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
V. The Motives of Wit and Wit as a Social Process
 
IT seems superfluous to speak of the motives of wit, since the purpose of obtaining pleasure must be recognized as a sufficient motive of the wit-work. But on the one hand it is not impossible that still other motives participate in the production of wit, and on the other hand, in view of certain well-known experiences, the theme of the subjective determination of wit must be discussed.  1
  Two things above all urge us to it. Though wit-making is an excellent means of obtaining pleasure from the psychic processes, we know that not all persons are equally able to make use of it. Wit-making is not at the disposal of all, in general there are but a few persons to whom one can point and say that they are witty. Here wit seems to be a special ability somewhere within the region of the old “psychic faculties,” and this shows itself in its appearance as fairly independent of the other faculties such as intelligence, phantasy, memory, etc. A special talent or psychic determination permitting or favoring wit-making must be presupposed in all wit-makers.  2
  I am afraid that we shall not get very far in the exploration of this theme. Only now and then do we succeed in proceeding from the understanding of a single witticism to the knowledge of the subjective determinations in the mind of the wit-maker. It is quite accidental that the example of wit with which we began our investigation of the wit-technique permits us also to gain some insight into the subjective determination of the witticism. I am referring to Heine’s witticism, to which also Heymans and Lipps have paid attention.  3
  “I was sitting next to Solomon Rothschild and he treated me just as an equal, quite famillionaire” (“Bäder von Lucca”).  4
 
Subjective Determination of the “Famillionaire” Witticism

  Heine put this word in the mouth of a comical person, Hirsch-Hyacinth, collector, operator and tax appraiser from Hamburg, and valet of the aristocratic baron, Cristoforo Gumpelino (formerly Gumpel). Evidently the poet has experienced great pleasure in these productions, for he allows Hirsch-Hyacinth to talk big and puts in his mouth the most amusing and most candid utterances; he positively endows him with the practical wisdom of a Sancho Panza. It is a pity that Heine, as it seems, had no liking for this dramatic figure and that he drops the delightful character so soon. From many passages it would seem that the poet himself is speaking behind the transparent mask of Hirsch-Hyacinth, and we are quite convinced that this person is nothing but a parody of the poet himself. Hirsch tells of reasons why he has discarded his former name and now calls himself Hyacinth. “Besides I have the advantage,” he continues, “of having an H on my seal already, and therefore I am in no need of having a new letter engraved.” But Heine himself resorted to this economy when he changed his surname “Harry” to “Heinrich” at his baptism. Every one acquainted with the life of the poet will recall that in Hamburg, where one also meets the personage Hirsch-Hyacinth, Heine had an uncle of the same name, who played the greatest rôle in Heine’s life as the wealthy member of the family. The uncle’s name was likewise Solomon, just like the elderly Rothschild who treated the impecunious Hirsch on such a famillionaire basis. What seems to be merely a jest in the mouth of Hirsch-Hyacinth soon reveals a background of earnest bitterness when we attribute it to the nephew Harry-Heinrich. For he belonged to the family, nay, more, it was his earnest wish to marry a daughter of this uncle, but she refused him, and his uncle always treated him on a somewhat famillionaire basis, as a poor relative. His rich relatives in Hamburg always dealt with him condescendingly. I recall the story of one of his old aunts by marriage who, when she was still young and pretty, sat next to some one at a family dinner who seemed to her unprepossessing and whom the other members of the family treated shabbily. She did not feel herself called upon to be any more condescending towards him. Only many years later did she discover that the careless and neglected cousin was the poet Heinrich Heine. We know from many a record how keenly Heine suffered from these repulses at the hands of his wealthy relatives in his youth and during later years. The witticism “famillionaire” grew out of the soil of such a subjective emotional feeling.
  5
  One may suspect similar subjective determinations in many other witticisms of the great scoffers, but I know of no other example by which one can show this in such a convincing way. It is therefore hazardous to venture a more definite opinion about the nature of this personal determination. Furthermore, one is not inclined in the first place to claim similar complicated conditions for the origin of each and every witticism. Neither are the witty productions of other celebrated men better suited to give us the desired insight into the subjective determination of wit. In fact, one gets the impression that the subjective determination of wit production is oftentimes not unrelated to persons suffering from neurotic diseases, when, for example, one learns that Lichtenberg was a confirmed hypochondriac burdened with all kinds of eccentricities. The great majority of witticisms, especially those produced from current happenings, are anonymous; one might be inquisitive to know what kind of people they are who originate them. The physician occasionally has an opportunity to make a study of persons who, if not renowned wits, are recognized in their circle as witty and as originators of many passable witticisms; he is often surprised to find such persons showing dissociated personalities and a predisposition to nervous affections. However, owing to insufficient data, we certainly cannot maintain that such a psychoneurotic constitution is a regular or necessary subjective condition for wit-making.  6
  A clearer case is afforded by Jewish witticisms which, as before mentioned, are made exclusively by Jews themselves, whereas Jewish stories of different origin rarely rise above the level of the comical strain or of brutal mockery (p. 166). The determination for the self-participation here, as in Heine’s joke “famillionaire,” seems to be due to the fact that the person finds it difficult to express directly his criticism or aggression and is thus compelled to resort to by-ways.  7
  Other subjective determinations or favorable conditions for wit-making are less shrouded in darkness. The motive for the production of harmless wit is usually the ambitious impulse to display one’s spirit or to “show off.” It is an impulse comparable to the impulse toward sexual exhibition. The existence of numerous inhibited impulses whose suppression retains some weakness produces a state favorable for the production of tendency-wit. Thus certain single components of the sexual constitution may appear as motives for wit-formation. A whole series of obscene witticisms lead one to the conclusion that a person who gives origin to such wit conceals a desire to exhibit. Persons having a powerful sadistical component in their sexuality, which is more or less inhibited in life, are most successful with the tendency-wit of aggression.  8
 
