Why Man Laughs.

This is an excerpt from “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein. A one of a kind transformational novel that remains the only authentic exploration of Utopia I have come across. It is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, the man from Mars who taught humankind grokking and love. The following passage expresses with uncanny insight the nature of the creature that is man:

But first, a definition of the word;

grok: To understand profoundly through intuition or empathy. Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

In its literal meaning, one which goes back to the origin of the Martian race as thinking creatures … ‘Grok’ means ‘to drink.’

In common usage, “Do you grok?” seems close in meaning to “Do you get it?”

“What is ‘truth’?” Mike asked.

(“What is Truth?” asked a Roman judge, and washed his hands of a troublesome question. Jubal wished that he could do likewise.) “An answer is truth when you speak rightly, Mike. How many hands do I have?”

“Two hands. I see two hands,” Mike amended.

“Mike, you spoke rightly; I have two hands. Your answer was truth. Suppose you said that I had seven hands?”

Mike looked troubled. “I do not grok that I could say that.”

It appeared that Mike’s difficulty in understanding the nature of truth was that he didn’t know what a lie was — the dictionary definitions of “lie” and “falsehood” had been filed in his mind with no trace of grokking. One could “speak wrongly” only by accident or misunderstanding.

Jubal tried to explain that all human religions claimed to be in touch with “Old Ones” in one way or another; nevertheless their answers were all different.

Mike looked patiently troubled. “Jubal my brother, I try … but I do not grok how this can be right speaking. With my people, the Old Ones speak always rightly. Your people-”

“Hold it, Mike.”

“Beg pardon?”

“When you said, ‘my people’ you were talking about Martians. Mike, you are not a Martian; you are a man.”

“What is ‘Man’?”

Jubal groaned inwardly. Mike could, he was sure, quote the full list of dictionary definitions. Yet the lad never asked a question simply to be annoying; he asked always for information – and he expected his water brother Jubal to be able to tell him. “I am a man, you are a man, Larry is a man.”

“But Anne is not a man?”

“Uh … Anne is a man, a female man. A woman.”

(“Thanks, Jubal.” – “Shut up, Anne.”)

“A baby is a man? I have not seen babies, but I have seen pictures. A baby is not shaped like Anne and Anne is not shaped like you . . . and you are not shaped like I. But a baby is a nestling man?”

“Uh … yes, a baby is a man.”

“Jubal … I think I grok that my people – ‘Martians’ – are man. Not shape, Shape is not man. Man is grokking. I speak rightly?”

Jubal made a fierce resolve to resign from the Philosophical Society and take up tatting. What was “grokking”? He had been using the word himself for a week now and he still didn’t grok it. But what was “Man”? A featherless biped? God’s image? Or simply a fortuitous result of the “survival of the fittest” in a completely circular and tautological definition? The heir of death and taxes? The Martians seemed to have defeated death, and he had already learned that they seemed to have neither money, property, nor government in any human sense-so how could they have taxes?

And yet the boy was right; shape was an irrelevancy in defining “Man,” as unimportant as the bottle containing the wine. You could even take a man out of his bottle, like the poor fellow whose life those Russians had persisted in “saving” by placing his living brain in a vitreous envelope and wiring him like a telephone exchange. Gad, what a horrible joke! He wondered if the poor devil appreciated the grisly humor of what had been done.

But how, in essence, from the unprejudiced viewpoint of a Martian, did Man differ from other earthly animals? Would a race that could levitate (and God knows what else) be impressed by engineering? And, if so, would the Aswan Dam, or a thousand miles of coral reef, win first prize? Man’s self-awareness? Sheer local conceit; the upstate counties had not reported, for there was no way to prove that sperm whales or giant sequoias were not philosophers and poets far exceeding any human merit.

There was one field in which man was unsurpassed; he showed unlimited ingenuity in devising bigger and more efficient ways to kill off, enslave, harass, and in all ways make an unbearable nuisance of himself to himself. Man was his own grimmest joke on himself. The very bedrock of humor was-

“Man is the animal who laughs,” Jubal answered.

Mike considered this seriously. “Then I am not a man.”


