Nonfiction > Sigmund Freud > Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious
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CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939).  Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.  1916.
 
B. Synthesis of Wit
IV. The Pleasure Mechanism and the Psychogenesis of Wit
 
WE can now definitely assert that we know from what sources the peculiar pleasure arises furnished us by wit. We know that we can be easily misled to mistake our sense of satisfaction experienced through the thought-content of the sentence for the actual pleasure derived from the wit, on the other hand, the latter itself has two intrinsic sources, namely, the wit-technique and the wit-tendency. What we now desire to ascertain is the manner in which pleasure originates from these sources and the mechanism of this resultant pleasure.  1
  It seems to us that the desired explanation can be more easily ascertained in tendency-wit than in harmless wit. We shall therefore commence with the former.  2
  The pleasure in tendency-wit results from the fact that a tendency, whose gratification would otherwise remain unfulfilled, is actually gratified. That such gratification is a source of pleasure is self-evident without further discussion. But the manner in which wit brings about gratification is connected with special conditions from which we may perhaps gain further information. Here two cases must be differentiated. The simpler case is the one in which the gratification of the tendency is opposed by an external hindrance which is eluded by the wit. This process we found, for example, in the reply which Serenissimus received to his query whether the mother of the stranger he addressed had ever sojourned in his home, and likewise in the question of the art critic who asked: “And where is the Savior?” when the two rich rogues showed him their portraits. In one case the tendency serves to answer one insult with another; in the other case it offers an affront instead of the demanded expert opinion; in both cases the tendency was opposed by purely external factors, namely, the powerful position of the persons who are the targets of the insult. Nevertheless it may seem strange to us that these and analogous tendency-witticisms have not the power to produce a strong laughing effect, no matter how much they may gratify us.  3
  It is different, however, if no external factors but internal hindrances stand in the way of the direct realization of the tendency, that is, if an inner feeling opposes the tendency. This condition, according to our assumption, was present in the aggressive joke of Mr. N. (p. 28) and in the one of Wendell Phillips, in whom a strong inclination to use invectives was stifled by a highly developed æsthetic sense. With the aid of wit the inner resistances in these special cases were overcome and the inhibition removed. As in the case of external hindrances, the gratification of the tendency is made possible, and a suppression with its concomitant “psychic damming” is thus obviated. So far the mechanism of the development of pleasure would seem to be identical in both cases.  4
  At this place, however, we are inclined to feel that we should enter more deeply into the differentiation of the psychological situation between the cases of external and internal hindrance, as we have a faint notion that the removal of the inner hindrance might possibly result in a disproportionately higher contribution to pleasure. But I propose that we rest content here, that we be satisfied for the present with this one collection of evidence which adheres to what is essential to us. The only difference between the cases of outer and inner hindrances consists in the fact that here an already existing inhibition is removed, while there the formation of a new inhibition is avoided. We hardly resort to speculation when we assert that a “psychic expenditure” is required for the formation as well as for the retention of a psychic inhibition. Now if we find that in both cases the use of the tendency-wit produces pleasure, then it may be assumed that such resultant pleasure corresponds to the economy of psychic expenditure.  5
  Thus we are once more confronted with the principle of economy which we noticed first in the study of the technique of word-wit. But whereas the economy we believed to have found at first was in the use of few or possibly the same words, we can here foresee an economy of psychic expenditure in general in a far more comprehensive sense, and we think it possible to come nearer to the nature of wit through a better determination of the as yet very obscure idea of “psychic expenditure.”  6
  A certain amount of haziness which we could not dissipate during the study of the pleasure mechanism in tendency-wit we accept as a slight punishment for attempting to elucidate the more complicated problem before the simpler one, or the tendency-wit before the harmless wit. We observe that “economy in the expenditure of inhibitions or suppressions” seems to be the secret of the pleasurable effect of tendency-wit, and we now turn to the mechanism of the pleasure in harmless wit.  7
