Today, the joke is on me. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Jerome Berryman offers a
disquieting idea in his book, Godly
Play. It has to do with humor and
truth-seeking. He points to conflicting ways the
Medieval Church viewed humor.
St. Thomas Aquinas said we should play and we
should laugh. We live in an imperfect world. We
might as well laugh at ourselves and at the
imperfection around us. Still, he was cautious. He
warned us to thread our way between merriment and
But some monastic orders warned that humor harbors
another danger, more grave than ridicule. That
danger rises as we thread our way through true and
false -- through right and wrong. All humor plays
on double meaning -- on the sudden shift of
reality. The joke is sprung when something turns
into something else.
So, it would seem, the truth-seeker should distrust
humor -- whether he's a 14th-century Benedictine
monk or a 20th-century scientist. Words are the
house where humor lives. And wordplay means saying
two things at once. It means juggling with the
That dilemma weighs in my own life. I write fairly
simply and directly. I speak to you in 6th or
7th-grade prose. I work like a Benedictine monk at
being unambiguous. Yet, when I go back to old
scripts, I'm appalled by what I've done.
My scripts are a diary of my inner life as much as
they're stories about creative people. I don't mean
them to be, but words flow from unconscious corners
of my mind. Every piece I write comes out as two
documents, not just one. How can anything so filled
with double meanings be truthful!
I might well despair of truth-telling. Then I see
the joke is really on me. I've bought into a false
notion of truth -- an either-or notion that's just
as vain as the man who won't laugh at himself.
Modern physicists have kicked the struts from under
the old positive-definite universe. Mathematicians
have shown us we can never close a logical system
upon itself. Our knowing is, and will remain,
flawed and incomplete. Knowledge will always
contain double meanings. One more surprise lurks in
anything we think we know.
Learning harbors surprise, and surprise is delight.
Surprise is laughter. New meanings bubble within
any human knowledge. So, in the end, learning is
delight after all. Laughter is the natural reward
of mental fight because the world always holds
things we did not see -- the first time we looked.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds