How the Funniest Footnote I’ve Read So Far in 2021 Made Me Hunt Down a Copy of The Book of Lists #2

I just finished John Julius Norwich’s Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History.⁠[1] It traces Sicily’s recurring role in bearing the brunt of other regions’ conflicts, usually in the form of repeated invasions by and struggles for precedence between far-flung rulers. Norwich shows a healthy appetite for the absurd elements in the accounts, lingering over them throughout. The item that particularly caught my eye was in a footnote on page 142. It’s about Martin I, King of Aragon, also known as Martin the Elder and Martin the Humane, amongst other sobriquets. After detailing his typically tortuous line of succession, the footnote moves swiftly past Martin’s assumption of the throne, skips the entirety of his reign, and concentrates on his final days:

He died—of uncontrollable laughter at a joke by his jester, having just eaten a whole goose—with no surviving legitimate heirs, and the line which had begun with Wilfred the Hairy, Count of Barcelona, in the ninth century finally died out.

I’ve included the full sentence because, well, “Wilfred the Hairy,” but I already knew about him from earlier passages. No, the part that really got me was the aside about Martin’s death, spurred by laughter, but only after eating a whole goose. (An aside within a footnote, which is a species of aside itself, so we’re in the equivalent of the book’s sub-basement.) I can’t see myself in a situation that involves eating a whole goose, not at this point in my life, at least, but I suppose I can think of worse ways to go, particularly for a king of a perennially contested region in 1410 CE.

Here’s the thing: before encountering this footnote, I’d already spent a lot of time thinking about historical figures who died laughing, and I couldn’t remember whether any version of Martin’s name was on the list. When I say list, I mean of course the list, the one of laughter-caused deaths that appears in The Book of Lists #2. My buddy Paul had a copy of the book when we were in college. In our freshmen and sophomore years, we studied specific lists in it as if we were members of a religious order that considered them sacred texts. It troubled me that I couldn’t remember any descriptions of a goose-and-laughter-adjacent death, so I decided to find a reasonably priced copy of the same edition.⁠[2]

Cover the The Book of Lists #2

Now, I’m not saying we gave every list in the book the same obsessive attention. I don’t remember most, and I certainly just skimmed or completely ignored the lion’s share of them. John Wayne’s favorite actors, for instance. “Oh, look, he liked Spencer Tracy.” If you’re an intense devotee of John Wayne, that might be interesting, but I didn’t read it and feel compelled to spend the rest of my life telling people about it. I did, however, tell the story of the dolphins that saved a woman after her boat exploded. One buoyed her up and the others circled her to keep the sharks off. They kept her alive until they reached a sea marker two hundred miles away, where she climbed to safety and eventual rescue. I’ve told that tale to someone at least once every two or three years, probably, since I first read it on page 107. The list in which it appears? “8 Unusual Dolphin Incidents.”⁠[3]

And I wouldn’t be able to calculate how many times I’ve told the story of one entry from “7 People Who Died Laughing.” Let’s take a quick look at the full list, which spans pages 445-446, near the end of the book. It includes:

  1. Calchas, Greek diviner from the 12th century BCE and character in The Iliad. Thinking he was about to prove another fortune-teller wrong, he died chortling over the insult he never managed to deliver.⁠⁠[4]
  2. Zeuxis, pioneering Greek artist in the realistic mode from the 5th century BCE, who choked in a fit of amusement while looking at a figure of an old woman that he had just painted.
  3. Philemon, Greek poet from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, who died at nearly a hundred years old, laughing at a joke he had just made.
  4. Chrysippus, Greek philosopher from the 3rd century BCE, who burst into death-inducing merriment when he saw a donkey eat some figs.
  5. Pietro Aretino, Italian author who died of apoplexy in 1556 while guffawing at a dirty story his sister was telling him.
  6. Mrs. Fitzherbert, English widow who died in 1782. She started laughing upon seeing an actor perform in drag, kept laughing for two days, and finally expired from her relentless amusement.
  7. Alex Mitchell, English bricklayer who in 1975 watched a sketch about a fictional self-defense system called “Ecky Thump” in the television series The Goodies, laughed for a half-hour straight, and had a heart attack. His wife wrote the show’s creators to thank them, which might sound a bit suspicious, but she was appreciative that her husband was happy in his last moments of life.

