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

C. Theories of Wit

VII. Wit and the Various Forms of the Comic

WE have approached the problems of the comic in an unusual manner. It appeared to us that wit, which is usually regarded as a subspecies of the comic, offered enough peculiarities to warrant our taking it directly under consideration, and thus it came about that we avoided discussing its relation to the more comprehensive category of the comic as long as it was possible to do so, yet we did not proceed without picking up on the way some hints that might be valuable for studying the comic. We found it easy to ascertain that the comic differs from wit in its social behavior. The comic can be content with only two persons, one who finds the comical, and one in whom it is found. The third person to whom the comical may be imparted reinforces the comic process, but adds nothing new to it. In wit, however, this third person is indispensable for the completion of the pleasure-bearing process, while the second person may be omitted, especially when it is not a question of aggressive wit with a tendency. Wit is made, while the comical is found; it is found first of all in persons, and only later by transference may be seen also in objects, situations, and the like. We know, too, in the case of wit that it is not strange persons, but one’s own mental processes that contain the sources for the production of pleasure. In addition we have heard that wit occasionally reopens inaccessible sources of the comic, and that the comic often serves wit as a façade to replace the fore-pleasure usually produced by the well-known technique (p. 236). All of this does not really point to a very simple relationship between wit and the comic. On the other hand, the problems of the comic have shown themselves to be so complicated, and have until now so successfully defied all attempts made by the philosophers to solve them, that we have not been able to justify the expectation of mastering it by a sudden stroke, so to speak, even if we approach it along the paths of wit. Incidentally we came provided with an instrument for investigating wit that had not yet been made use of by others; namely, the knowledge of dream-work. We have no similar advantage at our disposal for comprehending the comic, and we may therefore expect that we shall learn nothing about the nature of the comic other than that which we have already become aware of in wit; in so far as wit belongs to the comic and retains certain features of the same unchanged or modified in its own nature.

The Naïve

The species of the comic that is most closely allied to wit is the naïve. Like the comic the naïve is found universally and is not made like in the case of wit. The naïve cannot be made at all, while in the case of the pure comic the question of making or evoking the comical may be taken into account. The naïve must result without our intervention from the speech and actions of other persons who take the place of the second person in the comic or in wit. The naïve originates when one puts himself completely outside of inhibition, because it does not exist for him; that is, if he seems to overcome it without any effort. What conditions the function of the naïve is the fact that we are aware that the person does not possess this inhibition, otherwise we should not call it naïve but impudent, and instead of laughing we should be indignant. The effect of the naïve, which is irresistible, seems easy to understand. An expenditure of that inhibition energy which is commonly already formed in us suddenly becomes inapplicable when we hear the naïve and is discharged through laughter; as the removal of the inhibition is direct, and not the result of an incited operation, there is no need for a suspension of attention. We behave like the hearer in wit, to whom the economy of inhibition is given without any effort on his part.

In view of the understanding about the genesis of inhibitions which we obtained while tracing the development of play into wit, it will not surprise us to learn that the naïve is mostly found in children, although it may also be observed in uneducated adults, whom we look on as children as far as their intellectual development is concerned. For the purposes of comparison with wit, naïve speech is naturally better adapted than naïve actions, for speech and not actions are the usual forms of expression employed by wit. It is significant, however, that naïve speeches, such as those of children, can without straining also be designated as “naïve witticisms.” The points of agreement as well as demonstration between wit and naïveté will become clear to us upon consideration of a few examples.

A little girl of three years was accustomed to hear from her German nurse the exclamatory word “Gesundheit” (God bless you!; literally, may you be healthy!) whenever she happened to sneeze. While suffering from a severe cold during which the profuse coughing and sneezing caused her considerable pain, she pointed to her chest and said to her father, “Daddy, Gesundheit hurts.”

Another little girl of four years heard her parents refer to a Jewish acquaintance as a Hebrew, and on later hearing the latter’s wife referred to as Mrs. X, she corrected her mother, saying, “No, that is not her name; if her husband is a Hebrew she is a Shebrew.”

In the first example the wit is produced through the use of a contiguous association in the form of an abstract thought for the concrete action. The child so often heard the word “Gesundheit” associated with sneezing that she took it for the act itself. While the second example may be designated as word-wit formed by the technique of sound similarity. The child divided the word Hebrew into He-brew and having been taught the genders of the personal pronouns, she naturally imagined that if the man is a He-brew his wife must be a She-brew. Both examples could have originated as real witticisms upon which we would have unwillingly bestowed a little mild laughter. But as examples of naïveté they seem excellent and cause loud laughter. But what is it here that produces the difference between wit and naïveté? Apparently it is neither the wording nor the technique, which is the same for both wit and the naïve, but a factor which at first sight seems remote from both. It is simply a question whether we assume that the speakers had the intention of making a witticism or whether we assume that they—the children—wished to draw an earnest conclusion, a conclusion held in good faith though based on uncorrected knowledge. Only the latter case is one of naïveté. It is here that our attention is first called to the mechanism in which the second person places himself into the psychic process of the person who produces the wit.

The investigation of a third example will confirm this opinion. A brother and a sister, the former ten and the latter twelve years old, produce a play of their own composition before an audience of uncles and aunts. The scene represents a hut on the seashore. In the first act the two dramatist-actors, a poor fisherman and his devoted wife, complain about the hard times and the difficulty of getting a livelihood. The man decides to sail over the wide ocean in his boat in order to seek wealth elsewhere, and after a touching farewell the curtain is drawn. The second act takes place several years later. The fisherman has come home rich with a big bag of money and tells his wife, whom he finds waiting in front of the hut, what good luck he has had in the far countries. His wife interrupts him proudly, saying: “Nor have I been idle in the meanwhile,” and opens the hut, on whose floor the fisherman sees twelve large dolls representing children asleep. At this point of the drama the performers were interrupted by an outburst of laughter on the part of the audience, a thing which they could not understand. They stared dumfounded at their dear relatives, who had thus far behaved respectably and had listened attentively. The explanation of this laughter lies in the assumption on the part of the audience that the young dramatists know nothing as yet about the origin of children, and were therefore in a position to believe that a wife would actually boast of bearing offspring during the prolonged absence of her husband, and that the husband would rejoice with her over it. But the results achieved by the dramatists on the basis of this ignorance may be designated as nonsense or absurdity.

These examples show that the naïve occupies a position midway between wit and the comic. As far as wording and contents are concerned, the naïve speech is identical with wit; it produces a misuse of words, a bit of nonsense, or an obscenity. But the psychic process of the first person or producer which, in the case of wit, offered us so much that was interesting and puzzling, is here entirely absent. The naïve person imagines that he is using his thoughts and expressions in a simple and normal manner; he has no other purpose in view, and receives no pleasure from his naïve production. All the characteristics of the naïve lie in the conception of the hearer, who corresponds to the third person in the case of wit. The producing person creates the naïve without any effort. The complicated technique, which in wit serves to paralyze the inhibition produced by the critical reason, does not exist here, because the person does not possess this inhibition, and he can therefore readily produce the senseless and the obscene without any compromise. The naïve may be added to the realm of wit if it comes into existence after the important function of the censor, as observed in the formula for wit-formation, has been reduced to zero.

If the affective determination of wit consists in the fact that both persons should be subject to about the same inhibitions or inner resistances, we may say now that the determination of the naïve consists in the fact that one person should have inhibitions which the other lacks. It is the person provided with inhibitions who understands the naïve, and it is he alone who gains the pleasure produced by the naïve. We can easily understand that this pleasure is due to the removal of inhibitions. Since the pleasure of wit is of the same origin—a kernel of word-pleasure and nonsense-pleasure, and a shell of removal- and release-pleasure,—the similarity of this connection to the inhibition thus determines the inner relationship between the naïve and wit. In both cases pleasure results from the removal of inner inhibitions. But the psychic process of the recipient person (which in the naïve regularly corresponds with our ego, whereas in wit we may also put ourselves in place of the producing person) is by as much more complicated in the case of the naïve as it is simpler in the producing person in wit. For one thing, the naïve must produce the same effect upon the receiving person as wit does, this may be fully confirmed by our examples, for just as in wit the removal of the censor has been made possible by the mere effort of hearing the naïve. But only a part of the pleasure created by the naïve admits of this explanation, in other cases of naïve utterances, even this portion would be endangered, as, for example, while listening to naïve obscenities. We would react to a naïve obscenity with the same indignation felt toward a real obscenity, were it not for the fact that another factor saves us from this indignation and at the same time furnishes the more important part of the pleasure derived from the naïve.

This other factor is the result of the condition mentioned before, namely, that in order to recognize the naïve we have to be cognizant of the fact that there are no inner inhibitions in the producing person. It is only when this is assured that we laugh instead of being indignant. Hence we take into consideration the psychic state of the producing person; we imagine ourselves in this same psychic state and endeavor to understand it by comparing it to our own. This putting ourselves into the psychic state of the producing person and comparing it with our own results in an economy of expenditure which we discharge through laughing.

We might prefer the simpler explanation, namely, that when we reflect that the person has no inhibition to overcome our indignation becomes superfluous; the laughing therefore results at the cost of economized indignation. In order to avoid this conception, which is, in general, misleading, I shall distinguish more sharply between two cases that I had treated as one in the above discussion. The naïve, as it appears to us, may either be in the nature of a witticism, as in our example, or an obscenity, or of anything generally objectionable; which becomes especially evident if the naïve is expressed not in speech but in action. This latter case is really misleading; for it might lead one to assume that the pleasure originated from the economized and transformed indignation. The first case is the illuminating one. The naïve speech in the example “Hebrew” can produce the effect of a light witticism and give no cause for indignation; it is certainly the more rare, or the more pure and by far the more instructive case. In so far as we think that the child took the syllable “he” in “Hebrew” seriously, and without any additional reason identified it with the masculine personal pronoun, the increase in pleasure as a result of hearing it has no longer anything to do with the pleasure of the wit. We shall now consider what has been said from two viewpoints, first how it came into existence in the mind of the child, and secondly, how it would occur to us. In following this comparison we find that the child has discovered an identity and has overcome barriers which exist in us, and by continuing still further it may express itself as follows: “If you wish to understand what you have heard, you may save yourself the expenditure necessary for holding these barriers in place.” The expenditure which became freed by this comparison is the source of pleasure in the naïve, and is discharged through laughter; to be sure, it is the same expenditure which we would have converted into indignation if our understanding of the producing person, and in this case the nature of his utterance, had not precluded it. But if we take the case of the naïve joke as a model for the second case, viz., the objectionable naïve, we shall see that here, too, the economy in inhibition may originate directly from the comparison. That is, it is unnecessary for us to assume an incipient and then a strangulated indignation, an indignation corresponding to a different application of the freed expenditure, against which, in the case of wit, complicated defensive mechanisms were required.