  While examining appropriate examples of harmless witticisms, in which we had no fear of false judgment through content or tendency, we were forced to the conclusion that the techniques of wit themselves are pleasure-sources; now we wish to ascertain whether the pleasure may be traced to the economy in psychic expenditure. In a group of these witticisms (plays on words) the technique consisted in directing the psychic focus upon the sound instead of upon the sense of the word, and in allowing the (acoustic) word-disguise to take the place of the meaning accorded to it by its relations to reality. We are really justified in assuming that great relief is thereby afforded to the psychic work, and that in the serious use of words we refrain from this convenient procedure only at the expense of a certain amount of exertion. We can observe that abnormal mental states, in which the possibility of concentrating psychic expenditure on one place is probably restricted, actually allow to come to the foreground word-sound associations of this kind rather than the significance of the words, and that such patients react in their speech with “outer” instead of “inner” associations. Also in children who are still accustomed to treat the word as an object we notice the inclination to look for the same meaning in words of the same or of similar sounds, which is a source of great amusement to adults. If we experience in wit an unmistakable pleasure because through the use of the same or similar words we reach from one set of ideas to a distant other one, (as in “Home-Roulard” from the kitchen to politics), we can justly refer this pleasure to the economy of psychic expenditure. The pleasure of the wit resulting from such a “short-circuit” appears greater the more remote and foreign the two series of ideas which become related through the same word are to each other, or the greater the economy in thought brought about by the technical means of wit. We may add that in this case wit makes use of a means of connection which is rejected by and carefully avoided in serious thinking. 1  8
  A second group of technical means of wit—unification, similar sounding words, manifold application, modification of familiar idioms, allusions to quotations—all evince one common character, namely, that one always discovers something familiar where one expects to find something new instead. To discover the familiar is pleasurable and it is not difficult to recognize such pleasure as economy-pleasure and to refer it to the economy of psychic expenditure.  9
  That the discovery of the familiar—“recognition”—causes pleasure seems to be universally admitted. Groos says: 2 “Recognition is everywhere bound up with feelings of pleasure where it has not been made too mechanical, (as perhaps in dressing…). Even the mere quality of acquaintanceship is easily accompanied by that gentle delight which Faust experiences when, after an uncanny experience, he steps into his study.” If the act of recognition is so pleasureful, we may expect that man merges into the habit of practicing this activity for its own sake, that is, he experiments playfully with it. In fact, Aristotle recognized in the joy of rediscovery the basis of artistic pleasure, and it cannot be denied that this principle must not be overlooked even if it has not such a far-reaching significance as Aristotle assumes.  10
  Groos then discusses the games, whose character consists of heightening the pleasure of rediscovery by putting hindrances in its path, or in other words by raising a “psychic dam” which is removed by the act of recognition. However, his attempted explanation leaves the assumption that recognition as such is pleasurable, in that he attributes the pleasure of recognition connected with these games to the pleasure in power or to the surmounting of a difficulty. I consider this latter factor as secondary, and I find no occasion for abandoning the simpler explanation, that the recognition per se, i.e., through the alleviation of the psychic expenditure, is pleasurable, and that the games founded upon this pleasure make use of the damming-mechanism merely in order to intensify their effect.  11
  We know also that the source of pleasure in rhyme, alliteration, refrain, and other forms of repetition of similar sounding words in poetry, is due merely to the discovery of the familiar. A “sense of power” plays no perceptible rôle in these techniques, which show so marked an agreement with the “manifold application” in wit.  12
  Considering the close connection between recognition and remembering, the assumption is no longer daring that there exists also a pleasure in remembering, i.e., that the act of remembering in itself is accompanied by a feeling of pleasure of a similar origin. Groos seems to have no objection to such an assumption, but he again deducts the pleasure of remembering from the “sense of power” in which he seeks—as I believe unjustly—the principal basis of pleasure in almost all games.  13
 
