Though we cannot see humor, like faith, we perceive it all around us.
Once upon a time there was a planet in an unknown corner of the vast universe. For a long time, this planet was distinguished by having inhabitants with no sense of humor at all! This sounds like a joke, doesn't it? But I am here to tell history, not jokes. This planet's history was studied in three eras, each having a different state of humor: the Ancient Period, the Middle Period, and the Modern Period.
I. Modern period
The inhabitants of this planet were extremely serious, conscientious, sincere, hard-working, and moral. Besides all these good qualities, they considered humor as a pathological phenomenon. They never laughed or jested, kidded or joked. There was no room for any kind of humor.
A small minority, who had some feeling for humor, occasionally laughed and joked. However, their behavior was extremely alarming to everyone else. These few people were called "laughers," and they were promptly hospitalized. What was so obnoxious about their behavior, aside from the strange noises they made and the peculiar facial expressions they bore while "laughing," were the utterly pathological things they said! They seemed to lose all sense of reality. They said things which were totally irrational, indeed sometimes logically self-contradictory. In short, they behaved exactly like anyone else who was deluded or hallucinating, hence why they were put into hospitals.
More importantly, it was definitely verified that this "laughter" was somewhat contagious and that certain individuals became laughers for the first time in their life only after repeated contact with other laughers. Indeed, this was another thing which made the laughers so dangerous. They were not only hallucinating themselves, but tended to pass these hallucinations to others! Hence they had to be hospitalized, not only for their own sakes, but also for the sake of the society.
In the hospitals, doctors tried quite a number of different treatment regimens to cure their pathologic behavior. Besides many unsuccessful treatment attempts, one drug, called "laughazone," was finally found to kill the symptoms of humor. Almost immediately upon administration, the patient would stop laughing as well as quit the verbal activity called "joking," and would instead start screaming. The patient would just lie there screaming, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and month after month. And the most amazing thing of all is that not once during this screaming period did the patient ever laugh or make a joke or even smile. They thought this drug was really phenomenal!
The problem with "laughazone," though, was that its effects were temporary. After the months long treatment, the patient would, for some unknown reason, fall into a deep state of depression for several weeks, and sometimes longer. After this, he would gradually convalesce, and his original symptoms of laughing and joking would return. So, the doctors had to put the patient through the treatment again and again.
II. Ancient and middle period
The Modern Period contained no literature at all on laughter, except in textbooks and periodicals on abnormal psychology. The Middle Period, on the contrary, was chock-full of laugh-literature. This literature contained absolutely no material which contemporary laughers called "funny." Indeed the writings were written in a wholly sane, serious, scholarly, and philosophic mood. The writings consisted mainly of analysis and commentary on the ancient texts. The ancient writings, unlike those of the middle period, were totally non-philosophical. They never spoke about laughter or anything like that. They were simply what the Middle Period called "funny." These archaic manuscripts contained all sorts of incomprehensible and contradictory material called "jokes" or "funny stories." Therefore, philosophers of the Middle Period extolled the Ancient Period, and referred to it as "the golden age of humor, when men could freely laugh and joke and really enjoy life." Appreciating the ancient writings required a certain, almost mystical, faculty called "humor." What was so puzzling was that humor could not flourish in the wholly serious and rational atmosphere of the Middle Period.
So, the Middle period witnessed many discussions on humor. One such discussion which had taken place between the mystic-humorists and the skeptical anti-humorists went as follows:
The Mystic-Humorists claimed that the only reliable way humor could be known was by direct perception: "We can see humor in many situations. Life is permeated with humor, if you can only see it."
The skeptical Anti-Humorists said, "So, you claim you can see humor! Tell me, what color is it?"
The Mystic-Humorists laughed and said, "Humor doesn't have any color!"
The skeptics continued: "Oh, so you can see it only in black and white! Well, then, what shape is it?"
"It doesn't have any form or shape."
"Then I am confused! Is humor visible or invisible?"
"Of course it is invisible!"
"But I thought you just said that you can see it. Didn't you say that you could see the humor of certain situations?"
"Well, yes, I said that, but I didn't mean 'see' in the literal sense of 'see with your eyes.' Ocular vision really has nothing to do with it. I used 'see' in the sense of directly perceive, not see with the eyes. Perception, although as direct as vision, is really through a different sense altogether."
"A different sense? Which sense is it - hearing? If so, what does humor sound like? Or is it smell or taste or touch or what? With which of the five senses do you perceive humor, or is it a combination of more than one of them?"
"No, it is not any one of these five senses, nor is it a combination of them. It is a totally different sense. In a way, it is a nonphysical sense. We call this sense the 'sense of humor.'"
"Good God, you literally mean a nonphysical sense? In other words, you mean it is something occult, like telepathy or clairvoyance? But scientific integrity requires us not to believe in anything occult; hence we cannot but believe that this humor is something totally unreal, a mere figment of the imagination."
In vain the Humor-Mystics protested that there was nothing the least bit occult about humor and said: "If only once you could see what humor was, you would realize that it is the most natural thing in the world, and also that it is delightfully pleasant."
Another thing, the "Mystic-Humorists" claimed was that the label "Mystic-Humorist" was most misleading. They claimed that there was nothing at all mystical about humor, even though it might seem mystical to those who lacked the immediate sense of humor. They said, "Why not rather call us laughers, which is, in fact, what we are." And so, the term "Mystic-Humorist" was gradually replaced by "laugher." Later, this term would be used in the Modern Period as explained above.
