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

A. Analysis of Wit

III. The Tendencies of Wit

NEAR the end of the preceding chapter as I was writing down Heine’s comparison of the Catholic priest to an employee of a large business house, and the comparison of the Protestant divine to an independent retail dealer, I felt an inhibition which nearly prevented me from using this comparison. I said to myself that among my readers probably there would be some who hold in veneration not only religion, but also its administration and administrators. These readers might take offense at the comparison and get so wrought up about it that it would take away all interest in the investigation as to whether the comparison seemed witty in itself or was witty only through its garnishings. In other examples, e.g., the one mentioned above concerning the agreeable moonlight shed by a certain philosophy, there would be no worry that for some readers it might be a disturbing influence in our investigation. Even the most religious person would remain in the right mood to form a judgment about our problem.

It is easy to guess the character of the witticism by the kind of reaction that wit exerts on the hearer. Sometimes wit is wit for its own sake and serves no other particular purpose; then again, it places itself at the service of such a purpose, i.e., it becomes purposive. Only that form of wit which has such a tendency runs the risk of ruffling people who do not wish to hear it.

Theo. Vischer called wit without a tendency “abstract” wit, I prefer to call it “harmless” wit.

As we have already classified wit according to the material touched by its technique into word- and thought-wit, it is incumbent upon us to investigate the relation of this classification to the one just put forward. Word- and thought-wit on the one hand, and abstract- and tendency-wit on the other hand, bear no relation of dependence to each other; they are two entirely independent classifications of witty productions. Perhaps some one may have gotten the impression that harmless witticisms are preponderately word-witticisms, whereas the complicated techniques of thought-witticisms are mostly made to serve strong tendencies. There are harmless witticisms that operate through play on words and sound similarity, and just as harmless ones which make use of all means of thought-wit. Nor is it less easy to prove that tendency-wit as far as technique is concerned may be merely the wit of words. Thus, for example, witticisms that “play” with proper names often show an insulting and offending tendency, and yet they, too, belong to word-wit. Again, the most harmless of all jests are word-witticisms. Examples of this nature are the popular “shake-up” rhymes (Schüttelreime) in which the technique is represented through the manifold application of the same material with a very peculiar modification:

“Having been forsaken by Dame Luck, he degenerated into a Lame Duck.”

Let us hope that no one will deny that the pleasure experienced in this kind of otherwise unpretentious rhyming is of the same nature as the one by which we recognize wit.

Good examples of abstract or harmless thought-witticisms abound in Lichtenberg’s comparisons with which we have already become acquainted. I add a few more. “They sent a small Octavo to the University of Göttingen; and received back in body and soul a quarto” (a fourth-form boy).

“In order to erect this building well, one must lay above all things a good foundation, and I know of no firmer than by laying immediately over every pro-layer a contra-layer.”

“One man begets the thought, the second acts as its godfather, the third begets children by it, the fourth visits it on its death-bed, and the fifth buries it” (comparison with unification).

“Not only did he disbelieve in ghosts, but he was not ever afraid of them.” The witticism in this case lies exclusively in the absurd representation which puts what is usually considered less important in the comparative and what is considered more important in the positive degree. If we divest it of its dress it says: it is much easier to use our reason and make light of the fear of ghosts than to defend ourselves against this fear when the occasion presents itself. But this rendering is no longer witty; it is merely a correct and still too little respected psychological fact suggesting what Lessing expresses in his well-known words:

  • “Not all are free who mock their chains.”
  • Harmless and Tendency Wit

    I shall take the opportunity presented here of clearing up what may still lead to a possible misunderstanding. “Harmless” or “abstract” wit should in no way convey the same meaning as “shallow” or “poor” wit. It is meant only to designate the opposite of the “tendency” wit to be described later. As shown in the aforementioned examples, a harmless jest, i.e., a witticism without a tendency, can also be very rich in content and express something worth while. The quality of a witticism, however, is independent of the wit and represents the quality of the thought which is here expressed wittily by means of a special contrivance. To be sure, just as watch-makers are wont to enclose very good works in valuable cases, so it may likewise happen with wit that the best witty activities are used to invest the richest thoughts.

    Now, if we pay strict attention to the distinction between thought-content and the witty wording of thought-wit, we arrive at an insight which may clear up much uncertainty in our judgment of wit. For it turns out—astonishing as it may seem—that our enjoyment of a witticism is supplied by the combined impression of content and wit-activity, and that one of the factors is likely to deceive us about the extent of the other. It is only the reduction of the witticism that lays bare to us our mistaken judgment.

    The same thing applies to word-wit. When we hear that “experience consists simply of experiencing what one wishes he had not experienced,” we are puzzled, and believe that we have learnt a new truth; it takes some time before we recognize in this disguise the platitude, “adversity is the school of wisdom” (K. Fischer). The excellent wit-activity which seeks to define “experience” by the almost exclusive use of the word “experience” deceives us so completely that we overestimate the content of the sentence. The same thing happens in many similar cases and also in Lichtenberg’s unification-witticism about January (p. 89), which expresses nothing but what we already know, namely, that New Year’s wishes are as seldom realized as other wishes.

    We find the contrary true of other witticisms, in which obviously what is striking and correct in the thought captivates us, so that we call the saying an excellent witticism, whereas it is only the thought that is brilliant while the wit-activity is often weak. It is especially true of Lichtenberg’s wit that the path of the thought is often of more value than its witty expression, though we unjustly extend the value of the former to the latter. Thus the remark about the “torch of truth” (p. 115) is hardly a witty comparison, but it is so striking that we are inclined to lay stress on the sentence as exceptionally witty.

