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

C. Theories of Wit

VI. The Relation of Wit to Dreams and to the Unconscious

AT the end of the chapter which dealt with the elucidation of the technique of wit (p. 125) we asserted that the processes of condensation with and without substitutive formation, displacement, representation through absurdity, representation through the opposite, indirect representation, etc., all of which we found participated in the formation of wit, evinced a far-reaching agreement with the processes of “dream-work.” We promised, at that time, first to examine more carefully these similarities, and secondly, so far as such indications point to search for what is common to both wit and dreams. The discussion of this comparison would be much easier for us if we could assume that one of the subjects to be compared—the “dream-work”—were well known. But we shall probably do better not to take this assumption for granted. I received the impression that my book The Interpretation of Dreams created more “confusion” than “enlightenment” among my colleagues, and I know that the wider reading circles have contented themselves to reduce the contents of the book to a catchword, “Wish fulfillment”—a term easily remembered and easily abused.

However, in my continued occupation with the problems considered therein, for the study of which my practice as a psychotherapeutist affords me much opportunity, I found nothing that would impel me to change or improve on my ideas; I can therefore peacefully wait until the reader’s comprehension has risen to my level, or until an intelligent critic has pointed out to me the basic faults in my conception. For the purposes of comparison with wit, I shall briefly review the most important features of dreams and dream-work.

We know dreams by the recollection which usually seems fragmentary and which occurs upon awakening. It is then a structure made up mostly of visual or other sensory impressions, which represents to us a deceptive picture of an experience, and may be mingled with mental processes (the “knowledge” in the dream) and emotional manifestations. What we thus remember as a dream I call “the manifest dream-content.” The latter is often altogether absurd and confused, at other times it is merely one part or another that is so affected. But even if it be entirely coherent, as in the case of some anxiety dreams, it stands out in our psychic life as something strange, for the origin of which one cannot account. Until recently the explanation for these peculiarities of the dream has been sought in the dream itself in that it was considered roughly speaking an indication of a muddled, dissociated, and “sleepy” activity of the nervous elements.

As opposed to this view I have shown that the excessively peculiar “manifest” dream-content can regularly be made comprehensible, and that it is a disfigured and changed transcription of certain correct psychic formations which deserve the name of “latent dream-thoughts.” One gains an understanding of the latter by resolving the manifest dream-content into its component parts without regard for its apparent meaning, and then by following up the threads of associations which emanate from each one of the now isolated elements. These become interwoven and in the end lead to a structure of thoughts, which is not only entirely accurate, but also fits easily into the familiar associations of our psychic processes. During this “analysis” the dream-content loses all of the peculiarities so strange to us; but if the analysis is to be successful, we must firmly cast aside the critical objections which incessantly arise against the reproduction of the individual associations.

The Dream-work

From the comparison of the remembered manifest dream-content with the latent dream-thoughts thus discovered there arises the conception of “dream-work.” The entire sum of the transforming processes which have changed the latent dream-thought into the manifest dream is called the dream-work. The astonishment which formerly the dream evoked in us is now perceived to be due to the dream-work.

The function of the dream-work may be described in the following manner. A structure of thoughts, mostly very complicated, which has been built up during the day and not brought to settlement—a day remnant—clings firmly even during night to the energy which it had assumed—the underlying center of interest—and thus threatens to disturb sleep. This day remnant is transformed into a dream by the dream-work and in this way rendered harmless to sleep. But in order to make possible its employment by the dream-work, this day remnant must be capable of being cast into the form of a wish, a condition that is not difficult to fulfill. The wish emanating from the dream-thoughts forms the first step and later on the nucleus of the dream. Experience gained from analyses—not the theory of the dream—teaches us that with children a fond wish left from the waking state suffices to evoke a dream, which is coherent and senseful, but almost always short, and easily recognizable as a “wish fulfillment.” In the case of adults the universally valid condition for the dream-creating wish seems to be that the latter should appear foreign to conscious thinking, that is, it should be a repressed wish, or that it should supply consciousness with reinforcement from unknown sources. Without the assumption of the unconscious activity in the sense used above, I should be at a loss to develop further the theory of dreams and to explain the material gleaned from experience in dream-analyses. The action of this unconscious wish upon the logical conscious material of dream-thoughts now results in the dream. The latter is thereby drawn down into the unconscious, as it were, or to speak more precisely, it is exposed to a treatment which usually takes place at the level of unconscious mental activity, and which is characteristic of this mental level. Only from the results of the “dream-work” have we thus far learned to know the qualities of this unconscious mental activity and its differentiation from the “foreconscious” which is capable of consciousness.