Another discussion during the Middle Period was between the "laughers" and the Faith-Humorists, who believed that reason could be somewhat helpful in understanding humor but that an act of faith was crucial. Essentially, Faith-Humorists did not take a hostile, skeptical attitude toward the laughers, but instead believed in them wholeheartedly. They knew that the laughers were in direct contact with that which the Faith-Humorists could only reason about and accept on faith. However, they were heavily criticized by the "laughers" because of their approach to the issue:
You seem to think that knowledge about laughter is somehow more important than the ability to laugh.
You take an approach which is far too objective and scientific. You read all the literature you can find on the philosophy of humor. You perform elaborate linguistic analyses of what the word "humor" could possibly mean. The only way you will ever find out what it really means is by acquiring a sense of humor.
The most insidious error of all is to try to learn humor by merely imitating the outward forms of the laughers. You must remember that the activity of laughter is only a manifestation of humor. Humor itself is something entirely within the spirit.
Another thing that you do out of mere imitation is this ridiculous practice of memorizing jokes. You commit thousands upon thousands of jokes to memory and you think you are thereby acquiring a sense of humor! But memorizing these jokes is absolutely pointless for you until, and unless, you have acquired a sense of humor.
You combine the two techniques of joke memorization and forced laughter, and then you are sure you have matured. But God Almighty, how wrong you are! You go forth into the world claiming yourselves to be authentic laughers. Nothing sabotages our cause more than this! The skeptics who meet you are almost rightfully reinforced in their belief that humor is something which is a mere sham and delusion. Yes, the pseudo-laughers like you are the major cause of the disappearance of humor from this planet.
As laughter disappeared more and more from this planet, the people of the Middle Period realized that this was a tragic loss rather than a gain, and they did everything possible to stem the tide. Only at the very end of the Middle Period did it first occur to mankind that laughter, far from being something good, could actually be something totally undesirable. People started saying: "Maybe we should stop trying to stem the tide. Maybe the tide is our greatest blessing, although we don't know it. Maybe it is high time that this silly archaic thing called 'humor' should disappear. Maybe laughter was all right for savages, and we are now becoming civilized!" Then the idea fully occurred to mankind that humor was but another form of psychosis; laughter was a type of psychopathology. Thus was ushered the Modern Period.
III. Back to the modern period
As we discussed earlier, people of the Modern Period had to accept the painful fact that the laughers were not permanently curable, at least for the foreseeable future. This fact split the medical opinion into two divergent camps; hospitals, similarly, split into two widely divergent types. Hospitals of Type I were called "laugh-scream hospitals"; those of Type II were "pure-laugh hospitals." In the laugh-scream hospitals, the doctors realized that no patient was permanently curable. Hence, once a patient was admitted, they were admitted for life. All that could be done was to administer the laughazone treatment over and over for the rest of the patient's life. The discipline at these hospitals was ironclad: no patient was ever released, and there was to be no letup in treatment. It was better for the patient to face reality and scream than to withdraw into his fantasy world of humor and laugh.
The philosophy of the pure-laugh hospitals was, however, entirely different. They agreed with the laugh-scream hospitals that no laugher was permanently curable. But they thought: so why not let the patient enjoy his life? Was it really all that bad that he had these fantasies? Similar to the laugh-scream hospitals, patients were incarcerated for life. But they were given no treatments whatsoever! The patients in the pure-laugh hospitals were very happy. Everything possible was done for them to ensure their happiness. The pure-laugh hospitals, in the true sense of the word, were merely isolation centers. Their only function was to prevent the inmates from infecting the outside world with their laughter-psychosis.
Thus the conditions inside the pure-laugh hospitals were close to idyllic, except for one thing! Good God, the patients cried "How unfair that our brothers are screaming themselves to death in the laugh-scream hospitals while we are free to enjoy our laughter. Those doctors at the laugh-scream hospitals! They believe that they are helping their patients! They are the maddest of all! We must find a way to free our brothers so that they can enjoy laughter as we do."
Occasionally, patients would escape from the laugh-scream hospitals, and they would immediately rush to the pure-laugh hospitals, where they were cheerfully admitted. As the patients in the pure-laugh hospitals increased in number day by day, at last, they managed to find the loopholes in the system. It didn't take them long to organize raids on the laugh-scream hospitals, through which they freed all the laugh-wards, and brought all the patients back to the pure-laugh hospitals. The laugh-scream hospitals eventually went out of existence.
However, laughers were not satisfied with this success. They were bothered by the thought of those outside the laugh-communities who never knew the joy of laughter. What could be done for them? Just about nothing, they decided, since the old loopholes they had used to escape were taken care of. But here, providence intervened in a very remarkable way. What happened was this:
The standard of living inside the laugh-hospital communities was far higher than outside. One by one the outsiders pretended to be laughers in order that they might be incarcerated in the laugh-communities. The pretended-laughers knew perfectly that they had no sense of humor, and they couldn't have cared less; they deliberately lied just for the purpose of joining the laugh-communities with their high standards of living. What happened was that the lying-laughers, being surrounded by an enormous majority of genuine laughers, very soon caught the laughing sickness themselves, and in but a few weeks turned completely into genuine laughers. And so one non-laugher after another lied his way into the laugh-communities, and shortly, became a genuine laugher. Then finally, even the psychiatrists succumbed, and no non-laughers were left behind. The entire planet was now one huge laugh-hospital, and the Modern Period that was devoid of humor became the funniest era ever.
This story was adapted from Richard Smullyan's This Book Needs No Title: A Budget of Living Paradoxes by (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1980). Copyright (c) 1980 by Raymond M. Smullyan (Acquired necessary permissions from the author).
Nural is a graduate research assistant in computer science at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.