The Factor of Actuality

  The use of another technical expedient of wit, which has not yet been mentioned, is also dependent upon “the rediscovery of the familiar.” I refer to the factor of actuality (dealing with actual persons, things, or events), which in many witticisms provides a prolific source of pleasure and explains several peculiarities in the life history of wit. There are witticisms which are entirely free from this condition, and in a treatise on wit it is incumbent upon us to make use of such examples almost exclusively. But we must not forget that we laughed perhaps more heartily over such perennial witticisms than over others; witticisms whose application now would be difficult, because they would require long commentaries, and even with that aid the former effect could not be attained. These latter witticisms contained allusions to persons and occurrences which were “actual” at the time, which had stimulated general interest and were endowed with tension. After the cessation of this interest, after the settlement of these particular affairs, the witticisms lost a part of their pleasurable effect, and a very considerable. Thus, for example, the joke which my friendly host made when he called the dish that was being served a “Home-Roulard,” seems to me by no means as good now as when the question of Home Rule was a continuous headline in the political columns of our newspaper. If I now attempt to express my appreciation of this joke by stating that this one word led us from the idea of the kitchen to the distant field of politics, and saved us a long mental detour, I should have been forced at that time to change this description as follows: “That this word led us from the idea of the kitchen to the very distant field of politics; but that our lively interest was all the keener because this question was constantly absorbing us.” The same thing is true of another joke: “This girl reminds me of Dreyfus; the army does not believe in her innocence,” which has become blurred in spite of the fact that its technical means has remained unchanged. The confusion arising from the comparison with, and the double meaning of, the word “innocence” cannot do away with the fact that the allusion, which at that time touched upon a matter pregnant with excitement, now recalls an interest set at rest. The many irresistible jokes about the present war will sink in our estimation in a very short time.
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  A great many witticisms in circulation reach a certain age or rather go through a course composed of a flourishing season and a mature season, and then sink into complete oblivion. The need that people feel to draw pleasure from their mental processes continually creates new witticisms which are supported by current interests of the day. The vitality of actual witticisms is not their own, it is borrowed by way of allusion from those other interests, the expiration of which determines the fate of the witticism. The factor of actuality which may be added as a transitory pleasure-source of wit, although it is productive in itself, cannot be simply put on the same basis as the rediscovery of the familiar. It is much more a question of a special qualification of the familiar which must be aided by the quality of freshness and recency and which has not been affected by forgetfulness. In the formation of the dream one also finds that there is a special preference for what is recent, and one cannot refrain from inferring that the association with what is recent is rewarded or facilitated by a special pleasure premium.  15
  Unification, which is really nothing more than repetition in the sphere of mental association instead of in material, has been accorded an especial recognition as a pleasure-source of wit by G. Th. Fechner. 3 He says: “In my opinion the principle of uniform connection of the manifold, plays the most important rôle in the field under discussion; it needs, however, the support of subsidiary determinations in order to drive across the threshold the pleasure with its peculiar character which the cases here belonging can furnish.” 4  16
  In all of these cases of repetition of the same association or of the same word-material, of re-finding the familiar and recent, we surely cannot be prevented from referring the pleasure thereby experienced to the economy in psychic expenditure; providing that this viewpoint proves fertile for the explanation of single facts as well as for bringing to light new generalities. We are fully conscious of the fact that we have yet to make clear the manner in which this economy results and also the meaning of the expression “psychic expenditure.”  17
  The third group of the technique of wit, mostly thought-wit, which includes false logic, displacement, absurdity, representation through the opposite, and other varieties, may seem at first sight to present special features and to be unrelated to the techniques of the discovery of the familiar, or the replacing of object-associations by word-associations. But it will not be difficult to demonstrate that this group, too, shows an economy or facilitation of psychic expenditure.  18
  It is quite obvious that it is easier and more convenient to turn away from a definite trend of thought than to stick to it; it is easier to mix up different things than to distinguish them; and it is particularly easier to travel over modes of reasoning unsanctioned by logic; finally in connecting words or thoughts it is especially easy to overlook the fact that such connections should result in sense. All this is indubitable and this is exactly what is done by the techniques of the wit in question. It will sound strange, however, to assert that such processes in the wit-work may produce pleasure, since outside of wit we can experience only unpleasant feelings of defense against all these kinds of inferior achievement of our mental activity.  19
 
Word-pleasure and Pleasure in Nonsense

  The “pleasure in nonsense,” as we may call it for short, is, in the seriousness of our life, crowded back almost to the vanishing point. To demonstrate it we must enter into the study of two cases in one of which it is still visible and in the other becomes visible for the second time. I refer to the behavior of the learning child and to the behavior of the adult under unstable toxic influences. When the child learns to control the vocabulary of its mother tongue it apparently takes great pleasure in “experimenting playfully” with that material (Groos); it connects words without regard for their meaning in order to obtain pleasure from the rhyme and rhythm. Gradually the child is deprived of this pleasure until only the senseful connection of words is allowed him. But even in later life there is still a tendency to overstep the acquired restrictions in the use of words, a tendency which manifests itself in disfiguring the same by definite appendages, and in changing their forms by means of certain contrivances (reduplication, trembling speech) or even by developing an individual language for use in playing,—efforts which reappear also among the insane of a certain category.
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  I believe that whatever the motive which actuated the child when it began such playings, in its further development the child indulges in them fully conscious that they are nonsensical and derives pleasure from this stimulus which is interdicted by reason. It now makes use of play in order to withdraw from the pressure of critical reason. More powerful, however, are the restrictions which must develop in education along the lines of right thinking and in the separation of reality from fiction, and it is for this reason that the resistance against the pressures of thinking and reality is far-reaching and persistent; even the phenomena of phantasy formation come under this point of view. The power of reason usually grows so strong during the later part of childhood and during that period of education which extends over the age of puberty, that the pleasure in “freed nonsense” rarely dares manifest itself. One fears to utter nonsense; but it seems to me that the inclination characteristic of boys to act in a contradictory and inexpedient manner is a direct outcome of this pleasure in nonsense. In pathological cases one often sees this tendency so accentuated that it again controls the speeches and answers of the pupils. In the case of some college students who merged into neuroses I could convince myself that the unconscious pleasure derived from the nonsense produced by them is just as much responsible for their mistakes as their actual ignorance.  21
 
