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LIBERATING THE MIND:
DEBUNKING TRUTHS OR DESTROYING FALSEHOODS

Vincent G Valentine, MD
Links Editor-in-Chief

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vincent valentineYou may ask what does Mark Twain have to do with the ISHLT? My answer? Absolutely everything! The "dead pan" humor mastered by Twain is no different from the manner in which we write and present our rigorous and important scientific information, that is in an indifferent manner, emotionless. The mere thought or mention of the name, Mark Twain, instantly evokes a smile, maybe a chuckle and readies us for laughter. But ponder this, his teaching and preaching are not uplifting like that of a revivalist (the very person he constantly and consistently defrocks); rather, his humoristic teaching and preaching work by tearing down or "cracking up" if you will. He notes, "against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." Obviously the central theme of his career was humor and he took this very seriously. Yet at the same time, his career troubled him throughout his life. He knew his wife thought "a humorist is something awful and not respectable." Nevertheless, in his end, he was loved as a humorist, admired as a man of honor and character, and respected as a writer.

Our goal within the ISHLT for the sakes of our patients is to be revered one day with just a fraction of the amount of veneration poured out to Mark Twain. To William Dean Howells, (Dean of American Letters) and first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Twain was "the Lincoln of our literature." To Ernest Hemingway, Twain was "the father of all modern American literature." For generations since his death and up until today, Twain's image is as familiar as the most recent pop celebrities. A close examination of his short stories, his books, his lectures and his most recent work, Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, published 100 years after his death shows that he was also a genius with words.

One lesson Twain teaches us about telling a humorous story is that it must be told gravely. The teller does his best to conceal the fact that there is anything dimly funny, "dead-pan humor." The face of the teller remains dead. He mastered this technique of irony at an early age from the founder of dead-pan humor, Artemus Ward (which is actually the pen name of Charles Ferrar Browne). Another lesson, and probably the easiest way to get people to laugh, is to make them uncomfortable. There are several unmentionables used by today's comics that work effectively, especially if used in a self-deprecating fashion (Rodney Dangerfield quickly comes to mind). I'm sure you can provide your own examples here.

Probably the most important lesson Twain teaches us about the technique of humor is to set up an outrageous contradiction—so-called burlesque humor. However, this requires a deep understanding of well-established or accepted "facts" or conventions. Pause and think about the many strategies we use in managing our patients before and after heart or lung transplantation. With burlesque humor, Twain mastered the technique of making fun by imitating, exposing or exaggerating a pretext or some earlier work. I recommend carefully reading the following short stories (the titles say it all): The Story of the Bad Little Boy who Didn't Come to Grief and The Story of the Good Little Boy who Did not Prosper. In the 19th century America, virtue is always rewarded and vice is always punished. Twain made a ridiculous departure from these conventions.

Another example comes from his book, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Take the knight in shining armor and all he represents. This knight sits nobly on top of his horse. Mark Twain then gives this knight a head cold. How can the knight blow his nose? What sleeve will the knight use to wipe its nose? Or he gives the knight an itch that cannot be scratched. Twain is literally pulling the knight down to the lower aspects of human life. He shortens the distance between common men and heroic figures. Not only is Twain making us laugh, he is teaching and preaching. He was a realist writer staged with burlesque exaggeration. His listeners and readers are brought closer to reality by exposing the gap of what actually happens in the world instead of what we learned or read elsewhere.

What chance do the oppressed races and the impoverished have against a colossal humbug? Over centuries, power, money, persuasion, supplication and persecution may lift it and push it a little, but Twain points out that only laughter can obliterate it. The most powerful and effective weapon that race and poverty have is laughter against which nothing can stand. If everything is funny, what do we have left to take seriously? Twain exposes the frauds and the shams to free the human mind.

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.