Cunneware’s Laugh: The Enticement of Delight
Each month, we explore a theme through weekly MythBlasts, curated works, quotations, etc. This month's theme is The Dilettante.
At first glance, the frivolous dilettante seems an unlikely aspect of the archetypal hero. In the outcome-driven culture that most of us inhabit, dilettantes are creatures of a certain derision: we see them as dabblers, superficial and affected, interested in things that don’t really matter. Hardly the serious mien of a hero with a big job to do.
But by assuming that the hero must both create and reflect the gravitas of the culture they benefit, we have lost the serious magic of lightness. We have forgotten the delight of the dilettante, unfurling from the Latin delectare, “to allure, to delight, to charm.” At its heart, the dilettante is enchanted by the enticement of delight.
When Parzival arrives at King Arthur’s court early in his bumbling quest to become a knight, foolish, innocent, and so very earnest, he is greeted by laughter. The Lady Cunneware de Lalant laughs at the sight of him.
It’s one of those moments that feels like an anxiety dream: we’ve shown up somewhere ill-dressed, unprepared, and utterly vulnerable, only to have the polished people around us burst into laughter at our absurdity. Parzival is the everyman in this moment, defenseless against the brutal judgment of an elegant court well aware of its role as the best reflection of civility and accomplishment.
But Cunneware’s laughter is sweet. Delighted. It is not the laughter of superiority, but instead, it’s what philosophers of humor define as the laughter of incongruity; that moment when what we perceive is not what we expected. A young man, little more than a child, dressed absurdly, announcing that he has come to be Arthur’s knight; the epitome of absurdity.
Continue Reading the Mythblast
In Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant writes:
In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind. (First Part, sec. 54)
Kant continues, though, insisting that as the absurdity resolves, our expectation is transformed into nothing. He insists, “We must note well, that it [our expectation] does not transform itself into the positive opposite of an expected object… but it must be transformed into nothing.” He suggests that this laughter does nothing for our reason.
In this insistence, he finds the delight of the dilettante, but consigns that delight literally to a pleasurable physical response; it feels good to belly laugh, but there is nothing else to be gained by it. It is simply an enjoyable diversion.
The exquisiteness of this moment in Parzival’s hero’s journey is that Kant is totally wrong about meaning. Cunneware’s delighted laughter is the antithesis of a silly girl laughing at a silly boy that just feels good.
It is, instead, the moment in which Parzival’s destiny is realized. Her laughter is prophetic, as she has vowed to never laugh until she sees the finest knight that ever will be. Rather than shaming Parzival, Cunneware anoints him with her laughter:
And the maiden Kunnewaaré she sat there, the fair and proud,
And never, that man might wot of, had she laughed or low or loud.
For never she vowed, an she died first, would she laugh ere her eyes might see
That knight, who of knights the bravest or was, or henceforth should be.
As the lad rode beneath the window she brake into laughter sweet
(Eschenbach, Wolfram von. Parzival: A Knightly Epic. Translated by Jessie L. Weston. Lines 686-690)
Cunneware “sees through” Parzival in a deeply mythic way. Which in itself is compelling, but I think what happens next underscores the importance of this lightness in understanding the hero.
Sir Kei, Arthur’s seneschal (who has, incidentally, already been extremely scornful of Parzival and urged Arthur to send him to fairly certain death against the Red Knight), is outraged by her laughter, and publicly beats her for what he perceives as her insult to the court:
For I wot well unto King Arthur, to his court and his palace hall
Many gallant men have ridden, yet hast thou despised them all,
And ne’er hast thou smiled upon them—And now doth thy laughter ring
For one knowing naught of knighthood! Unseemly I deem this thing!
The seneschal in a medieval court is charged with administrating the court, holding the center of the community and the institution. Kei is within his rights to punish transgressors who break the rules of courtly behavior, but he is heavy-handed and heavy-minded. He does not “see through,” as Cunneware does, and is only capable of perceiving what is in front of him. His attack on Cunneware is distressing to those who watch it, but no one lifts a hand or voice to protect her, with one exception.
Sir Antanor the Silent, thought a fool because he does not speak, is, like Cunneware, moved for the first time to break his silence as he watches Kei’s violence. He turns on Kei and announces his own prophecy: Parzival himself will destroy Kei’s joy in his self-righteousness. Kei, of course, responds by beating Antanor as well. No one in the court protests on his behalf.
These two marginalized members of the court—a young lady, without protective brothers around, and the knight seen as a fool – not only recognize Parzival’s destiny as a great chivalric knight, but set his quest truly in motion.