Reproduction of Old Liberties

  The student does not give up his demonstrations against the pressures of thinking and reality whose domination becomes unceasingly intolerant and unrestricted. A good part of the tendency of students to skylarking is responsible for this reaction. Man is an “untiring pleasure seeker”—I can no longer recall which author coined this happy expression—and finds it extremely difficult to renounce pleasure once experienced. With the hilarious nonsense of “sprees” (Bierschwefel), college cries, and songs, the student attempts to preserve that pleasure which results from freedom of thought, a freedom of which he is more and more deprived through scholastic discipline. Even much later, when as a mature man he meets with others at scientific congresses and class reunions and feels himself a student again, he must read at the end of the session the “Kneipzeitung,” or the comic college paper, which distorts the newly gained knowledge into the nonsensical and thus compensates him for the newly added mental inhibitions.
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  The very terms “Bierschwefel” and “Kneipzeitung” are proof that the reason which has stifled the pleasure in nonsense has become so powerful that not even temporarily can it be abandoned without toxic agency. The change in the state of mind is the most valuable thing that alcohol offers man, and that is the reason why this “poison” is not equally indispensable for all people. The hilarious humor, whether due to endogenous origin or whether produced toxically, weakens the inhibiting forces among which is reason and thus again makes accessible pleasure-sources which are burdened by suppression. It is very instructive to see how the demand made upon wit sinks with the rise in spirits. The latter actually replace wit, just as wit must make an effort to replace the mental state in which the otherwise inhibited pleasure possibilities (pleasure in nonsense among the rest) assert themselves.  23
  “With little wit and much comfort.”  24
  Under the influence of alcohol the adult again becomes a child who derives pleasure from the free disposal of his mental stream without being restricted by the pressure of logic.  25
  We hope we have shown that the technique of absurdity in wit corresponds to a source of pleasure. We need hardly repeat that this pleasure results from the economy of psychic expenditure or alleviation from the pressure of reason.  26
  On reviewing again the wit-technique classified under three headings we notice that the first and last of these groups—the replacement of object-association by word-association, and the use of absurdity as a restorer of old liberties and as a relief from the pressure of intellectual upbringing—can be taken collectively. Psychic relief may in a way be compared to economy, which constitutes the technique of the second group. Alleviation of the already existing psychic expenditure, and economy in the yet to be offered psychic expenditure, are two principles from which all techniques of wit and with them all pleasure in these techniques can be deduced. The two forms of the technique and the resultant pleasures correspond more or less in general to the division of wit into word- and thought-witticisms.  27
 