Source of Comic Pleasure in the Naïve

This comparison and this economy of expenditure that occur as the result of putting one’s self into the psychic process of the producing person can have an important bearing on the naïve only if they do not belong to the naïve alone. As a matter of fact we suspect that this mechanism which is so completely foreign to wit is a part—perhaps the essential part—of the psychic process of the comic. This aspect—it is perhaps the most important aspect of the naïve—thus represents the naïve as a form of the comic. Whatever is added to the wit-pleasure by the naïve speeches in our examples is “comical” pleasure. Concerning the latter we might be inclined to make a general assumption that this pleasure originates through an economized expenditure by comparing the utterance of some one else with our own. But since we are here in the presence of very broad views we shall first conclude our consideration of the naïve. The naïve would thus be a form of the comic, in so far as its pleasure originates from the difference in expenditure which results in our effort to understand the other person; and it resembles wit through the condition that the expenditure saved by the comparison must be an inhibition expenditure.

Before concluding we shall rapidly point out a few agreements and differences between the conceptions at which we have just arrived and those that have been known for a long time in the psychology of the comic. The putting one’s self into the psychic process of another and the desire to understand him is obviously nothing else than the “comic burrowing” (komisches Leihen) which has played a part in the analysis of the comic ever since the time of Jean Paul; the “comparing” of the psychic process of another with our own corresponds to a “psychological contrast,” for which we here at last find a place, after we did not know what to do with it in wit. But in our explanation of comic pleasure we take issue with many authors who contend that this pleasure originates through the fluctuation of our attention to and fro between contrasting ideas. We are unable to see how such a mechanism could produce pleasure, and we point to the fact that in the comparing of contrasts there results a difference in expenditure which, if not used for anything else, becomes capable of discharge and hence a source of pleasure.

It is with misgiving only that we approach the problem of the comic. It would be presumptuous to expect from our efforts any decisive contribution to the solution of this problem after the works of a large number of excellent thinkers have not resulted in an explanation that is in every respect satisfactory. As a matter of fact, we intend simply to follow out into the province of the comic certain observations that have been found valuable in the study of wit.

Occurrence and Origin of the Comic

The comical appears primarily as an unintentional discovery in the social relations of human beings. It is found in persons, that is, in their movements, shapes, actions, and characteristic traits. In the beginning it is found probably only in their psychical peculiarities and later on in their mental qualities, especially in the expression of these latter. Even animals and inanimate objects become comical as the result of a widely used method of personification. However, the comical can be considered apart from the person in whom it is found, if the conditions under which a person becomes comical can be discerned. Thus arises the comical situation, and this knowledge enables us to make a person comical at will by putting him into situations in which the conditions necessary for the comic are bound up with his actions. The discovery that it is in our power to make another person comical opens the way to unsuspected gains in comic pleasure, and forms the foundation of a highly developed technique. It is also possible to make one’s self just as comical as others. The means which serve to make a person comical are transference into comic situations, imitations, disguise, unmasking, caricature, parody travesty, and the like. It is quite evident that these techniques may enter into the service of hostile or aggressive tendencies. A person may be made comical in order to render him contemptible or in order to deprive him of his claims to dignity and authority. But even if such a purpose were regularly at the bottom of all attempts to make a person comical this need not necessarily be the meaning of the spontaneous comic.

As a result of this superficial survey of the manifestations of the comic we can readily see that the comic originates from wide-spread sources, and that conditions so specialized as those found in the naïve cannot be expected in the case of the comic. In order to get a clue to the conditions that are applicable to the comic the selection of the first example is most important. We will examine first the comic movement because we remember that the most primitive stage performance, the pantomime, uses this means to make us laugh. The answer to the question, Why do we laugh at the actions of clowns? would be that they appear to us immoderate and inappropriate; that is, we really laugh over the excessive expenditure of energy. Let us look for the same condition outside of the manufactured comic, that is, under circumstances where it may unintentionally be found. The child’s motions do not appear to us comical, even if it jumps and fidgets, but it is comical to see a little boy or girl follow with the tongue the movement of his pen-holder when he is trying to master the art of writing; we see in these additional motions a superfluous expenditure of energy which under similar conditions we should save. In the same way we find it comical to see unnecessary motions or even marked exaggeration of expressive motions in adults. Among the genuinely comic cases we might mention the motions made by the bowler after he has released the ball while he is following its course as though he were still able to control it; all grimaces which exaggerate the normal expression of the emotions are comical, even if they are involuntary, as in the case of persons suffering from St. Vitus’ dance (chorea); the impassioned movements of a modern orchestra leader will appear comical to every unmusical person, who cannot understand why they are necessary. Indeed, the comic element found in bodily shapes and physiognomy is a branch of the comic of motion, in that they are conceived as though they were the result of motion that either has been carried too far or is purposeless. Wide exposed eyes, a crook-shaped nose bent towards the mouth, handle-like ears, a hunch back, and all similar physical defects probably produce a comical impression only in so far as the movements that would be necessary to produce these features are imagined, whereby the nose and other parts of the body are pictured as more movable than they actually are. It is certainly comical if some one can “wiggle his ears,” and it would undoubtedly be a great deal more comical if he could raise and lower his nose. A large part of the comical impression that animals make upon us is due to the fact that we perceive in them movements which we cannot imitate.

Comic of Motion

But how does it come about that we laugh as soon as we have recognized that the actions of some one else are immoderate and inappropriate? I believe that we laugh because we compare the motions observed in others with those which we ourselves should produce if we were in their place. The two persons must naturally be compared in accordance with the same standard, but this standard is my own innervation expenditure connected with my idea of motion in the one case as well as the other. This assertion is in need of discussion and amplification.

What we are here putting into juxtaposition is, on the one hand, the psychic expenditure of a given idea, and on the other hand, the content of this idea. We maintain that the former is not primarily and principally independent of the latter—the content of the idea—particularly because the idea of something great requires a larger expenditure than the idea of something small. As long as we are concerned only with the idea of different coarse movements we shall encounter no difficulties in the theoretical determination of our thesis or in establishing its proof through observation. It will be shown that in this case an attribute of the idea actually coincides with an attribute of the object conceived, although psychology warns us of confusions of this sort.

I obtain an idea of a definite coarse movement by performing this motion or by imitating it, and in so doing I set a standard for this motion in my feelings of innervation.

Now if I perceive a similar more or less coarse motion in some one else, the surest way to the understanding—to apperception—of the same is to carry it out imitatively and the comparison will then enable me to decide in which motion I expended more energy. Such an impulse to imitate certainly arises on perceiving a movement. But in reality I do not carry out the imitation any more than I still spell out words simply because I have learnt to read by means of spelling. Instead of imitating the movement by my muscles I substitute the idea of the same through my memory traces of the expenditures necessary for similar motions. Perceiving, or “thinking,” differs above all from acting or carrying out things by the fact that it entails a very much smaller displacement of energy and keeps the main expenditure from being discharged. But how is the quantitative factor, the more or less big element of the movement perceived, given expression in the idea? And if the representation of the quantity is left off from the idea that is composed of qualities, how am I to differentiate the ideas of different big movements, how am I to compare them?

Here, physiology shows the way in that it teaches us that even while an idea is in the process of conception innervations proceed to the muscles, which naturally represent only a moderate expenditure. It is now easy to assume that this expenditure of innervation which accompanies the conception of the idea is utilized to represent the quantitative factor of the idea, and that when a great motion is imagined it is greater than it would be in the case of a small one. The conception of greater motions would thus actually be greater, that is, it would be a conception accompanied by greater expenditure.

Ideational Mimicry

Observation shows directly that human beings are in the habit of expressing the big and small things in their ideation content by means of a manifold expenditure or by means of a sort of ideational mimicry.

When a child or a person of the common people or one belonging to a certain race imparts or depicts something, one can easily observe that he is not content to make his ideas intelligible to the hearer through the choice of correct words alone, but that he also represents the contents of the same through his expressive motions. Thus he designates the quantities and intensities of “a high mountain” by raising his hands over his head, and those of “a little dwarf” by lowering his hand to the ground. If he broke himself of the habit of depicting with his hands, he would nevertheless do it with his voice, and if he should also control his voice, one may be sure that in picturing something big he would distend his eyes, and describing something little he would press his eyes together. It is not his own affects that he thus expresses, but it is really the content of what he imagines.

Shall we now assume that this need for mimicry is first aroused through the demand for imparting, whereas a good part of this manner of representation still escapes the attention of the hearer? I rather believe that this mimicry, though less vivid, exists even if all imparting is left out of the question, that it comes about when the person imagines for himself alone, or thinks of something in a graphic manner; that then such a person, just as in talking, expresses through his body the idea of big and small which manifests itself at least through a change of innervation in the facial expressions and sensory organs. Indeed, I can imagine that the bodily innervation which is consensual to the content of the idea conceived is the beginning and origin of mimicry for purposes of communication. For, in order to be in a position to serve this purpose, it is only necessary to increase it and make it conspicuous to the other. When I take the view that this “expression of the ideation content” should be added to the expression of the emotions, which are known as a physical by-effect of psychic processes, I am well aware that my observations which refer to the category of the big and small do not exhaust the subject. I myself could add still other things, even before reaching to the phenomenon of tension through which a person physically indicates the accumulation of his attention and the niveau of abstraction upon which his thoughts happen to rest. I maintain that this subject is very important, and I believe that tracing the ideation mimicry in other fields of æsthetics would be just as useful for the understanding of the comic as it is here.

To return to the comic movement, I repeat that with the perception of a certain motion the impulse to conceive it will be given through a certain expenditure. In the “desire to understand,” in the apperception of this movement I produce a certain expenditure, and I behave in this part of the psychic process just as if I put myself in the place of the person observed. Simultaneously I probably grasp the aim of the motion, and through former experiences I am able to estimate the amount of expenditure necessary to attain this aim. I thereby drop out of consideration the person observed and behave as if I myself wished to attain the aim of the motion. These two ideational possibilities depend on a comparison of the motion observed with my own inhibited motion. In the case of an immoderate or inappropriate movement on the part of the other, my greater expenditure for understanding becomes inhibited statu nascendi during the mobilization as it were, it is declared superfluous and stands free for further use or for discharge through laughing. If other favorable conditions supervened this would be the nature of the origin of pleasure in comic movement,—an innervation expenditure which, when compared with one’s own motion, becomes an inapplicable surplus.

