Wit and its relation to the unconscious/II
The Technique of Wit
WE follow the beckoning of chance and take up as our first example of wit one which has already come to our notice in the previous chapter.
In that part of the Reisebilder entitled “Die Bäder von Lucca,” Heine introduces the precious character, Hirsch-Hyacinth, the Hamburg lottery agent and curer of corns, who, boasting to the poet of his relationship with the rich Baron Rothschild, ends thus: “And as true as I pray that the Lord may grant me all good things I sat next to Solomon Rothschild, who treated me just as if I were his equal, quite famillionaire.”
It is by means of this excellent and very funny example that Heymans and Lipps have illustrated the origin of the comic effect of wit from the succession of “confusion and clearness.” However, we shall pass over this question and put to ourselves the following inquiry: What is it that causes the speech of Hirsch-Hyacinth to become witty? It can be only one of two things; either it is the thought expressed in the sentence which carries in itself the character of the witticism; or the witticism adheres to the mode of expression which clothes the thought. On whichever side the nature of the wit may lie, there we shall follow it farther and endeavor to elucidate it.
In general a thought may be expressed in different forms of speech—that is, in different words—which may repeat it in its original accuracy. In the speech of Hirsch-Hyacinth we have before us a definite form of thought expressed which seems to us especially peculiar and not very readily comprehensible. Let us attempt to express as exactly as is possible the same thought in other words. Lipps, indeed, has already done this and has thus, to some degree, elucidated the meaning of the poet. He says (p. 87), “We understand that Heine wishes to say that the reception was on a familiar basis, that is, that it was of the friendly sort.” We change nothing in the sense when we assume a different interpretation which perhaps fits better into the speech of Hirsch-Hyacinth: “Rothschild treated me quite as his equal, in a very familiar way; that is, as far as this can be done by a millionaire.” We would only add, “The condescension of a rich man always carries something embarrassing for the one experiencing it.”
Whether we shall remain content with this or with another equivalent formulation of the thought, we can see that the question which we have put to ourselves is already answered. The character of the wit in this example does not adhere to the thought. It is a correct and ingenious remark that Heine puts into the mouth of Hirsch-Hyacinth—a remark of indubitable bitterness, as is easily understood in the case of the poor man confronted with so much wealth; but we should not care to call it witty. Now if any one who cannot forget the poet’s meaning in the interpretation should insist that the thought in itself is also witty, we can refer him to the definite fact that the witty character is lost in the interpretation. It is true that Hirsch-Hyacinth’s speech made us laugh loudly, but though Lipps’s or our own accurate rendering may please us and cause us to reflect, yet it cannot make us laugh.
But if the witty character of our example does not belong to the thought, then it must be sought for in the form of expression in the wording. We have only to study the peculiarity of this mode of expression to realize what one may term word- or form-technique. Also we may discover the things that are intimately related to the very nature of wit, since the character as well as the effect of wit disappears when one set of expressions is changed for others. At all events we are in full accord with our authors when we put so much value upon the verbal form of the wit. Thus K. Fischer (p. 72) says: “It is, in the first place, the naked form which is responsible for the perception of wit, and one is reminded of a saying of Jean Paul’s which affirms and proves this nature of wit in the same expression. ‘Thus the mere position conquers, be it that of warriors or of sentences.’”
Formation of Mixed Words
Now wherein lies the “technique” of this wit? What has occurred to the thought, in our own conception, that it became changed into wit and caused us to laugh heartily? The comparison of our conception with the text of the poet teaches us that two processes took place. In the first place there occurred an important abbreviation. In order to express fully the thought contained in the witticism we had to append to the words “Rothschild treated me just as an equal, on a familiar basis,” an additional sentence which in its briefest form reads: i.e., so far as a millionaire can do this. Even then we feel the necessity of an additional explanatory sentence. The poet expresses it in terser terms as follows: “Rothschild treated me just like an equal, quite famillionaire." The entire restriction, which the second sentence imposes on the first thus verifying the familiar treatment, has been lost in the jest. But it has not been so entirely lost as not to leave a substitute from which it can be reconstructed. A second change has also taken place. The word “familiar” in the witless expression of the thought has been transformed into “famillionaire” in the text of the wit, and there is no doubt that the witty character and ludicrous effect of the joke depends directly upon this word-formation. The newly formed word is identical in its first part with the word “familiar” of the first sentence, and its terminal syllables correspond to the word “millionaire” of the second sentence. In this manner it puts us in a position to conjecture the second sentence which was omitted in the text of the wit. It may be described as a composite of two constituents “familiar” and “millionaire,” and one is tempted to depict its origin from the two words graphically.