Play and Jest

  The preceding discussions have led us unexpectedly to an understanding of the history of the development of psychogenesis of wit which we shall now examine still further. We have become acquainted with the successive steps in wit, the development of which up to tendency-wit will undoubtedly reveal new relationships between the different characters of wit. Antedating wit there exists something which we may designate as “play” or “jest.” Play—we shall retain this name—appears in children while they are learning how to use words and connect thoughts; this playing is probably the result of an impulse which urges the child to exercise its capacities (Groos). During this process it experiences pleasurable effects which originate from the repetition of similarities, the rediscovery of the familiar, sound-associations, etc., which may be explained as an unexpected economy of psychic expenditure. Therefore it surprises no one that these resulting pleasures urge the child to practice playing and impel it to continue without regard for the meaning of words or the connections between sentences. Playing with words and thoughts, motivated by certain pleasures in economy, would thus be the first step of wit.
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  This playing is stopped by the growing strength of a factor which may well be called criticism or reason. The play is then rejected as senseless or as directly absurd, and by virtue of reason it becomes impossible. Only accidentally is it now possible to derive pleasure from those sources of rediscovery of the familiar, etc., which is explained by the fact that the maturing person has then merged into a playful mood which, as in the case of merriment in the child, removes inhibitions. In this way only is the old pleasure-giving playing made possible, but as men do not wish to wait for these propitious occasions and also hate to forego this pleasure, they seek means to make themselves independent of these pleasant states. The further development of wit is directed by these two impulses; the one striving to elude reason and the other to substitute for the adult an infantile state of mind.  29
  This gives rise to the second stage of wit, the jest (Scherz). The object of the jest is to bring about the resultant pleasure of playing and at the same time appease the protesting reason which strives to suppress the pleasant feeling. There is but one way to accomplish this. The senseless combination of words or the absurd linking of thoughts must make sense after all. The whole process of wit production is therefore directed towards the discovery of words and thought constellations which fulfill these conditions. The jest makes use of almost all the technical means of wit, and usage of language makes no consequential distinction between jest (Scherz) and wit (Witz). What distinguishes the jest from wit is the fact that the pith of the sentence withdrawn from criticism does not need to be valuable, new, or even good; it matters only that it can be expressed, even though what it may say is obsolete, superfluous, and useless. The most conspicuous factor of the jest is the gratification it affords by making possible that which reason forbids.  30
  A mere jest is the following of Professor Kästner, who taught physics at Göttingen in the 16th century, and who was fond of making jokes. Wishing to enroll a student named Warr in his class, he asked him his age, and upon receiving the reply that he was thirty years of age he exclaimed: “Aha, so I have the honor of seeing the thirty years’ War.” 5 When asked what vocations his sons followed Rokitansky jestingly answered: “Two are healing and two are howling,” (two physicians and two singers). The reply was correct and therefore unimpeachable, but it added nothing to what is contained in the parenthetic expression. There is no doubt that the answer assumed another form only because of the pleasure which arises from the unification and assonance of both words.  31
  I believe that we now see our way clear. In estimating the techniques of wit we were constantly disturbed by the fact that these are not peculiar to wit alone, and yet the nature of wit seemed to depend upon them, since their removal by means of reduction nullified the character as well as the pleasure of wit. Now we become aware that what we have described as techniques of wit—and which in a certain sense we shall have to continue to call so—are really the sources from which wit derives pleasure; nor does it strike us as strange that other processes draw from the same sources with the same object in view. The technique, however, which is peculiar to and belongs to wit alone consists in a process of safeguarding the use of this pleasure-forming means against the protest of reason which would obviate the pleasure. We can make few generalizations about this process. The wit-work, as we have already remarked, expresses itself in the selection of such word-material and such thought-situations as to permit the old play with words and thoughts to stand the test of reason; but to accomplish this end the cleverest use must be made of all the peculiarities of the stock of words and of all constellations of mental combinations. Later on perhaps we shall be in a position to characterize the wit-work by a definite attribute; for the present it must remain unexplained how our wit makes its advantageous selections. The tendency and capacity of wit to guard the pleasure-forming word and thought combinations against reason, already makes itself visible as an essential criterion in jests. From the beginning its object is to remove inner inhibitions and thereby render productive those pleasure-sources which have become inaccessible, and we shall find that it remains true to this characteristic throughout the course of its entire development.  32
  We are now in a position to prescribe a correct place for the factor “sense in nonsense,” (see Introduction, page 8), to which the authors ascribe so much significance in respect to the recognition of wit and the explanation of the pleasurable effect. The two firmly established points in the determination of wit—its tendency to carry through the pleasureful play, and its effort to guard it against the criticism of reason—make it perfectly clear why the individual witticism, even though it appear nonsensical from one point of view, must appear full of meaning or at least acceptable from another. How it accomplishes this is the business of the wit-work; if it is not successful it is relegated to the category of “nonsense.” Nor do we find it necessary to deduce the resultant pleasure of wit from the conflict of feelings which emerge either directly or by way of “confusion and clearness,” from the simultaneous sense and nonsense of the wit. There is just as little necessity for our delving deeper into the question how pleasure can come from the succession of that part of the wit considered senseless and from that part recognized as senseful. The psychogenesis of wit has taught us that the pleasure of wit arises from word-play or from the liberation of nonsense, and that the sense of wit is meant only to guard this pleasure against suppression through reason.  33
 
