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Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. 1916.

A. Analysis of Wit

I. Introduction

WHOEVER has had occasion to examine that part of the literature of æsthetics and psychology dealing with the nature and affinities of wit, will, no doubt, concede that our philosophical inquiries have not awarded to wit the important rôle that it plays in our mental life. One can recount only a small number of thinkers who have penetrated at all deeply into the problems of wit. To be sure, among the authors on wit one finds the illustrious names of the poet Jean Paul (Fr. Richter), and of the philosophers Th. Vischer, Kuno Fischer, and Th. Lipps. But even these writers put the subject of wit in the background while their chief interest centers around the more comprehensive and more alluring problems of the comic.

In the main this literature gives the impression that it is altogether impractical to study wit except when treated as a part of the comic.

Presentation of the Subject by Other Authors

According to Th. Lipps (Komik und Humor, 1898) wit is “essentially the subjective side of the comic; i.e., it is that part of the comic which we ourselves create, which colors our conduct as such, and to which our relation is that of Superior Subject, never of Object, certainly not Voluntary Object” (p. 80). The following comment might also be added:—In general we designate as wit “every conscious and clever evocation of the comic, whether the comic element lies in the viewpoint or in the situation itself” (p. 78).

K. Fischer explains the relation between wit and the comic by the aid of caricature, which, according to his exposition, comes midway between the two (Über den Witz, 1889). The subject of the comic is the hideous element in any of its manifestations. “Where it is concealed it must be disclosed in the light of the comic view; where it is not at all or but slightly noticeable it must be rendered conspicuous and elucidated in such a manner that it becomes clear and intelligible. Thus arises caricature” (p. 45). “Our entire psychic world, the intellectual realm of our thoughts and conceptions, does not reveal itself to us on superficial consideration. It cannot be visualized directly either figuratively or intuitively, moreover it contains inhibitions, weak points, disfigurements, and an abundance of ludicrous and comical contrasts. In order to bring it out and to make it accessible to æsthetic examination, a force is necessary which is capable not only of depicting objects directly, but also of reflecting upon these conceptions and elucidating them—namely, a force capable of clarifying thought. This force is nothing but judgment. The judgment which produces the comic contrast is wit. In caricature wit has played its part unnoticed, but only in judgment does it attain its own individual form and the free domain of its evolution.”

As can be seen Lipps assigns the determining factor which classifies wit as part of the comic, to the activity or to the active behavior of the subject, whereas K. Fischer characterizes wit by its relation to its object, in which characterization he accentuates the hidden hideous element in the realm of thought. One cannot put to test the cogency of these definitions of wit; one can, in fact, hardly understand them unless one studies the text from which they were taken. One is thus forced to work his way through the author’s descriptions of the comic in order to learn anything about wit. From other passages, however, one discovers that the same authors attribute to wit essential characteristics of general validity in which they disregard its relation to the comic.

K. Fischer’s characterization of wit which seems to be most satisfactory to this author runs as follows: “Wit is a playful judgment” (p. 51). For an elucidation of this expression we are referred to the analogy: “How æsthetic freedom consists in the playful contemplation of objects” (p. 50). In another place (p. 20) the æsthetic attitude towards an object is characterized by the condition that we expect nothing from this object—especially no gratification of our serious needs—but that we content ourselves with the pleasure of contemplating the same. In contrast to labor the æsthetic attitude is playful. “It may be that from æsthetic freedom there also results a kind of judgment, freed from the conventional restrictions and rule of conduct, which, in view of its genesis, I will call the playful judgment. This conception contains the first condition and possibly the entire formula for the solution of our problem. ‘Freedom begets wit and wit begets freedom,’ says Jean Paul. Wit is nothing but a free play of ideas” (p. 24).