    Lichtenberg’s witticisms are above all remarkable for their thought-content and their certainty of hitting the mark. Goethe has rightly remarked about this author that his witty and jocose thoughts positively conceal problems. Or perhaps it may be more correct to say that they touch upon the solutions of problems. When, for example, he presents as a witty thought:

    “He always read Agamemnon instead of the German word angenommen, so thoroughly had he read Homer” (technically this is absurdity plus sound similarity of words). Thus he discovered nothing less than the secret of mistakes in reading. The following joke, whose technique (p. 78) seemed to us quite unsatisfactory, is of a similar nature.

    “He was surprised that there were two holes cut in the pelts of cats just where the eyes were located.” The stupidity here exhibited is only seemingly so; in reality this ingenuous remark conceals the great problem of teleology in the structure of animals; it is not at all so self-evident that the eyelid cleft opens just where the cornea is exposed, until the science of evolution explains to us this coincidence.

    Let us bear in mind that a witty sentence gave us a general impression in which we were unable to distinguish the amount of thought-content from the amount of wit-work; perhaps even a more significant parallel to it will be found later.

    Pleasure Results from the Technique

    For our theoretical explanation of the nature of wit, harmless wit must be of greater value to us than tendency-wit and shallow wit more than profound wit. Harmless and shallow plays on words present to us the problem of wit in its purest form, because of the good sense therein and because there is no purposive factor nor underlying philosophy to confuse the judgment. With such material our understanding can make further progress.

    At the end of a dinner to which I had been invited, a pastry called Roulard was served; it was a culinary accomplishment which presupposed a good deal of skill on the part of the cook. “Is it home-made?” asked one of the guests. “Oh, yes” replied the host, “it is a Home-Roulard” (Home Rule).

    This time we shall not investigate the technique of this witticism, but shall center our attention upon another, and that one the most important factor. As I remember, this improvised joke delighted all the guests and made us laugh. In this case, as in countless others, the feeling of pleasure of the hearer cannot have originated from any purposive element nor the thought-content of the wit; so we are forced to connect the feeling of pleasure with the technique of wit. The technical means of wit which we have described, such as condensation, displacement, indirect expression, etc., have therefore the faculty to produce a feeling of pleasure in the hearer, although we cannot as yet see how they acquired that faculty. By such easy stages we get the second axiom for the explanation of wit; the first one (p. 17) states that the character of wit depends upon the mode of expression. Let us remember also that the second axiom has really taught us nothing new. It merely isolates a fact that was already contained in a discovery which we made before. For we recall that whenever it was possible to reduce the wit by substituting for its verbal expression another set of words, at the same time carefully retaining the sense, it not only eliminated the witty character but also the laughableness (Lacheffekt) that constitutes the pleasure of wit.

    At present we cannot go further without first coming to an understanding with our philosophical authorities.

    The philosophers who adjudge wit to be a part of the comic and deal with the latter itself in the field of æsthetics, characterize the æsthetic presentation by the following conditions: that we are not thereby interested in or about the objects, that we do not need these objects to satisfy our great wants in life, but that we are satisfied with the mere contemplation of the same, and with the pleasure of the thought itself. “This pleasure, this mode of conception is purely æsthetical, it depends entirely on itself, its end is only itself and it fulfills no other end in life” (K. Fischer, p. 68).

    We scarcely venture a contradiction to K. Fischer’s words—perhaps we merely translate his thoughts into our own mode of expression—when we insist that the witty activity is, after all, not to be designated as aimless or purposeless, since it has for its aim the evocation of pleasure in the hearer. I doubt whether we are able to undertake anything which has no object in view. When we do not use our psychic apparatus for the fulfillment of one of our indispensable gratifications, we let it work for pleasure, and we seek to derive pleasure from its own activity. I suspect that this is really the condition which underlies all æsthetic thinking, but I know too little about æsthetics to be willing to support this theory. About wit, however, I can assert, on the strength of the two impressions gained before, that it is an activity whose purpose is to derive pleasure—be it intellectual or otherwise—from the psychic processes. To be sure, there are other activities which accomplish the same thing. They may be differentiated from each by the sphere of psychic activity from which they wish to derive pleasure, or perhaps by the methods which they use in accomplishing this. At present we cannot decide this, but we firmly maintain that at last we have established a connection between the technique of wit partly controlled by the tendency to economize (p. 53) and the production of pleasure.

    But before we proceed to solve the riddle of how the technical means of wit-work can produce pleasure in the hearer, we wish to mention that, for the sake of simplicity and more lucidity, we have altogether put out of the way all tendency witticisms. Still we must attempt to explain what the tendencies of wit are and in what manner wit makes use of these tendencies.

    Hostile and Obscene Wit

    We are taught above all by an observation not to put aside the tendency-wit when we are investigating the origin of the pleasure in wit. The pleasurable effect of harmless wit is usually of a moderate nature; all that it can be expected to produce in the hearer is a distinct feeling of satisfaction and a slight ripple of laughter; and as we have shown by fitting examples (p. 132) at least a part of this effect is due to the thought-content. The sudden irresistible outburst of laughter evoked by the tendency-wit rarely follows the wit without a tendency. As the technique may be identical in both, it is fair to assume that by virtue of its purpose, the tendency-wit has at its disposal sources of pleasure to which harmless wit has no access.

    It is now easy to survey wit-tendencies. Wherever wit is not a means to its end, i.e., harmless, it puts itself in the service of but two tendencies which may themselves be united under one viewpoint; it is either hostile wit serving as an aggression, satire, or defense, or it is obscene wit serving as a sexual exhibition. Again it is to be observed that the technical form of wit—be it a word- or thought-witticism—bears no relation to these two tendencies.