The Impulse to Impart Wit

  The second fact which impels one to examine the subjective determination of wit is the common experience that nobody is satisfied with making wit for himself. Wit-making is inseparably connected with the desire to impart it; in fact this impulse is so strong that it is often realized after overcoming strong objections. In the comic, too, one experiences pleasure by imparting it to another person; but this is not imperative; one can enjoy the comic alone when one happens on it. Wit, on the other hand, must be imparted. Apparently the process of wit-formation does not end with the conception of wit. There remains something which strives to complete the mysterious process of wit-formation by imparting it.
  9
  We cannot conjecture, in the first place, what may have motivated the impulse to impart wit. But in wit we notice another peculiarity which again distinguishes it from the comic. If I encounter the latter I can laugh heartily over it alone; I am naturally pleased if by imparting it to some one else I make him laugh too. In the case of wit, however, which occurs to me or which I have made, I cannot laugh over it in spite of the unmistakable feeling of pleasure which I experience in the witticism. It is possible that my need to impart the witticism to another is in some way connected with the resultant laughter, which is manifest in the other, but denied to me.  10
  But why do I not laugh over my own joke? And what rôle does the other person play in it?  11
  Let us consider the last query first. In the comic usually two persons come into consideration. Besides my own ego there is another person in whom I find something comic; if objects appear comical to me, it takes place by means of a sort of personification which is not uncommon in our notional life. The comic process is satisfied with these two persons, the ego and the object person; there may also be a third person, but it is not obligatory. Wit as a play with one’s own words and thoughts at first dispenses with an object person, but already, upon the first step of the jest, it demands another person to whom it can impart its result, if it has succeeded in safeguarding play and nonsense against the remonstrance of reason. The second person in wit does not, however, correspond to the object person, but to the third person who is the other person in the comic. It seems that in the jest the decision as to whether wit has fulfilled its task is transferred to the other person, as if the ego were not quite certain of its opinion in the matter. The harmless wit is also in need of the other person’s support in order to ascertain whether it has accomplished its purpose. If wit enters the service of sexual or hostile tendencies, it can be described as a psychic process among three persons, just as in the comic, with the exception that there the third person plays a different rôle. The psychic process of wit is consummated here between the first person—the ego, and the third person—the stranger, and not, as in the comic, between the ego and the object person.  12
  Also, in the case of the third person of wit, the wit is confronted with subjective determinations which can make the goal of the pleasure-stimulus unattainable. As Shakespeare says in Love’s Labor’s Lost (Act V, Scene 2):
        “A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it.”
  13
  He whose thoughts run in sober channels is incompetent to declare whether or not the jest is a good one. He himself must be in a jovial, or at least indifferent, state of mind in order to become the third person of the jest. The same hindrance is present in the case of both harmless and tendency wit; but in the latter the antagonism to the tendency which wishes to serve wit, appears as a new hindrance. The readiness to laugh about an excellent smutty joke cannot manifest itself if the exposure concerns an honored kinsman of the third person. In an assemblage of divines and pastors no one would dare to refer to Heine’s comparison of Catholic and Protestant priests as retail dealers and employees of a wholesale business. In the presence of my opponent’s friends the wittiest invectives with which I might assail him would not be considered witticisms but invectives, and in the minds of my hearers it would create not pleasure, but indignation. A certain amount of willingness or a certain indifference, the absence of all factors which might evoke strong feelings in opposition to the tendency, are absolute conditions for the participation of the third person in the completion of the wit process.  14
 