“I do not laugh. I have heard laughing and it frighted me. Then I grokked that it did not hurt. I have tried to learn-” Mike threw his head back and gave out a raucous cackle, more nerve-racking than the idiot call of a kookaburra.

Jubal covered his ears. “Stop! Stop!”

“You heard,” Mike agreed sadly. “I cannot rightly do it. So I am not man.”

“Wait a minute, son. Don’t give up so quickly. You simply haven’t learned to laugh yet … and you’ll never learn just by trying. But you will learn, I promise you. If you live among us long enough, one day you will see how funny we are – and you will laugh.”

”I will?”

“You will. Don’t worry about it and don’t try to grok it; just let it come. Why, son, even a Martian would laugh once he grokked us.”

“I will wait,” Smith agreed placidly.

“And while you are waiting, don’t ever doubt that you are a man. You are. Man born of woman and born to trouble … and some day you will grok its fullness and you will laugh – because man is the animal that laughs at himself. About your Martian friends, I do not know. I have never met them, I do not grok them. But I grok that they may be ‘man.'”

——————- (hundreds of pages later)——————-

It was cold and windy out at Golden Gate Park but Mike did not notice it and Jill had learned that she didn’t have to be cold or uncomfortable if she did not wish it. Nevertheless it was pleasant to relax her control by going into the warm monkey house. Aside from its heat Jill did not like the monkey house too well – monkeys and apes were too much like people, too depressingly human. She was, she thought, finished forever with any sort of prissiness; she had grown to cherish an ascetic, almost Martian joy in all things physical. The public copulations and evacuations of these simian prisoners did not trouble her as they once had; these poor penned people possessed no privacy, they were not at fault. She could now watch such without repugnance; her own impregnable fastidiousness untouched. No, it was that they were “Human, All Too Human”, every action, every expression, every puzzled troubled look reminded her of what she liked least about her own race.

Jill preferred the Lion House – the great males arrogant and sure of themselves even in captivity – the placid motherliness of the big females, the lordly beauty of Bengal tigers with jungle staring out of their eyes, the little leopards, swift and deadly, the reek of musk that air conditioners could not purge. Mike usually shared her tastes for other exhibits, too; he would spend hours in the Aviary, or the Reptile House, or in watching seals – once he had told her that, if one had to be hatched on this planet to be a sea lion would be of greatest goodness.

When he had first seen a zoo, Mike had been much upset; Jill had been forced to order him to wait and grok, as be had been about to take immediate action to free all the animals. He had conceded presently, under her arguments – that most of these animals could not stay alive free in the climate and environment where he proposed to turn them loose, that a zoo was a nest … of a sort. He had followed this first experience with many hours of withdrawal, after which he never again threatened to remove all the bars and glass and grills. He explained to Jill that the bars were to keep peopIe out at least as much as to keep the animals in, which he had failed to grok at first. After that Mike never missed a zoo wherever they went.

But today even the unmitigated misanthropy of the camels could not shake Mike’s moodiness; he looked at them without smiling. Nor did the monkeys and apes cheer him up. They stood for quite a while in front of a cage containing a large family of capuchins, watching them eat, sleep, court, nurse, groom and swarm aimlessly around the cage, while Jill surreptitiously tossed them peanuts despite “No Feeding” signs.

She tossed one to a medium sized monkey; before he could eat it a much larger male was on him and not only stole his peanut but gave him a beating, then left. The little fellow made no attempt to pursue his tormentor; be squatted at the scene of the crime, pounded his knuckles against the concrete floor, and chattered his helpless rage. Mike watched it solemnly. Suddenly the mistreated monkey rushed to the side of the cage, picked a monkey still smaller, bowled it over and gave it a drubbing worse than the one he had suffered – after which he seemed quite relaxed. The third monk crawled away, still whimpering, and found shelter in the arm of a female who had a still smaller one, a baby, on her back. The other monkeys paid no attention to any of it.

Mike threw back his head and laughed – went on laughing, loudly and uncontrollably. He gasped for breath, tears came from his eyes; he started to tremble and sink to the floor, still laughing.