    It is a much more complicated matter to show in what way wit serves these tendencies. In this investigation I wish to present first not the hostile but the exhibition wit. The latter has indeed very seldom been deemed worthy of an investigation, as if an aversion had transferred itself here from the material to the subject; however, we shall not allow ourselves to be misled thereby, for we shall soon touch upon a detail in wit which promises to throw light on more than one obscure point.

    We all know what is meant by a “smutty” joke. It is the intentional bringing into prominence of sexual facts or relations through speech. However, this definition is no sounder than other definitions. A lecture on the anatomy of the sexual organs or on the physiology of reproduction need not, in spite of this definition, have anything in common with an obscenity. It must be added that the smutty joke is directed toward a certain person who excites one sexually, and who becomes cognizant of the speaker’s excitement by listening to the smutty joke, and thereby in turn becomes sexually excited. Instead of becoming sexually excited the listener may react with shame and embarrassment, which merely signifies a reaction against the excitement and indirectly an admission of the same. The smutty joke was originally directed against the woman and is comparable to an attempt at seduction. If a man tells or listens to obscene jokes in male society, the original situation, which cannot be realized on account of social inhibitions, is thereby also represented. Whoever laughs at a smutty joke does the same as the spectator who laughs at a sexual aggression.

    The sexual element which is at the basis of the obscene joke comprises more than that which is peculiar to both sexes, and goes beyond that which is common to both sexes, it is connected with all these things that cause shame, and includes the whole domain of the excrementitious. However, this was the sexual domain of childhood, where the imagination fancied a cloaca, so to speak, within which the sexual elements were either badly or not at all differentiated from the excrementitious. In the whole mental domain of the psychology of the neuroses, the sexual still includes the excrementitious, and it is understood in the old, infantile sense.

    The smutty joke is like the denudation of a person of the opposite sex toward whom the joke is directed. Through the utterance of obscene words the person attacked is forced to picture the parts of the body in question, or the sexual act, and is shown that the aggressor himself pictures the same thing. There is no doubt that the original motive of the smutty joke was the pleasure of seeing the sexual displayed.

    It will only help to clarify the subject if here we go back to the fundamentals. One of the primitive components of our libido is the desire to see the sexual exposed. Perhaps this itself is a development—a substitution for the desire to touch which is assumed to be the primary pleasure. As it often happens, the desire to see has here also replaced the desire to touch. The libido for looking and touching is found in every person in two forms, active and passive, or masculine and feminine; and in accordance with the preponderance of sex characteristics it develops preponderately in one or the other direction. In young children one can readily observe the desire to exhibit themselves nude. If the germ of this desire does not experience the usual fate of being covered up and repressed, it develops into a mania for exhibitionism, a familiar perversion among grown-up men. In women the passive desire to exhibit is almost regularly covered by the masked reaction of sexual modesty; despite this, however, remnants of this desire may always be seen in women’s dress. I need only mention how flexible and variable convention and circumstances make that remaining portion of exhibitionism still allowed to women.

    The Transformation of the Obscenity into Obscene Wit

    In the case of men a great part of this striving to exhibit remains as a part of the libido and serves to initiate the sexual act. If this striving asserts itself on first meeting the woman it must make use of speech for two motives. First, in order to make itself known to the woman; and secondly, because the awakening of the imagination through speech puts the woman herself in a corresponding excitement and awakens in her the desire to passive exhibitionism. This speech of courtship is not yet smutty, but may pass over into the same. Wherever the yieldingness of the woman manifests itself quickly, smutty speech is short-lived, for it gives way to the sexual act. It is different if the rapid yielding of the woman cannot be counted upon, but instead there appears the defense reaction. In that case the sexually exciting speech changes into obscene wit as its own end; as the sexual aggression is inhibited in its progress towards the act, it lingers at the evocation of the excitement and derives pleasure from the indications of the same in the woman. In this process the aggression changes its character in the same way as any libidinous impulse confronted by a hindrance; it becomes distinctly hostile and cruel, and utilizes the sadistical components of the sexual impulse against the hindrance.

    Thus the unyieldingness of the woman is therefore the next condition for the development of smutty wit; to be sure, this resistance must be of the kind to indicate merely a deferment and make it appear that further efforts will not be in vain. The ideal case of such resistance on the part of the woman usually results from the simultaneous presence of another man, a third person, whose presence almost excludes the immediate yielding of the woman. This third person soon becomes of the greatest importance for the development of the smutty wit, but next to him the presence of the woman must be taken account of. Among rural people or in the ordinary hostelry one can observe that not till the waitress or the hostess approaches the guests does the obscene wit come out; in a higher order of society just the opposite happens, here the presence of a woman puts an end to smutty talk. The men reserve this kind of conversation, which originally presupposed the presence of bashful women, until they are alone, “by themselves.” Thus gradually the spectator, now turned the listener, takes the place of the woman as the object of the smutty joke, and through such a change the smutty joke already approaches the character of wit.

    Henceforth our attention may be centered upon two factors, first upon the rôle that the third person—the listener—plays, and secondly, upon the intrinsic conditions of the smutty joke itself.

    Tendency-wit usually requires three persons. Besides the one who makes the wit there is a second person who is taken as the object of the hostile or sexual aggression, and a third person in whom the purpose of the wit to produce pleasure is fulfilled. We shall later on inquire into the deeper motive of this relationship, for the present we shall adhere to the fact which states that it is not the maker of the wit who laughs about it and enjoys its pleasurable effect, but it is the idle listener who does. The same relationship exists among the three persons connected with the smutty joke. The process may be described as follows: As soon as the libidinous impulse of the first person, to satisfy himself through the woman, is blocked, he immediately develops a hostile attitude towards this second person and takes the originally intruding third person as his confederate. Through the obscene speech of the first person the woman is exposed before the third person, who as a listener is fascinated by the easy gratification of his own libido.

