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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
the witticism a personal acquaintance, an historical character, or an easily recognised professional or social type.
The second group of questions we asked above, related to the alleged economy of psychic expenditure, the common result, on Freud's view, of all the techniques of wit. According to the theory of pleasure already hinted at, pleasure is the feeling of, or in, relatively unobstructed, positive behaviour, and it is impossible to understand therefore how pleasure can ever result from the absence of behaviour, from not doing something which might have been done. The term 'economy,' in fact, is unfortunately chosen. There is no pleasure whatever to be got out of the mere saving of £100; what is pleasant is the positive behaviour of spending or hoarding, actually or prospectively, the £100 saved. Present economy of psychic expenditure, if it is legitimate to speak in this way at all, is valuable only in so far as it prepares for, or makes possible, future psychic expenditure. It is the future expenditure which may or may not be pleasant and, apart from that, and from the anticipation of that, the mere saving of the expenditure now is absolutely indifferent. It is not behaviour; it is the absence of behaviour.
Nor has it ever been suggested, so far as I know, by Freud or anyone else, that the secret of the enjoyment of wit now is really anticipation of something that will be done in the future.
The truth is that there is no such economy of psychic expenditure in wit. Words are economised, certainly, but there is no such correlation as Freud supposes between the one kind of economy and the other. He himself admits that the economy is often more apparent than real. It reminds him "of the manner in which many a housewife economises when she spends time and money to reach a distant market because the vegetables can there be had a cent cheaper1." Exactly; the comparison is apt, and it virtually cancels out all the rest of what Freud has to say on economy of psychic expenditure. Take, for example, the play on words. Here one word does duty for two ideas, or, to speak more accurately, two words with the same sound are merged into one. Freud's best example, a very good one, is the famous witticism levelled at Napoleon III, when, immediately after coming to the throne, he confiscated the estates of the House of Orleans; someone said of this act, 'C'est le premier vol de l'aigle.' Now it is to be remembered that Freud insists on the independence of the wit technique, as a source of pleasure. In the present instance he would say, apparently, that we obtain pleasure not merely from the satisfaction of the hostile tendency against Napoleon III, 1 Freud, Wit and its relation to the Unconscious, p. 52.
but also from the form into which the witticism is cast. The bridge of the witticism is the word 'vol,' and, so far as I can make out, Freud would argue that by means of this bridge we pass easily, 'economically,' from the idea of flight to the idea of theft. But examination of our behaviour does not bear out this argument. The witticism was made for people accustomed to French as their native tongue, that is to say, for people speaking and hearing French words almost automatically. Now the fact is that adults, in ordinary conversation and still more in reading, normally hear words of their own language without really listening to them. They have got the habit so firmly set of making straight for the meaning of the words, and fixing their attention there, that the sound of the words practically escapes attention. The sound is acted on, but not attended to. And if, for any reason, we deliberately attend to the sound of the wordsif, for instance, we are phonetists, like Higgins in Mr Shaw's Pygmalion—it is probable that we shall allow the meaning of a great many of the words to escape attention in the same way. To attend to both sound and meaning at approximately the same time requires effort, sometimes considerable effort, as we quickly discover when we are listening to a conversation in a foreign language in which we are not very fluent. And the characteristic thing about the play on words, as about all forms of wit which depend in some measure on the sound of words, is just that we must attend, at approximately the same time, to both sound and meaning. It is not enough to attend to sound alone, since, manifestly, wit must always be understood.
It would seem, therefore, that the exact oppposite of what Freud maintains is true of wit; instead of economising psychic expenditure it demands additional psychic expenditure. And this is in accord with the fact, sufficiently notorious, that wit is unusually fatiguing. There is no more exhausting companion than the novelist who is always scintillating.
Freud has confused brevity with economy. Wit must be brief and 'to the point,' not in order that we shall be saved labour, but, on the contrary, in order that our labour may be increased. The witticism is compressed in order that it may be rather more difficult to understand. Ordinary speech has regular ways, to which we grow accustomed, of marking the connections between ideas. In wit these connections are not regularly marked, and we have to make good the deficiency ourselves. Strictly, that is equivalent to obstructing our behaviour, and therefore a cause, not of pleasure but quite definitely of displeasure. And if the compression is so severe that the witticism fails to be understood in the end, it remains a source of displeasure. But the final understanding of
the witticism saves us from this fate. Pleasure and displeasure are complementary feeling elements; without displeasure there is no pleasure; and pleasure increases in intensity in proportion to the amount of displeasure (the result of obstruction) it has to overcome, provided it does overcome it. If the understanding of a witticism, within a reasonable period of time-undue delay allows interest to be dispersed-enables us to satisfy some sexual or hostile impulse, then the more effort we have had to put forth in the process to get over obstructions, the greater will be the feeling of pleasure in the total behaviour. But pleasure comes from effort, not from the economy of it.