Jest and Wit

  Thus the problem of the essential character of wit could almost be explained by means of the jest. We may follow the development of the jest until it reaches its height in the tendency-wit. The jest gives tendency a prior position when it is a question of supplying us with pleasure, and it is content when its utterance does not appear utterly senseless or insipid. But if this utterance is substantial and valuable the jest changes into wit. A thought, which would have been worthy of our interest even when expressed in the most unpretentious form, is now invested in a form which must in itself excite our sense of satisfaction. Such an association we cannot help thinking certainly has not come into existence unintentionally; we must make effort to divine the intention at the bottom of the formation of wit. An incidental observation, made once before, will put us on the right track. We have already remarked that a good witticism gives us, so to speak, a general feeling of satisfaction without our being able to decide offhand which part of the pleasure comes from the witty form and which part from the excellent thought contained in the context (p. 131). We are deceiving ourselves constantly about this division; sometimes we overvalue the quality of the wit on account of our admiration for the thought contained therein, and then again we overestimate the value of the thought on account of the pleasure afforded us by the witty investment. We know not what gives us pleasure nor at what we are laughing. This uncertainty of our judgment, assuming it to be a fact, may have given the motive for the formation of wit in the literal sense. The thought seeks the witty disguise because it thereby recommends itself to our attention and can thus appear to us more important and valuable than it really is; but above all because this disguise fascinates and confuses our reason. We are apt to attribute to the thought the pleasure derived from the witty form, and we are not inclined to consider improper what has given us pleasure, and in this way deprive ourselves of a source of pleasure. For if wit made us laugh it was because it established in us a mood most unfavorable to reason, which in turn has forced upon us that state of mind which was once contented with mere playing and which wit has attempted to replace with all the means at its command. Although we have already established the fact that such wit is harmless and does not yet show a tendency, we may not deny that, strictly speaking, it is the jest alone which shows no tendency; that is, it serves to produce pleasure only. For wit is really never purposeless even if the thought contained therein shows no tendency and merely serves a theoretical, intellectual interest. Wit carries out its purpose in advancing the thought by magnifying it and by guarding it against reason. Here again it reveals its original nature in that it sets itself up against an inhibiting and restrictive power, or against the critical judgment.
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  The first use of wit, which goes beyond the mere production of pleasure, points out the road to be followed. Wit is now recognized as a powerful psychic factor whose weight can decide the issue if it falls into this or that side of the scale. The great tendencies and impulses of our psychic life enlist its service for their own purposes. The original purposeless wit, which began as play, becomes related in a secondary manner to tendencies from which nothing that is formed in psychic life can escape for any length of time. We already know what it can achieve in the service of the exhibitionistic, aggressive, cynical, and sceptical tendencies. In the case of obscene wit, which originated in the smutty joke, it makes a confederate of the third person who originally disturbed the sexual situation, by giving him pleasure through the utterance which causes the woman to be ashamed in his presence. In the case of the aggressive tendency, wit by the same means changes the original indifferent hearers into active haters and scorners, and in this way confronts the enemy with a host of opponents where formerly there was but one. In the first case it overcomes the inhibitions of shame and decorum by the pleasure premium which it offers. In the second case it overthrows the critical judgment which would otherwise have examined the dispute in question. In the third and fourth cases where wit is in the service of the cynical and sceptical tendency, it shatters the respect for institutions and truths in which the hearer had believed, first by strengthening the argument, and secondly by resorting to a new method of attack. Where the argument seeks to draw the hearer’s reason to its side, wit strives to push aside this reason. There is no doubt that wit has chosen the way which is psychologically more efficacious.  35
 
The Development into Tendency-wit

  What impressed us in reviewing the achievements of tendency-wit was the effect it produced on the hearer. It is more important, however, to understand the effect produced by wit on the psychic life of the person who makes it, or more precisely expressed, on the psychic life of the person who conceives it. Once before we have expressed the intention, which we find occasion to repeat here, that we wish to study the psychic processes of wit in regard to its apportionment between two persons. We can assume for the present that the psychic process aroused by wit in the hearer is usually an imitation of the psychic processes of the wit producer. The outer inhibitions which are to be overcome in the hearer correspond to the inner inhibitions of the wit producer. In the latter the expectation of the outer hindrance exists, at least as an inhibiting idea. The inner hindrance, which is overcome in tendency-wit, is evident in some single cases; for example, in Mr. N.’s joke (p. 28) we can assume that it not only enables the hearer to enjoy the pleasure of the aggression through injuries but it also makes it possible for him to produce the wit in the first place. Of the different kinds of inner inhibitions or suppressions one is especially worthy of our interest because it is the most far-reaching. We designate that form by the term “repression.” It is characterized by the fact that it excludes from consciousness certain former emotions and their products. We shall learn that tendency-wit itself is capable of liberating pleasure from sources that have undergone repression. If the overcoming of outer hindrances can be referred, in the manner indicated above, to inner inhibitions and repressions we may say that tendency-wit proves more clearly than any other developmental stage of wit that the main character of wit-making is to set free pleasure by removing inhibitions. It reinforces tendencies to which it gives its services by bringing them assistance from repressed emotions; or it puts itself at the disposal of the repressed tendencies directly.
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  One may readily concede that these are the functions of tendency-wit, but one must nevertheless admit that we do not understand in what manner these functions can succeed in accomplishing their end. The power of tendency-wit consists in the pleasure which it derives from the sources of word-plays and liberated nonsense, and if one can judge from the impressions received from purposeless jests, one cannot possibly consider the amount of the pleasure so great as to believe that it has the power to annul deep-rooted inhibitions and repressions. As a matter of fact we do not deal here with a simple propelling power but rather with a more complicated mechanism. Instead of covering the long circuitous route through which I arrived at an understanding of this relationship, I shall endeavor to demonstrate it by a short synthetic route.  37
  G. Th. Fechner has established the principle of æsthetic assistance or enhancement which he explains in the following words: “From the unopposed meeting of pleasurable states (Bedingungen) which individually accomplish little, there results a greater, often much greater resultant pleasure than is warranted by the sum of the pleasure values of the separate states, or a greater result than could be accounted for as the sum of the individual effects; in fact the mere meeting of this kind can result in a positive pleasure product which overflows the threshold of pleasure when the factors taken separately are too weak to accomplish this. The only condition is that in comparison to others they must produce a greater sense of satisfaction.” 6 I am of the opinion that the theme of wit does not give us the opportunity to test the correctness of this principle which is demonstrable in many other artistic fields. But from wit we have learned something, which at least comes near this principle, namely, that in a co-operation of many pleasure-producing factors we are in no position to assign to each one the resultant part which really belongs to it (see p. 131). But the situation assumed in the principle of assistance can be varied, and for these new conditions we can formulate the following combination of questions which are worthy of a reply. What usually happens if in one constellation there is a meeting of pleasurable and painful conditions? Upon what depends the result and the previous intimations of the result? Tendency-wit particularly shows these possibilities. There is one feeling or impulse which strives to liberate pleasure from a certain source and under unrestricted conditions certainly would liberate it, but there is another impulse which works against this development of pleasure, that is, which inhibits or suppresses it. The suppressing stream, as the result shows, must be somewhat stronger than the one suppressed, which however is by no means destroyed.  38
 
