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FREUD'S THEORY OF WIT.
By J. Y. T. GREIG.
It is my purpose to examine certain opinions on wit set forth by Professor Freud in his masterly Wit and its relation to the Unconscious1. His theory, like most of his other contributions to psychology, has been misrepresented, not only by hostile critics, but by friendly interpreters as well. It is a theory very easy to sum up in a catch phrase, and the temptation to sum it up in this way has been too strong for one at least of the Freudians, Mr E. B. Holt, who, in the attempt to be bright and interesting to the general reader, has succeeded in being grossly inaccurate. Writing in The Freudian Wish, he says: "After reviewing the long list of theories and definitions of humor, which is as dense a jungle of misconception as anywhere exists, Freud caps them all with his simple formula that every form of wit or humor is nothing but a means of letting the cat out of the bag."" A mere glance through Freud's book should have been enough to make it clear that his distinction of wit, the comic, and humour, one from another, is fundamental, that 'letting the cat out of the bag' is not a suitable formula for his views on either of the two last-though Holt speaks of 'every form of wit or humor'-and, what is more, that if it is a suitable formula at all, it can be applied only to what Freud calls tendency wit, and not to what he calls harmless wit. We are not concerned here with Freud's conclusions on the comic and on humour, but only with his theory of wit. But in view of such misrepresentations as that of Holt it is important to make clear at the outset what his theory of wit is not. It is not a theory of laughter, or of the comic, or of humour; it is exactly what it sets out to be, a theory of wit.
Freud classifies wit under two main headings, harmless wit and tendency wit. Harmless wit is its own end; it serves no purpose beyond itself; it is not aimed; it manipulates thoughts or words for the mere pleasure of such manipulation. This pleasure Freud concludes to arise from economy of psychic expenditure. A detailed examination of the techniques of wit-an examination that cannot be followed out here--leads him to the
1 All quotations are from the English translation, by Brill.
idea that the common factor in them all is economy. "A compressing or -to be more exact-an economic tendency controls all these techniques1." Even harmless wit, however, is not the first stage, for in harmless wit which would be recognised unmistakably for what it is, as distinct from mere play or jest, the thought expressed has been fortified in some degree, as Freud puts it, "against the impugnment of the critical judgment." To be effective at all, a harmless witticism must say, or appear to say, something a little out of the ordinary. Nevertheless-and this is the point in Freud's theory on which I wish to fasten-it is a mistake to look for the source of the pleasure in the content of the witticism; "we are forced to connect the feeling of pleasure with the technique of wit3," with technique, that is to say, the characteristic of which is economy.
Wit of the second kind, tendency wit, makes use of the same techniques as harmless wit, and thus depends in part on the same sources of pleasure. But in addition it is enlisted into the service of more or less repressed tendencies, sexual or hostile, which succeed in getting past the censor by its means and so obtain indirect satisfaction. The pleasure of tendency wit is thus doubly conditioned; on the one hand by technique, and on the other, by the sexual or hostile tendency it satisfies. Tendency wit is aimed, at a person, or at a group. At the same time, the principle of economy reappears in a new form. Psychical expenditure is saved by the removal or the eluding of moral or social inhibitions which would have prevented the tendency from coming to expression in any but a witty form. Holding fast to this principle, Freud, at the end of his book, sums up his theory of wit in a sentence, "It has seemed to us that the pleasure of wit originates from an economy of expenditure in inhibition4."
That is the theory of wit in outline, as I understand it.
Now since there is much in this theory with which I am in serious. disagreement, it is well to say frankly at once that I am in almost complete agreement with what I take to be the most important part of it, namely that dealing with tendency wit. Working at the same subject from another angle, I have come to certain conclusions in relation to laughter which I do not mean to discuss at present but which have at least this merit, that they fit well enough into Freud's theory of tendency wit. I believe it is incontestable that tendency wit is always serving either a hostile or a sexual impulse-using the term 'sex' in the broad
sense in which Freud uses it. But I do not intend here to make any attempt to prove this belief. I have nothing to say that Freud has not already said much better.
The trouble lies further back. The whole conception of harmless wit is elusive, and in the last resort, I conjecture, untenable. Is there any such activity? Can we give any proper psychological meaning to the notion of words and thoughts being manipulated for the pleasure of such manipulation? Is not harmless wit, like tendency wit, aimed, even though vaguely and uncertainly? These are the first questions to be asked, and they all arise ultimately from suspicion of the manner in which Freud, and still more the Freudians, use such terms as 'pleasure,' 'fore-pleasure,' 'the pleasure mechanism,' 'the pleasure principle,' and so on. For the purposes of psychotherapy the vagueness with which the psycho-analysts speak of pleasure and pain (displeasure) may not greatly matter; it matters for the purposes of what may be called pure psychology. We all know, from the recent writings of Dr Jung and his followers, to what lengths-I nearly said depths-initial vagueness in conception may lead in the end; and it is much to be desired that the concepts of pleasure and displeasure,—and still more the concept of 'affect,' which is hopelessly confused-should be given more precision in the writings of Freud and Jones and Brill.
