Excessive Guffawing

Gerald Hammond

  • Laughter at the Foot of the Cross by M.A. Screech
    Allen Lane, 328 pp, £30.00, January 1998, ISBN 0 7139 9012 0

Have you heard the one about the children who laughed at the prophet and called him ‘slaphead’? A bear tore 42 of them to pieces. Or the one about the maid, expecting her master’s child, who then laughed at her mistress’s infertility? The mistress got a double revenge: she had the maid kicked out into the desert, then had a son herself and called him ‘laughing boy’. If those do not make you laugh, how about the idea of a man writing a book on Rabelais today without once mentioning Bakhtin? The punch-line to that one is that it turns out to be a very good book.

To be accurate, Laughter at the Foot of the Cross is not entirely about Rabelais, but Rabelais is one of its two heroes. He it was who built on Erasmus’s introduction of laughter into Christianity and developed it to the point where it overcame all bigotry and prejudice; the two together being committed to spreading religious ideas ‘by laughter rather than by thumbscrew and stake’. Once again, however, Erasmus is fated to end up as history’s nearly man. Early in the Reformation, William Tyndale identified him as a permanent dweller in the halfway house, and now even Screech, for all his sympathy for Erasmus’s pioneering humanity, finds him ultimately lacking. In the Praise of Folly and, more unexpectedly, in his annotations to the New Testament, Erasmus taught Christians to laugh, but he did not teach them to laugh at themselves: that was Rabelais’s achievement.

But did medieval man not have a Christian form of laughter and was Bakhtin not the seer who opened up that lost golden past? In the homogeneous society of happy peasants wasn’t laughter the cement which bound the whole institution of Church and State together, only for the grim face of the Reformation to silence and fragment it? Up to a point, perhaps, although the sentimental, strangely Leavisite views of the cultural theorists become increasingly hard to swallow, particularly when we realise that for any outsider in that society – a Jew, for instance – peasant laughter soon turned to peasant slaughter. This is Screech’s essential point, that the laughter which Erasmus introduced into the Early Modern world was not the mindless guffaw which stretched all the way back from pogromraising medieval peasants to those who, at the foot of the Cross, taunted Jesus. Instead, it was the laugh of human sympathy which the hitherto straight-faced Panta-gruel finally utters when he sees the bloodcovered, shit-stained, humiliated Panurge trying to salvage some dignity out of the ordure which drips off him. As Screech says, making perhaps the ultimate case for Rabelaisian scatology, few if any artists have had the guts, as it were, to face the fact that a crucified man pisses and shits himself.

Like shit, the guffaw, the uncontrolled laugh of unreason, has long offended the religious authorities of the Judeo-Christian tradition; hence perhaps the peculiar story of the prophet Elijah and the little children who mocked him. Laugh at a holy man and, no matter how innocent you are, you raise the furies. Screech has apparently been collecting examples of religious attitudes to laughter for more than fifty years, and his book is clearly a labour of love. So, he may appreciate a further example, from the Qumran scrolls outlining the regulations of the Essene community not long before the time of Christ. Members of the community were required to ‘do penance’ for particular lengths of time, depending on their offence. Interrupting someone while they were speaking got the malefactor ten days, as did gesticulating with the left hand, while deliberate deception of another was worth six months. ‘Excessive guffawing’ required a penance of 30 days.

Excessive guffawing is what the Jews did at the foot of the Cross. For taunting Jesus with his claim to have come to save others when he palpably could not save himself, they did penance for two thousand years, particularly at carnival time. The most sinister sentence in the Bible, a book which has a good number of them, is the one which the evangelist Matthew cunningly puts into the mouth of the Jews in response to Pilate’s remonstrations that they were asking for the crucifixion of an innocent man: ‘With one voice the people replied, “His blood be on us and on our children.” ’ Erasmus, because of his commitment to sympathetic laughter, could look beyond even this, and Screech movingly closes his account of Erasmus’s part in introducing such laughter into Christianity with an annotation of his which draws the sting out of that genocidal verse: ‘They called down destruction on themselves and on their posterity. But Christ, more merciful towards them than they were to themselves, rejects no man from forgiveness provided that he repent. Many then in that crowd yelling “Take him! Take him! Crucify him!” later came to venerate the Cross of Christ.’ With that comment, Europe began to grow up.

Screech’s book is delightfully learned. Here we may find out about glossolalia, eutrapely, bromolochia, synderesis, diasyrm, philautia, and synergistic theology, explore the writings of some very obscure medieval and Early Modern Bible commentators, and even discover the difference between a nabal and a keil, two Hebrew words for ‘fool’. Roughly speaking, it is the same as the difference between a schloch and a schlemiel: the former spills his soup all over his trousers, the latter spills it all over yours. But like Erasmus, Screech seems to have little if any Hebrew. On his opening page, he offers a strange pronunciation for the Hebrew of the name Isaac, as ‘Isha-ak’. Since one of his points is that names have powerful significance and that this one carries an onomatopoeic charge, it would suit his argument better to get a more accurate pronunciation: from tsachaq, the verb ‘to laugh’, comes the name yitzchaq, ‘he laughs.’ With the ch pronounced as in loch, the name carries more of the sound of a harsh cackle than does the soft sh of Screech’s version. The English equivalent might be a screech of laughter.

