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«A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Comparative Literature) in the University ...»

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The Humor of Skepticism: Therapeutic Laughter in Early Modern Literature


Cassie M. Miura

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

(Comparative Literature)

in the University of Michigan

Doctoral Committee:

Professor Douglas Trevor, Chair

Professor George P. Hoffmann

Professor Peggy S. McCracken

Professor Yopie Prins

Professor Michael C. Schoenfeldt

© Cassie Miura, 2016

Acknowledgments This project could never have come to fruition without the support of the many people whom I wish to thank here. The members of my dissertation committee have each made vital contributions to this project and its development over the course of many years. It has been a tremendous privilege to work with them and I could not have wished for a more capable or more generous assembly of scholars and mentors.

I am especially indebted to Douglas Trevor, my dissertation chair, who has been a model scholar, teacher, and advisor. This project has benefited beyond measure from his incisive feedback, receptiveness to new ideas, and enthusiastic support at all stages. I have enjoyed our conversation and have often been thankful for his warmth and good humor. If it were not for George Hoffmann who, during my first year of graduate studies, instilled in me an abiding love for Montaigne, I may never have become an early modernist. George has also shaped this project from its very inception and I am continually amazed by his expertise, generosity, and kindness.

Michael Schoenfeldt has brought such considerable knowledge and experience to bear on this project and has sharpened my reading practices, especially with respect to seventeenth century English poetry. Peggy McCracken has been the most responsive and encouraging of readers and her comments have been integral to the larger framing of this project as well as its interdisciplinary scope. Throughout my time in graduate school, Yopie Prins has cultivated my interests in classical reception and translation which were a large part of what first led me to Comparative Literature at Michigan and I am grateful for her mentorship and investment in this project.

ii While completing this dissertation, I have benefited from the support of several institutions at the University of Michigan including the department of Comparative Literature, the Rackham Graduate School, the Sweetland Dissertation Writing Institute, the program in Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Contexts for Classics, and the Early Modern Colloquium.

Generous grants and fellowships from these institutions have not only funded the writing of this dissertation but also travel to numerous conferences and research at the Newberry Library, the Bodleian Library, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, all of which have enriched this project in innumerable ways. I also benefited from my participation in the Dissertation Seminar for Literary Scholars led by William West and Wendy Wall at the Newberry Library and the MEMS Interdisciplinary Dissertation Colloquium led by George Hoffmann. Portions of this dissertation have been presented at the annual meetings for the Shakespeare Association of America and the American Comparative Literature Association as well as conferences sponsored by the University of Warwick’s Early Modern Forum and Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. I am grateful to my audiences and interlocutors there.

I wish to thank other faculty from the University of Michigan including Vassilios Lambropoulos, Arlene Saxonhouse, Ruth Caston, and Basil Dufallo who have supported me and this project, especially in its earliest days. I have also benefited from a wonderful community of graduate student colleagues and wish to thank, in particular, Hilary Levinson, Sarah Linwick, Helena Skorovsky, Leila Watkins, Elizabeth Mathie, Amrita Dhar, Cordelia Zukerman, Charisse Willis, Mei-Chen Pan, Emily Goedde, Sara Hakeem Grewal, Olga Greco, Etienne Charrière, Amanda Healy, Kate Schnur, Susan Hwang, Mikey Rinaldo, Gen Creedon, Shannon Winston, and Nicole Greer Golda for their intellectual support and comradery. The Comparative Literature staff, Nancy Harris, Paula Frank, and Judy Gray, have kept the department in perfect working

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like to thank some of my earliest teachers Lawrence Wheeler, Kathleen Merrow, Christine Rose, and David Thomson who so inspired me as an undergraduate.

My parents, Malcolm and Janice Miura, have always supported my curious academic interests and tolerated my long absence from home. Time spent with them and other family members including Jonathan, Diane, Keoni, Kainoa, Alison, Ken, Lizz, Brandon, Noble, the Wensings, Larissa, Ricky, and James has been a much needed respite from research and writing as well as a source of many happy memories. I am also indebted to Allison Nishitani and Lin Lu for their generosity and lasting friendship. Finally, I am deeply grateful to my partner Ander Erickson, whose love and unfailing support over the course of this long journey has meant more than I can say, and to our daughter Chloë Erickson whose little laugh has brought us both so much joy.

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Chapter 1 Laughter and the Self: Therapeutic Philosophy in the Essays

Chapter 2 “Therapy for My Intellect”: Democritus Jr. and The Anatomy of Melancholy....68 Chapter 3 John Donne’s Voluptuous Laughter: Skepticism and Holy Joy

Chapter 4 Translating Tranquility: Lucy Hutchinson and the Laughter of Lucretius..........170 Epilogue The Laughing Philosopher of Ljubljana!

Appendix Latin-English Estienne Translation


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From the shadows of a dimly lit scriptorium venerable Jorge of Burgos emerges to admonish a group of monks for laughing at the ridiculous marginalia painted by a recently deceased brother. The blind librarian, guardian to the finest manuscript collection in all of Christendom, insists that laughter not only violates the Rule of St. Benedict but threatens to destroy the very tenets of faith. “Laughter foments doubt” he bellows, “He who laughs does not believe in what he laughs at.”1 For old Jorge, the antagonist of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, laughter offends an essential spirit of gravity that sustains institutional power and official culture in all across a variety of different domains. Eco ultimately champions this laughter as an enlightened and liberating force. His protagonist, William of Baskerville, concludes upon Jorge’s defeat that “perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for truth.”2 Despite the novel’s medieval trappings and indebtedness to popular mystery, Eco’s investments in poststructuralist theory and semiotics are here most apparent.3 His exhortation ‘to make truth laugh’ suspends all notions of absolute truth and, by imposing a degree of ironic distance, safeguards against the violent repercussions of dogmatic belief.