The Unconscious

A novel and difficult theory that runs counter to our habitual modes of thinking can hardly gain in lucidity by a condensed exposition. I can therefore accomplish little more in this discussion than refer the reader to the detailed treatment of the unconscious in my Interpretation of Dreams, and also to Lipps’s work, which I consider most important. I am aware that he who is under the spell of a good old philosophical training, or stands aloof from a so-called philosophical system, will oppose the assumption of the “unconscious psychic processes” in Lipps’s sense and in mine and will desire to prove the impossibility of it preferably by means of definitions of the term psychic. But definitions are conventional and changeable. I have often found that persons who dispute the unconscious on the grounds of its absurdity or impossibility have not received their impressions from those sources from which I, at least, have found it necessary to draw, in order to become aware of its existence. These opponents had never witnessed the effect of a posthypnotic suggestion, and they were immensely surprised at the evidence I imparted to them gleaned from my analysis of unhypnotized neurotics. They had never gained the conception of the unconscious as something which one does not really know, while cogent proofs force one to supplement this idea by saying that one understands by the unconscious something capable of consciousness, something concerning which one has not thought and which is not in the field of vision of consciousness. Nor had they attempted to convince themselves of the existence of such unconscious thoughts in their own psychic life by means of an analysis of one of their own dreams, and when I attempted this with them, they could perceive their own mental occurrences only with astonishment and confusion. I have also gotten the impression that these are essentially affective resistances which stand in the way of the acceptation of the “unconscious,” and that they are based on the fact that no one is desirous of becoming acquainted with his unconscious, and it is most convenient to deny altogether its possibility.

Condensation and Displacement in the Dream-work

The dream-work, to which I return after this digression, subjects the thought material uttered in the optative mood to a very peculiar elaboration. First of all it proceeds from the optative to the indicative mood; it substitutes “it is” for “would it were!” This “it is” is destined to become part of an hallucinatory representation which I have called the “regression” of the dream-work. This regression represents the path from the mental images to the sensory perceptions of the same, or if one chooses to speak with reference to the still unfamiliar—not to be understood anatomically—topic of the psychic apparatus, it is the region of the thought-formation to the region of the sensory perception. Along this road which runs in an opposite direction to the course of development of psychic complications the dream-thoughts gain in clearness; a plastic situation finally results as a nucleus of the manifest “dream picture.” In order to arrive at such a sensory representation the dream-thoughts have had to experience tangible changes in their expression. But while the thoughts are changed back into mental images they are subjected to still greater changes, some of which are easily conceivable as necessary, while others are surprising. As a necessary secondary result of the regression one understands that nearly all relationships within the thoughts which have organized the same are lost to the manifest dream. The dream-work takes over, as it were, only the raw material of the ideas for representation, and not the thought-relations which held each other in check; or at least it reserves the freedom of leaving the latter out of the question. On the other hand, there is a certain part of the dream-work which cannot be traced to the regression or to the recasting into mental images; it is just that part which is significant to us for the analogy to wit-formation. The material of the dream-thoughts experiences an extraordinary compression or condensation during the dream-work. The starting-points of this condensation are those points which are common to two or more dream-thoughts because they naturally pertain to both or because they are inevitable consequences of the contents of two or more dream-thoughts, and since these points do not regularly suffice for a prolific condensation new artificial and fleeting common points come into existence, and for this purpose preferably words are used which combine different meanings in their sounds. The newly framed common points of condensation enter as representatives of the dream-thoughts into the manifest dream-content, so that an element of the dream corresponds to a point of junction or intersection of the dream-thoughts, and with regard to the latter it must in general be called “over-determined.” The process of condensation is that part of the dream-work which is most easily recognizable; it suffices to compare the recorded wording of a dream with the written dream-thoughts gained by means of analysis, in order to get a good impression of the productiveness of dream condensation.

