Cunneware’s Laugh: The Enticement of Delight
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.
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.
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