Interview with Robert Hanning, author of "Serious Play"

Serious PlayRobert W. Hanning was interviewed, on the publication of his book, Serious Play. Desire and Authority in the Poetry of Ovid, Chaucer, and Ariosto, by Pocahontas Perelstein, feminist critic and talk show host. A partial transcript follows:

Q: How did this book come about? Why did you choose to write about comic poets, and these three in particular?

Robert W. Hanning: As I indicate in my introduction, I’ve always been attracted to comic writing, and, more fundamentally, to laughter as an important response to the insanities, though not the injustices, of human life. When I encounter a writer who sees humor as a necessary part of his or her engagement with personal and political realities, I am immediately sympathetic to what he or she is attempting, whether it be a contemporary or a premodern author. I called my book, and the lectures on which it’s based, Serious Play because I firmly believe that comedy is, among other things, an extremely profound medium for commenting effectively on important issues without resorting to mind-numbing solemnity. A perfect example of serious play in near-contemporary American writing is Edward Rivera’s superb fictionalized memoir of Puerto Rican immigrant hardship and tragedy, Family Installments. But given my training as a medievalist, specializing in the poetry of Chaucer, it was ultimately easier for me to enter the mindset of, and write about, his comic vision, and then to extend my reach to the Roman Ovid and the Italian Renaissance Ariosto.

Q: You make a distinction between satire and the kind of comedy embraced by Ovid, Chaucer, and Ariosto. How do you do so, and how defensible a contrast do you really think it is?

RWH: As to the latter point, I’m not at all sure theorists of genre will agree on distinguishing as I do between satire and the kind of comic writing “my” three poets practiced. The argument I make is that a satirist adopts the pose of someone explicitly or implicitly superior to the people and the foibles singled out for (usually exaggerated) critique. By contrast, Ovid, Chaucer, and Ariosto, each in his own way, make a point of recognizing that they are very much a part of the human errancy on which their poetry battens. Ovid’s supposed Professor of Erotic Studies—both getting in and getting out—is forced to confess that his susceptibility to amorous passion has frequently prevented him from following his own prescriptions for calculated, unecumbered seduction—”I was one sick love doctor,” he admits of one such occasion Chaucer repeatedly casts himself as one who writes about love without being able to experience it, and Ariosto, in a famous passage at the exact midpoint of the Orlando Furioso, defends himself in these words against another’s accusation that he is as pixilated by desire as all those (beginning with his hero) whom love has driven mad: “I tell you that I know exactly what’s going on—as long as my mind enjoys a lucid interval” (OF 24.3.3-4). That is, what separates the comic poet from the objects of his exposure and ridicule is not his innate superiority to them, but his ability (represented by the Italian poet as a “lucido intervallo”) to recognize—and thus to laugh at, if not necessarily to avoid—the same mistakes and follies.

Q: Your poets have a reputation for sexism and misogyny, what with Ovid advising men that it’s okay to lie to the women they chase, and in general to treat them as sex objects, while Ariosto imagines the great warriors—Christian and Saracen—of his epic spending most of their time either trying to rape the beautiful Angelica or telling stories that depict all women as sexually voracious and chronically unfaithful. Can you credibly defend these poets against such charges?

RWH: I believe I can, and have done so in the book. As I say there, the truly comic poet “can appropriate the discourses of misogyny and misogamy, but never unironically, always with a wink to the audience that says, in effect, that frustration, hurt feelings, or insecurity may make such formulations attractive as emotional safety valves, but they’re not to be confused with the truth—whatever that may be.” In addition, there are several moments that testify against the charges to which you refer: for instance, Chaucer’s representation of his poetic muse, and protector against accusations of hating lovers, as a woman, and Ariosto’s merciless exposure, at several points in the Orlando Furioso, of the Mediterranean masculinist system that glorifies ravishing virgins as a mark of male honor while condemning female infidelity. Of course, we cannot really know the actual attitudes of any of these three poets about women—none seems from available records to have been a rake, though Chaucer was involved in a legal action over the raptus (which probably means ‘rape’) of a woman—but as far as their poetry is concerned, misogyny and male chauvinism seem to me more comic strategies than personal preferences.

Q. You describe your response to Ovid, Chaucer, and Ariosto as above all one of appreciation. Can you say something about your justification for such a critical approach, and how it facilitated your analyses of their comic poetry?

RWH: My intention in giving the Schoff Lectures on which this book is based was to introduce these poets and their art to the educated general audience typically addressed by these annual lectures. I hoped not only to provide a fairly detailed overview of how Ovid, Chaucer, and Ariosto dealt with issues of desire and authority in their poetry, but also to recommend that poetry enthusiastically, as a “comic mirror” accessible to readers conversant with contemporary media that reflect (with risible distortion) the pitfalls of desire and the pratfalls regularly taken by figures of political authority. I also interpreted the rubric of “appreciation” as giving me the freedom to treat my material a little less formally than would be the case in a scholarly monograph, as, for example, in my comparison of Ariosto and Rossini based on applying to certain moments in the former the delightful concept of the “quadro di stupefazione” (ensemble of stunned amazement) typified by the dizzying and hilarious first-act finales of the latter’s comic operas. Perhaps most important to me, my appreciation of Ovid as an urban poet inspired me to translate the excerpts from his comic poetry in my first chapter into something like a “cool” New York argot.

QL You just mentioned your translations of Ovid: they’re sure to raise some eyebrows, and I can imagine classicists with steam coming out of their ears as they read the utterances you assign to Ovid’s poetic persona. What made you choose “New Yorkese” for the Ovidian voice?

RWH: Well, as I say, Ovid was very much a poet of Augustan Rome, the capital city of an expanding empire into which poured wealth, and immigrants, from all over the Roman world, and many of these arrivals, newly rich from profiteering during the civil wars that ended the Republic, pursued pleasure (including sexual pleasure) with an abandon that clashed with the traditional (and partly mythical) values of the vanished Republic. Sophisticated men and women embraced self-cultivation, be it cosmetics, jewelry, or shaved legs, while the search for sexual partners turned the city’s major public spaces—the law courts and religious temples—and sites of mass entertainment—the theater and chariots races—into pickup and make-out places, elements of the Scene. I’m not the first to have christened Ovid’s Rome “New York on the Tiber,” and the poet’s wry attitude to what went on there, both erotically and politically, seems to me well represented by an English liberally inflected in the ironic, skeptical accents of a native New Yorker.

Q: Finally, what would you most like the readers of your book (should there be any) to derive from the experience?

RWH: That’s, as they say, a no-brainer: I would most passionately want them to come away from my book impatient to get beyond its descriptions and into the texts themselves. What wonderful wit and wisdom awaits them in the comic poetry of Ovid, Chaucer, and Ariosto. Bring it on!

(More of this interview can be found on Ms. Perelstein’s website,

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