    It is curious that common people so thoroughly enjoy such smutty talk, and that it is a never-lacking activity of cheerful humor. It is also worthy of notice that in this complicated process which shows so many characteristics of tendency-wit, no formal demands, such as characterize wit, are made upon “smutty wit.” The unveiled nudity affords pleasure to the first and makes the third person laugh.

    Not until we come to the refined and cultured does the formal determination of wit arise. The obscenity becomes witty and is tolerated only if it is witty. The technical means of which it mostly makes use is allusion, i.e., substitution through a trifle, something remotely related, which the listener reconstructs in his imagination as a full-fledged and direct obscenity. The greater the disproportion between what is directly offered in the obscenity and what is necessarily aroused by it in the mind of the listener, the finer is the witticism and the higher it may venture in good society. Besides the coarse and delicate allusions, the witty obscenity also utilizes all other means of word- and thought-wit, as can be easily demonstrated by examples.

    The Function of Wit in the Service of the Tendency

    It now becomes comprehensible what wit accomplishes through this service of its tendency. It makes possible the gratification of a craving (lewd or hostile) despite a hindrance which stands in the way; it eludes the hindrance and so derives pleasure from a source that has become inaccessible on account of the hindrance. The hindrance in the way is really nothing more than the higher degree of culture and education which correspondingly increases the inability of the woman to tolerate the stark sex. The woman thought of as present in the final situation is still considered present, or her influence acts as a deterrent to the men even in her absence. One often notices how cultured men are influenced by the company of girls of a lower station in life to change witty obscenities to broad smut.

    The power which renders it difficult or impossible for the woman, and in a lesser degree for the man, to enjoy unveiled obscenities we call “repression,” and we recognize in it the same psychic process which keeps from consciousness in severe nervous attacks whole complexes of emotions with their resultant affects, and has shown itself to be the principal factor in the causation of the so-called psychoneuroses. We acknowledge to culture and higher civilization an important influence in the development of repressions, and assume that under these conditions there has come about a change in our psychic organization which may also have been brought along as an inherited disposition. In consequence of it, what was once accepted as pleasureful is now counted unacceptable and is rejected by means of all the psychic forces. Owing to the repression brought about by civilization many primary pleasures are now disapproved by the censor and lost. But the human psyche finds renunciation very difficult; hence we discover that tendency-wit furnishes us with a means to make the renunciation retrogressive and thus to regain what has been lost. When we laugh over a delicately obscene witticism, we laugh at the identical thing which causes laughter in the ill-bred man when he hears a coarse, obscene joke; in both cases the pleasure comes from the same source. The coarse, obscene joke, however, could not incite us to laughter, because it would cause us shame or would seem to us disgusting; we can laugh only when wit comes to our aid.

    What we had presumed in the beginning seems to have been confirmed, namely, that tendency-wit has access to other sources of pleasure than harmless wit, in which all the pleasure is somehow dependent upon the technique. We can also reiterate that owing to our feelings we are in no position to distinguish in tendency-wit what part of the pleasure originates from the technique and what part from the tendency. Strictly speaking, we do not know what we are laughing about. In all obscene jokes we succumb to striking mistakes of judgment about the “goodness” of the joke as far as it depends upon formal conditions; the technique of these jokes is often very poor while their laughing effect is enormous.

    Invectives Made Possible Through Wit

    We next wish to determine whether the rôle of wit in the service of the hostile tendency is the same.

    Right from the start we meet with similar conditions. Since our individual childhood and the childhood of human civilization, our hostile impulses towards our fellow-beings have been subjected to the same restrictions and the same progressive repressions as our sexual strivings. We have not yet progressed so far as to love our enemies, or to extend to them our left cheek after we are smitten on the right. Furthermore, all moral codes about the subjection of active hatred bear even to-day the clearest indications that they were originally meant for a small community of clansmen. As we all may consider ourselves members of some nation, we permit ourselves for the most part to forget these restrictions in matters touching a foreign people. But within our own circles we have nevertheless made progress in the mastery of hostile emotions. Lichtenberg drastically puts it when he says: “Where nowadays one says, ‘I beg your pardon,’ formerly one had recourse to a cuff on the ear.” Violent hostility, no longer tolerated by law, has been replaced by verbal invectives, and the better understanding of the concatenation of human emotions robs us, through its consequential “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner,” more and more of the capacity to become angry at our fellowman who is in our way. Having been endowed with a strong hostile disposition in our childhood, higher personal civilization teaches us later that it is undignified to use abusive language; even where combat is still permitted, the number of things which may be used as means of combat has been markedly restricted. Society, as the third and dispassionate party in the combat to whose interest it is to safeguard personal safety, prevents us from expressing our hostile feelings in action; and hence, as in sexual aggression, there has developed a new technique of invectives, the aim of which is to enlist this third person against our enemy. By belittling and humbling our enemy, by scorning and ridiculing him, we indirectly obtain the pleasure of his defeat by the laughter of the third person, the inactive spectator.

    We are now prepared for the rôle that wit plays in hostile aggression. Wit permits us to make our enemy ridiculous through that which we could not utter loudly or consciously on account of existing hindrances; in other words, wit affords us the means of surmounting restrictions and of opening up otherwise inaccessible pleasure sources. Moreover, the listener will be induced by the gain in pleasure to take our part, even if he is not altogether convinced,—just as we on other occasions, when fascinated by harmless witticism, were wont to overestimate the substance of the sentence wittily expressed. “To prejudice the laughter in one’s own favor” is a completely pertinent saying in the German language.

