Greek Jokes: A Sacred Thing

Basil Gildersleeve, Hellas and Hesperia

“Now this necessity of vitalizing classical study is felt everywhere, and due praise must be given to the honest efforts made in this direction, though many of them are mere revivals of abandoned experiments, so slow are men to learn from history. To be sure, the readiness with which a man can vitalize his subject is something that varies with the individuality. Some men can pass from the morning newspaper or the midnight novel straight to the lecture on Greek literature, or to the investigation of grammatical phenomena, and feel that the life is one; others have to put on mental bands and gowns in order to present the gospel of Hellenism, as Buffon is said to have put on court dress before he paid his respects to Nature ; others regard a Greek joke as a sacred thing, not lightly to be laughed at. In fact, there is no more pitiable object than a man born to an honest slowness of vision and expression, who is goaded by the requirements of the age into being lively; your Goodman Dull who will fain be as nimble-witted as Moth. The students soon see through this false liveliness, are irritated, are repelled by it, and prefer in the long run the honest, steady bore of a methodical wimble to the tumultuous prodding of a would-be live teacher. We are supposed to be a race of humorists, and American jokes I have found to be in great demand in the common rooms and combination rooms of English universities; and I am afraid that this reputation has had a bad effect on the style of American lecturers, who seem to think that no matter what the subject, they must vindicate their right to a share in the national sense of humor. They are not very Greek in this unfailing funniness; there is no very good Greek equivalent for ‘fun’ ; indeed, it is hard, it is almost impossible, to restore for the outsider the volatilized savor of Attic salt. One has to create an atmosphere for the inhalation of the delicate perfume.”

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