F A M I L I A R
- M I L L I O N A I R E
F A M I L L I O N A I R E
The process, then, which has carried the thought into the witticism can be represented in the following manner, which, although at first rather fantastic, nevertheless furnishes exactly the actual existing result: “Rothschild treated me quite familiarly, i.e., as well as a millionaire can do that sort of thing.”
Now imagine that a compressing force is acting upon these sentences and assume that for some reason or other the second sentence is of lesser resistance. It is accordingly forced toward the vanishing point, but its important component, the word “millionaire,” which strives against the compressing power, is pushed, as it were, into the first sentence and becomes fused with the very similar element, the word “familiar” of this sentence. It is just this possibility, provided by chance to save the essential part of the second sentence, which favors the disappearance of the other less important components. The jest then takes shape in this manner: “Rothschild treated me in a very famillionaire [(=mili) (=aire)] way.”
Apart from such a compressing force, which is really unknown to us, we may describe the origin of the wit-formation, that is, the technique of the wit in this case, as a condensation with substitutive formation. In our example the substitutive formation consists in the formation of a mixed word. This fused word “famillionaire,” incomprehensible in itself but instantly understood in its context and recognized as senseful, is now the carrier of the mirth-provoking stimulus of the jest, whose mechanism, to be sure, is in no way clearer to us through the discovery of the technique. To what extent can a linguistic process of condensation with substitutive formation produce pleasure through a fused word and force us to laugh? We make note of the fact that this is a different problem, the treatment of which we can postpone until we shall find access to it later. For the present we shall continue to busy ourselves with the technique of wit.
Our expectation that the technique of wit cannot be considered an indifferent factor in the examination of the nature of wit prompts us to inquire next whether there are other examples of wit formed like Heine’s “famillionaire.” Not many of these exist, but enough to constitute a small group which may be characterized as the blend-word formations or fusions. Heine himself has produced a second witticism from the word “millionaire” by copying himself, as it were, when he speaks of a “millionarr” (Ideen, Chap. XIV). This is a visible condensation of “millionaire” and “narr” (fool) and, like the first example, expresses a suppressed bythought. Other examples of a similar nature are as follows.
During the war between Turkey and the Balkan States, in 1912, Punch depicted the part played by Rumania by representing the latter as a highwayman holding up the members of the Balkan alliance. The picture was entitled: Kleptorumania. Here the word is a fusion of Kleptomania and Rumania and may be represented as follows:
K L E P T O M A N I A
- R U M A N I A
K L E P T O R U M A N I A
A naughty jest of Europe has rebaptized a former potentate, Leopold, into Cleopold because of his relation to a lady surnamed Cleo. This is a clear form of condensation which by the addition of a single letter forever vividly preserves a scandalous allusion.
In an excellent chapter on this same theme Brill gives the following example.
“De Quincey once remarked that old persons are apt to fall into ‘anecdotage.’” The word Anecdotage, though in itself incomprehensible, can be readily analyzed to show its original full sense; and on analysis we find that it is made up of two words, anecdote and dotage. That is, instead of saying that old persons are apt to fall into dotage and that old persons are fond of telling anecdotes, De Quincey fuses the two words into a neologism, anecdotage, and thus simultaneously expresses both ideas. The technique, therefore, lies in the fusion of the two words. Such a fusion of words is called condensation. Condensation is a substitutive formation, i.e., instead of anecdote and dotage we have anecdotage.
“In a short story which I have recently read, one of the characters, a ‘sport,’ speaks of the Christmas season as the alcoholidays. By reduction it can be easily seen that we have here a compound word, a combination of alcohol and holidays which can be graphically represented as follows:
a l c o H O L
- H O L i d a y s
A L C O H O L I D A Y S
“Here the condensation expresses the idea that holidays are conducive to alcoholic indulgence. In other words, we have here a fused word, which, though strange in appearance, can be easily understood in its proper context. The witticism may be described as a condensation with substitution.
“The same mechanism is found in the following: A dramatic critic, summarizing three to the effect that most plays now produced in New York City are violently emotional and hysterical, remarks: ‘Thespis has taken up his home in Dramatteawan.’ The last word is a condensation of drama and Matteawan. The substitution not only expressed the critic’s idea that most of the plays at present produced in New York are violent, emotional and hysterical, that is insane, but it also contains a clever allusion to the nature of the problem presented by most of these plays. Matteawan is a state hospital for criminal insane. Most of the plays are not only insane, but also criminal since they treat of murders, divorces, robberies, scandals, etc.”