Since time immemorial a favorite definition of wit has been the ability to discover similarities in dissimilarities, i.e., to find hidden similarities. Jean Paul has jocosely expressed this idea by saying that “wit is the disguised priest who unites every couple.” Th. Vischer adds the postscript: “He likes best to unite those couples whose marriage the relatives refuse to sanction.” Vischer refutes this, however, by remarking that in some witticisms there is no question of comparison or the discovery of similarities. Hence with very little deviation from Jean Paul’s definition he defines wit as the skill to combine with surprising quickness many ideas, which through inner content and connections are foreign to one another. K. Fischer then calls attention to the fact that in a large number of these witty judgments one does not find similarities, but contrasts; and Lipps further remarks that these definitions refer to the wit that the humorist possesses and not to the wit that he produces.

Other viewpoints, in some measure connected with one another, which have been mentioned in defining and describing wit are: “the contrast of ideas” “sense in nonsense” and “confusion and clearness.”

Definitions like those of Kraepelin lay stress upon the contrast of ideas. Wit is “the voluntary combination or linking of two ideas which in some way are contrasted with each other, usually through the medium of speech association.” For a critic like Lipps it would not be difficult to reveal the utter inadequacy of this formula, but he himself does not exclude the element of contrast—he merely assigns it elsewhere. “The contrast remains, but is not formed in a manner to show the ideas connected with the words, rather it shows the contrast or contradiction in the meaning and lack of meaning of the words” (p. 87). Examples show the better understanding of the latter. “A contrast arises first through the fact that we adjudge a meaning to its words which after all we cannot ascribe to them.”

In the further development of this last condition the antithesis of “sense in nonsense” becomes obvious. “What we accept one moment as senseful we later perceive as perfect nonsense. Thereby arises, in this case, the operation of the comic element” (p. 85). “A saying appears witty when we ascribe to it a meaning through psychological necessity and, while so doing, retract it. It may thus have many meanings. We lend a meaning to an expression knowing that logically it does not belong to it. We find in it a truth, however, which later we fail to find because it is foreign to our laws of experience or usual modes of thinking. We endow it with a logical or practical inference which transcends its true content, only to contradict this inference as soon as we finally grasp the nature of the expression itself. The psychological process evoked in us by the witty expression which gives rise to the sense of the comic depends in every case on the immediate transition from the borrowed feeling of truth and conviction to the impression or consciousness of relative nullity.”

As impressive as this exposition sounds one cannot refrain from questioning whether the contrast between the senseful and senseless upon which the comic depends does not also contribute to the definition of wit in so far as it is distinguished from the comic. Also the factor of “confusion and clearness” leads one deeply into the problem of the relation of wit to the comic. Kant, speaking of the comic element in general, states that one of its remarkable attributes is the fact that it can delude us for a moment only. Heymans (Zeitschr. f. Psychologie, XI, 1896) explains how the mechanism of wit is produced through the succession of confusion and clearness. He illustrates his meaning by an excellent witticism from Heine, who causes one of his figures, the poor lottery agent, Hirsch-Hyacinth, to boast that the great Baron Rothschild treated him as an equal or quite FAMILLIONAIRE. Here the word which acts as the carrier of the witticism appears in the first place simply as a faulty word-formation, as something incomprehensible, inconceivable, and enigmatic. It is for these reasons that it is confusing. The comic element results from the solution of the enigma and from the understanding of the word. Lipps adds that the first stage of enlightenment, showing that the confusing word means this or that, is followed by a second stage in which one perceives that this nonsensical word has first deluded us and then given us the true meaning. Only this second enlightenment, the realization that it is all due to a word that is meaningless in ordinary usage—this reduction to nothingness produces the comic effect (p. 95).

Whether or not either the one or the other of these two conceptions may seem more clear we are brought nearer to a definite insight through the discussion of the processes of confusion and enlightenment. If the comic effect of Heine’s famillionaire depends upon the solution of the seemingly senseless word, then the wit would have to be attributed to the formation of this word and to the character of the word so formed.