The Third Person of the Witticism

  Wherever such hindrances to the operation of wit fail, we see the phenomenon which we are now investigating, namely, that the pleasure which the wit has provided manifests itself more clearly in the third person than in the originator of the wit. We must be satisfied to use the expression “more clearly” where we should be inclined to ask whether the pleasure of the hearer is not more intensive than that of the wit producer, because we are obviously lacking the means of measuring and comparing it. We see, however, that the hearer shows his pleasure by means of explosive laughter after the first person, in most cases with a serious expression on his face, has related the joke. If I repeat a witticism which I have heard, I am forced, in order not to spoil its effect, to conduct myself during its recital exactly like him who made it. We may now put the question whether from this determination of laughter over wit we can draw conclusions concerning the psychic process of wit-formation.
  15
  Now it cannot be our intention to take into consideration everything that has been asserted and printed about the nature of laughter. We are deterred from this undertaking by the statement which Dugas, one of Ribot’s pupils, put at the beginning of his book Psychologie du rire (1902). “Il n’est pas de fait plus banal et plus étudié que le rire, il n’en est pas qui ait eu le don d’exciter davantage la curiosité du vulgaire et celle des philosophes, il n’ent est pas sur lequel on ait recueilli plus d’observations et bâti plus de théories, et avec cela il n’en est pas qui demeure plus inexpliqué, on serait tenté de dire avec les sceptiques qu’il faut être content de rire et de ne pas chercher à savoir pourquoi on rit, d’autant que peut-être le réflexion tue le rire, et qu’il serait alors contradictoire qu’elle en découvrit les causes” (page 1).  16
  On the other hand, we must make sure to utilize for our purposes a view of the mechanism of laughter which fits our own realm of thought excellently. I refer to the attempted explanation of H. Spencer in his essay entitled Physiology of Laughter. 1  17
  According to Spencer laughter is a phenomenon of discharge of psychic irritation, and an evidence of the fact that the psychic utilization of this irritation has suddenly met with a hindrance. The psychological situation, which discharges itself in laughter, he describes in the following words: “Laughter naturally results only when consciousness is unawares transferred from great things to small—only when there is what we call a descending incongruity.” 2  18
  In an almost analogous sense the French authors (Dugas) designate laughter as a “détente,” a manifestation of release of tension, and A. Bain’s theory, “Laughter a relief from restraint,” seems to me to approach Spencer’s conceptions nearer than many authors would have us believe.  19
  However, we experience the desire to modify Spencer’s thought; to give a more definite meaning to some of the ideas and to change others. We would say that laughter arises when the sum total of psychic energy, formerly used for the occupation of certain psychic channels, has become unutilizable so that it can experience absolute discharge. We know what criticism such a declaration invites, but for our defense we dare cite a pertinent quotation from Lipps’s treatise on Komik und Humor, an analysis which throws light on other problems besides the comic and humor. He says: “In the end individual psychological problems always lead us fairly deeply into psychology, so that fundamentally no psychological problem may be considered by itself” (p. 71). The terms “psychic energy,” “discharge,” and the treatment of psychic energy as a quantity have become habitual modes of thinking since I began to explain to myself the fact of psychopathology philosophically. Being of the same opinion as Lipps I have essayed to represent in my Interpretation of Dreams the unconscious psychic processes as real entities, and I have not represented the conscious contents as the “real psychic activity.” 3 Only when I speak about the “investing energy (Besetzung) of psychic channels,” do I seem to deviate from the analogies that Lipps uses. The knowledge that I have gained about the fact that psychic energy can be displaced from one idea to another along certain association channels, and about the almost indestructible conservation of the traces of psychic processes, have actually made it possible for me to attempt such a representation of the unknown. In order to obviate the possibility of a misunderstanding I must add that I am making no attempt to proclaim that cells and fibers, or the neuron system in vogue nowadays, represent these psychic paths, even if such paths would have to be represented by the organic elements of the nervous system in a manner which cannot yet be indicated.  20
 