When Flaubert published his famous romance Salammbo, which treats of life in ancient Carthage, it was scoffingly referred to by Sainte-Beuve as Carthaginoiserie on account of its tedious detailed descriptions.
During a conversation with a lady I unintentionally furnished the material for a jest. I spoke to her about the great merits of an investigator whom I considered unjustly ignored. She remarked, “But the man really deserves a monument.” “Perhaps he will get one some day,” I answered, “but at the moment his success is cess is very limited.” “Monument” and “moment” are contrasts. The lady then united these contrasts and said: “Well, let us wish him a monumentary success.”
If at this stage the reader should become displeased with a viewpoint which threatens to destroy his pleasure in wit without explaining the source of this pleasure I must beg him to be patient for a while, because we are now confronted with the technique of wit, the examination of which promises many revelations if only we enter into it far enough. Besides the analysis of the examples thus far cited, which show simply a process of condensation, there are others in which the changed expressions manifest themselves in other ways.
Condensation with Modification and Substitution
The following witticisms of Mr. N. will serve as illustrations.
“I was driving with him tête-à-bête.” Nothing is simpler than the reduction of this jest. Evidently it can only mean: I was driving tête-à-tête with Mr. X. and X. is a stupid ass (beast).
Neither of these two sentences is witty nor is there any wit if one combines them into this one: “I was out driving tête-à-tête with that stupid ass (beast).” The wit appears when the words “stupid ass” are omitted and when, as a substitute for them, the first “t” of the second “tête” is changed to “b.” This slight modification brings back to expression the suppressed “bête.” The technique of this group of witticisms may be described as “condensation with a slight modification.” And it would seem that the more insignificant the substitutive modification, the better is the wit.
Quite similar, although not without its complications, is the technique of another form of witticism. During a discussion about a person in whom there was something to praise and much to criticise, N. remarked: “Yes, vanity is one of his four heels of Achilles.” This modification consists in the fact that instead of the one vulnerable heel which was attributed to Achilles we have here four heels. Four heels means four feet and that number is only found on animals. The two thoughts condensed in the witticism are as follows: Except for his vanity he is an admirable fellow; still I do not care for him, for he is more of an animal than a human being.
A similar but simpler joke I heard statu nascendi in a family circle. One of two brothers who were attending college was an excellent scholar while the other was only an average student. It so happened that the model boy had a setback in school. The mother discussed this matter and expressed her fear lest this event be the beginning of a lasting deterioration. The boy who until then had been overshadowed by his brother willingly grasped this opportunity to remark: “Yes, Carl is going backward on all-fours.”
Here the modification consists in a small addition as an assurance that in his judgment his brother is going backward. This modification represents and takes the place of a passionate plea for his own cause which may be expressed as follows: After all, you must not think that he is so much cleverer than I am simply because he has more success in school. He is really a stupid ass, i.e., much more stupid than I am.
A good illustration of condensation with slight modification is furnished by a well-known witty jest of Mr. N., who remarked about a character in public life that he had a “great future behind him.” The butt of this joke was a young man whose ancestry, rearing, and personal qualities seemed to destine him for the leadership of a great party and the attainment of political power at its head. But times changed, the party became politically incompetent, and it could readily be foreseen that the man who was predestined to become its leader would come to nothing. The briefest reduction of the meaning by which one could replace this joke would be: The man has had a great future before him, but that is now past. Instead of “has had” and the appended afterthought there is a small change in the main sentence in which “before” is replaced by its opposite “behind.”
Mr. N. made use of almost the same modification in the case of the nobleman who was appointed minister of agriculture for no other reason than that he was interested in agriculture. Public opinion had an opportunity to find out that he was the most incompetent man who had ever been intrusted with this office. When, however, he had relinquished his portfolio and had withdrawn to his agricultural pursuits Mr. N. said of him: “Like Cincinnatus of Old he has returned to his place in front of the plough.”
That Roman, who was likewise called to his office from his farm, returned to his place behind the plough. In those days, just as in the present time, in front of the plough walked—the ox.