“Stop it, Mike!”

He did cease folding himself up but his guffaws and tears went on. An attendant hurried over. “Lady, do you need help?”

“No. Yes, I do. Can you call us a cab? Ground car, air cab, anything. I’ve got to get him out of here.” She added, “He’s not well.”

“Ambulance? Looks like he’s having a fit.”

“Anything!” A few minutes later she was leading Mike into a piloted air cab. She gave the address, then said urgently. “Mike, you’ve got to listen to me. Quiet down.”

He became somewhat more quiet but continued to chuckle, laugh aloud, chuckle again, while she wiped his eyes, for all the few minutes it took to get back to their flat. She got him inside, got his clothes off, made him lie down on the bed. “All right, dear. Withdraw now if you need to.”

“I’m all right. At last I’m all right.”

“I hope so.” She sighed. “You certainly scared me, Mike.”

“I’m sorry, Little Brother. I know. I was scared, too, the first time I heard laughing.”

“Mike, what happened?”

“Jill … I grok people!”

“Huh?” (“!!??”)

(“I speak rightly, Little Brother. I grok.”) “I grok people now, Jill, Little Brother … precious darling, little imp with lively legs and lovely lewd lascivious lecherous licentious libido … beautiful bumps and pert posterior … with soft voice and gentle hands. My baby darling.”

“Why, Michael!”

“Oh, I knew all the words; I simply didn’t know when or why to say them … nor why you wanted me to. I love you, sweetheart – I grok ‘love’ now, too.”

“You always have. I knew. And I love you … you smooth ape. My darling.”

“‘Ape,’ yes. Come here, she ape, and put your bead on my shoulder and tell me a joke.”

“Just tell you a joke?”

“Well, nothing more than snuggling. Tell me a joke I’ve never heard and see if I laugh at the right place. I will, I’m sure of it – and I’ll be able to tell you why it’s funny. Jill … I grok people!”

“But how, darling? Can you tell me? Does it need Martian? Or mindtalk?”

“No, that’s the point. I grok people. I am people … so now I can say it in people talk. I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much … because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.”

Jill looked puzzled. “Maybe I’m the one who isn’t people. I don’t understand.”

“Ah, but you are people, little she ape. You grok it so automatically that you don’t have to think about it. Because you grew up with people. But I didn’t. I’ve been like a puppy raised apart from other dogs, who couldn’t be like his masters and had never learned how to be a dog. So I had to be taught. Brother Mahmoud taught me, Jubal taught me, lots of people taught me … and you taught me most of all. Today I got my diploma – and I laughed. That poor little monkey.”

“Which one, dear? I thought that big one was just mean … and the one I flipped the peanut to turned out to be just as mean. There certainly wasn’t anything funny.”

“Jill, Jill my darling! Too much Martian has rubbed off on you. Of course it wasn’t funny – it was tragic. That’s why I had to laugh. I looked at a cageful of monkeys and suddenly I saw all the mean and cruel and utterly unexplainable things I’ve seen and heard and read about in the time I’ve been with my own people, and suddenly it hurt so much I found myself laughing.”

“But- Mike dear, laughing is something you do when something is nice, not when it’s horrid.”

“Is it? Think back to Las Vegas- When all you pretty girls came out on the stage, did people laugh?”

“Well … no.”

“But you girls were the nicest part of the show. I grok now, that if they had laughed, you would have been hurt. No, they laughed when a comic tripped over his feet and fell down … or something else that is not a goodness.”

“But that’s not all people laugh at.”

“Isn’t it? Perhaps I don’t grok all its fullness yet. But find me something that really makes you laugh, sweetheart … a joke, or anything else – but something that gave you a real belly laugh, not a smile. Then we’ll see if there isn’t a wrongness in it somewhere and whether you would laugh if the wrongness wasn’t there.” He thought. “I grok when apes learn to laugh, they’ll be people.”