Laughter as a Discharge

  Thus, according to our assumption, the conditions for laughter are such that a sum of psychic energy hitherto employed in the occupation of some paths may experience free discharge. And since not all laughter, (but surely the laughter of wit), is a sign of pleasure, we shall be inclined to refer this pleasure to the release of previously existing static energy (Besetzungsenergie). When we see that the hearer of the witticism laughs, while the creator of the same cannot, then that must indicate that in the hearer a sum of damming energy has been released and discharged, whereas during the wit formation, either in the release or in the discharge, inhibitions resulted. One can characterize the psychic process in the hearer, in the third person of the witticism, hardly more pointedly than by asserting that he has bought the pleasure of the witticism with very little expenditure on his part. One might say that it is presented to him. The words of the witticism which he hears necessarily produce in him that idea or thought-connection whose formation in him was also resisted by great inner hindrances. He would have had to make an effort of his own in order to bring it about spontaneously like the first person, or he would have had to put forth at least as much psychic expenditure as to equalize the force of the suppression or repression of the inhibition. This psychic expenditure he has saved himself; according to our former discussion (p. 80) we should say that his pleasure corresponds to this economy. Following our understanding of the mechanism of laughter we should be more likely to say that the static energy utilized in the inhibition has now suddenly become superfluous and neutralized because a forbidden idea came into existence on the way to auditory perception and is therefore ready to be discharged through laughter. Essentially both statements amount to the same thing, for the economized expenditure corresponds exactly to the now superfluous inhibition. The latter statement is more obvious, for it permits us to say that the hearer of the witticism laughs with the amount of psychic energy which was liberated by the suspension of inhibition energy; that is, he laughs away, as it were, this amount of psychic energy.
  21
 