It is not easy to convince one’s self of the second great change that takes place in the dream-thoughts through the agency of the dream-work. I refer to that process which I have called the dream displacement. It manifests itself by the fact that what occupies the center of the manifest dream and is endowed with vivid sensory intensity has occupied a peripheral and secondary position in the dream-thoughts, and vice versa. This process causes the dream to appear out of proportion when compared with the dream-thoughts, and it is because of this displacement that it seems strange and incomprehensible to the waking state. In order that such a displacement should occur it must be possible for the occupation energy to pass uninhibited from important to insignificant ideas,—a process which in normal conscious thinking can only give the impression of “faulty thinking.”

Transformation into expressive activity, condensation, and displacement are the three great functions which we can ascribe to the dream-work. A fourth, to which too little attention was given in The Interpretation of Dreams, does not come into consideration here for our purpose. In a consistent elucidation of the ideas dealing with the “topic of the psychic apparatus” and “regression,” which alone can lend value to these working hypotheses, an effort would have to be made to determine at what stages of regression the various transformations of the dream-thoughts occur. As yet no serious effort has been made in this direction, but at least we can speak definitely about displacement when we say that it must arise in the thought material while the latter is in the level of the unconscious processes. One will probably have to think of condensation as a process that extends over the entire course up to the outposts of the perceptive region; but in general it suffices to assume that there is a simultaneous activity of all the forces which participate in the formation of dreams. In view of the reserve which one must naturally exercise in the treatment of such problems, and in consideration of the inability to discuss here the main objections to these problems, I should like to trust somewhat to the assertion that the process of the dream-work which prepares the dream is situated in the region of the unconscious. Roughly speaking, one can distinguish three general stages in the formation of the dream: first, the transference of the conscious day remnants into the unconscious, a transference in which the conditions of the sleeping state must co-operate; secondly, the actual dream-work in the unconscious; and thirdly, the regression of the elaborated dream material to the region of perception, whereby the dream becomes conscious.

The forces participating in the dream-formation may be recognized as the following: the wish to sleep; the sum of occupation energy which still clings to the day remnants after the depression brought about by the state of sleep; the psychic energy of the unconscious wish forming the dream; and the opposing force of the “censor” which exercises its authority in our waking state, and is not entirely abolished during sleep. The task of dream-formation is, above all, to overcome the inhibition of the censor, and it is just this task that is fulfilled by the displacement of the psychic energy within the material of the dream-thoughts.

The Formula for Wit-work

Now we recall what caused us to think of the dream while investigating wit. We found that the character and activity of wit were bound up in certain forms of expression and technical means, among which the various forms of condensation, displacement, and indirect representation were the most conspicuous. But the processes which led to the same results—condensation, displacement, and indirect expression—we learned to know as peculiarities of dream-work. Does not this analogy almost force us to the conclusion that wit-work and dream-work must be identical at least in one essential point? I believe that the dream-work lies revealed before us in its most important characters, but in wit we find obscured just that portion of the psychic processes which we may compare with the dream-work, namely, the process of wit-formation in the first person. Shall we not yield to the temptation to construct this process according to the analogy of dream-formation? Some of the characteristics of dreams are so foreign to wit that that part of the dream-work corresponding to them cannot be carried over to the wit-formation. The regression of the stream of thought to perception certainly falls away as far as wit is concerned. However, the other two stages of dream-formation, the sinking of a foreconscious thought into the unconscious, and the unconscious elaboration, would give us exactly the result which we might observe in wit if we assumed this process in wit-formation. Let us decide to assume that this is the proceeding of wit-formation in the case of the first person. A foreconscious thought is left for a moment to unconscious elaboration and the results are forthwith grasped by the conscious perception.

Before, however, we attempt to prove the details of this assertion we wish to consider an objection which may jeopardize our assumption. We start with the fact that the techniques of wit point to the same processes which become known to us as peculiarities of dream-work. Now it is an easy matter to say in opposition that we would not have described the techniques of wit as condensation, displacement, etc., nor would we have arrived at such a comprehensive agreement in the means of representation of wit and dreams, if our previous knowledge of dream-work had not influenced our conception of the technique of wit; so that at the bottom we find that wit confirms only those tentative theories which we brought to it from our study of dreams. Such a genesis of agreement would be no certain guarantee of its stability beyond our preconceived judgment. No other author has thought of considering condensation, displacement, and indirect expression as active factors of wit. This might be a possible objection, but nevertheless it would not be justified. It might just as well be said that in order to recognize the real agreement between dreams and wit our ordinary knowledge must be augmented by a specialized knowledge of dream-work. However, the decision will really depend only upon the question whether the examining critic can prove that such a conception of the technique of wit in the individual examples is forced, and that other nearer and farther-reaching interpretations have been suppressed in favor of mine; or whether the critic will have to admit that the tentative theories derived from the study of dreams can be really confirmed through wit. My opinion is that we have nothing to fear from such a critic and that our processes of reduction have confidently pointed out in which forms of expression we must search for the techniques of wit. That we designated these techniques by names which previously anticipated the result of the agreement between the technique of wit and the dream-work was our just prerogative, and really nothing more than an easily justified simplification.