Their lightness, their lack of power, moved by enticement, all like the dilettante, become the strength that pushes against what threatens to be the stale, self-satisfied heaviness of both Kei and Arthur’s court as a whole. Parzival is horror-struck by what they suffer on his behalf, and even in his own marginalized inexperience, sees through the rigidity of how the knightly code of honor is being lived. He understands that his greatest quest is to find what medievalist Marcus Stock has called “mutual compassionate recognition” rather than dominance.
This sets Parzival on the path to becoming the Grail King, in what Sebastian Coxon, of University College London, describes as Parzival’s first instance of “privileged status as the object of laughter.” He has learned, in this first moment of interaction with what he has most desired—to become a knight of King Arthur—that the soul of this desire lies in the deepest and most pure understandings of what a great knight must be. The point is not the constructs of civilization’s expectations and failings, but instead, an unfailing commitment to doing what is most right, most compassionate.
In Romance of the Grail, Campbell writes, “In Parzival, you are to follow your own nature, your own inspiration; following someone else will lead you only to ruin. That is the sense of Parzival’s journey…”
This is the way of the dilettante hero: to follow the enticement of delight, in this case, moved by the lightness of laughter, to what enchants you most deeply. That is the pathway to the boon.
Leigh Melander, Ph.D.
Leigh has an eclectic background in the arts and organizational development, working with inviduals and organizations in the US and internationally for over 20 years. She has a doctorate in cultural mythology and psychology and wrote her dissertation on frivolity as an entry into the world of imagination. Her writings on mythology and imagination can be seen in a variety of publications, and she has appeared on the History Channel, as a mythology expert. She also hosts a radio who on an NPR community affiliate: Myth America, an exploration into how myth shapes our sense of identity. Leigh and her husband opened Spillian, an historic lodge and retreat center celebrating imagination in the Catskills, and works with clients on creative projects. She is honored to have previously served as the Vice President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation Board of Directors.
Realize what play is. Participate in the play, in the play of life. This is known as mahāsukha, the Great Delight.
Romance of the Grail
The Arthurian myths opened the world of comparative mythology to Campbell, turning his attention to the Near and Far Eastern roots of myth. Calling the Arthurian romances the world’s first “secular mythology,” Campbell found metaphors in them for human stages of growth, development, and psychology. The myths exemplify the kind of love Campbell called amor, in which individuals become more fully themselves through connection. Campbell’s infectious delight in his discoveries makes this volume essential for anyone intrigued by the stories we tell—and the stories behind them.
“We crave poetic and mythological narratives and the vast, lyrical palette which they offer us. In Joseph Campbell’s Pathways to Bliss, together we’ll explore a joy that can coexist with darkness as we open ourselves up to the transcendent realm and its potential to illuminate and transform us. When we consider the quest to live mythically, we touch into a depth of consciousness that is an inherent, essential tenor of the soul. Both our suffering and bliss can be mirrored back to us in an honest, unvarnished way because the eternal truths expressed in universal myths guide us to unlock the beauty, majesty, mystery, and sacredness in our own personal experiences.”
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation
The Mythology of Love (Audio: Lecture I.6.2)
Our gift to you this month is audio lecture. Access this download for free until the end of the month.
Love is central to all of the world’s mythologies. Why does love—that most transcendent, yet most personal, of emotions—occupy such a primary place in our most fundamental myths? The Greeks saw Eros, the god of love, as both the oldest of the gods and as the infant reborn “fresh and dewy-eyed in every loving heart.” In one Persian myth, love is the reason for Lucifer’s fall he loved God so much he would not bow to God’s creation, Man. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet has a vision of a strand of love connecting the lowest depths of Hell, through Purgatory and Heaven, to God Himself.
News & Updates
The Year of the Tiger begins in China, Vietnam, and Korea and for affiliated Buddhists around the world on February 1. According to the Chinese zodiac, it is the Year of the Tiger. The Joseph Campbell Foundation wishes all good things for Tigers, particularly in matters of romantic relationships and personal finance (good year for marriage, bad for investments, so it is said).
World Interfaith Harmony week, initiated by Muslim members of the United Nations, also begins on the first of the month.
The Wiccan observance of Imbolc, February 2, is the feast of waxing light. The celebration, also known as Candlemas, is a ritual response to the increasing duration of sunshine as we move from winter toward spring.
February 3 is Setsubun-sai in Japan. Customarily, a family member wearing an Oni (demon) mask is pelted with roasted soybeans by the rest of the clan. The Shinto tradition is considered fun for families, bad for demons.
February 5, Hinduism marks the end of winter with Vasanta Panchami, directing prayer and petition to Saraswati, the goddess of music, wisdom, knowledge, art, and culture. Her four arms represent ego, intellect, alertness, and mind.
II.6.2.1 - Free Will(audio clip source)
Parzival - Medieval Troubadour Traditions of Love
Radio Documentary: The Hero’s Journey: A Guide To Life?(learn more)