Why the First Person Does Not Laugh

  If the person in whom the witticism is formed cannot laugh, then it indicates, as we have just remarked, that there is a deviation from the process in the case of the third person which concerns either the suspension of the inhibition energy or the discharge possibility of the same. But the first of the two cases is inconclusive, as we must presently see. The inhibition energy of the first person must have been dissipated, for otherwise there would have been no witticism, the formation of which had to overcome just such a resistance. Otherwise, too, it would have been impossible for the first person to experience the wit-pleasure which the removal of the inhibition forced us to deduce. But there remains a second possibility, namely, that even though he experienced pleasure the first person cannot laugh, because the possibility of discharge has been disturbed. In the production of laughter such discharge is essential; an interruption in the possibility of discharge might result from the attachment of the freed occupation energy to some immediate endopsychic possibility. It is well that we have become cognizant of this possibility; we shall soon pay more attention to it. But with the wit-maker still another condition leading to the same result is possible. Perhaps, after all, no appreciable amount of energy has been liberated, in spite of the successful release of occupation energy. In the first person of the witticism wit-work actually takes place which must correspond to a certain amount of fresh psychic expenditure. Thus the first person contributes the power which removes the inhibitions and which surely results in a gain of pleasure for himself; in the case of tendency-wit it is indeed a very big gain, since the fore-pleasure gained from the wit-work takes upon itself the further removal of inhibitions. But the expenditure of the wit-work is, in every case, derived from the gain which is the result of the removal of inhibitions; it is the same expenditure which escapes from the hearer of the witticism. To confirm what was said above it may be added that the witticism loses its laughter effect in the third person as soon as an expenditure of mental work is exacted of him. The allusions of the witticism must be striking, and the omissions easily supplemented; with the awakening of conscious interest in thinking, the effect of the witticism is regularly made impossible. Here lies the real distinction between the witticism and the riddle. It may be that the psychic constellations during wit-work are not at all favorable to the free discharge of the energy gained. We are not here in a position to gain a deeper understanding; our inquiry as to why the third person laughs we have been able to clear up better than the question why the first person does not laugh.
  22
  At any rate, if we have well in mind these views about the conditions of laughter and about the psychic process in the third person, we have arrived at a place where we can satisfactorily elucidate an entire series of peculiarities which are familiar in wit, but which have not been understood. Before an amount of interlocked energy, capable of discharge, is to be liberated in the third person, there are several conditions which must be fulfilled or which at least are desirable. 1. It must be definitely established that the third person really produces this expenditure of energy. 2. Care must be taken that when the latter becomes freed that it should find another psychic use instead of offering itself to the motor discharge. 3. It can be of advantage only if the energy to be liberated in the third person is first strengthened and heightened. Certain processes of wit-work which we can gather together under the caption of secondary or auxiliary techniques serve all these purposes.  23
  The first of these conditions determines one of the qualifications of the third person as hearer of the witticism. He must throughout be so completely in psychic harmony with the first person that he makes use of the same inner inhibitions which the wit-work has overcome in the first person. Whoever is focused on smutty jokes will not be able to derive pleasure from clever exhibitionistic wit. Mr. N.’s aggressions will not be understood by uncultured people who are wont to give free rein to their pleasure gained by insulting others. Every witticism thus demands its own public, and to laugh over the same witticisms is a proof of absolute psychic agreement. We have indeed arrived at a point where we are at liberty to examine even more thoroughly the process in the third person’s mind. The latter must be able habitually to produce the same inhibition which the joke has surmounted in the first person, so that, as soon as he hears the joke, there awakens within him compulsively and automatically a readiness for this inhibition. This readiness for the inhibition, which I must conceive as a true expenditure analogous to the mobilization of an army, is simultaneously recognized as superfluous or as belated, and is thus immediately discharged in its nascent state through the channel of laughter. 4  24
  The second condition for the production of the free discharge, a cutting off of any other outlets for the liberated energy, seems to me of far greater importance. It furnishes the theoretical explanation for the uncertainty of the effect of wit; if the thoughts expressed in the witticism evoke very exciting ideas in the hearer, (depending on the agreement or antagonism between the wit’s tendencies and the train of thought dominating the hearer), the witty process either receives or is refused attention. Of still greater theoretical interest, however, are a series of auxiliary wit-techniques which obviously serve the purpose of diverting the attention of the listeners from the wit-process so as to allow the latter to proceed automatically. I advisedly use the term “automatically” rather than “unconsciously” because the latter designation might prove misleading. It is only a question of keeping the psychic process from getting more than its share of attention during the recital of the witticism, and the usefulness of these auxiliary techniques permits us to assume rightfully that it is just the occupation of attention which has a large share in the control and in the fresh utilization of the freed energy of occupation.  25
 