    One may recall Mr. N.’s witticism given in the last chapter (p. 28). It is of an insulting nature, as if the author wished to shout loudly: But the minister of agriculture is himself an ox! But he, as a man of culture, could not put his opinion in this form. He therefore appealed to wit which assured his opinion a reception at the hands of the listeners which, in spite of its amount of truth, never would have been received if in an unwitty form. Brill cites an excellent example of a similar kind: Wendell Phillips, according to a recent biography by Dr. Lorenzo Sears, was on one occasion lecturing in Ohio, and while on a railroad journey going to keep one of his appointments met in the car a number of clergymen returning from some sort of convention. One of the ministers, feeling called upon to approach Mr. Phillips, asked him, “Are you Mr. Phillips?” “I am, sir.” “Are you trying to free the niggers?” “Yes, sir; I am an abolitionist.” “Well, why do you preach your doctrines up here? Why don’t you go over into Kentucky?” “Excuse me, are you a preacher?” “I am, sir.” “Are you trying to save souls from hell?” “Yes, sir, that’s my business.” “Well, why don’t you go there?” The assailant hurried into the smoker amid a roar of unsanctified laughter. This anecdote nicely illustrates the tendency-wit in the service of hostile aggression. The minister’s behavior was offensive and irritating, yet Wendell Phillips as a man of culture could not defend himself in the same manner as a common, ill-bred person would have done, and as his inner feelings must have prompted him to do. The only alternative under the circumstances would have been to take the affront in silence, had not wit showed him the way, and enabled him by the technical means of unification to turn the tables on his assailant. He not only belittled him and turned him into ridicule, but by his clever retort, “Well, why don’t you go there?” fascinated the other clergymen, and thus brought them to his side.

    Although the hindrance to the aggression which the wit helped to elude was in these cases of an inner nature—the æsthetic resistance against insulting—it may at other times be of a purely outer nature. So it was in the case when Serenissimus asked the stranger who had a striking resemblance to himself: “Was your mother ever in my home?” and he received the ready reply, “No, but my father was.” The stranger would certainly have felled the imprudent inquirer who dared to make an ignominious allusion to the memory of his mother; but this imprudent person was Serenissimus, who may not be felled and not even insulted unless one wishes to pay for this revenge with his life. The only thing left was to swallow the insult in silence; but luckily wit pointed out the way of requiting the insult without personally imperiling one’s self. It was accomplished simply by treating the allusion with the technical means of unification and employing it against the aggressor. The impression of wit is here so thoroughly determined by the tendency that in view of the witty rejoinder we are inclined to forget that the aggressor’s inquiry is itself made witty by allusion.

    Rebellion Against Authority Through Wit

    The prevention of abuse or insulting retorts through outer circumstances is so often the case that tendency-wit is used with special preference as a weapon of attack or criticism of superiors who claim to be an authority. Wit then serves as a resistance against such authority and as an escape from its pressure. In this factor, too, lies the charm of caricature, at which we laugh even if it is badly done simply because we consider its resistance to authority a great merit.

    If we keep in mind that tendency-wit is so well adapted as a weapon of attack upon what is great, dignified, and mighty, that which is shielded by internal hindrances or external circumstance against direct disparagement, we are forced to a special conception of certain groups of witticisms which seem to occupy themselves with inferior and powerless persons. I am referring to the marriage-agent stories,—with a few of which we have become familiar in the investigation of the manifold techniques of thought-wit. In some of these examples, “But she is deaf, too!” and “Who in the world would ever lend these people anything!” the agent was derided as a careless and thoughtless person who becomes comical because the truth escapes his lips automatically, as it were. But does on the one hand what we have learned about the nature of tendency-wit, and on the other hand the amount of satisfaction in these stories, harmonize with the misery of the persons at whom the joke seems to be pointed? Are these worthy opponents of the wit? Or, is it not more plausible to suppose that the wit puts the agent in the foreground only in order to strike at something more important; does it, as the saying goes, strike the saddle pack, when it is meant for the mule? This conception can really not be rejected.

    The above-mentioned interpretation of the marriage-agent stories admits of a continuation. It is true that I need not enter into them, that I can content myself with seeing the farcical in these stories, and can dispute their witty character. However, such subjective determination of wit actually exists. We have now become cognizant of it and shall later on have to investigate it. It means that only that is a witticism which I wish to consider as such. What may be wit to me, may be only an amusing story to another. But if a witticism admits of doubt, that can be due only to the fact that it is possessed of a show-side,—in our examples it happens to be a façade of the comic,—upon which one may be satisfied to bestow a single glance while another may attempt to peep behind. We also suspect that this façade is intended to dazzle the prying glance which is to say that such stories have something to conceal.

    At all events, if our marriage-agent stories are witticisms at all, they are all the better witticisms because, thanks to their façade, they are in a position to conceal not only what they have to say but also that they have something—forbidden—to say. But the continuation of the interpretation, which reveals this hidden part and shows that these stories having a comical façade are tendency-witticisms, would be as follows: Every one who allows the truth to escape his lips in an unguarded moment is really pleased to have rid himself of this thought. This is a correct and far-reaching psychological insight. Without the inner assent no one would allow himself to be overpowered by the automatism which here brings the truth to light. The marriage agent is thus transformed from a ludicrous personage into an object deserving of pity and sympathy. How blest must be the man, able at last to unburden himself of the weight of dissimulation, if he immediately seizes the first opportunity to shout out the last fragment of truth! As soon as he sees that his case is lost, that the prospective bride does not suit the young man, he gladly betrays the secret that the girl has still another blemish which the young man had overlooked, or he makes use of the chance to present a conclusive argument in detail in order to express his contempt for the people who employ him: “Who in the world would ever lend these people anything!” The ludicrousness of the whole thing now reverts upon the parents,—hardly mentioned in the story,—who consider such deceptions justified to clutch a man for their daughter; it also reflects upon the wretched state of the girls who get married through such contrivances, and upon the want of dignity of the marriage contracted after such preliminaries. The agent is the right person to express such criticisms, for he is best acquainted with these abuses; but he may not raise his voice, because he is a poor man whose livelihood depends altogether on turning these abuses to his advantage. But the same conflict is found in the national spirit which has given rise to these and similar stories; for he is aware that the holiness of wedlock suffers severely by reference to some of the methods of marriage-making.