Comparison of Two Kinds of Expenditure as Pleasure-sources

We now note that we must continue our discussion by following two different paths; first, to determine the conditions for the discharge of the surplus; secondly, to test whether the other cases of the comic can be conceived similarly to our conception of comic motion.

We shall turn first to the latter task and after considering comic movement and action we shall turn to the comic found in the psychic activities and peculiarities of others.

As an example of this kind we may consider the comical nonsense produced by ignorant students at examinations; it is more difficult, however, to give a simple example of the peculiarities. We must not be confused by the fact that nonsense and foolishness which so often act in a comical manner are nevertheless not perceived as comical in all cases, just as the same things which once made us laugh because they seemed comical later may appear to us contemptible and hateful. This fact, which we must not forget to take into account, seems only to show that besides the comparison familiar to us other relations come into consideration for the comic effect,—conditions which we can investigate in other connections.

The comic found in the mental and psychic attributes of another person is apparently again the result of a comparison between him and my own ego. But it is remarkable that it is a comparison which mostly furnishes the result opposite to that obtained through comic movement and action. In the latter case it is comical if the other person assumes a greater expenditure than I believe to be necessary for me; in the case of psychic activity it is just the reverse, it is comical if the other person economizes in expenditure, which I consider indispensable; for nonsense and foolishness are nothing but inferior activities. In the first case I laugh because he makes it too difficult for himself, and in the latter case because he makes it too easy for himself. In the case of the comic effect it seems to be a question only of the difference between the two energy expenditures—the one of “feeling one’s self into something” (Einfühlung)—and the other of the ego—and it makes no difference in whose favor this difference inclines. This peculiarity, which at first confuses our judgment, disappears, however, when we consider that it is in accord with our personal development towards a higher stage of culture, to limit our muscular work and increase our mental work. By heightening our mental expenditure we produce a diminution of motion expenditure for the same activity. Our machines bear witness to this cultural success.

Thus it coincides with a uniform understanding that that person appears comical to us who puts forth too much expenditure in his psychical activities and too little in his mental activities; and it cannot he denied that in both cases our laughing is the expression of a pleasurably perceived superiority which we adjudge to ourselves in comparison with him. If the relation in both cases becomes reversed, that is, if the somatic expenditure of the other is less and the psychic expenditure greater, then we no longer laugh, but are struck with amazement and admiration.

Comic of Situation

The origin of the comic pleasure discussed here, that is, the origin of such pleasure in a comparison of the other person with one’s own self in respect to the difference between the identification expenditure (Einfühlungsaufwand) and normal expenditure—is genetically probably the most important. It is certain, however, that it is not the only one. We have learned before to disregard any such comparison between the other person and one’s self, and to obtain the pleasure-bringing difference from one side only, either from identification, or from the processes in one’s own ego, proving thereby that the feeling of superiority bears no essential relations to comic pleasure. A comparison is indispensable, however, for the origin of this pleasure, and we find this comparison between two energy expenditures which rapidly follow each other and refer to the same function. It is produced either in ourselves by way of identification with the other, or we find it without any identification in our own psychic processes. The first case, in which the other person still plays a part, though he is not compared with ourselves, results when the pleasure-producing difference of energy expenditures comes into existence through outer influences which we can comprehend as a “situation,” for which reason this species of comic is also called the “comic of situation.” The peculiarities of the person who furnishes the comic do not here come into essential consideration; we laugh when we admit to ourselves that had we been placed in the same situation we should have done the same thing. Here we draw the comic from the relation of the individual to the often all-too-powerful outer world, which is represented in the psychic processes of the individual by the conventions and necessities of society, and even by his bodily needs. A typical example of the latter is when a person engaged in an activity, which claims all his psychic forces, is suddenly disturbed by a pain or excremental need. The opposite case which furnishes us the comic difference through identification, lies between the great interest which existed before the disturbance occurred and the minimum left for his psychic activity after the disturbance made its appearance. The person who furnishes us this difference again becomes comical through inferiority; but he is only inferior in comparison with his former ego and not in comparison with us, for we know that in a similar case we could not have behaved differently. It is remarkable, however, that we find this inferiority of the person only in the case where we “feel ourselves” into some one, that is, we can only find it comical in the other, whereas we ourselves are conscious only of painful emotions when such or similar embarrassments happen to us. It is by keeping away the painful from our own person that we are probably first enabled to enjoy as pleasurable the difference which resulted from the comparison of the changing energy.

Comic of Expectation

The other source of the comic, which we find in our own changes of investing energy, lies in our relations to the future, which we are accustomed to anticipate through our ideas of expectation. I assume that a quantitatively determined expenditure underlies our every idea of expectation, which in case of disappointment becomes diminished by a certain difference, and I again refer to the observations made before concerning “ideational mimicry.” But it seems to me easier to demonstrate the real mobilized psychic expenditure for the cases of expectation. It is well known concerning a whole series of cases that the manifestation of expectation is formed by motor preliminaries; this is first of all true of cases in which the expected events make demands on my motility, and these preparations are quantitatively determinable without anything further. If I am expecting to catch a ball thrown at me, I put my body in states of tension in order to enable me to withstand the collision with the ball, and the superfluous motions which I make if the ball turns out to be light make me look comical to the spectators. I allowed myself to be misled by the expectation to exert an immoderate expenditure of motion. A similar thing happens if, for example, I lift out a basket of fruit which I took to be heavy but which was hollow and formed out of wax in order to deceive me. By its upward jerk my arm betrays the fact that I have prepared a superfluous innervation for this purpose and hence I am laughed at. In fact there is at least one case in which the expectation expenditure can be directly demonstrated by means of physiological experimentation with animals. In Pawlof’s experiments with salivary secretions of dogs who, provided with salivary fistulæ, are shown different kinds of food, it is noticed that the amount of saliva secreted through the fistulæ depends on whether the conditions of the experiment have strengthened or disappointed the dogs’ expectation to be fed with the food shown them.

Even where the thing expected lays claims only to my sensory organs, and not to my motility, I may assume that the expectation manifests itself in a certain motor emanation causing tension of the senses, and I may even conceive the suspension of attention as a motor activity which is equivalent to a certain amount of expenditure. Moreover, I can presuppose that the preparatory activity of expectation is not independent of the amount of the expected impression, but that I represent mimically the bigness and smallness of the same by means of a greater or smaller preparatory expenditure, just as in the case of imparting something and in the case of thinking when there is no expectation. The expectation expenditure naturally will be composed of many components, and also for my disappointment diverse factors will come into consideration; it is not only a question whether the realized event is perceptibly greater or smaller than the expected one, but also whether the expectation is worthy of the great interest which I had offered for it. In this manner I am instructed to consider, besides the expenditure for the representation of bigness and smallness (the conceptual mimicry), also the expenditure for the tension of attention (expectation expenditure), and in addition to these two expenditures there is in all cases the abstraction expenditure. But these other forms of expenditure can easily be reduced to the one of bigness and smallness, for what we call more interesting, more sublime, and even more abstract, are only particularly qualified special cases of what is greater. Let us add to this that, among other things, Lipps holds that the quantitative, not the qualitative, contrast is primarily the source of comic pleasure, and we shall be altogether content to have chosen the comic element of motion as the starting-point of our investigation.

In working out Kant’s thesis, “The comic is an expectation dwindled into nothing,” Lipps made the attempt in his book, often cited here, to trace the comic pleasure altogether to expectation. Despite the many instructive and valuable results which this attempt brought to light I should like to agree with the criticism expressed by other authors, namely, that Lipps has formulated a field of origin of the comic which is much too narrow, and that he could not subject its phenomena to his formula without much forcing.


Human beings are not satisfied with enjoying the comic as they encounter it in life, but they aim to produce it purposely, thus we discover more of the nature of the comic by studying the methods employed in producing the comic. Above all one can produce comical elements in one’s personality for the amusement of others, by making one’s self appear awkward or stupid. One then produces the comic exactly as if one were really so, by complying with the condition of comparison which leads to the difference of expenditure; but one does not make himself laughable or contemptible through this; indeed, under certain circumstances one can even secure admiration. The feeling of superiority does not come into existence in the other when he knows that the actor is only shamming, and this furnishes us a good new proof that the comic is independent in principle of the feeling of superiority.

To make another comical, the method most commonly employed is to transfer him into situations wherein he becomes comical regardless of his personal qualities, as a result of human dependence upon external circumstances, especially social factors; in other words, one resorts to the comical situation. This transferring into a comic situation may be real as in practical jokes, such as placing the foot in front of one so that he falls like a clumsy person, or making one appear stupid by utilizing his credulity to make him believe some nonsense, etc., or it can be feigned by means of speech or play. It is a good aid in aggression, in the service of which production of the comic is wont to place itself in order that the comic pleasure may be independent of the reality of the comic situation; thus every person is really defenseless against being made comical.

But there are still other means of making one comical which deserve special attention and which in part also show new sources of comic pleasure. Imitation, for example, belongs here; it accords the hearer an extraordinary amount of pleasure and makes its subject comic, even if it still keeps away from the exaggeration of caricature. It is much easier to fathom the comic effect of caricature than that of simple imitation. Caricature, parody and travesty, like their practical counterpart—unmasking, range themselves against persons and objects who command authority and respect and who are exalted in some sense—these are procedures tending towards degradation. In the transferred psychic sense, the exalted is equivalent to something great and I want to make the statement, or more accurately to repeat the statement, that psychic greatness like somatic greatness is exhibited by means of an increased expenditure. It needs little observation to ascertain that when I speak of the exalted I give a different innervation to my voice, I change my facial expression, an attempt to bring my entire bearing as it were into complete accord with the dignity of that which I present. I impose upon myself a dignified restriction not much different than if I were coming into the presence of an illustrious personage, monarch, or prince of science. I can scarcely err when I assume that this added innervation of conceptual mimicry corresponds to an increased expenditure. The third case of such an added expenditure I readily find when I indulge in abstract trains of thought instead of in the concrete and plastic ideas. If I can now imagine that the mentioned processes for degrading the illustrious are quite ordinary, that during their activity I need not be on my guard and in whose ideal presence I may, to use a military formula, put myself “at ease,” all that saves me the added expenditure of dignified restriction. Moreover, the comparison of this manner of presentation instigated by identification with the manner of presentation to which I have been hitherto accustomed which seeks to present itself at the same time, again produces a difference in expenditure which can be discharged through laughter.

As is known, caricature brings about the degradation by rendering prominent one feature, comic in itself, from the entire picture of the exalted object, a feature which would be overlooked if viewed with the entire picture. Only by isolating this feature can the comic effect be obtained which spreads in our memory over the whole picture. This has, however, this condition; the presence of the exalted itself must not force us into a disposition of reverence. Where such a comical feature is really lacking then caricature unhesitatingly creates it by exaggerating one that is not comical in itself. It is again characteristic of the origin of comic pleasure that the effect of the caricature is not essentially impaired through such a falsifying of reality.


