Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious Essay - Critical Essays

Sigmund Freud


The relationship of the study of jokes to a general study of aesthetics can be seen in Freud’s opening review of the previous literature. He particularly calls attention to the philosophers Kuno Fischer and Theodor Lipps, who focused on the “playful” nature of jokes and thus on their relationship to the aesthetic freedom to contemplate things “playfully.” He also notes that the novelist Jean Paul suggested that jokes often deal with the similarity between dissimilar things, thus linking jokes to the metaphoric process whereby alien ideas are yoked, sometimes violently, together. Finally, Freud notes that both Paul and Lipps comment on the brevity of jokes and the way they often reveal something previously concealed by not saying the thing outright, thus linking jokes to a process similar to that which underlies lyric poetry. It is clear, therefore, that Freud knew from the beginning of his study that the secret of jokes is related to the means by which artworks are both created and appreciated.

As in his study of dreams, Freud grounds his work in a consideration of technique. He begins by using a joke already cited by Lipps from the German author Heinrich Heine. A lottery agent named Hirsch-Hyacinth boasts to Heine of his relations with the very wealthy Baron Rothschild; the lottery agent is particularly proud that Rothschild treats him as his equal, treats him quite “famillionairely.” What makes this remark a joke, Freud says, lies not in the thought but in its form, particularly in its creating a composite word out of the words “familiar” and “millionaire.”

The technique, according to Freud, who uses the terms he developed earlier in the study of dreams, is a “condensation” of the two words; a “substitution” of the new condensed word then takes place. He then asks whether this process is in every joke and is thus characteristic of the form. Freud immediately finds other aspects of jokes—double meanings, plays on words, and the confusion of metaphorical and literal meanings of words—which he asserts are either special cases of condensation or cases of condensation without substitute formation. Having determined that the tendency toward condensation and economy is the most general attribute of jokes, he then asks from where this tendency comes, what it signifies, and how the pleasure of a joke derives from it.

Next, he moves to a joke that reflects a different technique. Two Jews meet in a bathhouse. When one asks the other if he has taken a bath, the response is, “Is there one missing?” The technique here, Freud says, again using a term from his study of dreams, is “displacement,” for the joke depends on the displacement of the emphasis from the word “bath” to the word “taken.” The jokes of displacement use the techniques of faulty reasoning, absurdity, indirect representation, and representation by an opposite.

Freud makes a distinction between jokes that are innocent and have no purpose other than to give pleasure and those that have an ulterior...

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