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Morbid Laughter: Exploring the Comic Dimensions of Disease in Classical Antiquity - 12-13/09/2016, P

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.

FECHA/DATE/DATA: 12-13/09/2016

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



INSCRIPCIÓN/REGISTRATION/REGISTRAZIONE: gratis / free / gratuito. Contacto / contact / contatto: and


Monday, 12th September 9.20-10.00 Welcome: George Kazantzidis (Patras) and Natalia Tsoumpra (Glasgow) Introduction: Katerina Kostiou (Patras): The surplus deficit: subverting normalcy SESSION ONE: DRAMA (1) 10.00-10.35 Ian Ruffell (Glasgow): Stop making sense: the politics of Aristophanic insanity 10.35-11.10 Dimos Spatharas (Crete): Disgust, slander, and comedy 11.10-11.45 Sara Hobe (Freiburg): Political nosology in Aristophanes’ Wasps 11.45-12.15: COFFEE BREAK

SESSION TWO: SATIRE 12.15-12.50 Paul Martin (Exeter): Cleansing the palate: vomit as a metaphor for satire in Lucian's Lexiphanes 12.50-13.25 Ian Goh (Birkbeck): Spewing fit to laugh in Roman moralising texts 13.25-14.00 Andreas Michalopoulos (Athens): Mocking the (disabled) dead: Seneca’s Claudius in the Apocolocyntosis 14.00-15.30: LUNCH BREAK SESSION THREE: DRAMA (2) 15.30-16.05 Ben Cartlidge (Oxford): Doctor, invalid, charlatan: medicine and madness in New Comedy 16.05-16.40 Michael Fontaine (Cornell): A cute illness in Epidaurus: morbus hepatiarius and other sick jokes in Plautus’Gorgylio (Curculio) 16.40-17.15 Marchella Ward (Oxford): Euripides’ Cyclops: satyric, comic and tragic blindness 17.30-19.00: WINE RECEPTION 20.00: DINNER

Tuesday, 13th September

SESSION FOUR: DEFORMED BODIES 10.00–10.35 Edith Hall (KCL): Hephaestus the hobbling humorist 10.35-11.10 Anna Potamiti (Patras): Inguine suspensam gestas sub ventre lagenam: hernia jokes in Graeco-Roman antiquity 11.10-11.45 Charilaos Michalopoulos (Democritus University of Thrace): LOL in the Corpus Priapeorum 11.45-12.15: COFFEE BREAK SESSION FIVE: ORATORY AND SECOND SOPHISTIC 12.15-12.50 Jasper Donelan (Nottingham): A tragic or a comic figure? Lysias 24 reconsidered 12.50-13.25 Georgia Petridou (Liverpool) tbc 13.25-15.00: LUNCH BREAK SESSION SIX: GREEK AND ROMAN MEDICINE 15.00-15.35 Chiara Thumiger (Warwick): Aretaeus’ Stomachikon disease: comical features in a pathological portrayal 15.35-16.10 Eleni Plati (Hamburg): ‘Playful’ and ‘consequential’ laughter in Galen 16.30-17.30: ROUND TABLE DISCUSSION (chair: Peter Singer, Birkbeck)

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