Parody and travesty accomplish the degradation of the exalted by other means; they destroy the uniformity between the attributes of persons familiar to us and their speech and actions; by replacing either the illustrious persons or their utterances by lowly ones. Therein they differ from caricature, but not through the mechanism of the production of the comic pleasure. The same mechanism also holds true in unmasking, which comes into consideration only where some one has attached to himself dignity and authority which in reality should be taken from him. We have seen the comic effect of unmasking through several examples of wit, for example, in the story of the fashionable lady who in her first labor-pains cries: “Ah, mon Dieu!” but to whom the physician paid no attention until she screamed: “A-a-a-ai-e-e-e-e-e-e-E-E-E!” Being now acquainted with the character of the comic, we can no longer dispute that this story is really an example of comical unmasking and has no just claim to the term witticism. It recalls wit only through the setting, through the technical means of “representation through a trifle”; here it is the cry which was found sufficient to indicate the point. The fact remains, however, that our feeling for the niceties of speech, when we call on it for judgment, does not oppose calling such a story a witticism. We can find the explanation for this in the reflection that usage of speech does not enter scientifically into the nature of wit so far as we have evolved it by means of this painstaking examination. As it is a function of the activities of wit to reopen hidden sources of comic pleasure (p. 150), every artifice which does not bring to light barefaced comic may in looser analogy be called a witticism. This is especially true in the case of unmasking, though in other methods of comic-making the appellation also holds good.

In the mechanism of “unmasking” one can also utilize those processes of comic-making already known to us which degrade the dignity of individuals in that they call attention to one of the common human frailties, but particularly to the dependence of his mental functions upon physical needs. Unmasking them becomes equivalent to the reminder: This or that one who is admired like a demigod is only a human being like you and me after all. Moreover, all efforts in this mechanism serve to lay bare the monotonous psychic automatism which is behind wealth and apparent freedom of psychic achievements. We have become acquainted with examples of such “unmasking” through the witticisms dealing with marriage agents, and at that time to be sure we felt doubt whether we could rightly count these stories as wit. Now we can decide with more certainty that the anecdote of the echo who reinforces all assertions of the marriage agent and in the end reinforces the latter’s admission that the bride has a hunch back with the exclamation “And what a hunch!” is essentially a comic story, an example of the unmasking of the psychic automatism. But here the comic story serves only as a façade; to any one who wishes to note the hidden meaning of the marriage agent, the whole remains a splendidly put together piece of wit. He who does not penetrate so far sees only the comic story. The same is true of the other witticism of the agent who, to refute an objection, finally confirms the truth through the exclamation: “But who in the world would lend them anything?” This is a comic unmasking which serves as a façade for a witticism. Still the character of the wit is here quite evident, as the speech of the agent is at the same time an expression through the opposite. In trying to prove that the people are rich he proves at the same time that they are not rich but very poor. Wit and the comic unite here and teach us that a statement may be simultaneously witty and comical.

We eagerly grasp the opportunity to return from the comic of unmasking to wit, for our real task is to explain the relation between wit and comic and not to determine the nature of the comic. Hence to the case of uncovering the psychic automatism, wherein our feeling left us in doubt as to whether the matter was comical or witty, we add another, the case of nonsense-wit, wherein likewise wit and the comic fuse. But our investigation will ultimately show us that in this second case the meeting of wit and comic may be theoretically deduced.

In the discussion of the techniques of wit we have found that giving free play to such modes of thinking as are common in the unconscious and which in consciousness are conceived only as “faulty thinking,” furnishes the technical means of a great many witticisms. We had then doubted their witty character and were inclined to classify them simply as comic stories. We could come to no decision regarding our uncertainty because in the first place the real character of wit was not familiar to us. Later we found this character by following the analogy to the dream-work as to the compromise formed by the wit-work between the demands of the rational critic and the impulse not to abandon the old word-pleasure and nonsense-pleasure. What thus came into existence as a compromise, when the foreconscious thought was left for a moment to unconscious elaboration, satisfied both demands in all cases, but it presented itself to the critic, in various forms and had to stand various criticisms from it. In one case wit succeeded in surreptitiously assuming the form of an unimportant but none the less admissible proposition; a second time it smuggled itself into the expression of a valuable thought. But within the outer limit of the compromise activity it made no effort to satisfy the critic, and defiantly utilizing the pleasure-sources at its disposal, it appeared before the critic as pure nonsense. It had no fear of provoking contradiction because it could rely on the fact that the hearer would decipher the disfigurement of the expression through the operation of his unconscious and thus give back to it its meaning.

Now in what case will wit appear to the critic as nonsense? Particularly when it makes use of those modes of thought, which are common in the unconscious, but forbidden in conscious thought; that is, when it resorts to faulty thinking. Some of the modes of thinking, of the unconscious, have also been retained in conscious thinking, for example, many forms of indirect expression, allusions, etc., even though their conscious use has to be much restricted. Using these techniques wit will arouse little or no opposition on the part of the critic; but this only happens when it also uses that technical means with which conscious thought no longer cares to have anything to do. Wit can still further avoid offending if it disguises the faulty thinking by investing it with a semblance of logic as in the story of the fancy cake and liqueur, salmon with mayonnaise, and similar ones. But should it present the faulty thinking undisguised, the critic is sure to protest.

The Meeting of Wit and the Comic

In this case, something else comes to the aid of wit. The faulty thinking, which as a form of thinking of the unconscious, wit utilizes for its technique, appears comical to the critic, although this is not necessarily the case. The conscious giving of free play to the unconscious and to those forms of thinking which are rejected as faulty, furnishes a means for the production of comic pleasure. This can be easily understood, as a greater expenditure is surely needed for the production of the foreconscious investing energy than for the giving of free play to the unconscious. When we hear the thought which is formed like one from the unconscious we compare it to its correct form, and this results in a difference of expenditure which gives origin to comic pleasure. A witticism which makes use of such faulty thinking as its technique and therefore appears absurd can produce a comic impression at the same time. If we do not strike the trail of the wit, there remains to us only the comic or funny story.

The story of the borrowed kettle, which showed a hole on being returned, whereupon the borrower excused himself by stating that in the first place he had not borrowed the kettle; secondly, that it already had a hole when he borrowed it; and thirdly, that he had returned it intact without any hole (p. 82), is an excellent example of a purely comic effect through giving free play to one’s unconscious modes of thinking. Just this mutual neutralization of several thoughts, each of which is well motivated in itself, is the province of the unconscious. Corresponding to this, the dream in which the unconscious thoughts become manifest, also shows an absence of either-or. These are expressed by putting the thoughts next to one another. In that dream example given in my Interpretation of Dreams, which in spite of its complication I have chosen as a type of the work of interpretation, I seek to rid myself of the reproach that I have not removed the pains of a patient by psychic treatment. My arguments are: 1. she is herself to blame for her illness, because she does not wish to accept my solution, 2. her pains are of organic origin, therefore none of my concern, 3. her pains are connected with her widowhood, for which I am certainly not to blame, 4. her pains resulted from an injection with a dirty syringe, which was given by another. All these motives follow one another just as though one did not exclude the other. In order to escape the reproach that it was nonsense I had to insert the words “either-or” instead of the “and” of the dream.

A similar comical story is the one which tells of a blacksmith in a Hungarian village who has committed a crime punishable by death; the bürgomaster, however, decreed that not the smith but a tailor was to be hanged, as there were two tailors in the village but only one blacksmith, and the crime had to be expiated. Such a displacement of guilt from one person to another naturally contradicts all laws of conscious logic, but in no ways the mental trends of the unconscious. I am in doubt whether to call this story comic, and still I put the story of the kettle among the witticisms. Now I admit that it is far more correct to designate the latter as comic rather than witty. But now I understand how it happens that my feelings, usually so reliable, can leave me in the lurch as to whether this story be comic or witty. The case in which I cannot come to a conclusion through my feelings is the one in which the comic results through the uncovering of modes of thought which exclusively belong to the unconscious. A story of that kind can be comic and witty at the same time; but it will impress me as being witty even if it be only comic, because the use of the faulty thinking of the unconscious reminds me of wit, just as in the case of the arrangements for the uncovering of the hidden comic discussed before (p. 325).

I must lay great stress upon making clear this most delicate point of my analysis, namely, the relation of wit to the comic, and will therefore supplement what has been said with some negative statements. First of all, I call attention to the fact that the case of the meeting of wit and comic treated here (p. 327) is not identical with the preceding one. I grant it is a fine distinction, but it can be drawn with certainty. In the preceding case the comic originated from the uncovering of the psychic automatism. This is in no way peculiar to the unconscious alone and it does not at all play a conspicuous part in the technique of wit. Unmasking appears only accidentally in relation with wit, in that it serves another technique of wit, namely, representation through the opposite. But in the case of giving free play to unconscious ways of thinking the union of wit and comic is an essential one, because the same method which is used by the first person in wit as the technique of releasing pleasure will naturally produce comic pleasure in the third person.

We might be tempted to generalize this last case and seek the relation of wit to the comic in the fact that the effect of wit upon the third person follows the mechanism of comic pleasure. But there is no question about that; contact with the comic is not in any way found in all nor even in most witticisms; in most cases wit and the comic can be cleanly separated. As often as wit succeeds in escaping the appearance of absurdity, which is to say in most witticisms of double meaning or of allusion, one cannot discover any effect in the hearer resembling the comic. One can make the test with examples previously cited or with some new ones given here.

Congratulatory telegram to be sent to a gambler on his 70th birthday.

“Trente et quarante” (word-division with allusion).

Madame de Maintenon was called Madame de Maintenant (modification of a name).

We might further believe that at least all jokes with nonsense façades appear comical and must impress us as such. But I recall here the fact that such witticisms often have a different effect on the hearer, calling forth confusion and a tendency to rejection (see footnote, p. 212). Therefore it evidently depends whether the nonsense of the wit appears comical or common plain nonsense, and the conditions for this we have not yet investigated. Accordingly we hold to the conclusion that wit, judging by its nature, can be separated from the comic, and that it unites with it on the one hand only in certain special cases, on the other in the tendency to gain pleasure from intellectual sources.

In the course of these examinations concerning the relations of wit and the comic there revealed itself to us that distinction which we must emphasize as most significant, and which at the same time points to a psychologically important characteristic of the comic. We had to transfer to the unconscious the source of wit-pleasure; there is no occasion which can be discovered for the same localization of the comic. On the contrary all analyses which we have made thus far indicate that the source of comic pleasure lies in the comparison of two expenditures, both of which we must adjudged to the foreconscious. Wit and the comic can above all be differentiated in the psychic localization; wit is, so to speak, the contribution to the comic from the sphere of the unconscious.