The Fore-pleasure Principle

  But now there appears another impulse which strives to set free pleasure by this identical process, even though from different sources it thus acts like the suppressed stream. What can be the result in such a case? An example can make this clearer than this schematization. There is an impulse to insult a certain person; but this is so strongly opposed by a feeling of decorum and æsthetic culture that the impulse to insult must be crushed. If, for example, by virtue of some changed emotional state the insult should happen to break through, this insulting tendency would subsequently be painfully perceived. Therefore the insult is omitted. There is a possibility, however, of making good wit from the words or thoughts which would have served in the insult; that is, pleasure can be set free from other sources without being hindered by the same suppression. But the second development of pleasure would have to be foregone if the insulting quality of the wit were not allowed to come out, and as the latter is allowed to come to the surface, it is connected with the new release of pleasure. Experience with tendency-wit shows that under such circumstances the suppressed tendency can become so strengthened by the aid of wit-pleasure as to overcome the otherwise stronger inhibition. One resorts to insults because wit is thereby made impossible. But the satisfaction thus obtained is not produced by wit alone; it is incomparably greater, in fact it is by so much greater than the pleasure of the wit, that we must assume that the former suppressed tendency has succeeded in breaking through, perhaps without the need of an outlet. Under these circumstances tendency-wit causes the most prolific laughter.
  39
  Perhaps the investigation of the determinations of laughter will aid us in forming a clearer picture of the process of the aid of wit against suppression. But we see even now that the case of tendency-wit is a special case of the principle of aid. A possibility of the development of pleasure enters into a situation in which another pleasure possibility is so hindered that individually it would not result in pleasure. The result is a development of pleasure which is greater by far than the added possibility. The latter acted, as it were, as an alluring premium; with the aid of a small sum of pleasure a very large and almost inaccessible amount is obtained. I have good grounds for thinking that this principle corresponds to an arrangement which holds true in many widely separated spheres of the psychic life, and I consider it appropriate to designate the pleasure serving to liberate the large sum of pleasure as fore-pleasure and the principle as the principle of fore-pleasure.  40
 
Play-pleasure and Removal-pleasure

  The effect of tendency-wit may now be formulated as follows: It enters the service of tendencies in order to produce new pleasure by removing suppressions and repressions. This it does, using wit-pleasure as fore-pleasure. When we now review its development we may say that wit has remained true to its nature from beginning to end. It begins as play in order to obtain pleasure from the free use of words and thoughts. As soon as the growing reason forbids this senseless play with words and thoughts, it turns to the jest or joke in order to hold to these sources of pleasure and in order to be able to gain new pleasure from the liberation of the absurd. In the rôle of harmless wit it assists the thoughts and fortifies them against the impugnment of the critical judgment, whereby it makes use of the principle of intermingling the pleasure-sources. Finally, it enters into the great struggling suppressed tendencies in order to remove inner inhibitions in accordance with the principle of fore-pleasure. Reason, critical judgment, and suppression, these are the forces which it combats in turn. It firmly holds on to the original word-pleasure sources, and beginning with the stage of the jest opens for itself new pleasure sources by removing inhibition. The pleasure which it produces, be it play-pleasure or removal-pleasure, can at all times be traced to the economy of psychic expenditure, in so far as such a conception does not contradict the nature of pleasure, and proves itself productive also in other fields. 7
  41
 
