Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1245
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 motive. There are only two kinds of these so-called tendentious jokes—hostile jokes and obscene jokes. A person who laughs at obscene jokes, according to Freud, is laughing as if at an act of sexual aggression; thus, the joke makes it possible to tolerate an otherwise intolerable action. Similarly, hostile jokes make it possible to commit an aggressive act under the guise of satire.
In spite of the relevance of this discussion of jokes to the study of artistic structures in general, however, the heart of Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious is Freud’s analysis of the origin of jokes in the mechanism of pleasure; Freud theorizes that the amount of pleasure a joke gives is proportional to the amount of psychic energy saved by the condensation. For example, by linking two disparate ideas the joke creates a short circuit and thus creates an economy in one’s train of thought, much the way a metaphor does.
According to Freud, jokes evolve in three stages. First, there is the child’s pleasure in verbal play, a pleasure the child has when it hears or utters strings of words similar in sound but with no other relationships. Second, there is the movement to jest, when the intellect assumes a meaning for the joke—even though the meaning is of no consequence—in order to justify the pleasure the joke gives. Finally, there is the tendentious joke, which Freud defines as a joke with a definite purpose, either hostile or obscene.
Generally speaking, the tendentious joke requires the presence of three people— the one who makes the joke, the one who is the object of the joke, and the hearer of the joke. The tendentious joke is most clearly represented in the dirty joke, according to Freud, for the kind of hostile assault it makes on women would not be tolerated in any other form. Thus, so-called smutty jokes make possible the satisfaction of an instinct that would be otherwise repressed.
In the final section of the study, Freud shifts from a discussion of technique or motive to one of the relation of jokes to dreams and thus to the unconscious. In order to show this relationship Freud reviews the basic premise of The Interpretation of Dreams: The frequently absurd “manifest content” of dreams can be understood once one understands the transforming process by which a repressed “latent content” is converted into the dream. The methods of what Freud calls “dream work” are primarily those of condensation and displacement.
Freud theorizes that jokes are developed play, not the expression of repressed wishes as dreams are. Jokes allow the adult to return to the kind of thinking characteristic of childhood. The basic assumption is that children enjoy the pure nonsense of playing with words, but adults are forced to give up this pleasure and use words in a purely denotative way. The only way to enjoy the forbidden childhood pleasure once again is to take an idea to the point of expression and then give it over to unconscious revision. The outcome is at once foolish and meaningful; this compromise is what is called wit.
Nothing is more characteristic of jokes, according to Freud, than this double-sidedness; thanks to the ambiguity of words, the childish play can be made allowable in jests or considered sensible in jokes. Even as the child in the jokester is pleased by the nonsense, the adult in him is satisfied by the meaning. The laughter experienced at the joke or witticism is a release of the energy that previously was used to inhibit or repress the childish desire for nonsense.
In the final chapter of the book, Freud relates jokes to the broader issue of the comic. Here he develops a notion of what he calls “ideational mimetics,” that is, the comic nature of repeating or copying an observed action but with an often-comic difference. Examples range from pantomime, which Freud calls the most primitive form of mimetics, to such forms as caricature, parody, and travesty. Freud suggests that the reason one laughs after recognizing that something has been imitated in an exaggerated way derives from the realization of the discrepancy between the two phenomena. Freud’s consideration of the comic, a few critics have suggested, is more relevant to the study of art than to his study of jokes: The comic operates in the realm of the preconscious, as art does, rather than in the realm of the unconscious, as do jokes.
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