We could easily increase these examples by many others, but I am of the opinion that we are in need of no more cases in order to grasp thoroughly the character of the technique of this second group—condensation with modification. If we now compare the second group with the first, the technique of which consisted in condensation with a mixed word-formation, we readily see that the differences are not vital and that the lines of demarcation are indistinct. The mixed word-formation, like the modification, became subordinated to the idea of substitutive formation, and if we desire we can also describe the mixed word-formation as a modification of the parent word through the second elements.
We may make our first pause here and ask ourselves with what known factor in the literature of wit our first result, either in whole or in part, coincides. It obviously agrees with the factor of brevity which Jean Paul calls the soul of wit (supra, p. 11). But brevity alone is not wit or every laconism would be witty. The brevity of wit must be of a special kind. We recall that Lipps has attempted to describe more fully the peculiarity of the brevity of wit (v. s., p. 11). Here our investigation started and demonstrated that the brevity of wit is often the result of a special process which has left a second trace—the substitutive formation—in the wording of the wit. By applying the process of reduction, which aims to cause a retrogression in the peculiar process of condensation, we find also that wit depends only upon the verbal expression which was produced by the process of condensation. Naturally our entire interest now centers upon this peculiar and hitherto almost neglected mechanism. Furthermore, we cannot yet comprehend how it can give origin to all that is valuable in wit; namely, the resultant pleasure.
Condensation in Dreams
Have processes similar to those here described as the technique of wit already been noted in another sphere of our psychic life? To be sure, in one apparently remote sphere. In 1900 I published a book which, as indicated by its title (The Interpretation of Dreams), makes the attempt to explain the riddle of the dream and to trace the dream to normal psychic operations. I had occasion to contrast there the manifest and often peculiar dream-content with the latent but altogether real thoughts of the dream from which it originated, and I took up the investigation of the processes which make the dream from the latent dream-thought. I also investigated the psychological forces which participated in this transposition. The sum of the transforming processes I designated as the dream-work and, as a part of this dream-work, I described the process of condensation. This process has a striking similarity to the technique of wit and, like the latter, it leads to abbreviations and brings about substitutive formations of like character.
From recollections of his own dreams the reader will be familiar with the compositions of persons and objects that appear in them; indeed, the dream makes similar compositions of words which can then be reduced by analysis (e.g., Autodidasker—Autodidakt and Lasker). On other occasions and even much more frequently, the condensation work of the dream produces no compositions, but pictures which closely resemble an object or person up to a certain addition or variation which comes from another source, like the modifications in the witticisms of Mr. N. We cannot doubt that in this case, as in the other, we deal with a similar psychic process which is recognizable by identical results. Such a far-reaching analogy between wit-technique and dream-work will surely arouse our interest in the former and stimulate our expectation of finding some explanation of wit from a comparison with the dream. We forbear, however, to enter upon this work by bearing in mind that we have investigated the technique of wit in only a very small number of witty jests, so that we cannot be certain that the analogy, the workings of which we wish to explore, will hold good. Hence we turn away from the comparison with the dream and again take up the technique of wit, leaving, however, at this place of our investigation a visible thread, as it were, which later we shall take up again.
Wit Formed by Word-division
The next point we shall discuss is whether the process of condensation with substitutive formation is demonstrable in all witticisms so that it may be designated as a universal character of the technique of wit. I recall a joke which has clung to my mind through certain peculiar circumstances. One of the great teachers of my youth, whom we considered unable to appreciate a joke—he had never told us a single joke of his own—came into the Institute laughing. With an unwonted readiness he explained the cause of his good humor. “I have read an excellent joke,” he said. “A young man who claimed to be a relative of the great J. J. Rousseau, and who bore his name, was introduced into a Parisian drawing-room. It should be added that he was decidedly red-headed. He behaved in such an awkward manner that the hostess ventured this criticism to the gentleman who had introduced him—‘Vous m’avez fait connaître un jeune homme roux et sot, mais non pas un Rousseau.’”
At this point our teacher started to laugh again. According to the nomenclature of our authors this is sound-wit and a poor kind at that, since it plays with a proper name.
But what is the technique of this wit? It is quite clear that the character which we had perhaps hoped to demonstrate universally leaves us in the lurch in the first new example. Here there is no omission and scarcely an abbreviation. In the witticism the lady expresses almost everything that we can ascribe to the thoughts. “You have made me look forward to meeting a relative of J. J. Rousseau. I expected that he was perhaps even mentally related to him. Imagine my surprise to find this red-haired foolish boy, a roux et sot.” To be sure, I was able to add and insert something, but this attempt at reduction does not annul the wit. It remains fixed and attached to the sound similarity of Rousseau [roux sot]. This proves that condensation with substitution plays no part in the production of this witticism.
