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CALL. 15.06.2016: Morbid Laughter: Exploring the Comic Dimensions of Disease in Classical Antiquity

The social and moral dimensions of laughter constitute a recurrent object of discussion in antiquity. Questions about whether, when, at whom/what, and how to laugh (if at all) occur in a wide variety of sources and shape vital domains of ancient thought and action. As Stephen Halliwell has shown in his seminal study on laughter, a major dichotomy that emerges from ancient texts is that between laughter that is ‘playful’ and laughter that is ‘consequential’, in the sense that it can become harmful and offensive; the relationship between the two is unstable and the distinction often becomes slippery. According to Halliwell, ‘the need to know how (to try) to distinguish between insults and jokes, together with an awareness of how easily the latter might slip into or be mistaken for the former was a matter for recurrent unease’ in Greek culture, which overall displayed an ‘obsessive sensitivity’ to forms of mockery and derision.

By taking into account ancient and modern discussions of laughter, the aim of this conference is to explore the comic potential of disease/disability/deformity both in Greek and Roman contexts and to discuss instances in which someone’s illness, be it physical or mental, turns into comic material. While the tragic associations of disease have been thoroughly explored in secondary literature, its comic potential – even in cases when a fatal outcome is looming – has not been studied systematically. We aim to address this question by drawing attention to the ways in which disease is exploited precisely for comic purposes, becoming on occasions an essential part of dark comedy in antiquity. Was sickness an appropriate comic target, and if so, what were the social and aesthetic implications of laughing with it? Would laughter in this case signify insensitivity and detachment or is it a way of easing the patient’s pain (as well as our own), being therapeutic and socially inclusive at the same time? Starting from laughter’s redeeming function as a defence mechanism that helps us cope with the idea of our own mortality (in Freudian terms, as the release of surplus nervous energy that would have otherwise been used to repress negative emotions, for instance fear of death), we aim to raise broader questions such as whether, why and under what circumstances people in antiquity laughed in the face of illness, by exploring a wide range of genres and periods. In this context, we are particularly interested in identifying possible antecedents of ‘black humour’ in classical texts, moving across a wide array of theoretical frameworks, from the Bakhtinian concept of the fallible physical self as a potentially comic spectacle to the ways in which the diseased body/mind, in the surrealist (André Breton) and postmodern imagination (Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon), can be distorted, mutilated and abused while still serving as laughing material.



LUGAR/LOCATION/LUOGO: Department of Classics, University of Patras (Patras, Greece)




We welcome abstracts for papers of 25-30 minutes from academics at any stage of their career and encourage postgraduate students and early career researchers to apply. Please submit your title and abstract (of up to 350 words) as a pdf or word document to George Kazantzidis ( and Natalia Tsoumpra ( by Wednesday 15th of June 2016.

Possible topics for discussion include:

· Bodily malfunctions and mental disturbances as objects of laughter in Greek and Roman comedy / Comic elements in tragic representations of disease

· Bodily disfigurement and the grotesque in ancient literature and art / disabled people treated as comic spectacles in the Greek and Roman societies

· Comic elements in the Hippocratic Corpus: the ‘lower bodily stratum’ (Bakhtin) across medicine and comedy

· Jokes about ugliness and deformity in classical rhetoric / deformity and laughter in Cicero and Quintilian

· Illness as metaphor/images of illness in Roman satire (especially Horace, Persius and Petronius)

· Comic treatments of doctors in antiquity / doctors and disease in New Comedy and the Hellenistic epigram / doctors and sick characters in jest-book humour

· Comic elements in the corpus of healing inscriptions / laughing at patients in the temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus

· Competition among doctors at the patient’s bedside: ridicule and exposure of professional opponents in the agonistic context of ancient medical practice (especially Galen)

· Mocking the patients / illness as farce in Aelius Aristides and Lucian

· Laughing at the insane: social attitudes towards madness in everyday life

· Disabled men – disabled women: laughing at female – male impairments

· Laughter as therapy / laughter as symptom of mental disorder

· Morbid laughter and the emotions / ‘humour trafficks in worlds that are bereft of sustained acknowledgments of pain in such a way that our normal empathetic responses remain in abeyance’ (J. Levinson): in what ways does morbid laughter violate this principle (if at all)?

· How does the deformed/grotesque body generate laughter? Is it because it is perceived as inferior (superiority theory) or as simply absurd (incongruity theory)? Is laughter directed onto the grotesque body as a phenomenon in its own right or is it also related to the latter’s transgressive nature and its deviation from social norms?

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