    We recall also the observation made during the investigation of wit-technique, namely, that absurdity in wit frequently stands for derision and criticism in the thought behind the witticism, wherein the wit-work follows the dream-work. This state of affairs, we find, is here once more confirmed. That the derision and criticism are not aimed at the agent, who appears in the former examples only as the whipping boy of the joke, is shown by another series in which the agent, on the contrary, is pictured as a superior person whose dialectics are a match for any difficulty. They are stories whose façades are logical instead of comical—they are sophistic thought-witticisms. In one of them (p. 83) the agent knows how to circumvent the limping of the bride by stating that in her case it is at least “a finished job”; another woman with straight limbs would be in constant danger of falling and breaking a leg, which would be followed by sickness, pains, and doctor’s fees—all of which can be avoided by marrying the one already limping. Again in another example (p. 81) the agent is clever enough to refute by good arguments each of the whole series of the suitor’s objections against the bride; only to the last, which cannot be glossed over, he rejoins, “Do you expect her to have no blemishes at all?” as if the other objections had not left behind an important remnant. It is not difficult to pick out the weak points of the arguments in both examples, a thing which we have done during the investigation of the technique. But now something else interests us. If the agent’s speech is endowed with such a strong semblance of logic, which on more careful examination proves to be merely a semblance, then the truth must be lurking in the fact that the witticism adjudges the agent to be right. The thought does not dare to admit that he is right in all seriousness, and replaces it by the semblance which the wit brings forth; but here, as it often happens, the jest betrays the seriousness of it. We shall not err if we assume that all stories with logical façades really mean what they assert even if these assertions are deliberately falsely motivated. Only this use of sophism for the veiled presentation of the truth endows it with the character of wit, which is mainly dependent upon tendency. What these two stories wish to indicate is that the suitor really makes himself ridiculous when he collects together so sedulously the individual charms of the bride which are transient after all, and when he forgets at the same time that he must be prepared to take as his wife a human being with inevitable faults; whereas, the only virtue which might make tolerable marriage with the more or less imperfect personality of the woman,—mutual attachment and willingness for affectionate adaptation,—is not once mentioned in the whole affair.

    Ridicule of the suitor as seen in these examples in which the agent quite correctly assumes the rôle of superiority, is much more clearly depicted in other examples. The more pointed the stories, the less wit-technique they contain; they are, as it were, merely borderline cases of wit with whose technique they have only the façade-formation in common. However, in view of the same tendency and the concealment of the same behind the façade, they obtain the full effect of wit. The poverty of technical means makes it clear also that many witticisms of that kind cannot dispense with the comic element of jargon which acts similarly to wit-technique without great sacrifices.

    The following is such a story, which with all the force of tendency-wit obviates all traces of that technique. The agent asks: “What are you looking for in your bride?” The reply is: “She must be pretty, she must be rich, and she must be cultured.” “Very well,” was the agent’s rejoinder. “But what you want will make three matches.” Here the reproach is no longer embodied in wit, but is made directly to the man.

    In all the preceding examples the veiled aggression was still directed against persons; in the marriage-agent jokes it is directed against all the parties involved in the betrothal—the bridegroom, bride, and her parents. The object of attack by wit may equally well be institutions, persons, in so far as they may act as agents of these, moral or religious precepts, or even philosophies of life which enjoy so much respect that they can be challenged in no other way than under the guise of a witticism, and one that is veiled by a façade at that. No matter how few the themes upon which tendency-wit may play, its forms and investments are manifold. I believe that we shall do well to designate this species of tendency-wit by a special name. To decide what name will be appropriate is possible only after analyzing a few examples of this kind.