The Automatism of the Wit-process

  It seems to be by no means easy to avoid the endopsychic utilization of energy that has become superfluous, for in our mental processes we are constantly in the habit of transferring such emotional outputs from one path to another without losing any of their energy through discharge. Wit prevents this in the following way. In the first place it strives for the shortest possible expression in order to expose less points of attack to the attention. Secondly, it strictly adheres to the condition that it be easily understood (v. s.), for as soon as it has recourse to mental effort or demands a choice between different mental paths, it imperils the effect not only through the unavoidable mental expenditure, but also through the awakening of attention. Besides this, wit also makes use of the artifice of diverting the attention by offering to it something in the expression of the witticism which fascinates it so that meanwhile the liberation of inhibition energy and its discharge can take place undisturbed. The omissions in the wording of wit already carry out this intention. They impel us to fill in the gaps and in this way they keep the wit-process free from attention. The technique of the riddle, as it were, which attracts attention is here pressed into the service of the wit-work. The façade formations, which we have already discovered in many groups of tendency-wit, are still more effective (see p. 155). The syllogistical façades excellently fulfill the purpose of riveting the attention by an allotted task. While we begin to ponder wherein the given answer was lacking already we are laughing; our attention has been surprised, and the discharge of the liberated emotional inhibition has been effected. The same is true of witticisms possessing a comic façade in which the comic serves to assist the wit-technique. A comic façade promotes the effect of wit in more than one way; it makes possible not only the automatism of the wit-process by riveting the attention, but also it facilitates the discharge of wit by sending ahead a discharge from the comic. Here the effect of the comic resembles that of a fascinating fore-pleasure, and we can thus understand that many witticisms are able to dispense entirely the fore-pleasures produced by other means of wit, and make use of only the comic as a fore-pleasure. Among the true techniques of wit it is especially displacement and representation through absurdity which, besides other properties, also develop the deviation of attention so desirable for the automatic discharge of the wit-process. 5
  26
  We already surmise, and later will be able to see more clearly, that in this condition of deviation of attention we have disclosed no unessential characteristic of the psychic process in the hearer of wit. In conjunction with this, we can understand something more. First, how it happens that we rarely ever know in a joke why we are laughing, although by analytical investigation we can determine the cause. This laughing is the result of an automatic process which was first made possible by keeping our conscious attention at a distance. Secondly, we arrive at an understanding of that characteristic of wit as a result of which wit can exert its full effect on the hearer only when it is new and when it comes to him as a surprise. This property of wit, which causes wit to be short-lived and forever urges the production of new wit, is evidently due to the fact that it is inherent in the surprising or the unexpected to succeed but once. When we repeat wit the awakened memory leads the attention to the first hearing. This also explains the desire to impart wit to others who have not heard it before, for the impression made by wit on the new hearer replenishes that part of the pleasure which has been lost by the lack of novelty. And an analogous motive probably urges the wit producer to impart his wit to others.  27
 
