Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

Sigmund Freud’s specific plans for a psychoanalytic study of wit and verbal humor probably began when his friend and confidant Wilhelm Fliess, after reading the proofs of Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913), complained that the dreams in the book were too full of jokes. It is probable, however, that Freud had considered the importance of jokes even before the publication of the dream book. In an earlier letter to Fliess, Freud had mentioned that he had been putting together a collection of Jewish anecdotes and humorous stories; it was a form to which he was naturally drawn because of his father’s fascination with such tales.

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Like The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud’s Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious (which has also been translated as Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious) is a classic example of his ability to perceive the psychological significance of those aspects of human life which many people ignore as trivial, common, or obvious. The book combines formal scholarly research with Freud’s unrelenting, although often informal, Socratic technique of analyzing data and formulating hypotheses, which are then either dismissed for lack of clarity or polished until theoretically and empirically sound. Thus, the book often reads more like a recapitulation of Freud’s thought processes than a flat statement of the conclusions themselves.

The study is divided into three major sections: an analytic part which focuses on the technique of making jokes and their purposes; a synthetic part which deals with both the origins of jokes in human pleasure and their social motives; and a theoretical part which considers the relation of jokes to dreams and the unconscious and shows how jokes are related to the broader area of the comic. As is typical of a formal academic study, the work also includes a brief review of previous research on wit and humor as well as a bibliography of works consulted and cited.

Although the book is characterized by Freud’s lucid and nontechnical style, it has created more of a translation problem than any of his other works because he is more concerned with the form of the phenomenon he is studying than usual. Because so many jokes depend on the play of language and create their impact as a result of a self-conscious use of words, it is difficult to translate the jokes Freud cites as examples without losing the very language play that made them jokes in the first place. Thus, much of what drew Freud’s attention to the examples he uses may be lost on the English-language reader. As a result, translators and commentators have frequently resorted to English equivalents of the jokes Freud cites. This problem of translation, which makes many of Freud’s examples seem ill-suited to their purpose, may account for this work’s relative lack of impact, in spite of the fact that it is perhaps the most ambitious study Freud ever attempted on issues that involve a psychoanalytic approach to aesthetics.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

Arieti, Silvano. Creativity: The Magic Synthesis, 1976.

Brenner, Charles. Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis, 1955.

Gombrich, E.H. “Freud’s Aesthetics,” in Literature and Psychoanalysis, 1983. Edited by Edith Kurzweil and William Phillips.

Holland, Norman. The Dynamics of Literary Response, 1968.

Kris, Ernst. Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art, 1952.

Lucas, F.L. Literature and Psychology, 1951.

Spector, Jack J. The Aesthetics of Freud: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Art, 1972.

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