There is still another objection which would not be vital, but which could not be so completely refuted. One might think that the techniques of wit that fit in so well considering the ends we have in view deserve recognition, but that they do not represent all possible techniques of wit or even all those in use. Also that we have selected only the techniques of wit which were influenced by and would suit the pattern of the dream-work, whereas others ignored by us would have demonstrated that such an agreement was not common to all cases. I really do not trust myself to make the assertion that I have succeeded in explaining all the current witticisms with reference to their techniques, and I therefore admit the possibility that my enumeration of wit-techniques may show many gaps. But I have not purposely excluded from my discussion any form of technique that was clear to me, and I can affirm that the most frequent, the most essential, and the most characteristic technical means of wit have not eluded my attention.

Wit as an Inspiration

Wit possesses still another character which entirely corresponds to our conception of the wit-work as originally discovered in our study of dreams. It is true that it is common to hear one say “I made a joke,” but one feels that one behaves differently during this process than when one pronounces a judgment or offers an objection. Wit shows in a most pronounced manner the character of an involuntary “inspiration” or a sudden flash of thought. A moment before one cannot tell what kind of joke one is going to make, though it lacks only the words to clothe it. One usually experiences something indefinable which I should like most to compare to an absence, or sudden drop of intellectual tension; then all of a sudden the witticism appears, usually simultaneously with its verbal investment. Some of the means of wit are also utilized in the expression of thought along other lines, as in the cases of comparison and allusion. I can purposely will to make an allusion. In doing this I have first in mind (in the inner hearing) the direct expression of my thought, but as I am inhibited from expressing the same through some objection from the situation in question, I almost resolve to substitute the direct expression by a form of indirect expression, and then I utter it in the form of an allusion. But the allusion that comes into existence in this manner having been formed under my continuous control is never witty, no matter how useful it may be. On the other hand, the witty allusion appears without my having been able to follow up these preparatory stages in my mind. I do not wish to attribute too much value to this procedure, it is scarcely decisive, but it does agree well with our assumption that in wit-formation a stream of thought is dropped for a moment and suddenly emerges from the unconscious as a witticism.

Witticisms also evince a peculiar behavior along the lines of association of ideas. Frequently they are not at the disposal of our memory when we look for them; on the other hand, they often appear unsolicited and at places in our train of thought where we cannot understand their presence. Again, these are only minor qualities, but none the less they point to their unconscious origin.

Let us now collect the properties of wit whose formation can be referred to the unconscious. Above all there is the peculiar brevity of wit which, though not an indispensable, is a marked and distinctive characteristic feature. When we first encountered it we were inclined to see in it an expression of a tendency to economize, but owing to very evident objections we ourselves depreciated the value of this conception. At present we look upon it more as a sign of the unconscious elaboration which the thought of wit has undergone. The process of condensation which corresponds to it in dreams we can correlate with no other factor than with the localization in the unconscious, and we must assume that the conditions for such condensations which are lacking in the foreconscious are present in the unconscious mental process. It is to be expected that in the process of condensation some of the elements subjected to it become lost, while others which take over their occupation energy are strengthened by the condensation or are built up too energetically. The brevity of wit, like the brevity of dreams, would thus be a necessary concomitant manifestation of the condensation which occurs in both cases; both times it is a result of the condensation process. The brevity of wit is indebted also to this origin for its peculiar character which though not further assignable produces a striking impression.