Elements Favoring the Wit-process

  As elements favoring the wit-process, even if we can no longer consider them essentials, I present in the third place three technical aids to wit-work which are destined to increase the sums of energy to be discharged and thus enhance the effect of the wit. These technical aids also very often accentuate the attention directed to the wit, but they neutralize its influence by simultaneously fascinating it and impeding its movements. Everything that provokes interest and confusion exerts its influence in these two directions. This is especially true of the nonsense and contrast elements, and above all the “contrast of ideas,” which some authors consider the essential character of wit, but in which I see only a means to reinforce the effect of wit. All that is confusing evokes in the hearer that condition of distribution of energy which Lipps has designated as “psychic damming”; and, doubtless, he has a right to assume that the force of the “discharge” varies with the success of the damming process which precedes it. Lipps’s exposition does not explicitly refer to wit, but to the comic in general, yet it seems quite probable that the discharge in wit, releasing a gush of inhibition energy, is brought to its height in a similar manner by means of the damming.
  28
  At length we are aware that the technique of wit is really determined by two kinds of tendencies, those which make possible the formation of wit in the first person, and those guaranteeing that the witticism produces in the third person as much pleasurable effect as possible. The Janus-like double-facedness of wit, which safeguards its original resultant pleasure against the impugnment of critical reason, belongs to the first tendency together with the mechanism of fore-pleasure; the other complications of technique produced by the conditions discussed in this chapter concern the third person of the witticism. Thus wit in itself is a double-tongued villain which serves two masters at the same time. Everything that aims toward gaining pleasure is calculated by the witticism to arouse the third person, as if inner, unsurmountable inhibitions in the first person were in the way of the same. Thus one gets the full impression of the absolute necessity of this third person for the completion of the wit-process. But while we have succeeded in obtaining a good insight concerning the nature of this process in the third person, we feel that the corresponding process in the first person is still shrouded in darkness. So far we have not succeeded in answering the first of our two questions: Why can we not laugh over wit made by ourselves? and: Why are we urged to impart our own witticisms to others? We can only suspect that there is an intimate connection between the two facts yet to be explained, and that we must impart our witticisms to others for the reason that we ourselves are unable to laugh over them. From our examinations of the conditions in the third person for pleasure gaining and pleasure discharging we can draw the conclusion that in the first person the conditions for discharge are lacking and that those for gaining pleasure are only incompletely fulfilled. Thus it is not to be disputed that we enhance our pleasure in that we attain the—to us impossible—laughter in this roundabout way from the impression of the person who was stimulated to laughter. Thus we laugh, so to speak, par ricochet, as Dugas expresses it. Laughter belongs to those manifestations of psychic states which are highly infectious; if I make some one else laugh by imparting my wit to him, I am really using him as a tool in order to arouse my own laughter. One can really notice that the person who at first recites the witticism with a serious mien later joins the hearer with a moderate amount of laughter. Imparting my witticisms to others may thus serve several purposes. First, it serves to give me the objective certainty of the success of the wit-work; secondly, it serves to enhance my own pleasure through the reaction of the hearer upon myself; thirdly, in the case of repeating a not original joke, it serves to remedy the loss of pleasure due to the lack of novelty.  29
 
Economy and Full Expenditure

  At the end of these discussions about the psychic processes of wit, in so far as they are enacted between two persons, we can glance back to the factor of economy which impressed us as an important item in the psychological conception of wit since we offered the first explanation of wit-technique. Long ago we dismissed the nearest but also the simplest conception of this economy, where it was a matter of avoiding psychic expenditure in general by a maximum restriction in the use of words and by the production of associations of ideas. We had then already asserted that brevity and laconisms are not witty in themselves. The brevity of wit is a peculiar one; it has to be a “witty” brevity. The original pleasure gain produced by playing with words and thoughts resulted, to be sure, from simple economy in expenditure, but with the development of play into wit the tendency to economize also had to shift its goals, for whatever might be saved by the use of the same words or by avoiding new thought connections would surely be of no account when compared to the colossal expenditure of our mental activity. We may be permitted to make a comparison between the psychic economy and a business enterprise. So long as the latter’s transactions are very small, good policy demands that expenses be kept low and that the costs of operation be minimized as much as possible. The economy still follows the absolute height of the expenditure. Later on when the volume of business has increased, the importance of the business expenses dwindles; increases in the expenditure totals matter little so long as the transactions and returns can be sufficiently increased. Keeping down running expenses would be parsimonious; in fact, it would mean a direct loss. Nevertheless it would be equally false to assume that with a very great expenditure there would be no more room for saving. The manager inclined to economize would now make an effort to save on particular things and would feel satisfied if the same establishment, with its costly upkeep, could reduce its expenses at all, no matter how small the saving would seem in comparison to the entire expenditure. In quite an analogous manner the detailed economy in our complicated psychic affairs remains a source of pleasure, as may be shown by everyday occurrences. Whoever used to have a gas lamp in his room, but now uses electric light, will experience for a long time a definite feeling of pleasure when he presses the electric light button; this pleasure continues as long as at that moment he remembers the complicated arrangements necessary to light the gas lamp. Similarly the economy of expenditure in psychic inhibition brought about by wit—small though it may be in comparison to the sum total of psychic expenditure—will remain a source of pleasure for us, because we thereby save a particular expenditure which we were wont to make and which as before we were ready to make. That the expenditure is expected and prepared for is a factor which stands unmistakably in the foreground.
  30
  A localized economy, as the one just considered, will not fail to give us momentary pleasure, but it will not bring about a lasting alleviation so long as what has been saved here can be utilized in another place. Only when this disposal into a different path can be avoided, will the special economy be transformed into a general alleviation of the psychic expenditures. Thus, with clearer insight into the psychic processes of wit, we see that the factor of alleviation takes the place of economy. Obviously the former gives us the greater feeling of pleasure. The process in the first person of the witticism produces pleasure by removing inhibitions and by diminishing local expenditure; it does not, however, seem to come to rest until it succeeds through the intervention of the third person in attaining general relief through discharge.  31
 
