What a comical species we are. The proof? Laughter. We laugh. At what? Why?

It’s good for us, of course. It strengthens the immune system, boosts energy, diminishes pain, relieves stress. So say modern experts. But people don’t, generally speaking, laugh for therapy. They laugh because life is funny. What’s funny about it? What does “funny” mean?

Japanese history is richer in tears than in laughter — though things did get off to a rollicking start, the ancient chronicles tell us, with uproarious laughter among the gods. Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, sulking in her cave after suffering a gross insult, had to be lured out if the world was not to languish in darkness. So the “Dread Female of Heaven” performed a lewd dance; gods and goddesses exploded in mirth; the Sun Goddess peeked out to see what was happening; the gods seized her, and restored her to her place in the sky.

So much for myth. Then came history and its vale of tears. Such a sad, sad home the Japanese made of this world. First, as Buddhism teaches, it was illusory; second, fleeting. Beautiful, yes, but what was beauty if not a poignant reminder of how soon it fades, and we along with it? The suffering of wartime speaks for itself, but even in peacetime — prolonged, elegant, prosperous peacetime, as for example the four centuries of the Heian Period (794-1185) — the tears flowed and flowed, unconcealed and unashamed, for tears were a badge of sensitivity, and sensitivity was the highest human quality the age conceived. Only clods and bumpkins were prone to laughter.

Smiles were a different matter. They do infiltrate the ancient literature from time to time. “If I could be happy in this life,” sang the courtier-poet Otomo no Tabito (665-731) in Japan’s first poetry anthology, the eighth-century “Manyoshu,” “what should I care if in the next I became a bird or a worm?”

Then there’s that mistress of Heian wit, court lady Sei Shonagon (circa 966-1017), in whose “Pillow Book” we read, for example, “A preacher should be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand the worthy sentiments of his sermon, we must keep our eyes fixed on him while he speaks; by looking away we may forget to listen. Accordingly an ugly preacher may well be the source of sin.”

Heian peace crumbled at last. War humor tends to be black humor. In the 14th-century civil war chronicle “Taiheiki” (which means “chronicle of great peace” — was the intention humorous?), we read of a defeated warrior about to disembowel himself rather than be captured by the enemy. The year is 1336, the occasion the famous Battle of Minato River, the closing episode of one phase of a drawn-out imperial succession dispute. Asked what his last wish would be, the warrior replied, laughing loudly, “I should like to be reborn seven times into this world of men, so that I might destroy the enemies of the court!” In later times it was said that a samurai should smile only three times in his life — at birth, at his marriage and at the birth of his first son. Boisterous laughter in the face of self-inflicted, excruciatingly painful death echoes hollowly down the ages, simultaneously admirable and horrifying.

The Edo Period (1603-1868) was another “great peace.” Commerce displaced war; the commoner displaced the warrior; commoner humor — bawdy, rakish, crude — delivered a message we moderns remain quite at home with, to wit: this world is simply too crazy to take seriously.

Heard the one about the woman who cut off her nose? She didn’t want to; her husband insisted, then later regretted it. He’d been sick — dying, he thought. His wife swore never to remarry, even to shave her head and become a nun. No, he said, that wasn’t enough. Minds change, hair grows back. She yielded. If it would permit him to die in peace, for love of him she would cut off her nose. But he didn’t die; he recovered — and found himself stuck with a noseless wife. What to do? “I am ashamed to tell you this, but seeing your face makes me wish I were dead. There is no kind way to say it: I want you to leave.”

She refused. The case went before the magistrates — who ruled: “Off with the man’s nose!”

“The man was terrified and tried to escape, but guards captured him, sliced off his nose and turned him over to the woman.” The ending is a happy one; the noseless couple lived happily ever after. That’s the sort of thing Edoites (Edo is pre-modern Tokyo) were laughing at, circa 1615.

A century-and-a-half-odd later (1774, to be exact) came a “treatise” from the irrepressible Hiraga Gennai (1728-79) titled “Hohi Ron” (“A Theory of Farting”). It’s about … well, guess; but let’s first go back a bit, to 1763 and another Gennai flight of fancy, “The Island of Women” — women only. “When the women here wanted to have a child, they opened their robes and faced in the direction of Japan,” Gennai writes. “Wind blew on their bodies and made them pregnant, and later they bore girl babies.”

Imagine the confusion when a party of shipwrecked sailors land on the island! The aristocratic women seize the men for themselves, the plebeian women revolt and things threaten to descend into chaos before one of the men proposes the saving idea: they would build a licensed pleasure quarter, similar to those then operating in just about every town in Japan — with this difference: the courtesans would be men and the clients women.

“A Theory of Farting” takes us to Ryogoku Bridge in Edo. Entertainers of every description performed there. Most remarkable among them was a fart artist, a virtuoso; he drew vast crowds by using his anal passage as a musical instrument. The moral of the story? “Careful reflection shows that humans are microcosms of the universe. Heaven and earth thunder; humans fart.”

What’s funny about life? Hard to say — but something is. Imagine us bereft of laughter, unable to laugh, unable to respond to funniness. We’d go mad, unless we invented some substitute.

Could that be what Gennai was thinking?

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

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