So, I must admit, the last three entries did not draw my attention, and I didn’t remember them until my recent return to the list. Dirty jokes, men in dresses, television sketches about humorous martial arts that involve regional slurs and black puddings—to me, the situations just aren’t bizarre enough for death-inducing laughter.

But, hello, ancient Greeks! What was going on with them? They are hogging the “died laughing” list with a vengeance. Four out of seven—well done, indeed. Also, they apparently were huge fans of their own jokes. Calchas, Zeuxis, and Philemon all fell to the appeal of their own wit in one form or another. Only old Chrysippus was laughing at something else. His entry was and still is my favorite. The precise quotation from it is “Chrysippus is said to have died from a fit of laughter on seeing a donkey eat some figs.” That’s it. Not a hint of explanation. As sentences go, that is one of my favorites. Paul and I studied those words as if they themselves were written in ancient Greek. We pondered them like graduate students in philosophy discussing a single line from Aristotle’s Physics for weeks on end. What happened? What was the context, the scene? Just, wait…what, now, again?

Did someone give the figs to the donkey? Did the donkey eat them straight from the tree? Was this a farm or some strange banquet whose attendees included a donkey? Were donkeys particularly funny in ancient Greece? Were figs? How did the donkey, the figs, and Chrysippus end up in the same place at the same time? Why did he do this, or who did it to him?

I remember Paul acting it out. “I think maybe it went like this,” he said. He pointed at some random distance. “Do you see? It’s⁠—but the animal, it⁠—⁠” His eyes widened, delighted. “It’s ridiculous, it’s just too⁠—⁠” His face puckered with horror. “The absurdity, it⁠—no, it can’t, I can’t⁠—oh, no, oh no, nooohahahaaaaa!” He choked off his anguished laughter and let his arms and head fall in full collapse.

“Yeah, that seems right,” I said.

I took Latin in high school and college, and I did a bit of Latin-on-the-fly when I was getting my masters. Occasionally in college I thought of switching to classics. Sometimes I still wish that I had. On one occasion, at least, Paul said that I should do it. “You have to, just so you can take ancient Greek and we can find out what the hell was going on!”

Now, we spent a fair amount of our time in the ample UT Austin libraries looking up information that had little or nothing to do with our coursework. That’s how I ended up photocopying cartoons of Paganini’s ghost playing his violin as Charon rowed him to hell. It’s how Paul ended up reading about the construction of the hurdy-gurdy and listening to recordings of its traditional performances. But we never checked the card catalogs for “Chrysippus” entries. I think we wanted to keep the questions. Everyone needs a mystery, a moving target at which to aim the capacity for wonder.

Had we engaged in research rather than speculation, we undoubtedly would have discovered the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, written by Diogenes Laërtius or attributed to him, at least. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, the text is at my fingertips, and it lists two possibilities for the death of Chrysippus. In one version, he goes to a party, drinks too much undiluted wine, is “seized with giddiness” (330), and dies five days later. So, yeah, this is probably the true story. Plenty of booze at hand, but neither a fig nor a donkey in sight. Luckily, the other version of the story brings them back:

But some people say that he died of a fit of immoderate laughter. For that seeing his ass eating figs, he told his old woman to give the ass some unmixed wine to drink afterwards, and then laughed so violently that he died. (330)

So ends the life of a Stoic. I find myself disappointed that Chrysippus is depicted as owning the apocryphal donkey that ate the apocryphal figs. Don’t get me wrong, it makes sense, but I prefer my early imaginings, in which he just stumbled upon them in a grotto or some such. Still, I’m even more disappointed that he’s turned out to be another person who died laughing away at his own joke, particularly given that the joke was of the “Hey, let’s get the donkey drunk!” variety. If he was willing to waste his unmixed wine in that fashion, I’m guessing he’d been dipping into it himself for several hours, just hanging out with his donkey, day-drinking and eating some figs.