Note 1. H. Spencer, The Physiology of Laughter (first published in Macmillan’s Magazine for March, 1860), Essays, Vol. 11, 1901. [back]
Note 2. Different points in this declaration would demand an exhaustive inquiry into an investigation of the pleasure of the comic, a thing that other authors have already done, and which, at all events, does not touch our discussion. It seems to me that Spencer was not happy in his explanation of why the discharge happens to find just that path, the excitement of which results in the physical picture of laughter. I should like to add one single contribution to the subject of the physiological explanation of laughter, that is, to the derivation or interpretation of the muscular actions that characterize laughter—a subject that has been often treated before and since Darwin, but which has never been conclusively settled. According to the best of my knowledge the grimaces and contortions of the corners of the mouth that characterize laughter appear first in the satisfied and satiated nursling when he drowsily quits the breasts. There it is a correct motion of expression since it bespeaks the determination to take no more nourishment, an “enough,” so to speak, or rather a “more than enough.” This primal sense of pleasurable satiation may have furnished the smile, which ever remains the basic phenomenon of laughter, the later connection with the pleasurable processes of discharge. [back]
Note 3. Cf. The Interpretation of Dreams, Chap. VII, also On the Psychic Force, etc., in the above cited book of Lipps (p. 123), where he says: “This is the general principle: The dominant factors of the psychic life are not represented by the contents of consciousness but by those psychic processes which are unconscious. The task of psychology, provided it does not limit itself to a mere description of the content of consciousness, must also consist of revealing the nature of these unconscious processes from the nature of the contents of consciousness and its temporal relationship. Psychology must itself be a theory of these processes. But such a psychology will soon find that there exist quite a number of characteristics of these processes which are unrepresented in the corresponding contents of consciousness. [back]
Note 4. Heymans (Zeitschrift für Psychol., XI) has taken up the viewpoint of the nascent state in a somewhat different connection. [back]
Note 5. Through an example of displacement-wit I desire to discuss another interesting character of the technique of wit. The genial actress Gallmeyer when once asked how old she was is said to have answered this unwelcome question with abashed and downcast eyes, by saying, “In Brünn.” This is a very good example of displacement. Having been asked her age, she replied by naming the place of her birth, thus anticipating the next query, and in this manner she wishes to imply: “This is a question which I prefer to pass by.” And still we feel that the character of the witticism does not here come to expression undimmed. The deviation from the question is too obvious; the displacement is much too conspicuous. Our attention understands immediately that it is a matter of an intentional displacement. In other displacement-witticisms the displacement is disguised and our attention is riveted by the effort to discover it. In one of the displacement-witticisms (p. 69) the reply to the recommendation of the horse—“What in the world should I do in Monticello at 6:30 in the morning?”—the displacement is also an obtrusive one, but as a substitute for it it acts upon the attention in a senseless and confusing manner, whereas in the interrogation of the actress we know immediately how to dispose of her displacement answer.
  The so-called “facetious questions” which may make use of the best techniques deviate from wit in other ways. An example of the facetious question with displacement is the following: “What is a cannibal who devours his father and mother?—Answer: An orphan.—And when he has devoured all his other relatives?—Sole-heir.—And where can such a monster ever find sympathy?—In the dictionary under S.” The facetious questions are not full witticisms because the required witty answers cannot be guessed like the allusions, omissions, etc., of wit. [back]
 
 
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