In addition to the associations of the viewpoints just discussed there is another characteristic of wit which is recognized as peculiar to it by all authors. “Brevity alone is the body and soul of wit,” declares Jean Paul (Vorschule der Aesthetik, I, 45), and modifies it with a speech of the old tongue-wagger, Polonius, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act II, Scene 2):

  • “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
  • And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
  • I will be brief.”
  • Lipps’s description (p. 90) of the brevity of wit is also significant. He states that wit says what it does say, not always in few, but always in too few words; that is: “It expresses itself in words that will not stand the test of strict logic or of the ordinary mode of thought and expression. In fine it can express itself by leaving the thing unsaid.”

    That “wit must unearth something hidden and concealed”—to quote K. Fischer (p. 51)—we have already been taught from the grouping of wit with caricature. I re-emphasize this determinant because it also has more to do with the nature of wit than with its relation to the comic.

    I am well aware that the foregoing scanty quotations from the works of the authors on wit cannot do justice to the excellence of these works. In view of the difficulties that confront one in reproducing clearly such complicated and such delicately shaded streams of thought I cannot spare inquiring minds the trouble of searching for the desired information in the original sources. However, I do not know whether they will return fully satisfied. For the criteria and attributes of wit mentioned by these authors, such as—activity, the relation of the content of wit to our thoughts, the character of the playful judgment, the union of dissimilarities, contrasting ideas, “sense in nonsense,” the succession of confusion and clearness, the sudden emergence of the hidden, and the peculiar brevity of wit, seem to us, at first glance, so very pertinent and so easily demonstrable by examples that we cannot succumb to the danger of underestimating the value of such ideas. But they are only disjointed fragments which we should like to see welded into an organic whole. In the end they contribute no more to the knowledge of wit than a number of anecdotes teach us of the true characteristics of a personality whose biography interests us. We do not at all understand the connection that is supposed to exist between the individual conditions; for instance, what the brevity of wit may have to do with that side of wit exhibited in the playful judgment; besides we do not know whether wit must satisfy all or only some of these conditions in order to form real wit; which of them may be replaced and which ones are indispensable. We should also like a grouping and classification of wit in respect to its essential attributes. The classification as given by the authors is based, on the one hand, on the technical means, and on the other hand, on the utilization of wit in speech (sound-wit, play on words, the wit of caricature, characterization wit, and witty repartee).

    Accordingly we should not find ourselves in a dilemma when it comes to pointing out goals for a further effort to explain wit. In order to look forward to success we must either introduce new viewpoints into the work, or try to penetrate further by concentrating our attention or by broadening the scope of our interest. We can prescribe for ourselves the task of at least not permitting any lack along the latter lines. To be sure, it is rather remarkable how few examples of recognized witticisms suffice the authors for their investigations and how each one accepts the ones used by his predecessors. We need not shirk the responsibility of analyzing the same examples which have already served the classical authors, but we contemplate new material besides to lay a broader foundation for our deductions. It is quite natural that we should select such examples of wit as objects for our investigation as have produced the deepest impression upon our own lives and which have caused us the greatest amount of laughter.

    Some may inquire whether the subject of wit is worthy of such effort. In my opinion there is no doubt about it, for even if I disregard the personal motives to be revealed during the development of this theme (the motives which drove me to gain an insight into the problem of wit), I can refer to the fact that there is an intimate connection between all psychic occurrences; a connection which promises to furnish a psychological insight into a sphere which, although remote, will nevertheless be of considerable value to the other spheres. One may also be reminded what a peculiar, overwhelmingly fascinating charm wit offers in our society. A new joke operates almost as an event of universal interest. It is passed on from one person to another just like the news of the latest conquest. Even prominent men who consider it worth while relating how they attained fame, what cities and countries they have seen, and with what celebrated persons they have consorted, do not disdain to dwell in their autobiographies upon this and that excellent joke which they have heard.