In the next place, suppose it to be granted that the technique of wit depends on economy of psychic expenditure: why should this be pleasant? Can we ever get pleasure out of not-behaving? But is there any such economy to be observed in the behaviour of wit? Does the technique not actually force us to the exact opposite of economy, increased expenditure of psychic energy?
Pleasure, it may be shortly said, is the feeling equivalent of successful behaviour, displeasure the feeling equivalent of unsuccessful (obstructed) behaviour. But how are we to tell successful from unsuccessful behaviour, apart altogether from the feeling which values it? Admittedly it is no simple matter. Successful behaviour is that which is moving, comparatively without impediment, towards its end-result, which is contributing towards the purpose we have found by observation that such behaviour is designed to serve, or, at least, does actually serve. To be able to attach the adjective 'successful' in any particular instance, we must obviously have first classified behaviour into kinds, marked down an end-result for each kind, inferred its purpose from that end-result, and referred the particular instance to its appropriate kind. Everything depends on the classification we start with; this may be made, so to speak, in plan
or in cross section. The older psychology made it in plan, and chose a top floor. On such a classification there was nothing palpably absurd in the notion of 'thinking' providing its own 'end,' and being productive of pleasure on its own account. The relics of this classification are still evident in the works of many psychologists who have ostensibly given it up in favour of a classification in cross section, a classification that begins with instincts, instinctive tendencies, or whatever other class-name may happen to be selected, and that marks out these native ways of behaving in the form, as it were, of pillars and buttresses, with the whole structure from basement to roof staying itself upon them. One result of the modern classification is to change our ideas of 'thinking.' 'Thinking' ceases to be an activity functioning in its own right, and becomes a 'form' which any native impulse may take, on the upper floors. It is then no longer accurate, in psychology, to speak of thought being an end in itself, or of thought bringing pleasure on its own account. The end of thought is the end or purpose of the particular instinct, or combination of instincts, of which it is for the time being the behaviour, and the pleasure of thought is the pleasure of the successful functioning of that instinct, or combination of instincts. Thinking about love, for instance, is love behaviour in the form of thought. It is love behaviour on an upper floor, no less certainly than seizing and embracing a woman is love behaviour on a lower floor. There may be a great deal more to be said of it than that, but it is of the utmost importance, both theoretically and for the practice of psychotherapy, that we should recognise the fundamental identity of the more primitive with the genetically higher behaviour.
Coming back to our starting point, harmless wit, we can now say bluntly that manipulation of thoughts for their own sake is a mythical activity. It is as mythical as playing a competitive game for the sake of the game a supposed ideal which some sentimentalists urge on unresponsive schoolboys. Thoughts are manipulated for the sake of achieving some purpose recognisably identical with the purpose of instinctive behaviour on more primitive levels. So far as wit is concerned, the purpose is generally an aggressive one.
Manipulation of words is similar. Words are bandied about because of what they stand for, because they are substituted stimuli of behaviour.
It may be objected that all this is purely speculative. Let us take an example, then, from Freud, of supposedly harmless wit. It is difficult to find one that is not manifestly aimed at somebody, but perhaps the following is less obviously aimed than the others.
"Commenting on the saying, 'Never to be born would be best for mortal man,' the Fliegende Blätter remarked, 'But hardly one man in a thousand has this luck.""
Let us attempt to analyse our behaviour on first reading this witticism. Arrived at the end of it, we have a moment of puzzlement, and either re-read or recall the initial statement that elicited the editorial comment. We now realise, what we almost certainly failed to realise in the first hurried reading, that this initial statement, this supposed apothegm, for all its solemn air of melancholy wisdom, is specious and absurd. The editorial comment has shewn it up, just as the editorial comments in Punch shew up instances of 'Commercial Candour.' Now it is worth while to note in passing one subordinate effect of the Fliegende Blätter's exposure, which has, I suspect, some part in the total effect of the witticism. 'Born' is a word rubbed so smooth with constant use that it slips easily past us without inducing us really to think of the act of birth. The editorial comment throws us back to it, fixes our attention to it, if only for an instant, and compels us to realise more precisely what 'being born' means. In other words, our attention is momentarily directed to a sexual fact, previously slurred over. It is only momentary; but it counts. The next movement of thought, however, is more significant. If we happen to know who was the author of the wise saw, we immediately think of him; if, as is more probable, we do not know who he was, we immediately become conscious of a passing wish to know. The question, 'Who said it?' may well remain unspoken, yet it is a hundred chances to one that it will frame itself in the mind. This seems to indicate that we are, in however vague and uncertain a fashion, trying to aim the witticism. It is aimed at a dim and composite figure, made up out of our previous experience of would-be philosophers of life, and we should be glad to be able to give this dim, composite figure a clearer outline by naming him. We are all made uncomfortable by the abstract; we tend to provide it with at least a skeleton, if not always with flesh and blood. And never more noticeably than in the activities of wit. Other things equal, we relish a witticism better if it is attached somehow to a person or a group of persons we already know something of, and, if our knowledge is incomplete, we do our best to supplement it by lending to the victims enough vital qualities to give them the appearance of life. The difference between harmless wit, so called, and tendency wit, is a difference only in the degree of precision to which we are able to bring our behaviour. In the former, the hearer has more to do on his own account, in the latter, the author helps the hearer out by choosing as the victim of