The Unconscious and the Infantile

We have defined above the one result of condensation—the manifold application of the same material, play upon words, and similarity of sound—as a localized economy, and have also referred the pleasure produced by harmless wit to that economy. At a later place we have found that the original purpose of wit consisted in producing this kind of pleasure from words, a process which was permitted to the individual during the stage of playing, but which became banked in during the course of intellectual development or by rational criticism. Now we have decided upon the assumption that such condensations as serve the technique of wit originate automatically and without any particular purpose during the process of thinking in the unconscious. Have we not here two different conceptions of the same fact which seem to be incompatible with each other? I do not think so. To be sure, there are two different conceptions, and they demand to be brought in unison, but they do not contradict each other. They are merely somewhat strange to each other, and as soon as we have established a relationship between them we shall probably gain in knowledge. That such condensations are sources of pleasure is in perfect accord with the supposition that they easily find in the unconscious the conditions necessary for their origin; on the other hand, we see the motivation for the sinking into the unconscious in the circumstance that the pleasure-bringing condensation necessary to wit easily results there. Two other factors also, which upon first examination seem entirely foreign to each other and which are brought together quite accidentally, will be recognized on deeper investigation as intimately connected, and perhaps may be found to be substantially the same. I am referring to the two assertions that on the one hand wit could form such pleasure-bringing condensations during its development in the stage of playing, that is, during the infancy of reason; and, on the other hand, that it accomplishes the same function on higher levels by submerging the thought into the unconscious. For the infantile is the source of the unconscious. The unconscious mental processes are no others than those which are solely produced during infancy. The thought which sinks into the unconscious for the purpose of wit-formation only revisits there the old homestead of the former playing with words. The thought is put back for a moment into the infantile state in order to regain in this way childish pleasure-sources. If, indeed, one were not already acquainted with it from the investigation of the psychology of the neuroses, wit would surely impress one with the idea that the peculiar unconscious elaboration is nothing else but the infantile type of the mental process. Only it is by no means an easy matter to grasp, in the unconscious of the adult, this peculiar infantile manner of thinking, because it is usually corrected, so to say, statu nascendi. However, it is successfully grasped in a series of cases, and then we always laugh about the “childish stupidity.” In fact every exposure of such an unconscious fact affects us in a “comical” manner.

It is easier to comprehend the character of these unconscious mental processes in the utterances of patients suffering from various psychic disturbances. It is very probable that, following the assumption of old Griesinger, we would be in a position to understand the deliria of the insane and to turn them to good account as valuable information, if we would not make the demands of conscious thinking upon them, but instead treat them as we do dreams by means of our art of interpretation. In the dream, too, we were able to show the “return of psychic life to the embryonal state.”

In discussing the processes of condensation we have entered so deeply into the signification of the analogy between wit and dreams that we can here be brief. As we know that displacements in dream-work point to the influence of the censor of conscious thought, we will consequently be inclined to assume that an inhibiting force also plays a part in the formation of wit when we find the process of displacement among the techniques of wit. We also know that this is commonly the case; the endeavor of wit to revive the old pleasure in nonsense or the old pleasure in word-play meets with resistance in every normal state, a resistance which is exerted by the protest of critical reason, and which must be overcome in each individual case. But a radical distinction between wit and dreams is shown in the manner in which the wit-work solves this difficulty. In the dream-work the solution of this task is brought about regularly through displacements and through the choice of ideas which are remote enough from the objectionable ones to secure passage through the censor; the latter themselves are but offsprings of those whose psychic energy they have taken upon themselves through full transference. The displacements are therefore not lacking in any dream and are far more comprehensive; they not only comprise the deviations from the trend of thought but also all forms of indirect expression, the substitution for an important but offensive element of one seemingly indifferent and harmless to the censor which form very remote allusions to the first, they include substitution also occurring through symbols, comparisons, or trifles. It is not to be denied that parts of this indirect representation really originate in the foreconscious thoughts of the dream,—as, for example, symbolical representation and representation through comparisons—because otherwise the thought would not have reached the state of the foreconscious expression. Such indirect expressions and allusions, whose reference to the original thought is easily findable, are really permissible and customary means of expression even in our conscious thought. The dream-work, however, exaggerates the application of these means of indirect expression to an unlimited degree. Under the pressure of the censor any kind of association becomes good enough for substitution by allusion; the displacement from one element to any other is permitted. The substitution of the inner associations (similarity, causal connection, etc.) by the so-called outer associations (simultaneity, contiguity in space, assonance) is particularly conspicuous and characteristic of the dream-work.