Comic of Imitation

We need not blame ourselves for digressing from the subject, for the relation of wit to the comic is really the occasion which urged us to the examination of the comic. But it is time for us to return to the point under discussion, to the treatment of the means which serve to produce the comic. We have advanced the discussion of caricature and unmasking, because from both of them we can borrow several points of similarity for the analysis of the comic of imitation. Imitation is mostly replaced by caricature, which consists in the exaggeration of certain otherwise not striking traits, and also bears the character of degradation. Still this does not seem to exhaust the nature of imitation; it is incontestable that in itself it represents an extraordinarily rich source of comic pleasure, for we laugh particularly over faithful imitations. It is not easy to give a satisfactory explanation of this if we do not accept Bergson’s view, according to which the comic of imitation is put next to the comic produced by uncovering the psychic automatism. Bergson believes that everything gives a comic impression which manifests itself in the shape of a machine-like inanimate movement in the human being. His law is that “the attitudes, gestures, and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.” He explains the comic of imitation by connecting it with a problem formulated by Pascal in his Thoughts, why is it that we laugh at the comparison of two faces that are alike although neither of them excites laughter by itself. “The truth is that a really living life should never repeat itself. Wherever there is repetition or complete similarity, we always suspect some mechanism at work behind the living.” Analyze the impression you get from two faces that are too much alike, and you will find that you are thinking of two copies cast in the same mould, or two impressions of the same soul, or two reproductions of the same negative,—in a word, of some manufacturing process or other. This deflection of life towards the mechanical is here the real cause of laughter (l. c., p. 34). We might say, it is the degradation of the human to the mechanical or inanimate. If we accept these winning arguments of Bergson, it is moreover not difficult to subject his view to our own formula. Taught by experience that every living being is different and demands a definite amount of expenditure from our understanding, we find ourselves disappointed when, as a result of a perfect agreement or deceptive imitation, we need no new expenditure. But we are disappointed in the sense of being relieved, and the expenditure of expectation which has become superfluous is discharged through laughter. The same formula will also cover all cases of comic rigidity considered by Bergson, such as professional habits, fixed ideas, and modes of expression which are repeated on every occasion. All these cases aim to compare the expenditure of expectation with what is commonly required for the understanding, whereby the greater expectation depends on observation of individual variety and human plasticity. Hence in imitation the source of comic pleasure is not the comic of situation but that of expectation.

As we trace the comic pleasure in general to comparison, it is incumbent upon us to investigate also the comic element of the comparison itself, which likewise serves as a means of producing the comic. Our interest in this question will be enhanced when we recall that in the case of comparison the “feeling” as to whether something was to be classed as witty or merely comical often left us in the lurch (v. p. 114).

The subject really deserves more attention than we can bestow upon it. The main quality for which we ask in comparison is whether it is pertinent, that is, whether it really calls our attention to an existing agreement between two different objects. The original pleasure in refinding the same thing (Groos, p. 103) is not the only motive which favors the use of comparison. Besides this there is the fact that comparison is capable of a utilization which facilitates intellectual work; when for example, as is usually the case, one compares the less familiar to the more familiar, the abstract to the concrete, and explains through this comparison the more strange and the more difficult objects. With every such comparison, especially of the abstract to the concrete, there is a certain degradation and a certain economy in abstraction expenditure (in the sense of a conceptual mimicry) yet this naturally does not suffice to render prominent the character of the comic. The latter does not emerge suddenly from the freed pleasure of the comparison but comes gradually; there are many cases which only touch the comic, in which one might doubt whether they show the comic character. The comparison undoubtedly becomes comical when the niveau difference of the expenditure of abstraction between the two things compared becomes increased, if something serious and strange, especially of intellectual or moral nature is compared to something banal and lowly. The former release of pleasure and the contribution from the conditions of conceptual mimicry may perhaps explain the gradual change—which is determined by quantitative relations,—from the universally pleasurable to the comic, which takes place during the comparison. I am certainly avoiding misunderstandings in that I emphasize that I deduce the comic pleasure in the comparison, not from the contrast of the two things compared but from the difference of the two abstraction expenditures. The strange which is difficult to grasp, the abstract and really intellectually sublime, through its alleged agreement with a familiar lowly one, in the imagination of which every abstraction expenditure disappears, is now itself unmasked as something equally lowly. The comic of comparison thus becomes reduced to a case of degradation.

The comparison, as we have seen above, can now be witty without a trace of comic admixture, especially when it happens to evade the degradation. Thus the comparison of Truth to a torch which one cannot carry through a crowd without singeing somebody’s beard is pure wit, because it takes an obsolete expression (“The torch of truth”) at its full value and not at all in a comical sense, and because the torch as an object does not lack a certain distinction, though it is a concrete object. However, a comparison may just as well be witty as comic, and what is more one may be independent of the other, in that the comparison becomes an aid for certain techniques of wit, as, for example, unification or allusion. Thus Nestroy’s comparison of memory to a “Warehouse” (p. 120) is simultaneously comical and witty, first, on account of the extraordinary degradation to which the psychological conception must consent in the comparison to a “Warehouse,” and secondly, because he who utilizes the comparison is a clerk, and in this comparison he establishes a rather unexpected unification between psychology and his vocation. Heine’s verse, “until at last the buttons tore from the pants of my patience,” seems at first an excellent example of a comic degrading comparison, but on closer reflection we must ascribe to it also the attribute of wittiness, since the comparison as a means of allusion strikes into the realm of the obscene and causes a release of pleasure from the obscene. Through a union not altogether incidental the same material also gives us a resultant pleasure which is at the same time comical and witty; it does not matter whether or not the conditions of the one promote the origin of the other, such a union acts confusingly on the “feeling” whose function it is to announce to us whether we have before us wit or the comic, and only a careful examination independent of the disposition of pleasure can decide the question.

As tempting as it would be to trace these more intimate determinations of comic pleasure, the author must remember that neither his previous education nor his daily vocation justifies him in extending his investigations beyond the spheres of wit, and he must confess that it is precisely the subject of comic comparison which makes him feel his incompetence.

We are quite willing to be reminded that many authors do not recognize the clear notional and objective distinction between wit and comic, as we were impelled to do, and that they classify wit merely as “the comic of speech” or “of words.” To test this view let us select one example of intentional and one of involuntary comic of speech and compare it with wit. We have already mentioned before that we are in a good position to distinguish comic from witty speech. “With a fork and with effort, his mother pulled him out of the mess,” is only comical, but Heine’s verse about the four castes of the population of Göttingen: “Professors, students, Philistines, and cattle,” is exquisitely witty.

As an example of the intentional comic of speech I will take as a model Stettenheim’s Wippchen. We call Stettenheim witty because he possesses the cleverness that evokes the comic. The wit which one “has” in contradistinction to the wit which one “makes,” is indeed correctly conditioned by this ability. It is true that the letters of Wippchen are also witty in so far as they are interspersed with a rich collection of all sorts of witticisms, some of which very successful ones, (as “festively undressed” when he speaks of a parade of savages), but what lends the peculiar character to these productions is not these isolated witticisms, but the superabundant flow of comic speech contained therein. Originally Wippchen was certainly meant to represent a satirical character, a modification of Freytag’s Schmock, one of those uneducated persons who trade in the educational treasure of the nation and abuse it; but the pleasure in the comic effect experienced in representing this person seems gradually to have pushed to the background the author’s satirical tendency. Wippchen’s productions are for the most part “comic nonsense.” The author has justly utilized the pleasant mood resulting from the accumulation of such achievements to present beside the altogether admissible material all sorts of absurdities which would be intolerable in themselves. Wippchen’s nonsense appears to be of a specific nature only on account of its special technique. If we look closer into some of these “witticisms,” we find that some forms which have impressed their character on the whole production are especially conspicuous. Wippchen makes use mostly of compositions (fusions), of modifications of familiar expressions and quotations. He replaces some of the banal elements in these expressions by others which are usually more pretentious and more valuable. This naturally comes near to the techniques of wit.

The Comic of Speech

Some of the fusions taken from the preface and the first pages are the following: “Turkey’s money is like the hay of the sea.” This is only a condensation of the two expressions, “Money like hay,” “Money like the sands of the sea.” Or: “I am nothing but a leafless pillar which tells of a vanished splendor,” which is a fusion of “leafless trunk” and “a pillar which, etc.” Or: “Where is Ariadne’s thread which leads out of the Scylla of this Augean stable?” for which three different Greek myths contribute an element each.

The modifications and substitutions can be treated collectively without much forcing; their character can be seen from the following examples which are peculiar to Wippchen, they are regularly permeated by a different wording which is more fluent, most banal, and reduced to mere platitudes.

“To hang my paper and ink high.” The saying: “To hang one’s bread-basket high,” expresses metaphorically the idea of placing one under difficult conditions. But why not stretch this figure to other material?

“Already in my youth Pegasus was alive in me.” When the word “pegasus” is replaced by “the poet,” one can recognize it as an expression often used in autobiographies. Naturally “pegasus” is not the proper word to replace the words “the poet,” but it has thought associations to it and is a high-sounding word.

From Wippchen’s other numerous productions some examples can be shown which present the pure comic. As an example of comic disillusionment the following can be cited: “For hours the battle raged, finally it remained undecisive”; an example of comical unmasking (of ignorance) is the following: “Clio, the Medusa of history,” or quotations like the following: “Habent sua fata morgana.” But our interest is aroused more by the fusions and modifications because they recall familiar techniques of wit. We may compare them to such modification witticisms as the following: “He has a great future behind him,” and Lichtenberg’s modification witticisms such as: “New baths heal well,” etc. Should Wippchen’s productions having the same technique be called witticisms, or what distinguishes them from the latter?

It is surely not difficult to answer this. Let us remember that wit presents to the hearer a double face, and forces him to two different views. In nonsense-witticisms such as those mentioned last, one view, which considers only the wording, states that they are nonsense; the other view, which, in obedience to suggestion, follows the road that leads through the hearer’s unconscious, finds very good sense in these witticisms. In Wippchen’s wit-like productions one of these views of wit is empty, as if stunted. It is a Janus head with only one countenance developed. One would get nowhere should he be tempted to proceed by means of this technique to the unconscious. The condensations lead to no case in which the two fused elements really result in a new sense; they fall to pieces when an attempt is made to analyze them. As in wit, the modifications and substitutions lead to a current and familiar wording, but they themselves tell us little else and as a rule nothing that is of any possible use. Hence the only thing remaining to these “witticisms” is the nonsense view. Whether such productions, which have freed themselves from one of the most essential characters of wit, should be called “bad” wit or not wit at all, every one must decide as he feels inclined.