    The Witty Cynicism

    I recall the two little stories about the impecunious gourmand who was caught eating “salmon with mayonnaise,” and about the tippling tutor; these witty stories, which we have learned to regard as sophistical displacement-wit, I shall continue to analyze. We have learned since then that when the semblance of logic is attached to the façade of a story, the actual thought is as follows: The man is right; but on account of the opposing contradiction, I did not dare to admit the fact except for one point in which his error is easily demonstrable. The “point” chosen is the correct compromise between his right and his wrong; this is really no decision, but bespeaks the conflict within ourselves. Both stories are simply epicurean. They say, Yes, the man is right; nothing is greater than pleasure, and it is fairly immaterial in what manner one procures it. This sounds frightfully immoral, and perhaps it is, but fundamentally it is nothing more than the “Carpe diem” of the poet who refers to the uncertainty of life and the bareness of virtuous renunciation. If we are repelled by the idea that the man in the joke about “salmon with mayonnaise” is in the right, then it is merely due to the fact that it illustrates the sound sense of the man in indulging himself—an indulgence which seems to us wholly unnecessary. In reality each one of us has experienced hours and times during which he has admitted the justice of this philosophy of life and has reproached our system of morality for knowing only how to make claims upon us without reimbursing us. Since we no longer lend credence to the idea of a hereafter in which all former renunciations are supposed to be rewarded by gratification—(there are very few pious persons if one makes renunciation the password of faith)—“Carpe diem” becomes the first admonition. I am quite ready to postpone the gratification, but how do I know whether I shall still be alive to-morrow?
  • “Di doman’ non c’e certezza.”
  • I am quite willing to give up all the paths to gratification interdicted by society, but am I sure that society will reward me for this renunciation by opening for me—even after a certain delay—one of the permitted paths? One can plainly tell what these witticisms whisper, namely, that the wishes and desires of man have a right to make themselves perceptible next to our pretentious and inconsiderate morality. And in our times it has been said in emphatic and striking terms that this morality is merely the selfish precept of the few rich and mighty who can gratify their desires at any time without deferment. As long as the art of healing has not succeeded in safeguarding our lives, and as long as the social organizations do not do more towards making conditions more agreeable, just so long cannot the voice within us which is striving against the demands of morality, be stifled. Every honest person finally makes this admission—at least to himself. The decision in this conflict is possible only through the roundabout way of a new understanding. One must be able to knit one’s life so closely to that of others, and to form such an intimate identification with others, that the shortening of one’s own term of life becomes surmountable; one should not unlawfully fulfill the demands of one’s own needs, but should leave them unfulfilled, because only the continuance of so many unfulfilled demands can develop the power to recast the social order. But not all personal needs allow themselves to be displaced in such a manner and transferred to others, nor is there a universal and definite solution of the conflict.

    We now know how to designate the witticisms just discussed; they are cynical witticisms, and what they conceal are cynicisms.

    Among the institutions which cynical wit is wont to attack there is none more important and more completely protected by moral precepts, and yet more inviting of attack, than the institution of marriage. Most of the cynical jokes are directed against it. For no demand is more personal than that made upon sexual freedom, and nowhere has civilization attempted to exert a more stringent suppression than in the realm of sexuality. For our purposes a single example suffices: the “Entries in the Album of Prince Carnival” mentioned on page 108.

    “A wife is like an umbrella, at worst one may always take a cab.”

    We have already elucidated the complicated technique of this example; it is a puzzling and seemingly impossible comparison which however, as we now see, is not in itself witty; it shows besides an allusion (cab=public conveyance), and as the strongest technical means it also shows an omission which serves to make it still more unintelligible. The comparison may be worked out in the following manner. A man marries in order to guard himself against the temptations of sensuality, but it then turns out that after all marriage affords no gratification for one of stronger needs, just as one takes along an umbrella for protection against rain only to get wet in spite of it. In both cases one must search for better protection; in one case one must take a public cab, in the other women procurable for money. Now the wit has almost entirely been replaced by cynicism. That marriage is not the organization which can satisfy a man’s sexuality, one does not dare to say loudly and frankly unless indeed it be one like Christian v. Ehrenfels, who is forced to it by the love of truth and the zeal of reform. The strength of this witticism lies in the fact that it has expressed the thought even though it had to be done through all sorts of roundabout ways.

    Cynical Witticisms and Self-criticism

    A particularly favorable case for tendency-wit results if the intended criticism of the inner resistance is directed against one’s own person, or, more carefully expressed, against a person in whom one takes interest, that is, a composite personality such as one’s own people. This determination of self-criticism may make clear why it is that a number of the most excellent jokes of which we have shown here many specimens should have sprung into existence from the soil of Jewish national life. They are stories which were invented by Jews themselves and which are directed against Jewish peculiarities. The Jewish jokes made up by non-Jews are nearly all brutal buffooneries in which the wit is spared by the fact that the Jew appears as a comic figure to a stranger. The Jewish jokes which originate with Jews admit this, but they know their real shortcomings as well as their merits, and the interest of the person himself in the thing to be criticised produces the subjective determination of the wit-work which would otherwise be difficult bring about. Incidentally I do not know whether one often finds a people that makes merry so unreservedly over its own shortcomings.

    As an illustration I can point to the story cited on page 112 in which the Jew in the train immediately abandons all sense of decency of deportment as soon as he recognizes the new arrival in his coupé as his coreligionist. We have come to know this joke as an illustration by means of a detail—representation through a trifle; it is supposed to represent the democratic mode of thought of the Jew who recognizes no difference between master and servant, but unfortunately this also disturbs discipline and co-operation. Another especially interesting series of jokes presents the relationship between the poor and the rich Jews: their heroes are the “shnorrer,” and the charitable gentleman or the baron. The shnorrer, who was a regular Sunday-dinner guest at a certain house, appeared one day accompanied by a young stranger, who prepared to seat himself at the table. “Who is that?” demanded the host. “He became my son-in-law last week,” was the reply, “and I have agreed to supply his board for the first year.” The tendency of these stories is always the same, and is most distinctly shown in the following story. The shnorrer supplicates the baron for money to visit the bathing resort Ostend, as the physician has ordered him to take sea-baths for his ailment. The baron remarks that Ostend is an especially expensive resort, and that a less fashionable place would do just as well. But the shnorrer rejects that proposition by saying, “Herr Baron, nothing is too expensive for my health.” That is an excellent displacement-witticism which we could have taken as a model of its kind. The baron is evidently anxious to save his money, but the shnorrer replies as if the baron’s money were his own, which he may then consider secondary to his health. One is forced to laugh at the insolence of the demand, but these jokes are exceptionally unequipped with a façade to becloud the understanding. The truth is that the shnorrer who mentally treats the rich man’s money as his own, really possesses almost the right to this mistake, according to the sacred codes of the Jews. Naturally the resistance which is responsible for this joke is directed against the law which even the pious find very oppressing.

