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Humor in Dutch Culture of the Golden Age.

By Rudolf M. Dekker (New York: Palgrave. 2001. vii plus 187 pp. $55.00).

This slim volume has been translated into English from the Dutch original; I mention this only because there has been a double act of translation provided for the English reader. Dekker's intent, among others, is to unpack or translate a set of seventeenth-century jests for a twenty-first century audience as a window into an emergent Dutch bourgeois culture. It is a truism that jokes don't travel well, that they are one of the cultural forms most likely to get lost in translation, and the reader here will surely agree. Perhaps the Dutch reader would find these jests slightly more accessible. But the cultural particularity of the laughable also renders it an ideal source for historians who wish to examine the otherness of systems of cultural meaning distinct from their own. Dekker's study takes this goal seriously. He picks up the suggestion made by anthropologically-informed historians Robert Darnton, Peter Burke and Keith Thomas, among others, that laughter is a kind of cultural fault line that can reveal the unstated assumptions, values and modes of perception of a people. To the extent that this idea is the organizing principle of his text, Dekker is to be applauded. The problem lies in the execution of the principle, and the way in which other concerns get in the way of accomplishing this goal.

One of those concerns is Dekker's desire to counter what he takes to be a stereotypical image of Dutch culture of the Golden Age. He seeks to challenge a particular view of the Dutch character as gloomy and joyless, driven by Calvinist sobriety and a distrust of this-worldly pleasures. He argues that the Dutch character and culture of the seventeenth century were not unremittingly dour and stern, but that humor and laughter formed a significant aspect of seventeenth-century culture that has been overlooked, if not repressed, in the historical imagination. There is an old tradition, going back to at least seventeenth-century England, of talking about humor as a national trait. This kind of national character study of traits, in which humor is evaluated by its relative presence or absence, sits uneasily with the approach of a more contemporary anthropologically-informed history which sees laughter as a cultural universal that can be used to reveal the particularity of a given culture. The observation that all people laugh doesn't mean that laughter means the same thing in all cultures, whereas the national character approach tends to see the meaning of laughter as a constant, and its presence or absence as a characterological variable.

The main source and inspiration for Dekker's study is a manuscript collection of over 2,000 anecdotes by the seventeenth-century minor poet and bourgeois, Aernout Van Overbeke. The bulk of the book is spent on an analysis of Van Overbeke--his social location, occupational identity, economic status, etc.--and his jests. The final chapter, some 60 pages in length, is devoted to a content analysis of the major subject matters and themes of Van Overbeke's jests. Unfortunately, this chapter often reads as a catalogue of joke topics rather than an extended analysis of particular joke elements and structures aimed at unpacking systems of cultural meaning and ideology. So we learn that Van Overbeke's collection of jests contained items about doctors, lawyers, religion, Germans, children, men and women, judges, and executioners, among others. Dekker provides multiple examples of jokes about these various topics, but his analysis doesn't probe how the laughable actually works or signifies in these individual jests, beyond invoking the idea of inversion or reversal. The jests are left to stand on their own as examples of concerns about particular subject matters that reveal generalized "attitudes" toward religion, marriage, etc.. What they don't reveal, ultimately, is an integrated worldview or what we might mean by a "culture". Given Dekker's claim to be using humor for the purpose of cultural historical understanding, it is disappointing to see the limits of his analysis. One hopes that Van Overbeke's collection could be revisited in a deeper and more analytical way.

Dekker does come to some interesting conclusions about the cultural elements of laughter in the seventeenth century, conclusions that move beyond the Dutch case and have broader implications for modern bourgeois culture in the West. For one, he argues that Van Overbeke and his social circle were protobohemians whose concerns with jests were part of a developing alternative to the mainstream of Dutch bourgeois culture, an alternative that was repressed or lost by the nineteenth century with the triumph of bourgeois moralism. Secondly, he locates the practice of humor within the literature of early modern etiquette books, providing a way of linking the textual expression of jest books with the prescriptive guides for behavior; the result is to complicate our understanding of both text and practice. The restrictions on laughter in etiquette books of the era were consistent with a moderate appreciation of the value of jesting, rather than an outright restriction against it. This is very much in line with what others, including myself, have found to be the case in the nineteenth century Anglo-American context. Dekker is also effective at showing the way in which the formal structure of Van Overbeke's jests partook of a modern transition to the mop--the Dutch word for the modern joke form with its contracted dialogue and punchline. Dekker has done a great service in contributing to the early modern history of bourgeois laughter; the Dutch case, whatever its particularity, seems to be very much part of a move to a modern Western set of conventions surrounding humor and laughter. It would be instructive to use the Dutch case as a springboard for comparative examination of European practices and meanings of laughter in the early modern era.

Daniel Wickberg

University of Texas at Dallas
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Author:Wickberg, Daniel
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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