With what else do we have to deal? New attempts at reduction taught me that the joke will persistently continue until the name Rousseau is replaced by another. If, e.g., I substitute the name Racine for it I find that although the lady’s criticism is just as feasible as before it immediately loses every trace of wit. Now I know where I can look for the technique of this joke although I still hesitate to formulate it. I shall make the following attempt: The technique of the witticism lies in the fact that one and the same word—the name—is used in a twofold application, once as a whole and once divided into its syllables like a charade.
I can mention a few examples of identical technique. A witticism of this sort was utilized by an Italian lady to avenge a tactless remark made to her by the first Napoleon. Pointing to her compatriots at a court ball he said: “Tutti gli Italian danzano si male” (all Italians dance so badly). To which she quickly replied: “ Non tutti, ma buona parte” (Not all, but a great many)—Buona parte [=Buonaparte]. Brill reports still another example in which the wit depends on the twofold application of a name: “Hood once remarked that he had to be a lively Hood for a livelihood.”
At one time when Antigone was produced in Berlin a critic found that the presentation entirely lacked the character of antiquity. The wits of Berlin incorporated this criticism in the following manner: “Antique? Oh, nay” (Th. Vischer and K. Fischer).
Manifold Application of the Same Material
In these examples, which will suffice for this species of wit, the technique is the same. A name is made use of twice; first, as a whole, and then divided into its syllables—and in their divided state the syllables yield a different meaning. The manifold application of the same word, once as a whole and then as the component syllables into which it divides itself, was the first case that came to our attention in which technique deviated from that of condensation. Upon brief reflection, however, we must divine from the abundance of examples that come to us that the newly discovered technique can hardly be limited to this single means. Obviously there are any number of hitherto unobserved possibilities for one to utilize the same word or the same material of words in manifold application in one sentence. May not all these possibilities furnish technical means for wit? It would seem so, judging by the following examples.
“Two witty statesmen, X and Y, met at a dinner. X, acting as toastmaster, introduced Y as follows: ‘My friend, Y, is a very wonderful man. All you have to do is to open his mouth, put in a dinner, and a speech appears, etc.’ Responding to the speaker, Y said: ‘My friend, the toastmaster, told you what a wonderful man I am, that all you have to do is to open my mouth, put in a dinner, and a speech appears. Now let me tell you what a wonderful man he is. All you have to do is open anybody’s mouth, put in his speech, and the dinner appears.’”
In examples of this sort, one can use the same material of words and simply change slightly their order. The slighter the change, the more one gets the impression that different sense was expressed with the same words, the better is the technical means of wit. And how simple are the means of its production! “Put in a dinner and a speech appears—put in a speech and a dinner appears.” This is really nothing but an exchange of places of these two phrases whereby what was said of Y becomes differentiated from what is said of X. To be sure, this is not the whole technique of the joke.
Great latitude is afforded the technique of wit if one so extends the “manifold application of the same material” that the word—or the words—upon which the wit depends may be used first unchanged and then with a slight modification. An example is another joke of Mr. N. He heard a gentleman, who himself was born a Jew, utter a malicious statement about Jewish character. “Mr. Councilor,” said he, “I am familiar with your antesemitism, but your antisemitism is new to me.”
Here only one single letter is changed, the modification of which could hardly be noticed in careless pronunciation. This example reminds one of the other modification jokes of Mr. N., but it differs from them in lacking the condensation. Everything that was to be said has been told in the joke. “I know that you yourself were formerly a Jew, therefore I am surprised that you should rail against the Jew.”
An excellent example of such wit modification is also the familiar exclamation: “Traduttore—Traditore.”
The similarity between the two words, almost approaching identity, results in a very impressive representation of the inevitability by which a translator becomes a transgressor—in the eyes of the author.
The manifoldness of slight modifications possible in these jokes is so great that none is quite similar to the other. Here is a joke which is supposed to have arisen at an examination for the degree of law. The candidate was translating a passage from the Corpus juris, “Labeo ait.” “‘I fall (fail),’ says he,” volunteered the candidate. “‘You fall (fail),’ says I,” replied the examiner and the examination ended. Whoever mistakes the name of the celebrated Jurist for a word to which he attaches a false meaning certainly deserves nothing better. But the technique of the witticism lies in the fact that the examiner used almost the same words in punishing the applicant which the latter used to prove his ignorance. Besides, the joke is an example of repartee whose technique, as we shall see, is closely allied to the one just mentioned.
