Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Persistence of Humor

Prompted by a podcast I just recently started listening to—Podictionary—I looked up the book to which this post is linked: The Jests of Hierocles and Philagrius, by (duh) Hierocles and Philagrius, and translated into English in 1920 by the Rowfant Club in Cleveland, OH.

These are jokes—and I use that term rather loosely—that are at least hundreds of years old. And yet...

...And yet, some of them are ones I've heard before and thought were original with someone else. Take, for instance, this lovely selection from page 21, Jest 18:
A certain person meeting a pedant, said, "The slave you sold me died."

"By the gods," replied the other, "he never did such a thing when he was with me."
Sound familiar? It should. You've probably heard the joke 1000 times in some other form. The host of the podcast even made the point that it bears a resemblance to the famous Monty Python "Dead Parrot" sketch.

Or how about this one, Jest 13 from page 20:
Two pedants were complaining to each other because their fathers were living. One of them asked, "What do you wish? Shall each one strangle his own father?"

"By no means," replied the other, "lest we be called parricides. But if you are willing, you shall slay my father and I will kill yours."
Therein lies the plot of Patricia Highsmith's 1950 novel Strangers on a Train (and the subsequent Alfred Hitchcock film by the same name; and I'm told "Throw Mama from the Train").

In a book I read recently, Hightower said that the idea just popped into her head of two people meeting by chance who trade murders. I wonder if she had read some part of the Hierocles and Philagrius, or if the idea is one that crops up from time to time, like a bad case of ergot poisoning.

Some of them are clearly the precursors of blonde jokes or <Ethnic> jokes or little idiot jokes that I remember fondly from my childhood. Take this example of Jest 3 from page 17:
A certain person coming to a pedant who was a physician said, "Doctor when I awake from sleep I have a dizziness for half an hour and then I recover."

The physician replied, "Get up after the half hour."
I think I detect the "Well, stop doing that!" punchline lurking somewhere in the dim recesses of that Jest.

It seems that some humor is truly ageless. And then, there's this. Jest 45 from page 29:
A pedant visited his mother by night and, being beaten for this by his father, he said, "It is only a short time since you were with my mother and you suffered nothing from me and now you are angry at finding me once with my mother."
Paging Mr. Rex. Paging Mr. Oedipus Rex. Please proceed to the white courtesy phone.

But there are ways in which humor has changed over the years, or perhaps Hierocles and Philagrius wrote for an audience that was far more learned than those of today. I've read Jest 76 from page 38 a number of times, and even looked up "propitious" to make sure it means what I think it means, and it still just makes no sense to me:
The priest, upon giving the suppliant's olive branch to a pedant who was entering the temple of Serapis, said, "The god be propitious to you." He replied, "The god be propitious to my little pig for I do not need it."
I got nothin'. And a whole lot of it.

And then...well, I don't even know what to say about this one, Jest 48 from page 30:
A pedant was tying on some new sandals. When they squeaked, he paused and said, "Do not squeak or you will injure your two legs."
There is a footnote in the text after this one. It very dryly says, "The sense is not clear." Well, no duh, Einstein. It continues, "Eberhard gives two readings with the conclusion utrum verius sit diiudicabit qui intellexerit."

Um...sure, yeah. I...um...get that totally. Verius sit indeed diiudicabit qui intellexerit...uh...dude. Get down with your bad Latin self.

I started to just look up the one Jest mentioned by the podcast. An hour later, I was still reading one or two of them during lulls between bouts of protracted C++. All the examples I've used here are just from the Pedants section. There are some 16 sections.

I will no doubt read the entire thing. I hope I've intrigued those who might be reading this enough to give it a try for themselves.

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