A joke is a serious thing!

Many years ago, Arthur Koestler wrote about three human responses, the HA!HA! reaction, the AHA! reaction and the AAH…! reaction. He suggested that we laugh when we unexpectedly see the same thing in two different frames of reference. He gave some illustrations:

(a) A masochist is a person who likes a cold shower in the morning, so he takes a hot one.

(b) An English lady, on being asked by a friend what she thought of her departed husband’s whereabouts replied: “Well, I suppose the poor soul is enjoying eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant subjects.”

(c) A doctor comforts his patient: “You have a very serious disease. Of ten persons who catch it only one survives. It is lucky you came to me, for I have recently had nine patients with this disease and all died of it.”

(d) Dialogue in a film by Claude Berri: “Sir, I would like to ask you for your daughter’s hand.” “Why not? You have already had the rest”

(e) A marquise at the court of Loius XV unexpectedly returned from a journey and on entering his wife’s boudoir, found her in the arms of the bishop. After a moment’s hesitation, the marquis walked calmly to the window, leaned out and began going through the motions of blessing the people in the street. “What are you doing” cried the anguished wife. “Monseigneur is performing my functions, so I am performing his.” replied the husband.

Koestler saw a common pattern underlying these five stories. He commented:

“… we discover after a little reflection that the marquis’s behaviour is both unexpected and perfectly logical, but of a logic not usually applied to this type of situation. It is the logic of the division of labour, governed by rules as old as human civilisation. But we expected that his reactions would be governed by a different set of rules – the code of sexual morality. It is the sudden clash between these two mutually exclusive set of rules or associative contexts which produces the comic effect. It compels us to perceive the situation in two self consistent but incompatible frames of reference at the same time… In humour, both the creation of a subtle joke and the re-creative act of perceiving the joke, involve the delightful mental jolt of a sudden leap from one plane or associative context to another…

… In the film dialogue, the daughter’s ‘hand’ is perceived first in a metaphorical frame of reference, then suddenly in a literal bodily context…

… The doctor thinks in terms of statistical probabilities the rules of which are inapplicable to individual cases… the patients odds of survival are still one against ten….

… the widowed lady who looks upon death as ‘eternal bliss’ and at the same time ‘an unpleasant subject’ epitomizes the common human predicament of living in the divided house of faith and reason. Here again, the simple joke carries unconscious overtones and undertones, audible to the inner ear alone”

Koestler went on to term the act of discovery as the AHA! experience. Creativity consists in combining two different frames in such a way that you get more out of the emergent whole than you have put in. It is the lateral flash that is creativity not the vertical thinking within a single frame. Archimedes in his bath tub suddenly saw the connection of his bath with the problem of the weight of water displaced by bodies immersed in it. Thousands before Newton saw apples fall but did not make the connection with the sun and the planets. Unsurprisingly perhaps, many famous scientists have also been known for their sense of humour.

And so to the AAH…! experience which to Koestler was self transcending – where you lose yourself in another frame – “an expression of a longing to enter into a quasi-symbiotic communion with a person, living or dead, or some some higher entity which may be nature or a form of art or a mystic experience”.

To Koestler this was a manifestation of the integrative tendency in each one of us. You may watch a sunset and almost merge with it and breathe AAH…! You may listen to M.S.Subbulakshmi, lose yourself in the magic of her song and almost feel transported to another frame of existence and breathe AAH…!

A joke is a serious thing!

– Sathyam

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