(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive Activity surveys the history of human behavior—specifically, the history of laughter. In this history, Barry Sanders unlocks a number of other important stories: the relationship of humans to authority, for example, and the interconnections among joking, language, and literature. Most important, Sanders argues the subversive nature of laughter: that in the face of religious or political authority, laughter can become as powerful a force as war and break the stranglehold that civilized behavior often demands of people. As the ancients discovered long ago, “A single, sardonic laugh can devastate even the most powerful human being.”

Laughter, Sanders contends, is the most natural of human expressions. It is what defines human beings, in fact, for humans are the only animals who have such a capability. (Aristotle actually referred to man as animal ridens, or “the beast who laughs.”) Ironically, laughter also reminds people that they are animals at heart, and laughter at another person’s stumbling or bumbling along only records the recognition of how close to animals all human beings really are. The billy goat butting the poor farmer on the comics page also links the two characters.

Laughter usually comes from surprise or the unexpected, and often at the expense of someone less fortunate (even in popular situation comedies). Turned against the authorities, however, as it often is in history, laughter also becomes a powerful weapon of derision and satire. Sanders is less interested in jokes or comedy themselves here than in the laughter that is produced by and that itself produces literature.

The roots of literature, as I hope to demonstrate in the course of this book, lie buried not in hard work, revision, and serious description. That already smacks of high levels of literacy. Rather, like a sport, literature grew out of play and banter, joking and good times—out of humor and laughter, much of it, at least by the sixth century, the domain of women.

The most important parts of this story are the intricate and integral interconnections throughout history between laughter and language.

The story of laughter that Sanders has produced is an important new reading of both human and literary history. It is also a very scholarly study—by a professor of English and the history of ideas at Pitzer College, Claremont—complete with a long introduction, eight packed chapters, and an epilogue, all essentially divided into three parts. The first four chapters—and nearly half of Sanders’ analysis—center on the earliest periods of human history and extend to the treatment of laughter in the Old Testament and among Greek philosophers such as the Stoics and the Rhetoricians. In the ancient world, Sanders contends, laughter and weeping were much closer than they were to become later, for both could express joy and pain. (Vestiges of this organic human unity can be found today in the expressions “he laughed until he cried” and “they wept for joy.”) In a chapter titled “The Ancient World: Divine Origins of Laughter,” Sanders retells the stories of Hephaistos and Prometheus to illustrate these ideas. Laughter in the Old Testament was either scornful or derisive, as Sanders shows, but the ancient Jews also became adept at irony—one of the first subversions of humor.

Human beings paid a high price for the privilege of society, however, and part of it was the loss of laughter as a natural expression of joyous feeling. Laughter was taken over by men and philosophers at an early stage of civilization, Sanders argues, and nearly every Greek philosopher felt compelled to say something about laughter as a category of human action. (Plato, for example, allows laughter in his Republic only under certain very limiting conditions.) Peasants and women must then find “a more subversive route to godlike power,” Sanders postulates. This subversion story is one of the major underground streams running beneath the history Sanders traces in Sudden Glory.

This is the punch line I am asking the reader to listen for, as the underground humor builds more force and finally collides with these ancient theories of wit and demeanor. . . . The explosion will be heard around the world and felt in every small village and town.

The first laugh in English is recorded in the seventh century epic Beowulf. Sanders anchors his entire study in the medieval world, for it was in the Middle Ages that laughter erupted as a powerful human voice railing against and trying to...

(The entire section is 1869 words.)