A second error on his opening page is just as revealing in that it shows a readiness to misread the Old Testament. He describes Abraham as a ‘childless’ man of 99 when the angel told him he would have a son, a message which made him and his wife Sarah laugh, the one sympathetically, the other in mockery, if the commentators, all of them male, are to be believed. These two laughs, Screech says, bring about the association between Isaac and laughter. But there is another, nastier source of laughter, deriving from the son which the supposedly childless Abraham already had by his wife’s maid, Hagar. She had earlier laughed at Sarah’s barrenness in the spirit in which the children mocked the bald-headed prophet and the Jews mocked Jesus on the Cross. Now she encouraged her 14-year-old son to mock the new-born Isaac, leading Sarah to kick her out once more, together with her son Ishmael; this time, to certain death from starvation and thirst were it not for angelic intervention: as Wilfred Owen realised, Abraham always seemed to find it acceptable to kill his children when a higher authority asked him to. So, it is not so much ‘Call me Ishmael’ as ‘Call me Isaac,’ a name which might well be taken to mean ‘he laughs last.’ Isaac became the progenitor of the Jews and Ishmael the progenitor of the Arabs. They are still in the business of getting the last laugh on each other.

What should we make of stories such as those of Isaac and Elijah? Along with other myths of origin and retribution spanning a thousand or more years of tribal history, they are collected in that strange body of texts which used to be called the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures is the PC form). The history of the Jewish people, from vague origins in the Persian Gulf to post-exilic communities in an increasingly fragmented diaspora, the Old Testament presented the inventors of the new religion, the evangelists and St Paul, with a necessary embarrassment. As the revealed word of God, these Scriptures offered vital support to the idea of a new revelation, but in their unremitting insistence that only the Jews mattered they were an embarrassment The solution was to ironise them by reading them allegorically. Soon, nothing in the Old Testament meant what it said, but rather something to do with Jesus Christ.

This project of allegorising, and tropologising and anagogising, is at the heart of Screech’s argument, and one relevant question to ask is how far he believes it all himself. At the beginning of his book, he has the engaging note that it has been written in such a way that ‘the footnotes may be completely ignored by any reader who does not want to take matters further.’ To ignore them would be a pity, however, since they contain some of the best jokes; but one in particular makes me wonder what Screech’s position is. Summarising the argument of one of Erasmus’s contemporaries, Agostino Steucho, that when God used the plural in ‘Let us make man in our own image’ he was talking to Himselves, as it were, with Adam ultimately made in the image of the Son, Screech adds, as his own note: ‘it is the Son of whom the psalmist (45:2) wrote, “Thou art fairer than the children of men.” ’ Perhaps it is not Screech’s own belief, but only that of Steucho, which he is paraphrasing, but the suspicion is that this highly learned, humane writer believes in the whole typological argument; that, in this case, a poet, probably a Jewish priest living five hundred years earlier, wrote a poem about Jesus Christ. Only someone determined to make the Old Testament mean the opposite of what it does mean – in short, a believing Christian – could embrace such an anachronism. One good last laugh comes when we refuse to hear what someone says and act as though they are saying something else entirely.

There was, after all, no particularly respectable reason why Erasmus did not learn Hebrew. Many of his contemporaries did, men like Reuchlin, Muenster and Luther. Even in England, that Renaissance backwater, men and women – Robert Wakefield, William Tyndale and Lady Jane Grey – made the effort; and the man whose trail-blazing translation of the New Testament from its original Greek had paved the way for the Reformation ought logically to have done the same with me Old Testament. But Erasmus had a good Catholic’s disdain for me Jewish Scriptures, if only because immersion in them and particularly in their language would have dragged him too far into their literal meaning. Screech is generally on Erasmus’s side in this matter, citing his contempt for any exegete who stressed the literal meaning of the sacred texts. ‘Impatient mockery’ is how Screech summarises the attitude of the Hebrew-less Erasmus towards those scholars who, like the converted Jew, Nicolas de Lyra, knew plenty of Hebrew but no Greek. The fact that nearly three-quarters of the Bible was in the language he himself did not know was immaterial, because the quarter that counts was in Greek, and the Old Testament was anyway merely a proleptic gloss on the New.

This compulsive need to make words stop meaning what they do and mean instead what they should, was probably one of the things which kept Erasmus from accepting the Reformation, for a significant factor in the Reformers’ drive for a purified Christianity was their distaste for allegory. Tyndale put it most strongly when he said that all allegory was an ignis fatuus, leading men to perdition. Had Erasmus lived to see it, he would no doubt have enjoyed the joke that Protestantism, in England at least, began in such an eschewing of allegories and ended up spawning them by the dozen, The Faerie Queen and Pilgrim’s Progress being only the most notable examples. And he might well have pointed out that there was no such thing as the simple, single literal truth anyway; that all efforts to see things as they really are become, not descriptions, but interpretations piled on interpretations. As Screech demonstrates, Erasmus, drawing on Plato and St Paul, adhered to the idea that there were three levels of Man. There was not just the simple allegory of body and soul, but the multiple one of body, soul and spirit. And beyond Man ‘Erasmus held that the tripartite division belonged not only to Man but to everything – all creation. Even the eucharist can be spiritual, “natural” or carnal, depending on how the faithful approach it. In all things the Christian must seek out the spiritual and follow it’.

The immediate consequence of such a view is the ironising of all that we see and encounter. Because the world and everything in it means something else, then the Christian is bound to laugh at anyone who behaves as if it were real, just as non-Christians are likely to laugh at the madness of those who imagine spiritual identities behind gross realities. Rabelais took this view to its extreme, encouraging his readers to see the spirituality of piss and shit. In its quiet way, Screech’s book is a passionate one, a lament almost for a world of lost correspondences. In that world Bible texts, glossed and reglossed, opened doors into rooms of humane laughter where the very people whom we most easily mock are laughing sympathetically at our failure to see that a fart is not simply the expulsion of intestinal gases but a loving expression of the Holy Spirit.