There is no doubt that such stunted wit produces a comic effect for which we can account in more than one way. Either the comic originates through the uncovering of the unconscious modes of thinking in a manner similar to the cases considered above, or the wit originates by comparison with perfect wit. Nothing prevents us from assuming that we here deal with a union of both modes of origin of the comic pleasure. It is not to be denied that it is precisely the inadequate dependence on wit which here shapes the nonsense into comic nonsense.

Comic of Inadequacy

There are, of course, other quite apparent cases, in which such inadequacy produced by the comparison with wit, makes the nonsense irresistibly comic. The counterpart to wit, the riddle, can perhaps give us better examples for this than wit itself. A facetious question states: What is this: It hangs on the wall and one can dry his hands on it? It would be a foolish riddle if the answer were: a towel. On the contrary this answer is rejected with the statement: No, it is a herring,—“But, for mercy’s sake,” is the objection, “a herring does not hang on the wall.”—“But you can hang it there,”—“But who wants to dry his hands on a herring?”—“Well,” is the soft answer, “you don’t have to.” This explanation given through two typical displacements show how much this question lacks of being a real riddle, and because of this absolute insufficiency it impresses one as irresistibly comic, rather than mere nonsensical foolishness. Through such means, that is, by not restricting essential conditions, wit, riddles, and other forms, which in themselves produce no comic pleasure, can be made into sources of comic pleasure.

It is not so difficult to understand the case of the involuntary comic of speech which we can perhaps find realized with as much frequency as we like in the poems of Frederika Kempner.

  • Fraternal sentiment should urge us
  • To champion the Guinea-pig,
  • For has it not a soul like ours,
  • Although most likely not as big?

  • Or a conversation between a loving couple.
  • The young wife whispers “I’m so happy,”
  • “And I!” chimes in her husband’s voice,
  • “Because your virtues, dearest help-mate,
  • Reveal the wisdom of my choice.”
  • There is nothing here which makes one think of wit. Doubtless, however, it is the inadequacy of these “poetic productions,” as the very extraordinary clumsiness of the expressions which recall the most commonplace or newspaper style, the ingenious poverty of thoughts, the absence of every trace of poetic manner of thinking or speaking,—it is all these inadequacies which make these poems comic. Nevertheless it is not at all self-evident that we should find Kempner’s poems comical; many similar productions we merely consider very bad, we do not laugh at them but are rather vexed with them. But here it is the great disparity in our demand of a poem which impels us to the comic conception; where this difference is less, we are inclined to criticise rather than laugh. The comic effect of Kempner’s poetic productions is furthermore assured by the additional circumstances of the lady author’s unmistakably good intentions, and by the fact that her helpless phrases disarm our feeling of mockery and anger. We are now reminded of a problem the consideration of which we have so far postponed. The difference of expenditure is surely the main condition of the comic pleasure, but observation teaches that such difference does not always produce pleasure. What other conditions must be added, or what disturbances must be checked in order that pleasure should result from the difference of expenditure? But before proceeding with the answers to these questions we wish to verify what was said in the conclusions of the former discussion, namely, that the comic of speech is not synonymous with wit, and that wit must be something quite different from speech comic.

    As we are about to attack the problem just formulated, concerning the conditions of the origin of comic pleasure from the difference of expenditure, we may permit ourselves to facilitate this task so as to cause ourselves some pleasure. To give a correct answer to this question would amount to an exhaustive presentation of the nature of the comic for which we are fitted neither by ability nor authority. We shall therefore again be content to elucidate the problem of the comic only so far as it distinctly separates itself from wit.

    All theories of the comic were objected to by the critics on the ground that in defining the comic these theories overlooked the essential element of it. This can be seen from the following theories, with their objections. The comic depends on a contrasting idea; yes, in so far as this contrast effects one comically and in no other way. The feeling of the comic results from the dwindling away of an expectation; yes, if the disappointment does not prove to be painful. There is no doubt that these objections are justified, but they are overestimated if one concludes from them that the essential characteristic mark of the comic has hitherto escaped our conception. What depreciates the general validity of these definitions are conditions which are indispensable for the origin of the comic pleasure, but which will be searched in vain for the nature of comic pleasure. The rejection of the objections and the explanations of the contradictions to the definitions of the comic will become easy for us, only after we trace back comic pleasure to the difference resulting from a comparison of two expenditures. Comic pleasure and the effect by which it is recognized—laughter, can originate only when this difference is no longer utilizable and when it is capable of discharge. We gain no pleasurable effect, or at most a flighty feeling of pleasure in which the comic does not appear, if the difference is put to other use as soon as it is recognized. Just as special precautions must be taken in wit, in order to guard against making new use of expenditure recognized as superfluous, so also can comic pleasure originate only under relations which fulfil this latter condition. The cases in which such differences of expenditure originate in our ideational life are therefore uncommonly numerous, while the cases in which the comic originates from them is comparatively very rare.

    The Conditions of Isolation of the Comic

    Two observations obtrude themselves upon the observer who reviews even only superficially the origin of comic pleasure from the difference of expenditure; first, that there are cases in which the comic appears regularly and as if necessarily; and, in contrast to these cases, others in which this appearance depends on the conditions of the case and on the viewpoint of the observer; but secondly, that unusually large differences very often triumph over unfavorable conditions, so that the comic feeling originates in spite of it. In reference to the first point one may set up two classes, the inevitable comic and the accidental comic, although one will have to be prepared from the beginning to find exceptions in the first class to the inevitableness of the comic. It would be tempting to follow the conditions which are essential to each class.

    What is important in the second class are the conditions of which one may be designated as the “isolation” of the comic case. A closer analysis renders conspicuous relations something like the following:

    a) The favorable condition for the origin of comic pleasure is brought about by a general happy disposition in which “one is in the mood for laughing.” In happy toxic states almost everything seems comic, which probably results from a comparison with the expenditure in normal conditions. For wit, the comic, and all similar methods of gaining pleasure from the psychic activities, are nothing but ways to regain this happy state—euphoria—from one single point, when it does not exist as a general disposition of the psyche.

    b) A similar favorable condition is produced by the expectation of the comic or by putting one’s self in the right mood for comic pleasure. Hence when the intention to make things comical exists and when this feeling is shared by others, the differences required are so slight that they probably would have been overlooked had they been experienced in unpremeditated occurrences. He who decides to attend a comic lecture or a farce at the theater is indebted to this intention for laughing over things which in his everyday life would hardly produce in him a comic effect. He finally laughs at the recollection of having laughed, at the expectation of laughing, and at the appearance of the one who is to present the comic, even before the latter makes the attempt to make him laugh. It is for this reason that people admit that they are ashamed of that which made them laugh at the theater.

    c) Unfavorable conditions for the comic result from the kind of psychic activity which may occupy the individual at the moment. Imaginative or mental activity tending towards serious aims disturbs the discharging capacity of the investing energies which the activity needs for its own displacements, so that only unexpected and great differences of expenditure can break through to form comic pleasure. All manner of mental processes far enough removed from the obvious to cause a suspension of ideational mimicry are unfavorable to the comic; in abstract contemplation there is hardly any room left for the comic, except when this form of thinking is suddenly interrupted.

    d) The occasion for releasing comic pleasure vanishes when the attention is fixed on the comparison capable of giving rise to the comic. Under such circumstances the comic force is lost from that which is otherwise sure to produce a comic effect. A movement or a mental activity cannot become comical to him whose interest is fixed at the time of comparing this movement with a standard which distinctly presents itself to him. Thus the examiner does not see the comical in the nonsense produced by the student in his ignorance; he is simply annoyed by it, whereas the offender’s classmates who are more interested in his chances of passing the examination than in what he knows, laugh heartily over the same nonsense. The teacher of dancing or gymnastics seldom has any eyes for the comic movements of his pupils, and the preacher entirely loses sight of humanity’s defects of character, which the writer of comedy brings out with so much effect. The comic process cannot stand examination by the attention, it must be able to proceed absolutely unnoticed in a manner similar to wit. But for good reasons, it would contradict the nomenclature of “conscious processes” which I have used in The Interpretation of Dreams, if one wished to call it of necessity unconscious. It rather belongs to the foreconscious, and one may use the fitting name “automatic” for all those processes which are enacted in the foreconscious and dispense with the attention energy which is connected with consciousness. The process of comparison of the expenditures must remain automatic if it is to produce comic pleasure.

    Conditions Disturbing the Discharge

    e) It is exceedingly disturbing to the comic if the case from which it originates gives rise at the same time to a marked release of affect. The discharge of the affective difference is then as a rule excluded. Affects, disposition, and the attitude of the individual in occasional cases make it clear that the comic comes or goes with the viewpoint of the individual person; that only in exceptional cases is there an absolute comic. The dependence or relativity of the comic is therefore much greater than of wit, which never happens but is regularly made, and at its production one may already give attention to the conditions under which it finds acceptance. But affective development is the most intensive of the conditions which disturb the comic, the significance of which is well known. It is therefore said that the comic feeling comes most in tolerably indifferent cases which evince no strong feelings or interests. Nevertheless it is just in cases with affective release that one may witness the production of a particularly strong expenditure-difference in the automatism of discharge. When Colonel Butler answers Octavio’s admonitions with “bitter laughter,” exclaiming:
  • “Thanks from the house of Austria!”
  • his bitterness has thus not prevented the laughter which results from the recollection of the disappointment which he believes he has experienced; and on the other hand, the magnitude of this disappointment could not have been more impressively depicted by the poet than by showing it capable of affecting laughter in the midst of the storm of unchained affects. It is my belief that this explanation may be applicable in all cases in which laughing occurs on other than pleasurable occasions, and in conjunction with exceedingly painful or tense affects.

    f) If we also mention that the development of the comic pleasure can be promoted by means of any other pleasurable addition to the case which acts like a sort of contact-effect (after the manner of the fore-pleasure principle in the tendency-wit), then we have discussed surely not all the conditions of comic pleasure, yet enough of them to serve our purpose. We then see that no other assumption so easily covers these conditions, as well as the inconstancy and dependence of the comic effect, as this: the assumption that comic pleasure is derived from the discharge of a difference, which under many conditions can be diverted to a different use than discharge.