I begin with The Name of the Rose not because I wish to affirm Eco’s conclusions about the status of metaphysical truths but because he places laughter at the heart of a larger debate Umberto Eco, The Romance of the Rose (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2006), 152-53.

Ibid., 549.

See also Umberto Eco, "The Frames of Comic Freedom." Carnival! ed. Thomas Sebeok (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), 1-10.

over skepticism and belief, complicity and resistance. The Humor of Skepticism: Therapeutic Laughter in Early Modern Literature investigates the degree to which laughter ‘foments doubt’ and bears on our capacity for rational judgement and ethical action. Beginning in mid-sixteenth century France and concluding in the early English Restoration, I show that laughter becomes an integral part of the early modern reception of ancient skepticism as well as broader conceptions of medical and philosophical therapy. By foregrounding laughter’s therapeutic function in literary works by Michel de Montaigne, Robert Burton, John Donne, Lucy Hutchinson, and John Milton, this project reveals the dynamic process through which laughter comes to approximate the classical end of tranquility which both the Skeptics and Epicureans call ataraxia. Whether laughter helps to regulate the fluctuations of the humoral body or to ease the perturbations of the soul, I argue that it furnishes an imperative to cultivate the self, to interrogate the terms and limits of political engagement, and to renegotiate the role of pleasure in everyday life.

Like Eco, whose novel imaginatively reconstructs the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics in order to posit an ancient theory of laughter as the key to unravelling a series of mysterious deaths, the early modern thinkers who feature in this study adopt a creative approach to classical sources, freely altering or supplementing them to suit entirely new purposes.4 Laughter, for example, features prominently in early modern debates over matters as diverse as Democritean atomism, the physiological function of the spleen, and the fully human yet fully divine nature of Christ, despite being quite foreign to the respective historical contexts of each.

Drawing on the methodologies of classical reception and translation theory, this project examines alongside literary works a variety of medical and philosophical treaties, popular jest

For a more historical reconstruction of Poetics II, see Richard Janko, Poetics with Tractatus Coislinianus:

Reconstruction of Poetics II and The Fragments of the On Poets (Cambridge: Hackett, 1987).

books, and apocryphal letters in order to reveal how laughter gained cultural currency as a therapeutic concept.5 Attending to laughter thus enriches our current understanding of early modern approaches to emotional management by offering an alternative to the dominant Christian/Neostoic model which attempts to control and inhibit the self.

While I aim throughout this project to allow early modern conceptions of laughter to frame my interpretation of early modern texts, I will offer a brief account here of contemporary theoretical treatments of early modern laughter since the therapeutic objectives that I ascribe to laughter may seem at odds with prevailing concerns over the past few decades. Eco’s thematic focus on laughter, for example, places him in the tradition of Mikhail Bakhtin whose seminal work Rabelais and His World was the first to position laughter as a vital force against absolutism and tied inextricably to freedom. Bakhtin argues that “Laughter purifies from dogmatism, from the intolerant and the petrified; it liberates from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naïveté and illusion, from the single meaning, the single level, from sentimentality.”6 As a temporary revelation of what Bakhtin calls “unofficial truth,” laughter bespeaks a shared understanding of the nonessential origins of political power and social hierarchy. While Bakhtin takes the institution of carnival in medieval and Renaissance France as the primary subject of his work, he simultaneously invokes the more immediate history of 1930’s Russia and a contemporary debate, instigated by the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, over the function of satire in Soviet culture. As Michael Holquist has See especially, The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English Vol. 2: 1550-1660. ed. Gordon Braden, Robert Cummings, and Stuart Gillespie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), Stuart Gillespie, English Translation and Classical Reception: Towards a New Literary History (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), and The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Vol. 2 1558-1660, ed. Patrick Cheney and Philip Hardie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 123.

pointed out, Bakhtin’s work serves as a polemical response to Lunacharsky’s argument in The Social Role of Laughter that the institution of carnival exists primarily to divert the passionate excesses of the folk away from revolution.7 Bakhtin acknowledges the ephemeral nature of carnival and its limitations as a government sanctioned festival but maintains that even brief sallies of the “unofficial truth” can, in Marxist terms, prepare the way for a new consciousness.

Insofar as carnival whets the people’s appetite for a perpetual Saturnalia, for a revolution born from laughter, Bakhtin’s theory substantiates the worst of old Jorge’s fears.

Since the English translation of Rabelais and His World first became available in 1968, Bakhtin’s formulation of carnival, laughter, and the grotesque body have become commonplace in Renaissance studies. The anthropological approach of C.L. Barber’s classic work Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (1959) similarly celebrates the relationship between the ritual practices of Elizabethan holidays and the representation and/or enactment of “misrule” on stage.8 The rise of New Historicism and cultural materialism in the 1980’s, however, brought about a reevaluation of the fundamental relationship between state power and artistic production that not only challenged Bakhtin’s revolutionary thesis but also changed critical estimations of laughter.9 Stephen Greenblatt’s essay “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion” outlines a complex dynamic whereby the dramatic representation of radical subversion is ultimately contained by the very power that it appears to threaten.10 Although he notes a Michael Holquist, “Prologue,” in Rabelais and His World, xviii.

C.L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959). On popular culture see also Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), François Laroque, Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Michael D. Bristol,

Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York:

Routledge, 2014).

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