Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, by Sigmund Freud
1905, 238 pp
Sigmund Freud must be the only human being ever to have composed entire books both on the subject of eel genitalia and on wisecracks overheard at Viennese dinner parties. Fortunately for us all, I am here reviewing the latter.
Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious begins with some ninety pages of really dreadful jokes crumbling under Freud's dissection. At first I considered this a failure of translation: humor is notoriously difficult to get through a language barrier. But then Freud explained a few American jokes, and they were desperate stuff. Freud himself explained that jokes depend on immediacy, but P.G. Wodehouse had no trouble being the funniest person who has ever lived in 1905, so eventually, after ninety painstaking pages, I reached the conclusion that Sigmund Freud would apparently laugh at anything.
Out of this dreadful business comes Freud's observation that jokes depend on a few basic principles: representation (as of one thing by another thing), unification of different things, displacement, and the replacement of a thing-association with a word-association. He draws a distinction between verbal and conceptual jokes, and directs his attention (and the reader's interest) to the latter, since they are a far more mysterious process.
The section which follows is certainly the most stimulating of the book. Freud's central argument is that purposeful, conceptual jokes are conducted to circumvent obstacles presented by civilization. In this sense, there are two general varieties: the sexual and the hostile. Frequent readers of Freud will be unsurprised by these designations. In both occasions, there is some obstacle (criticism, taboos against childish behavior, sexual repression, the protection of power, etc) which is restricting pleasure. This obstacle protects the object of the joke, so a third party is enlisted to get around it: the person to whom the joke is told. That person is essentially bribed with a discharge of their own repressed pleasure into being an ally of the joke-maker. Jokes further have the property of connecting a thought with a pleasurable impression, and of protecting thoughts from open criticism, both of which are essentially subversive acts. All of these purposes are (surprise!) a reflection of the desire to return to the infantile state, before pleasure was blocked off by civilized society, and when all things had economy of expenditure of energy. Therefore all aspects of the phenomenon of humor feature some sort of economy: jokes are the economy of expenditure on inhibitions, comic perception is economy of expenditure on ideation, and humor is economy of expenditure on feeling.
Of course, Freud builds his case in a methodical, patient manner which makes his conclusions much more logical and fully-formed than my crude summary. His ideas here are interesting and provocative, though the reader must go to a lot of trouble to find them. Freud tends to get lost in the vast, uninhabitable wilderness of his own bizarre phraseology, and the seventy pages which follow the second section are truly miserable. His lengthy ruminations on different weights of "psychical expenditure" and the course of "psychogenesis" probably seemed groundbreaking in 1905, but suffer from a century of scientific scrutiny and the development of clinical psychology and do not emerge the better. Instead his terms seem as opaque as they are fanciful and old-fashioned. They tend too often to obscure an important point or to distract the reader into puzzling out how on earth one peculiar thought is meant to follow logically from the last. Freud's initial examination of the technique of jokes is hardly exhaustive or (pardon the word) scientific, nor are his conclusions when he speaks about humor and the comic in general particularly convincing. But if all the abstruse form is stripped away, and the argument taken as a whole (as indeed it builds itself, step-by-step, into an interconnected whole) quite a few fascinating ideas emerge which are certainly worth consideration.