    It still remains to give a thorough consideration of the comic of the sexual and obscene, but we shall only skim over it with a few observations. Here, too, we shall take the act of exposing one’s body as the starting-point. An accidental exposure produces a comical effect on us, because we compare the ease with which we attained the enjoyment of this view with the great expenditure otherwise necessary for the attainment of this object. The case thus comes nearer to the naïve-comic, but it is simpler than the latter. In every case of exhibitionism in which we are made spectators—or, in the case of the smutty joke hearers,—we play the part of the third person, and the person exposed is made comical. We have heard that it is the purpose of wit to replace obscenity and in this manner to reopen a source of comic pleasure that has been lost. On the contrary, spying out an exposure forms no example of the comic for the one spying, because the effort he exerts thereby abrogates the condition of comic pleasure; the only thing remaining is the sexual pleasure in what is seen. If the spy relates to another what he has seen, the person looked at again becomes comical, because the viewpoint that predominates is that the expenditure was omitted which would have been necessary for the concealment of the private parts. At all events, the sphere of the sexual or obscene offers the richest opportunities for gaining comic pleasure beside the pleasurable sexual stimulation, as it exposes the person’s dependence on his physical needs (degradation) or it can uncover behind the spiritual love the physical demands of the same (unmasking.)

    The Psychogenesis of the Comic

    An invitation to seek the understanding of the comic in its psychogenesis comes surprisingly from Bergson’s well written and stimulating book Laughter. Bergson, whose formula for the conception of the comic character has already become known to us—“mechanization of life,” “the substitution of something mechanical for the natural”—reaches by obvious associations from automatism to the automaton, and seeks to trace a series of comic effects to the blurred memories of children’s toys. In this connection he once reaches this viewpoint, which, to be sure, he soon drops; he seeks to trace the comic to the after-effect of childish pleasure. “Perhaps we ought even to carry simplification still farther, and, going back to our earliest recollection, try to discover in the games that amused us as children the first faint traces of the combinations that make us laugh as grown-up persons.”… “Above all, we are too apt to ignore the childish element, so to speak, latent in most of our joyful emotions” (p. 67). As we have now traced wit to that childish playing with words and thoughts which is prohibited by the rational critic, we must be tempted to trace also these infantile roots of the comic, conjectured by Bergson.

    As a matter of fact we meet a whole series of conditions which seem most promising, when we examine the relation of the comic to the child. The child itself does not by any means seem comic to us, although its character fulfills all conditions which, in comparison to our own, would result in a comic difference. Thus we see the immoderate expenditure of motion as well as the slight psychic expenditure, the control of the psychic activities through bodily functions, and other features. The child gives us a comic impression only when it does not behave as a child but as an earnest grown-up, and even then it affects us only in the same manner as other persons in disguise; but as long as it retains the nature of the child our perception of it furnishes us a pure pleasure, which perhaps recalls the comic. We call it naïve in so far as it displays to us the absence of inhibitions, and we call naïve-comic those of its utterances which in another we would have considered obscene or witty.

    On the other hand the child lacks all feeling for the comic. This sentence seems to say no more than that this comic feeling, like many others, first makes its appearance in the course of psychic development; and that would by no means be remarkable, especially since we must admit that it shows itself distinctly even during years which must be accredited to childhood. Nevertheless it can be demonstrated that the assertion that the child lacks feeling for the comic has a deeper meaning than one would suppose. In the first place it will readily be seen that it cannot be different, if our conception is correct, that the comic feeling results from a difference of expenditure produced in the effort to understand the other. Let us again take comic motion as an example. The comparison which furnishes the difference reads as follows, when put in conscious formulas: “So he does it,” and: “So I would do it,” or “So I have done it.” But the child lacks the standard contained in the second sentence, it understands simply through imitation; it just does it. Education of the child furnishes it with the standard: “So you shall do it,” and if it now makes use of the same in comparisons, the nearest conclusion is: “He has not done it right, and I can do it better.” In this case it laughs at the other, it laughs at him with a feeling of superiority. There is nothing to prevent us from tracing this laughter also to a difference of expenditure; but according to the analogy with the examples of laughter occurring in us we may conclude that the comic feeling is not experienced by the child when it laughs as an expression of superiority. It is a laughter of pure pleasure. In our own case whenever the judgment of our own superiority occurs we smile rather than laugh, or if we laugh, we are still able to distinguish clearly this conscious realization of our superiority from the comic which makes us laugh.

    It is probably correct to say that in many cases which we perceive as “comical” and which we cannot explain, the child laughs out of pure pleasure, whereas the child’s motives are clear and assignable. If, for instance, some one slips on the street and falls, we laugh because this impression—we know not why—is comical. The child laughs in the same case out of a feeling of superiority or out of joy over the calamity of others. It amounts to saying: “You fell, but I did not.” Certain pleasure motives of the child seems to be lost for us grown-ups, but as a substitute for these we perceive under the same conditions the “comic” feeling.

    The Infantile and the Comic

    If we were permitted to generalize, it would seem very tempting to transfer the desired specific character of the comic into the awakening of the infantile, and to conceive the comic as a regaining of “lost infantile laughing.” One could then say, “I laugh every time over a difference of expenditure between the other and myself, when I discover in the other the child.” Or expressed more precisely, the whole comparison leading to the comic would read as follows:
  • “He does it this way—I do it differently—
  • He does it just as I did when I was a child.”
  • This laughter would thus result every time from the comparison between the ego of the grown-up and the ego of the child. The uncertainty itself of the comic difference, causing now the lesser and now the greater expenditure to appear comical to me, would correspond to the infantile determination; the comic therein is actually always on the side of the infantile.

    This is not contradicted by the fact that the child itself as an object of comparison does not make a comic impression on me but a purely pleasurable one, nor by the fact that this comparison with the infantile produces a comic effect only when any other use of the difference is avoided. For the conditions of the discharge come thereby into consideration. Everything that confines a psychic process in an association of ideas works against the discharge of the surplus occupation of energy and directs the same to other utilization; whatever isolates a psychic act favors the discharge. By consciously focussing on the child as the person of comparison, the discharge necessary for the production of comic pleasure therefore becomes impossible; only in foreconscious energetic states is there a similar approach to the isolation which we may moreover also ascribe to the psychic processes in the child. The addition to the comparison: “Thus I have also done it as a child,” from which the comic effect would emanate, could come into consideration for the average difference only when no other association could obtain control over the freed surplus.

    If we still continue with our attempt to find the nature of the comic in the foreconscious association of the infantile, we have to go a step further than Bergson and admit that the comparison resulting in the comic need not necessarily awake old childish pleasure and play, but that it is enough if it touches the childish nature in general, perhaps even childish pain. Herein we deviate from Bergson, but remain consistent with ourselves, when we connect the comic pleasure not with remembered pleasure but always with a comparison. This is possible, for cases of the first kind comprise in a measure those which are regularly and irresistibly comic. Let us now draw up the scheme of the comic possibilities instanced above. We stated that the comic difference would be found either

    (a) through a comparison between the other and one’s self, or (b) through a comparison altogether within the other, or (c) through a comparison altogether within one’s self.

    In the first case the other would appear to me as a child, in the second he would put himself on the level of a child, and in the third I would find the child in myself. To the first class belong the comic of movement and of forms, of psychic activity and of character. The infantile corresponding to it would be the motion-impulse and the inferior mental and moral development of the child, so that the fool would perhaps become comical to me by reminding me of a lazy child, and the bad person by reminding me of a naughty child. The only time one might speak of a childish pleasure lost to grown-ups would be where the child’s own motion pleasure came into consideration.

    The second case, in which the comic altogether depends on identification with the other, comprises numerous possibilities such as the comic situation, exaggeration (caricature), imitation, degradation, and unmasking. It is under this head that the presentation of infantile viewpoints mostly take place. For the comic situation is largely based on embarrassment, in which we feel again the helplessness of the child. The worst of these embarrassments, the disturbance of other activities through the imperative demands of natural wants, corresponds to the child’s lack of control of the physical functions. Where the comic situation acts through repetitions it is based on the pleasure of constant repetition peculiar to the child (asking questions, telling stories), through which it makes itself a nuisance to grown-ups. Exaggeration, which also affords pleasure even to the grown-up in so far as it is justified by his reason, corresponds to the characteristic want of moderation in the child, and its ignorance of all quantitative relations which it later really learns to know as qualitative. To keep within bounds, to practice moderation even in permissible feelings is a late fruit of education, and is gained through opposing inhibitions of the psychic activity acquired in the same association. Wherever this association is weakened as in the unconscious of dreams and in the monoideation of the psychoneuroses, the want of moderation of the child again makes its appearance.

    The understanding of comic imitation has caused us many difficulties so long as we left out of consideration the infantile factor. But imitation is the child’s best art and is the impelling motive of most of its playing. The child’s ambition is not so much to distinguish himself among his equals as to imitate the big fellows. The relation of the child to the grown-up determines also the comic of degradation, which corresponds to the lowering of the grown-up in the life of the child. Few things can afford the child greater pleasure than when the grown-up lowers himself to its level, disregards his superiority, and plays with the child as its equal. The alleviation which furnishes the child pure pleasure is a debasement used by the adult as a means of making things comic and as a source of comic pleasure. As for unmasking we know that it is based on degradation.

    The infantile determination of the third case, the comic of expectation, presents most of the difficulties; this really explains why those authors who put this case to the foreground in their conception of the comic, found no occasion to consider the infantile factor in their studies of the comic. The comic of expectation is farthest from the child’s thoughts, the ability to understand this is the latest quality to appear in him. Most of those cases which produce a comic effect in the grown-up are probably felt by the child as a disappointment. One can refer, however, to the blissful expectation and gullibility of the child in order to understand why one considers himself as comical “as a child,” when he succumbs to comic disappointment.

    If the preceding remarks produce a certain probability that the comic feeling may be translated into the thought; everything is comic that does not fit the grown-up, I still do not feel bold enough,—in view of my whole position to the problem of the comic—to defend this last proposition with the same earnestness as those that I formulated before. I am unable to decide whether the lowering to the level of the child is only a special case of comic degradation, or whether everything comical fundamentally depends on the degradation to the level of the child.


    An examination of the comic, however superficial it may be, would be most incomplete if it did not devote at least a few remarks to the consideration of humor. There is so little doubt as to the essential relationship between the two that a tentative explanation of the comic must furnish at least one component for the understanding of humor. It does not matter how much appropriate and important material was presented as an appreciation of humor, which, as one of the highest psychic functions, enjoys the special favor of thinkers, we still cannot elude the temptation to express its essence through an approach to the formulæ given for wit and the comic.