The Difference between Dream-technique and Wit-technique

All these means of displacement also occur as techniques of wit, but when they do occur they usually restrict themselves to those limits prescribed for their use in conscious thought; in fact they may be lacking, even though wit must regularly solve a task of inhibition. One can comprehend this retirement of the process of displacement in wit-work when one remembers that wit usually has another technique at its disposal through which it defends itself against inhibitions. Indeed, we have discovered nothing more characteristic of it than just this technique. For wit does not have recourse to compromises as does the dream, nor does it evade the inhibition; it insists upon retaining the play with words or nonsense unaltered, but thanks to the ambiguity of words and multiplicity of thought-relations, it restricts itself to the choice of cases in which this play or nonsense may appear at the same time admissible (jest) or senseful (wit). Nothing distinguishes wit from all other psychic formations better than this double-sidedness and this double-dealing; by emphasizing the “sense in nonsense,” the authors have approached nearest the understanding of wit, at least from this angle.

Considering the unexceptional predominance of this peculiar technique in overcoming inhibitions in wit, one might find it superfluous that wit should make use of the displacement-technique even in a single case. But on the one hand certain kinds of this technique remain useful for wit as objects and sources of pleasure—as, for example, the real displacement (deviation of the trend of thought) which in fact shares in the nature of nonsense,—and on the other hand one must not forget that the highest stage of wit, tendency-wit, must frequently overcome two kinds of inhibitions which oppose both itself and its tendency (p. 147), and that allusion and displacements are qualified to facilitate this latter task.

The numerous and unrestricted application of indirect representation, of displacements, and especially of allusions in the dream-work, has a result which I mention not because of its own significance but because it became for me the subjective inducement to occupy myself with the problem of wit. If a dream analysis is imparted to one unfamiliar with the subject and unaccustomed to it, and the peculiar ways of allusions and displacements (objectionable to the waking thoughts but utilized by the dream-work) are explained, the hearer experiences an uncomfortable impression; he declares these interpretations to be “witty,” but it seems obvious to him that these are not successful jokes but forced ones which run contrary to the rules of wit. This impression can be easily explained; it is due to the fact that the dream-work operates with the same means as wit, but in the application of the same the dream exceeds the bounds which wit restricts. We shall soon learn that in consequence of the rôle of the third person wit is bound by a certain condition which does not affect the dream.


Among those techniques which are common to both wit and dreams representation through the opposite and the application of absurdity are especially interesting. The first belongs to the strongly effective means of wit as shown in the examples of “out-doing wit” (p. 98). The representation through the opposite, unlike most of the wit-techniques, is unable to withdraw itself from conscious attention. He who intentionally tries to make use of wit-work, as in the case of the “habitual wit,” soon discovers that the easiest way to answer an assertion with a witticism is to concentrate one’s mind on the opposite of this assertion and trust to the chance flash of thought to brush aside the feared objection to this opposite by means of a different interpretation. Maybe the representation through its opposite is indebted for such a preference to the fact that it forms the nucleus of another pleasurable mode of mental expression, for an understanding of which we do not have to consult the unconscious. I refer to irony, which is very similar to wit and is considered a sub-species of the comic. The essence of irony consists in imparting the very opposite of what one intended to express, but it precludes the anticipated contradiction by indicating through the inflections, concomitant gestures, and through slight changes in style—if it is done in writing—that the speaker himself means to convey the opposite of what he says. Irony is applicable only in cases where the other person is prepared to hear the reverse of the statement actually made, so that he cannot fail to be inclined to contradict. As a consequence of this condition ironic expressions are particularly subject to the danger of being misunderstood. To the person who uses it, it gives the advantage of readily avoiding the difficulties to which direct expressions, as, for example, invectives, are subject. In the hearer it produces comic pleasure, probably by causing him to make preparations for contradiction, which are immediately found to be unnecessary. Such a comparison of wit with a form of the comical that is closely allied to it might strengthen us in the assumption that the relation of wit to the unconscious is the peculiarity that also distinguishes it from the comical.

In dream-work, representation through the opposite has a far more important part to play than in wit. The dream not only delights in representing a pair of opposites by means of one and the same composite image, but in addition it often changes an element from the dream-thoughts into its opposite, thus causing considerable difficulty in the work of interpretation. In the case of any element capable of having an opposite it is impossible to tell whether it is to be taken negatively or positively in the dream-thoughts.