Note 1. If I may be permitted to anticipate what later is discussed in the text I can here throw some light upon the condition which seems to be authoritative in the usage of language when it is a question of calling a joke “good” or “poor.” If by means of a double meaning or slightly modified word I have gotten from one idea to another by a short route, and if this does not also simultaneously result in senseful association between the two ideas, then I have made a “poor” joke. In this poor joke one word or the “point” forms the only existing association between the two widely separated ideas. The joke “Home-Roulard” used above is such an example. But a “good” joke results if the infantile expectation is right in the end and if with the similarity of the word another essential similarity in meaning is really simultaneously produced—as In the examples Traduttore—Traditore (translator—traitor), and Amantes—Amentes (lovers—lunatics). The two disparate ideas which are here linked by an outer association are held together besides by a senseful connection which expresses an important relationship between them. The outer association only replaces the inner connection; it serves to indicate the latter or to clarify it. Not only does “translator” sound somewhat similar to “traitor,” but he is a sort of a traitor whose claims to that name are good. The same may be said of Amantes—Amentes. Not only do the words bear a resemblance, but the similarity between “love” and “lunacy” has been noted from time immemorial.
  The distinction made here agrees with the differentiation, to be made later, between a “witticism” and a “jest.” However, it would not be correct to exclude examples like Home-Roulard from the discussion of the nature of wit. As soon as we take into consideration the peculiar pleasure of wit, we discover that the “poor” witticisms are by no means poor as witticisms, i.e., they are by no means unsuited for the production of pleasure. [back]
Note 2. Die Spiele der Menschen, 1899, p. 153. [back]
Note 3. Vorschule der Aesthetik, 1, XVII. [back]
Note 4. Chapter XVII. [back]
Note 5. Kleinpaul: Die Rätzel der Sprache, 1890. [back]
Note 6. Vorschule der Aesthetik, Vol. 1, V, p. 51, 2nd Ed., Leipzig, 1897. [back]
Note 7. The nonsense-witticisms, which have been somewhat slighted in this treatise, deserve a short supplementary comment.
  In view of the significance attributed by our conception to the factor “sense in nonsense,” one might be tempted to demand that every witticism should be a nonsense-joke. But this is not necessary, because only the play with thoughts inevitably leads to nonsense, whereas the other source of wit-pleasure, the play with words, makes this impression incidental and does not regularly invoke the criticism connected with it. The double root of wit-pleasure—from the play with words and thoughts, which corresponds to the most important division into word- and thought-witticisms—sets its face against a short formulation of general principles about wit as a tangible aggravation of difficulties. The play with words produces laughter, as is well known, in consequence of the factor of recognition described above, and therefore suffers suppression only in a small degree. The play with thoughts cannot be motivated through such pleasure: it has suffered a very energetic suppression and the pleasure which it can give is only the pleasure of released inhibitions. Accordingly one may say that wit-pleasure shows a kernel of the original play-pleasure and a shell of removal-pleasure. Naturally we do not grant that the pleasure in nonsense-wit is due to the fact that we have succeeded in making nonsense despite the suppression, while we do notice that the play with words gives us pleasure. Nonsense, which has remained fixed in thought wit, acquires secondarily the function of stimulating our attention through confusion, it serves as a reinforcement of the effect of wit, but only when it is insistent, so that the confusion can anticipate the intellect by a definite fraction of time. That nonsense in wit may also be employed to represent a judgment contained within the thought has been demonstrated by the example on p. 73. But even this is not the primal signification of nonsense in wit.
  A series of wit-like productions for which we have no appropriate name, but which may lay claim to the designation of “witty nonsense,” may be added to the nonsense-jokes. They are very numerous, but I shall cite only two examples: As the fish was served to a guest at the table he put both hands twice into the mayonnaise and then ran them through his hair. Being looked at by his neighbor with astonishment he seemed to have noticed his mistake and excused himself, saying: “Pardon me, I thought it was spinach.”
  Or: “Life is like a suspension bridge,” said the one. “How is that?” asked the other. “How should I know?” was the answer.
  These extreme examples produce an effect through the fact that they give rise to the expectation of wit, so that one makes the effort to find the hidden sense behind the nonsense. But none is found, they are really nonsense. Under that deception it was possible for one moment to liberate the pleasure in nonsense. These witticisms are not altogether without tendencies, they furnish the narrator a certain pleasure in that they deceive and annoy the hearer. The latter then calms his anger by resolving that he himself should take the place of the narrator. [back]
 
 
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