    Another story relates how on the steps of a rich man’s house a shnorrer met one of his own kind. The latter counseled him to depart, saying, “Do not go up to-day, the Baron is out of sorts and refuses to give any one more than a dollar.” “I will go up anyway,” replied the first. “Why in the world should I make him a present of a dollar? Is he making me any presents?”

    This witticism makes use of the technique of absurdity by permitting the shnorrer to declare that the baron gives him nothing at the same moment in which he is preparing to beg him for the donation. But the absurdity is only apparent, for it is almost true that the rich man gives him nothing, since he is obligated by the mandate to give alms, and strictly speaking must be thankful that the shnorrer gives him an opportunity to be charitable. The ordinary, bourgeois conception of alms is at cross-purposes with the religious one; it openly revolts against the religious conception in the story about the baron who, having been deeply touched by the shnorrer’s tale of woe, rang for his servants and said: “Throw him out of the house; he is breaking my heart.” This obvious exposition of the tendency again creates a case of border-line wit. From the no longer witty complaint: “It is really no advantage to be a rich man among Jews. The foreign misery does not grant one the pleasure of one’s own fortune,” these last stories are distinguished only by the illustration of a single situation.

    Other stories as the following, which, technically again presenting border-lines of wit, have their origin in a deeply pessimistic cynicism. A patient whose hearing was defective consulted a physician who made the correct diagnosis, namely, that the patient probably drank too much whiskey and consequently was becoming deaf. He advised him to desist from drinking and the patient promised to follow his advice. Some time thereafter the doctor met him on the street and inquired in a loud voice about his condition. “Thank you, Doctor,” was the reply, “there is no necessity for speaking so loudly, I have given up drinking whiskey and consequently I hear perfectly.” Some time afterwards they met again. The doctor again inquired into his condition in the usual voice, but noticed that he did not make himself understood. “It seems to me that you are deaf again because you have returned to drinking whiskey,” shouted the doctor in the patient’s ear. “Perhaps you are right,” answered the latter, “I have taken to drinking again, and I shall tell you why. As long as I did not drink I could hear, but all that I heard was not as good as the whiskey.” Technically this joke is nothing more than an illustration. The jargon and the ability of the raconteur must aid the producing of laughter. But behind it there lies the sad question, “Is not the man right in his choice?”

    It is the manifold hopeless misery of the Jews to which these pessimistical stories allude, which urged me to add them to tendency-wit.

    Critical and Blasphemous Witticisms

    Other jokes, cynical in a similar sense, and not only stories about Jews, attack religious dogmas and the belief in God Himself. The story about the “telepathic look of the rabbi,” whose technique consisted in the faulty thinking which made phantasy equal to reality, (the conception of displacement is also tenable) is such a cynical or critical witticism directed against miracle-workers and also, surely, against belief in miracles. Heine is reported to have made a directly blasphemous joke as he lay dying. When the kindly priest commended him to God’s mercy and inspired him with the hope that God would forgive him his sins, he replied: “Bien sûr qu’il me pardonnera; c’est son métier.” That is a derogatory comparison; technically its value lies only in the allusion, for a métier—business or vocation—is plied either by a craftsman or a physician, and what is more he has only a single métier. The strength of the wit, however, lies in its tendency. The joke is intended to mean nothing else, but: Certainly he will forgive me; that is what he is here for, and for no other purpose have I engaged him (just as one retains one’s doctor or one’s lawyer). Thus, the helpless dying man is still conscious of the fact that he has created God for himself and has clothed Him with the power in order to make use of Him as occasion arises. The so-called creature makes itself known as the Creator only a short time before his extinction.

    Skeptical Wit

    To the three kinds of tendency-wit discussed so far—exhibitionistic or obscene wit, aggressive or hostile wit, and cynical wit (critical, blasphemous)—I desire to add a fourth and the most uncommon of all, whose character can be elucidated by a good example.

    Two Jews met in a train at a Galician railway station. “Where are you traveling?” asked one. “To Cracow,” was the reply. “Now see here, what a liar you are!” said the first one, bristling. “When you say that you are traveling to Cracow, you really wish me to believe that you are traveling to Lemberg. Well, but I am sure that you are really traveling to Cracow, so why lie about it?”

    This precious story, which creates an impression of exaggerated subtlety, evidently operates by means of the technique of absurdity. The second Jew has put himself in the way of being called a liar because he has said that he is traveling to Cracow, which is his real goal! However, this strong technical means—absurdity—is paired here with another technique—representation through the opposite, for, according to the uncontradicted assertion of the first, the second one is lying when he speaks the truth, and speaks the truth by means of a lie. However, the more earnest content of this joke is the question of the conditions of truth; again the joke points to a problem and makes use of the uncertainty of one of our commonest notions. Does it constitute truth if one describes things as they are and does not concern himself with the way the hearers will interpret what one has said? Or is this merely Jesuitical truth, and does not the real truthfulness consist much more in having a regard for the hearer and of furnishing him an exact picture of his own mind? I consider jokes of this type sufficiently different from the others to assign them a special place. What they attack is not a person nor an institution, but the certainty of our very knowledge—one of our speculative gifts. Hence the name “skeptical” witticism will be the most expressive for them.

    In the course of our discussion of the tendencies of wit we have gotten perhaps many an elucidation and certainly found numerous incentives for further investigations. But the results of this chapter combine with those of the preceding chapter to form a difficult problem. If it be true that the pleasure created by wit is dependent upon the technique on one hand and upon the tendency on the other hand, under what common point of view can these two utterly different pleasure-sources of wit be united?