It probably happened every day. It was probably such a humdrum routine that the odds against a donkey eating a fig and making his inebriated owner laugh himself to death would have been extreme.⁠⁠[5] That’s fine. I’m glad I know more about the possibly true death of Chrysippus. Knowledge is always useful and all that. Who knows? A year from now, this information may strike me anew, offering additional rich levels for imagining the scene of Chrysippus’ death. But I suspect I’ll always feel some nostalgia for that single, mysterious line in The Book of Lists #2, just eighteen words full of the unknown, and for the scenarios Paul and I generated as we tried to imagine the unlikely logistics, speculating: donkey, philosopher, figs, laughter, death—but how?

[1] New York: Random House, 2015.

[2] Wallace, Irving et al. The Book of Lists #2. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. I must stress that we’re talking about The Book of Lists #2, not The Book of Lists, unnumbered, or The Book of Lists #3. I’d swear I’ve never seen either of them, but my memory may be playing tricks on me. I remember mulling over a list of people who had bought their own islands, and I’m not finding it in The Book of Lists #2. So maybe Paul also had a copy of The Book of Lists. Or The Book of Lists #3, even. I’ve asked him, but he doesn’t remember either, and I’m unwilling to chase down “unnumbered” and “#3” for confirmation. Somewhere, though, we saw that list of island-purchasers, and Marlon Brando was on it. Also, yes, this post is partly about a footnote, so I’m populating it with its own footnotes, the feature that enables dissertation-writers everywhere to plant their flags and shout, “No, I will not give up that quotation, or this anecdote, and if you think you’re taking away my tailor-made graph in which I extend Houston Baker’s concepts of the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery, you have obviously forgotten the power of footnotes!” That’s what a quick scan of my dissertation reveals, at any rate.

[3] Now, that would be some good TV. But was it a true story? I assumed that it was for a few years. Afterwards, I still repeated it, with the caveat that I’d read it in The Book of Lists #2 in the mid-to-late 1980s. But just now I checked for online corroboration. One “Was a woman saved by dolphins after her yacht exploded?” search later, and the first item returned is a New York Times archive piece from September 10, 1972: “South African Reports a Rescue by Dolphins.” The verdict? Assuming the Times fact-checked the story in 1972, pretty close to the truth. In the Times piece, the yacht overturned after experiencing engine trouble and being swamped by a wave rather than exploding, and the woman’s dolphin-assisted journey in the water was 25 miles rather than 200. However, the Times does stress, gently but carefully, that the account was provided solely by the protagonist, mentioning no witnesses. But close enough for Hoyle and The Book of Lists #2. Perhaps additional fact-checkers were employed to one-up the Times.

[4] Actually, two tales about the cause of Calchas’ death are mentioned in this list. In one, he died of shame over losing a soothsaying competition (guessing the number of piglets that would be born in a specific litter). In the other, he was slain by his own wit while trying to back-smack-talk another seer. The rival saw Calchas planting some grapes and threw down with “I predict that you will not live to drink the wine you make from them.” And after however many months of slow burn, Calchas invited this jerk over for a cup of the wine in question. When the guy was unperturbed—“No, I still say you’re not going to be able to drink that!”—Calchas started laughing and howled “Ha! You idio—oop!”

[5] I haven’t searched for any proof that Chrysippus was drunk on the vintage he allegedly wanted to give his donkey, but I’m guessing the ready access to unmixed wine might have been the reason so many ancient Greeks made it onto the list of historical figures who died laughing. According to Laërtius, Chrysippus definitely didn’t avoid the drinking parties. Also, in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, servants and peripheral characters regularly haul out wine-mixing bowls, the “kraters” described by Mark Cartwright in “Wine in the Ancient Mediterranean.” Depending on the occasion, the precise mixture of water and wine could be altered, as Achilles indicates when he greets a delegation of his fellow Achaeans and instructs Patroclus to mix less water in the wine. Or, as Alexander Pope translates it, to “Mix purer wine, and open every soul” (The Iliad of Homer, Translated by Alexander Pope, New York and Boston: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, Book IX, page 208). In Pope’s translation, Achilles is basically saying “Hey, make those drinks stronger, and maybe we’ll all tell the truth in here.”

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