing everything to sex, perhaps shares a great deal of the blame for our continuing discomfort in our own skins. Neurosis is endemic to the psychoanalyzed subject. Modern medicine has reinforced the wall between mind and body, which thus by definition can never truly be healed (made whole). This separation breeds many more. Even for those who abandon themselves to carnality, the body remains unreal: filth or idol, something to be whipped, something to be fetishized. Sex and laughter are still very far apart. Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals, religious and secular alike elevate the same, tortured body inhabited by the same lonely and alienated soul.

Whether we flagellate ourselves like the Shi’a commemorating the death of Hussein or ogle the flagellation of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, our sense of what it means to be compassionate is limited, really, to a single emotion: sorrow. But is it not in shared laughter that people feel most akin? If the goal of religion is, as it proclaims, to promote peace and unite humankind, why is laughter still barred from the churches, temples and mosques? We alternate between the supposed poles of sacred solemnity and profane laughter without perceiving that they form a single axis – that axis on which this whole, vast, bulging, fecund and tragicomic world forever spins.

UPDATE: My sometime debating partner (and faithful reader) commonbeauty has written a highly compatible post, partly in response to this, on ‘vernacular bodies’ in the paintings of Bruegel. A brief and wonderful essay about a fascinating subject – check it out.

Raining blood

Historian Howard Zinn reflects on a photo accompanying an article in The New York Times:

“That was Jeremy Feldbusch, twenty-four years old, a sergeant in the Army Rangers, who was guarding a dam along the Euphrates River on April 3 when a shell exploded 100 feet away, and shrapnel tore into his face. When he came out of a coma in an Army Medical Center five weeks later, he could not see. Two weeks later, he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, but he still could not see. His father, sitting at his bedside, said: ‘Maybe God thought you had seen enough killing.’

“The newspapers on December 30 reported that 477 American GIs had died in the war. But what is not usually reported is that for every death there are four or five men and women seriously wounded.

‘The term ‘seriously wounded’ does not begin to convey the horror . . . ”


My brother Mark is one of those left-wing college profs you always hear about, taking it upon himself to try and open the eyes of his young and impressionable charges to the crimes of the powerful and the true horrors of war. Thus, his reactions to my post on cinematic violence were particularly incisive: we don’t so much need less exposure to violence, he thinks, but more exposure to truly realistic violence. Mark is not, however, an experienced blogonaut, and was flummoxed by Haloscan’s limit of 1,000 characters or less “for a non-upgraded account.” So he resorted to e-mail (which I have edited slightly to remove typos and correct orthography). Being a Latin Americanist he prefers the term “Usian” to “American” to denote a citizen of the U.S.A.

“I agree with all y’all’s points, but I think that seeing so-called ‘real’ gross violence is somewhat therapeutic (it can turn people way from naive support for wars, for example), and I’m pretty sure I’m not a psychopath. It is truly amazing how few of my conservative, pro-war students can stomach the graphic photos from the Middle East, Chechnya, and so forth, that are floating around the web–photos of what it actually looks like to ‘have one’s head blown off’ are apparently enough to change a lot of folks’ opinions. If we could get the smells in there too, you might be able to convince a few more. In comparison, no fictional movie is ever more than one long, faked orgasm. Usians understand violence as something theatrical, and they like it, are drawn to it, for that reason. Because it is primarily something they experience vicariously, they have the feeling in the backs of their minds that they can always run faster/draw first/survive flaming crashes, etc. Show them real photos of severed Algerian heads with penises stuffed in them, or severed heads in Nanking with cigarettes placed in them–they literally run and vomit. No Hollywood movie will ever show that type of stuff, because it’s considered ‘pornographic,’ so it gets an X rating.

“Some will argue that plenty of Usians experience real violence in their own lives, but I think that many who do become inured and in turn, as they have been kicked since they were children, turn around and kick others (collectively, the State of Israel, for example). They have been dehumanized and are I suppose more prone to dehumanize others; many of the sheltered who haven’t, however, in my opinion, should be shown a little real gore–especially [images of] the children we use for ‘collateral’–and of course they should empty their arsenals into their TVs while Fox is on.”


The Saga of Burnt Njal, arguably the greatest of all the Icelandic sagas, does not shy away from graphic depictions of violence, nor – in contrast to contemporary traditions on the continent – does it idealize them. It chronicles a blood feud that spans generations and engulfs much of northwestern Europe. It also describes the 11th-century conversion of Iceland to Christianity, which is depicted as a more-or-less voluntary, collective decision impelled by the need for a unitary, theological basis for the unwritten constitution – a decision strikingly similar to the one just arrived at by the members of Iraq’s (non-)Governing Council. The anonymous Christian author of Njal’s Saga naturally represents this as something favored by the wisest men of Iceland, who see the new religion’s potential for lessening violence.

What the author does not suggest is that the old beliefs were without basis in “reality.” The matter-of-fact narrative style, common to all the major sagas, actually conforms quite closely to the modern idea of realism. This lends considerable impact to the periodic incursions of the weird, the uncanny and the horrific. From the translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (Penguin, 1960):

“On the morning of Good Friday, it happened in Caithness that a man called Dorrud went outside and saw twelve riders approach a woman’s bower and disappear inside. He walked over to the bower and peered through a window; inside, he could see women with a loom set up before them. Men’s heads were used in place of weights, and men’s intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the verses they were chanting:

‘Blood rains
From the cloudy web
Of the broad loom
Of slaughter.
The web of man,
Grey as armour,
Is now being woven;
The Valkyries
Will cross it
with a crimson weft . . . ‘

“Then they tore the woven cloth from the loom and ripped it to pieces, each keeping the shred she held in her hands. Dorrud left the window and went home. The women mounted their horses and rode away, six to the south and six to the north.

“A similar marvel was seen by Brand Gneistason in the Faroe Islands.

“At Svinafell in Iceland, blood fell on the priest’s stole on Good Friday, and he had to take it off. At Thvattriver on Good Friday, the priest seemed to see an abyss of ocean beside the altar, full of terrible sights, and for a long time was unable to sing Mass.”


I used to listen to a lot of music by bands whose lyrics dealt with these kinds of themes extensively – bands with names like Violence, Slayer, Sepultura.

Pumped with fluid, inside your brain
Pressure in your skull begins pushing through your eyes
Burning flesh, drips away
Test of heat burns your skin, your mind starts to boil
Frigid cold, cracks your limbs
How long can you last
In this frozen water burial?
Sewn together, joining heads
Just a matter of time
‘Til you rip yourselves apart
Millions laid out in their
Crowded tombs
Sickening ways to achieve
The holocaust

Slayer, “Angel of Death,” Reign in Blood (Def American, 1986)

I assure you that years of listening to death metal and punk rock did not desensitize me; quite the opposite. By contrast, the much more cerebral, angst-ridden lyrics of so-called alternative bands left me cold. Raw anger seemed, if nothing else, an honest and heart-felt response to the world we live in. But any more, when I hear the latest reports out of Haiti or Iraq, all I can do is weep.

Just one link (because this is not, after all, a political weblog): War Needs Good Public Relations

Via Negativa cross-references: For more on the sagas, see Poetry or vomit? For more on pre-Christian Europe, see Diagnostic test of certain hypotheses about the Old Norse worldview . . .