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What Did Ancient Americans Find Funny?

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Veracruz smiling face, 7th-8th century AD. Public Domain:

Stephen Houston is the Library of Congress Kislak Chair for the Study of the History and Cultures of the Early Americas, as well as Dupee Family Professor of Social Science at Brown University.

In the lead-up to Professor Houston’s April 25 event at the Library, titled “Flint, Shield, and Fire: Exploring Ancient Maya Warfare,” I spoke with him about two academic workshops he convened at the Kluge Center recently. One focused on humor in the Early Americas, and the other looked at written expression.

Professor Houston’s April 25 event will be held at 4pm in room LJ-119 of the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson building, and free tickets are available here.

The following is part 1 of my interview with Houston, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: What initially led you to focus on humor and writing in these workshops?

It struck me that there would be two things to look at.

One: perhaps I could tie a meeting of like-minded scholars to some objects in the Kislak collection at the Library, and then, since these were from a literate civilization and contained texts, this would be a good opportunity to examine how literacy or written expression transferred from one medium to another.

The Kislak holdings at the Library have many exceptional pieces of calligraphy from Classic Maya civilization, which dates to most of the 1st millennium AD. Some of them are done by master painters. These are, in my estimation, as expert a group of calligraphers as you might find in China or Japan, or for that matter in Europe. So that was the first workshop.

The second gathering dealt with a theme. I reasoned that, rather than being so specific and granular as with the first workshop, we could look at something that cross-cut the Americas, to the regions and times that interested Mr. Kislak and that happened to be well-represented in his collection at the Library.

I’d been inspired by several things, most of all by the fact that the Library of Congress is one of the great repositories of American humor. There’s a permanent display in the Library that talks about political humor, that is: humor with an edge, humor with a kind of barbed presence.

In addition to that, the National Gallery of Art in DC had just presented an intelligently constructed show on engravings pertaining to humor in the European tradition. The curators showed how humor evolved over time, taking many directions, but still growing from the same roots.

Another inspiration had been a book recently published by Mary Beard, the influential classicist at Cambridge University. I can say with admiration and envy that she’s almost a cultural icon at this point: an intellectual figure, a serious scholar, but also widely published, appears on TV, and, above all, she’s someone the public notices in a good way. On my bookshelf was her volume on humor in Roman times.

Q: What does she have to say about humor?

Her argument is a complex one, but essentially she’s suggesting that the Romans created the sense of humor we understand today, a distinct sense of “laughterhood,” as she calls it. There were differences. There were things we can’t understand. But she suggests that what we think is funny comes in part from the classical tradition. I can’t really judge her argument in its cultural details, but in general I think it’s probably overly limited. I believe we have a lot of inputs in the humor in our society, many of which don’t simply derive from having studied Latin or Greek at prestigious universities!

But these led me to ponder the fact that we’ve had no comprehensive studies in my field on humor in American antiquity.

Q: And what problems does that present?

Inherently it’s beset with challenges.

One of which is: How do you get at it? That is, if you can’t be in the physical presence of these ancient people, how do you extract something so fleeting, so ephemeral, as the reason for a good hearty belly laugh? How do you get at what led to that humor? How do you understand the structure of humor itself? Because this is the reality: humor can be in many different guises, but often it’s carefully thought-through. There’s a rhetorical structure, there are multiple parts and sections, there’s a punchline.

And another, most basic question: what did they find funny?

Ritual clown (left) depicted on a vase, AD 750-800. Credit: Kerr 1507

Q: What kinds of challenges are there in understanding what another group of people finds funny?

I showed the workshop a painting, one that was quite large. It would have been a prominent feature of a Dutch gentleman’s home in the 1700s. And it shows a scene of rape, a cross ethnic-group violation, a black woman being taken advantage of by two white men, obviously Dutch, who are laughing and pointing at the viewer. We’re supposed to be complicit in this repellent image. So they must have found it amusing in some ways.

How do we study something that occasionally is going to be so off-putting, even repulsive or morally wrong?
There is another challenge in that humor is not visible, other than representationally through images. It’s very rare you’ll see someone smiling or detect mages that are clearly meant to be amusing.

Other means of access would be inscriptions or text. And on that the Maya evidence is the gold standard for understanding pre-Colombian America. Because they recorded a broad range of messages, writing about them in texts that can now be read. Fortunately, too, there’s a copious set of images that tell us what’s going on.
At the workshop, I talked about “near models” and “far models” for understanding Maya humor.

Q: What’s an example of the “far model”?

Turning back to that painting, which is an oil from the great age of Dutch painting in the 17th century: Dutch painting is unusually focused on what they thought was funny. There are lots of humorous scenes, and we can see what they found amusing. Those targets of fun tend to be scatological or they involve indecorous or wrong behavior, men and women out of control from drink, and along with sexual license from alcohol consumption.

It’s humor, but also a subtle warning that these are norms we should not transgress. That’s the “far model,” a culture very distant from pre-Columbian America.

Q: And what about the “near model”?

For that we look at descendent indigenous communities, and among the Maya there is ample evidence, as among Quechua of South America, of things they find very funny indeed.
Themes are somewhat different: there are a lot of puns and coded language, often referring to human sexual encounters. There is an infinite variety of terms for the penis and the female sexual genitalia and various ways of describing the sexual act.

But the political aspect of this is also intriguing. This is particularly so in festivals where people are allowed to behave in ways that ordinarily would not be tolerated—people are able to run wild. Think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and elsewhere. There are dress and behaviors you don’t usually see.

In those moments you also have an ability to poke fun at power. You can make jokes about leaders, even despotic ones. You can make subtle comments about foreigners, because foreigners are frequently a source of fun around the world. For the Maya, those jokes can have a soft edge or a hard edge, almost bordering on xenophobia. The political dimension of humor ultimately helps us reflect on the nature of reality as they understood it and as we understand it today.

States are notoriously laugh deficient. They tend to be laugh avoidant and humor avoidant. They are, as described by prominent theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, agelastic, or averse to humor. To laugh at authority is to question its power, to question whatever basis it rests on. These little vignettes from imagery and texts needed more study, and that’s what we did. I hope, with my colleagues, that more pioneering work will come from it.

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