“Maybe.” Doubtfully but earnestly Jill started digging into her memory for jokes that bad struck her as irresistibly funny, ones which had jerked a laugh out of her … incidents she had seen or heard of which had made her helpless with laughter:

“-her entire bridge club.” “Should I bow?” “Neither one, you idiot – instead!” “-the Chinainan objects.” “-broke her leg.” “-make trouble for me!” “-but it’ll spoil the ride for me.” “-and his mother-in-law fainted.” “Stop you? Why, I bet three to one you could do it!” “Something has happened to Ole.” “-and so are you, you clumsy ox!”

She gave up on “funny” stories, pointing out to Mike that such were just fantasies, not real, and tried to recall real incidents. Practical jokes? All practical jokes supported Mike’s thesis, even ones as mild as a dribble glass – and when it came to an interns notion of a practical joke – Well, interns and medical students should be kept in cages. What else? The time Elsa Mae had lost her monogrammed panties? It hadn’t been funny to Elsa Mae. Or the- She said grimly, “Apparently the pratfall is the peak of all humor. It’s not a pretty picture of the human race, Mike.”

“Oh, but it is!”


“I had thought – I had been told – that a ‘funny’ thing is a thing of a goodness. It isn’t. Not ever is it funny to the person it happens to. Like that sheriff without his pants. The goodness is in the laughing itself. I grok it is a bravery … and a sharing … against pain and sorrow and defeat.”

“But- Mike, it is not a goodness to laugh at people.”

“No. But I was not laughing at the little monkey. I was laughing at us. People. And I suddenly knew that I was people and could not stop laughing.” He paused. “This is hard to explain, because you have never lived as a Martian, for all that I’ve told you about it. On Mars there is never anything to laugh at. All the things that are funny to us humans either physically cannot happen on Mars or are not permitted to happen – sweetheart, what you call ‘freedom’ doesn’t exist on Mars; everything is planned by the Old Ones – or the things that do happen on Mars which we laugh at here on Earth aren’t funny because there is no wrongness about them. Death, for example.”

“Death isn’t funny.”

“Then why are there so many jokes about death? Jill, with us – us humans – death is so sad that we must laugh at it. All those religions, they contradict each other on every other point but every one of them is filled with ways to help people be brave enough to laugh even though they know they are dying.” He stopped and Jill could feel that he had almost gone into his trance state. “Jill? Is it possible that I was searching them the wrong way? Could it be that every one of all those religions is true?”

“Huh? How could that possibly be? Mike, if one of them is true, then the others are wrong. Logic.”

“So? Point to the shortest direction around the universe. It doesn’t matter which way you point, it’s the shortest … and you’re pointing right back at yourself”

“Well, what does that prove? You taught me the true answer, Mike. ‘Thou art God.'”

“And Thou art God, my lovely. I wasn’t disputing that … but that one prime fact which doesn’t depend at all on faith may mean that all faiths are true.”

“Well … if they’re all true, then right now I want to worship Siva.” Jill changed the subject with emphatic direct action.

“Little pagan,” he said softly. “They’ll run you out of San Francisco.”

“But we’re going to Los Angeles … where it won’t be noticed. Oh! Thou art Siva!”

“Dance, Kali, dance!”

Some time during the night she woke and saw him standing at the window, looking out over the city. (“Trouble, my brother?”)

He turned and spoke. “There’s no need for them to be so unhappy.”

“Darling, darling! I think I had better take you home. The city is not good for you.”

“But I would still know it. Pain and sickness and hunger and fighting – there’s no need for any of it. It’s as foolish as those little monkeys.”

“Yes, darling. But it’s not your fault-”

“Ah, but it is!”

“Well … that way – yes. But it’s not just this one city; it’s five billion people and more. You can’t help five billion people.”

“I wonder.”

– From ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ by Robert A. Heinlein.

~ by revolutionwithin on August 10, 2010.

2 Responses to “Why Man Laughs.”

  1. Ah, I love Robert Heinlein. My favorite has always been “Time Enough for Love”. But this was like a good cool drink and a warm bath, all at the same time. Thank you!

  2. What are some potentially life-changing books?

    Great choice. One of my favorite scenes from the book: “No, that’s the point. I grok people. I am people … so now I can say it in people talk. I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much … because it’s the only thing that’ll ma…

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