    We have heard that the release of painful emotions is the strongest hindrance to the comic effect. Just as aimless motion causes harm, stupidity mischief, and disappointment pain;—the possibility of a comic effect eventually ends, at least for him who cannot defend himself against such pain, who is himself affected by it or must participate in it, whereas the disinterested party shows by his behavior that the situation of the case in question contains everything necessary to produce a comic effect. Humor is thus a means to gain pleasure despite the painful affects which disturb it; it acts as a substitute for this affective development, and takes its place. If we are in a situation which tempts us to liberate painful affects according to our habits, and motives then urge us to suppress these affects statu nascendi, we have the conditions for humor. In the cases just cited the person affected by misfortune, pain, etc., could obtain humoristic pleasure while the disinterested party laughs over the comic pleasure. We can only say that the pleasure of humor results at the cost of this discontinued liberation of affect; it originates through the economized expenditure of affect.

    The Economy in Expenditure of Affect

    Humor is the most self-sufficient of the forms of the comic; its process consummating itself in one single person and the participation of another adds nothing new to it. I can enjoy the pleasure of humor originating in myself without feeling the necessity of imparting it to another. It is not easy to tell what happens during the production of humoristic pleasure in a person; but one gains a certain insight by investigating these cases of humor which have emanated from persons with whom we have entered into a sympathetic understanding. By sympathetically understanding the humoristic person in these cases one gets the same pleasure. The coarsest form of humor, the so-called humor of the gallows or grim-humor (Galgenhumor), may enlighten us in this regard. The rogue, on being led to execution on Monday, remarked: “Yes, this week is beginning well.” This is really a witticism, as the remark is quite appropriate in itself, on the other hand it is displaced in the most nonsensical fashion, as there can be no further happening for him this week. But it required humor to make such wit, that is, to overlook what distinguished the beginning of this week from other weeks, and to deny the difference which could give rise to motives for very particular emotional feelings. The case is the same when on the way to the gallows he requests a neckerchief for his bare neck, in order to guard against taking cold, a precaution which would be quite praiseworthy under different circumstances, but becomes exceedingly superfluous and indifferent in view of the impending fate of this same neck. We must say that there is something like greatness of soul in this blague, in this clinging to his usual nature and in deviating from that which would overthrow and drive this nature into despair. This form of grandeur of humor thus appears unmistakably in cases in which our admiration is not inhibited by the circumstances of the humoristic person.

    In Victor Hugo’s Ernani the bandit who entered into a conspiracy against his king, Charles I, of Spain, (Charles V, as the German Emperor), falls into the hands of his most powerful enemy; he foresees his fate; as one convicted of high treason his head will fall. But this prospect does not deter him from introducing himself as a hereditary Grandee of Spain and from declaring that he has no intention of waiving any prerogative belonging to such personage. A Grandee of Spain could appear before his royal master with his head covered. Well:

  • “Nos têtes ont le droit
  • De tomber couvertes devant de toi.”
  • This is excellent humor and if we do not laugh on hearing it, it is because our admiration covers the humoristic pleasure. In the case of the rogue who did not wish to take cold on the way to the gallows we roar with laughter. The situation which should have driven this criminal to despair, might have evoked in us intense pity, but this pity is inhibited because we understand that he who is most concerned is quite indifferent to the situation. As a result of this understanding the expenditure for pity, which was already prepared in us, became inapplicable and we laughed it off. The indifference of the rogue, which we notice has cost him a great expenditure of psychic labor, infects us as it were.

    Economy of sympathy is one of the most frequent sources of humoristic pleasure. Mark Twain’s humor usually follows this mechanism. When he tells us about the life of his brother, how, as an employee in a large road-building enterprise, he was hurled into the air through a premature explosion of a blast, to come to earth again far from the place where he was working, feelings of sympathy for this unfortunate are invariably aroused in us. We should like to inquire whether he sustained no injury in this accident; but the continuation of the story that the brother lost a half-day’s pay for being away from the place he worked diverts us entirely from sympathy and makes us almost as hard-hearted as that employer, and just as indifferent to the possible injury to the victim’s health. Another time Mark Twain presents us his pedigree, which he traces back almost as far back as one of the companions of Columbus. But after describing the character of this ancestor, whose entire possessions consisted of several pieces of linen each bearing a different mark, we cannot help laughing at the expense of the stored-up piety, a piety which characterized our frame of mind at the beginning of this family history. The mechanism of humoristic pleasure is not disturbed by our knowing that this family history is a fictitious one, and that this fiction serves a satirical tendency to expose the embellishments which result in imparting such pedigrees to others; it is just as independent of the conditions of reality as the manufactured comic. Another of Mark Twain’s stories relates how his brother constructed for himself subterranean quarters into which he brought a bed, a table, and a lamp, and that as a roof he used a large piece of sail-cloth with a hole through the centre; how during the night after the room was completed, a cow being driven home fell through the opening in the ceiling on to the table and extinguished the lamp; how his brother helped patiently to hoist the animal out and to rearrange everything; how he did the same thing when the same disturbance was repeated the following night; and then every succeeding night; such a story becomes comical through repetition. But Mark Twain closes with the information that in the forty-sixth night when the cow again fell through, his brother finally remarked that the thing was beginning to grow monotonous; and here we can no longer restrain our humoristic pleasure, for we had long expected to hear how the brother would express his anger over this chronic malheur. The slight humor which we draw from our own life we usually produce at the expense of anger instead of irritating ourselves.

    Forms of Humor

    The forms of humor are extraordinarily varied according to the nature of the emotional feelings which are economized in favor of humor, as sympathy, anger, pain, compassion, etc. And this series seems incomplete because the sphere of humor experiences a constant enlargement, as often as an artist or writer succeeds in mastering humoristically the, as yet, unconquered emotional feelings and in making them, through artifices similar to those in the above example, a source of humoristic pleasure. Thus the artists of Simplicissimus have worked wonders in gaining humor at the expense of fear and disgust. The manifestations of humor are above all determined by two peculiarities, which are connected with the conditions of its origin. In the first place, humor may appear fused with wit or any other form of the comic; whereby it is entrusted with the task of removing a possible emotional development which would form a hindrance to the pleasurable effect. Secondly, it can entirely set aside this emotional development or only partially, which is really the more frequent case, because the simpler function and the different forms of “broken” humor, results in that humor which smiles under its tears. It withdraws from the affect a part of its energy and gives instead the accompanying humoristic sound.

    As may be noticed by former examples the humoristic pleasure gained by entering into sympathy with a thing results from a special technique resembling displacement through which the liberation of affect held ready is disappointed and the energy occupation is deflected to other, and, not often, to secondary matters. This does not help us, however, to understand the process by which the displacement from the development of affect proceeds in the humoristic person himself. We see that the recipient intimates the producer of the humor in his psychic processes, but we discover nothing thereby concerning the forces which make this process possible in the latter.

    We can only say, when, for example, somebody succeeds in paying no heed to a painful affect because he holds before himself the greatness of the world’s interest as a contrast to his own smallness, that we see in this no function of humor but one of philosophic thinking, and we gain no pleasure even if we put ourselves into his train of thought. The humoristic displacement is therefore just as impossible in the light of conscious attention as is the comic comparison; like the latter it is connected with the condition to remain in the foreconscious—that is to say, to remain automatic.

    One reaches some solution of humoristic displacement if one examines it in the light of a defense process. The defense processes are the psychic correlates of the flight reflex and follow the task of guarding against the origin of pain from inner sources; in fulfilling this task they serve the psychic function as an automatic adjustment, which finally proves harmful and therefore must be subjected to the control of the conscious thinking. A definite form of this defense, the failure of repression, I have demonstrated as the effective mechanism in the origin of the psychoneuroses. Humor can now be conceived as the loftiest variant of this defense activity. It disdains to withdraw from conscious attention the ideas which are connected with the painful affect, as repression does, and thus it overcomes the defense automatism. It brings this about by finding the means to withdraw the energy resulting from the liberation of pain which is held in readiness and through discharge changes the same into pleasure. It is even credible that it is again the connection with the infantile that puts at humor’s disposal the means for this function. Only in childhood did we experience intensively painful affects over which to-day as grown-ups we would laugh; just as a humorist laughs over his present painful affects. The elevation of his ego, of which humoristic displacement gives evidence,—the translation of which would read: I am too big to have these causes affect me painfully—he could find in the comparison of his present ego with his infantile ego. This conception is to some extent confirmed by the rôle which falls to the infantile in the neurotic processes of repression.

    The Relation of Humor to Wit and Comic

    On the whole humor is closer to the comic than wit. Like the former its psychic localization is in the foreconscious, whereas wit, as we had to assume, is formed as a compromise between the unconscious and the foreconscious. On the other hand, humor has no share in the peculiar nature in which wit and the comic meet, a peculiarity which perhaps we have not hitherto emphasized strongly enough. It is a condition for the origin of the comic that we be induced to apply—either simultaneously or in rapid succession—to the same thought function two different modes of ideas, between which the “comparison” then takes place and thus forms the comic difference. Such differences originate between the expenditure of the stranger and one’s own, between the usual expenditure and the emergency expenditure, between an anticipated expenditure and one which has already occurred.

    The difference between two forms of conception resulting simultaneously, which work with different expenditures, comes into consideration in wit, in respect to the hearer. The one of these two conceptions, by taking the hints contained in the witticism, follows the train of thought through the unconscious, while the other conception remains on the surface and presents the witticism like any wording from the foreconscious which has become conscious. Perhaps it would not be considered an unjustified statement if we should refer the pleasure of the witticism heard to the difference between these two forms of presentation.

    Concerning wit we here repeat our former statement concerning its Janus-like double-facedness, a simile we used when the relation between wit and the comic still appeared to us unsettled.

    The character thus put into the foreground becomes indistinct when we deal with humor. To be sure, we feel the humoristic pleasure where an emotional feeling is evaded, which we might have expected as a pleasure usually belonging to the situation; and in so far humor really falls under the broadened conception of the comic of expectation. But in humor it is no longer a question of two different kinds of presentations having the same content; the fact that the situation comes under the domination of a painful emotional feeling which should have been avoided, puts an end to possible comparison with the nature in the comic and in wit. The humoristic displacement is really a case of that different kind of utilization of a freed expenditure which proved to be so dangerous for the comic effect.

    Formulæ for Wit, Comic, and Humor

    Now, that we have reduced the mechanism of humoristic pleasure to a formula analogous to the formula of comic pleasure and of wit, we are at the end of our task. It has seemed to us that the pleasure of wit originates from an economy of expenditure in inhibition, of the comic from an economy of expenditure in thought, and of humor from an economy of expenditure in feeling. All three activities of our psychic apparatus derive pleasure from economy. They all strive to bring back from the psychic activity a pleasure which has really been lost in the development of this activity. For the euphoria which we are thus striving to obtain is nothing but the state of a bygone time in which we were wont to defray our psychic work with slight expenditure. It is the state of our childhood in which we did not know the comic, were incapable of wit, and did not need humor to make us happy.