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This review is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.

THE BUTTOCKS HE SLAPPED BY MISTAKE... HOWARD HIBBETT, The Chrysanthemum and the Fish: Japanese Humor Since the Age of the Shoguns (Kodansha International) $28

Humour is seldom respectable, and few respectable people care to admit in public to finding funny something that is wittily malicious, deflating and wholly lacking in taste, and that in private or amidst the intimacy of friends they are in stitches over. The consequence, where studies of the arts are concerned, is that the humorist is - no doubt as he would wish - not taken altogether seriously. Virgil is placed before Ovid, the great literary artist of medieval Europe is Dante, not Rabelais or Dafydd ap Gwilym, there are few scholars and critics who will admit to preferring 'The Miller's Tale' to 'The Knight's Tale', many of the Shakespeare's jokes remain an embarrassment, there is little in the critical index about P.G. Wodehouse or Flann O'Brien, and, where Japan is concerned, Basho and Mishima Yukio are better known and regarded abroad than Ihara Saikaku or Tanizaki Junichiro.

Another matter is that the valuation of the arts of the past is now largely in the hands of the academy. The academy is manned in the main by people who like to give the appearance, at least, of respectability, and the principal task of the academy is, in the field of the arts, thought to be the establishment of canons and the transmission of culture - and culture is morally uplifting, not low, sniggering, and cocking a snook. The advent of 'theory' has not led to any noticeable changes in the attitude to humour, unless to a more ...


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