Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious

by Sigmund Freud
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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious is not one of Freud’s most famous or influential books. It is considered a minor contribution compared to the epoch-making The Interpretation of Dreams, although it appeared shortly after the famous dream book and makes use of many of the same discoveries. Ernest Jones, one of Freud’s biographers, says that Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious is perhaps the least known of Freud’s works. Freud claimed, however, that his study of jokes was the first example of the application of psychoanalytic thinking to the issues of aesthetics, and several critics, including Ernst Kris in Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (1952), have argued that it is the model for anyone who wishes to focus on artistic creation along Freudian lines.

In spite of the scope of this study, it has not carried the impact of such less ambitious but seemingly more suggestive studies as “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming” and “The ’Uncanny.’” Even the relatively esoteric “The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words” has received more consideration, at least by structuralist critics, than Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.

Those critics and psychoanalysts who have made the most of Freud’s joke theories, although with varying degrees of success, are the famous art critic and historian E.H. Gombrich, the psychoanalyst Silvano Arieti, and the literary critic Norman Holland. Gombrich, in a brief essay in 1966, suggested that the joke book provided the basis of a theory of artistic form applicable to modern art, particularly in its focus on form rather than content. Arieti, in a discussion of creativity in 1976, used Freud’s study of jokes as an important element of his theories about art. Norman Holland, the most influential of the new Freudian literary critics, based his theory of literature as transformation on Freud’s study of jokes.

These studies, however, are minimal in comparison to the many studies which have derived from Freud’s other works. In addition, none of them has been completely successful in adapting Freud’s theories of wit to a theory about the nature of the artist’s creativity or the nature of the reader’s response. Too often, attempted explanations of such basic aesthetic processes have the same effect as the attempt to explain a joke; they never quite seem to match in sophistication the sensed complexity of the experience.

Perhaps the most profitable area in which Freud’s theories of jokes may yet make a contribution is in the linguistic study of figurative language. It has been pointed out by more than one theorist that the dual process of condensation and displacement which Freud finds characteristic of the structure of jokes corresponds to the means by which human beings construct meaning or respond to meaning in any area of symbolic language—the principles of substitution and combination, which are equivalent, respectively, to the figurative tropes of metonymy (displacement) and metaphor (condensation). In this area, the underlying assumption of Freud’s book—that the study of such obvious matters as jokes may stimulate revelations in other areas of human understanding—may yet bear unsuspected fruit.

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