I must emphasize that as yet this fact has by no means been understood. Nevertheless, it seems to give indications of an important characteristic of unconscious thinking which in all probability results in a process comparable to “judging.” Instead of setting aside judgments the unconscious forms “repressions.” The repression may correctly be described as a stage intermediate between the defense reflex and condemnation.

The Unconscious as the Psychic Stage of the Wit-work

Nonsense, or absurdity, which occurs so often in dreams and which has made them the object of so much contempt, has never really come into being as the result of an accidental shuffling of conceptual elements, but may in every case be proven to have been purposely admitted by the dream-work. Nonsense and absurdity are intended to express embittered criticism and scornful contradiction within the dream-thoughts. Absurdity in the dream-content thus stands for the judgment: “It’s pure nonsense,” expressed in dream-thoughts. In my work on the Interpretation of Dreams, I have placed great emphasis on the demonstration of this fact because I thought that I could in this manner most strikingly controvert the error expressed by many that the dream is no psychic phenomenon at all—an error which bars the way to an understanding of the unconscious. Now we have learnt (in the analysis of certain tendency-witticisms on p. 73) that nonsense in wit is made to serve the same purposes of expression. We also know that a nonsensical façade of a witticism is peculiarly adapted to enhance the psychic expenditure in the hearer and hence also to increase the amount to be discharged through laughter. Moreover, we must not forget that nonsense in wit is an end in itself, since the purpose of reviving the old pleasure in nonsense is one of the motives of the wit-work. There are other ways to regain the feeling of nonsense in order to derive pleasure from it; caricature, exaggeration, parody, and travesty utilize the same and thus produce “comical nonsense.” If we subject these modes of expression to an analysis similar to the one used in studying wit, we shall find that there is no occasion in any of them for resorting to unconscious processes in our sense for the purpose of getting explanations. We are now also in a position to understand why the “witty” character may be added as an embellishment to caricature, exaggeration, and parody; it is the manifold character of the performance upon the “psychic stage” that makes this possible.

I am of the opinion that by transferring the wit-work into the system of the unconscious we have made a distinct gain, since it makes it possible for us to understand the fact that the various techniques to which wit admittedly adheres are on the other hand not its exclusive property. Many doubts, which have arisen in the beginning of our investigation of these techniques and which we were forced temporarily to leave, can now be conveniently cleared up. Hence we shall give due consideration to the doubt which expresses itself by asserting that the undeniable relation of wit to the unconscious is correct only for certain categories of tendency-wit, while we are ready to claim this relation for all forms and all the stages of development of wit. We may not shirk the duty of testing this objection.

We may assume that we deal with a sure case of wit-formation in the unconscious when it concerns witticisms that serve unconscious tendencies, or those strengthened by unconscious tendencies, as, for example, most “cynical” witticisms. For in such cases the unconscious tendency draws the foreconscious thought down into the unconscious in order to remodel it there; a process to which the study of the psychology of the neuroses has added many analogies with which we are acquainted. But in the case of tendency-wit of other varieties, namely, harmless wit and the jest, this power seems to fall away, and the relation of the wit to the unconscious is an open question.

But now let us consider the case of the witty expression of a thought that is not without value in itself and that comes to the surface in the course of the association of mental processes. In order that this thought may become a witticism, it is of course necessary that it make a choice among the possible forms of expression in order to find the exact form that will bring along the gain in word-pleasure. We know from self-observation that this choice is not made by conscious attention; but the selection will certainly be better if the occupation energy of the foreconscious thought is lowered to the unconscious. For in the unconscious, as we have learnt from the dream-work, the paths of association emanating from a word are treated on a par with associations from objects. The occupation energy from the unconscious presents by far the more favorable conditions for the selection of the expression. Moreover, we may assume without going farther that the possible expression which contains the gain in word-pleasure exerts a lowering effect on the still fluctuating self-command of the foreconscious, similar to that exerted in the first case by the unconscious tendency. As an explanation for the simpler case of the jest we may imagine that an ever-watchful intention of attaining the gain in word-pleasure seizes the opportunity offered in the foreconscious of again drawing the investing energy down into the unconscious, according to the familiar scheme.

I earnestly wish that it were possible for me on the one hand to present one decisive point in my conception of wit more clearly, and on the other hand to fortify it with compelling arguments. But as a matter of fact it is not a question here of two failures, but of one and the same failure. I can give no clearer exposition because I have no further testimony on behalf of my conception. The latter has developed as the result of my study of the technique and of comparison with dream-work, and indeed from this one side only. I now find that the dream-work is altogether excellently adapted to the peculiarities of wit. This conception is now concluded; if the conclusion leads us not to a familiar province, but rather to one that is strange and novel to our modes of thought, the conclusion is called a “hypothesis,” and the relation of the hypothesis to the material from which it is drawn is justly not accepted as “proof.” The hypothesis is admitted as “proved” only if it can be reached by other ways and if it can be shown to be the junction point for other associations. But such proof, in view of the fact that our knowledge of unconscious processes has hardly begun, cannot be had. Realizing then that we are on soil still virgin, we shall be content to project from our viewpoint of observation one narrow slender plank into the unexplored region.

We shall not build a great structure on such a foundation as this. If we correlate the different stages of wit to the mental dispositions favorable to them we may say: The jest has its origin in the happy mood; what seems to be peculiar to it is an inclination to lower the psychic static energies (Besetzungen). The jest already makes use of all the characteristic techniques of wit and satisfies the fundamental conditions of the same through the choice of such an assortment of words or mental associations as will conform not only to the requirements for the production of pleasure, but also conform to the demands of the intelligent critic. We shall conclude that the sinking of the mental energy to the unconscious stage, a process facilitated by the happy mood, has already taken place in the case of the jest. The mood does away with this requirement in the case of harmless wit connected with the expression of a valuable thought; here we must assume a particular personal adaptation which finds it as easy to come to expression as it is for the foreconscious thought to sink for a moment into the unconscious. An ever watchful tendency to renew the original resultant pleasure of wit exerts thereby a lowering effect upon the still fluctuating foreconscious expression of the thought. Most people are probably capable of making jests when in a happy mood; aptitude for joking independent of the mood is found only in a few persons. Finally, the most powerful incentive for wit-work is the presence of strong tendencies which reach back into the unconscious and which indicate a particular fitness for witty productions; these tendencies might explain to us why the subjective conditions of wit are so frequently fulfilled in the case of neurotic persons. Even the most inapt person may become witty under the influence of strong tendencies.

Differences Between Wit and Dreams

This last contribution, the explanation of wit-work in the first person, though still hypothetical, strictly speaking, ends our interest in wit. There still remains a short comparison of wit to the more familiar dream and we may expect that, outside of the one agreement already considered, two such diverse mental activities should show nothing but differences. The most important difference lies in their social behavior. The dream is a perfectly asocial psychic product. It has nothing to tell to anyone else, having originated in an individual as a compromise between conflicting psychic forces it remains incomprehensible to the person himself and has therefore altogether no interest for anybody else. Not only does the dream find it unnecessary to place any value on intelligibleness, but it must even guard against being understood, as it would then be destroyed; it can only exist in disguised form. For this reason the dream may make use freely of the mechanism that controls unconscious thought processes to the extent of producing undecipherable disfigurements. Wit, on the other hand, is the most social of all those psychic functions whose aim is to gain pleasure. It often requires three persons, and the psychic process which it incites always requires the participation of at least one other person. It must therefore bind itself to the condition of intelligibleness; it may employ disfigurement made practicable in the unconscious through condensation and displacement, to no greater extent than can be deciphered by the intelligence of the third person. As for the rest, wit and dreams have developed in altogether different spheres of the psychic life, and are to be classed under widely separated categories of the psychological system. No matter how concealed the dream is still a wish, while wit is a developed play. Despite its apparent unreality the dream retains its relation to the great interests of life; it seeks to supply what is lacking through a regressive detour of hallucinations; and it owes its existence solely to the strong need for sleep during the night. Wit, on the other hand, seeks to draw a small amount of pleasure from the free and unencumbered activities of our psychic apparatus, and later to seize this pleasure as an incidental gain. It thus secondarily reaches to important functions relative to the outer world. The dream serves preponderately to guard from pain while wit serves to acquire pleasure; in these two aims all our psychic activities meet.