Words are plastic and may be moulded into almost any shape. There are some words which have lost their true original meaning in certain usages which they still enjoy in other applications. In one of Lichtenberg’s jokes just those conditions have been sought for in which the nuances of the wordings have removed their basic meaning.
“How goes it?” asked the blind of the lame one. “As you see,” replied the lame one to the blind.
Language is replete with words which taken in one sense are full of meaning and in another are colorless. There may be two different derivatives from the same root, one of which may develop into a word with a full meaning while the other may become a colorless suffix or prefix, and yet both may have the same sound. The similarity of sound between a word having full meaning and one whose meaning is colorless may also be accidental. In both cases the technique of wit can make use of such relationship of the speech material. The following examples illustrate some of these points.
“Do you call a man kind who remits nothing to his family while away?” asked an actor. “Call that kindness?” “Yes, unremitting kindness,” was the reply of Douglas Jerrold. The wit here depends on the first syllable un of the word unremitting. Un is usually a prefix denoting “not,” but by adding it to “remitting” a new relationship is unexpectedly established which changes the meaning of the context. “An undertaker is one who always carries out what he undertakes.” The striking character upon which the wit here depends is the manifold application of the words undertaker and carry out. Undertaker commonly denotes one who manages funerals. Only when taken in this sense and using the words carry out literally is the sentence witty. The wit lies in the manifold application of the same words.
Double Meaning and Play on Words
If we delve more deeply into the variety of “manifold application” of the same word we suddenly notice that we are confronted with forms of “double meaning” or “plays on words” which have been known a long time and which are universally acknowledged as belonging to the technique of wit. Then why have we bothered our brains about discovering something new when we could just as well have gleaned it from the most superficial treatise on wit? We can say in self-defense only that we are presenting another side of the same phenomena of verbal expressions. What the authors call the “playful” character of wit we treat from the point of view of “manifold application.”
Further examples of manifold application which may also be designated under a new and third group, the class of double meaning, may be divided into subdivisions. These, to be sure, are not essentially differentiated from one another any more than the whole third group from the second. In the first place we have:
(a) Cases of double meaning of a name and its verbal significance: e.g., “Discharge thyself of our company, Pistol” (Henry IV, Act II). “For Suffolk’s duke may he suffocate” (Henry VI, Act I). Heine says, “Here in Hamburg rules not the rascally Macbeth, but Banko (Banquo).”
In those cases where the unchanged name cannot be used,—one might say “misused,”—one can get a double meaning by means of familiar slight modifications: “Why have the French rejected Lohengrin?” was a question asked some time ago. The answer was, “On Elsa’s (Alsace) account.”
(b) Cases where a double meaning is obtained by using a word which has both a verbal and metaphoric sense furnish an abundant source for the technique of wit. A medical colleague, who was well known for his wit, once said to Arthur Schnitzler, the writer: “I am not at all surprised that you became a great poet. Your father had already held up the mirror to his contemporaries.” The mirror used by the father of the writer, the famous Dr. Schnitzler, was the laryngoscope. According to the well-known quotation from Hamlet (Act III, Scene 2), the object of the play as well as the writer who creates it is to “hold, as ’t were, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
(c) Cases of actual double meaning or play on words—the ideal case, as it were, of manifold application. Here no violence is done to the word. It is not torn into syllables. It need not undergo any modifications. It need not exchange its own particular sphere, say as a proper name, for another. Thanks to certain circumstances it can express two meanings just as it stands in the structure of the sentence. Many examples are at our disposal.
One of the first royal acts of the last Napoleon was, as is well known, the confiscation of the estates belonging to the House of Orleans. “C’est le premier vol de l’aigle” was an excellent play on words current at that time. “Vol” means both flight and theft. Louis XV wished to test the wit of one of his courtiers whose talent in that direction he had heard about. He seized his first opportunity to command the cavalier to concoct a joke at his (the king’s) expense. He wanted to be the “subject” of the witticism. The courtier answered him with the clever bonmot, “Le roi n’est pas sujet.” “Subject” also means “vassal.” (Taken from K. Fischer.)
A physician, leaving the sick-bed of a wife, whose husband accompanied him, exclaimed doubtfully: “I do not like her looks.” “I have not liked her looks for a long time,” was the quick rejoinder of the husband. The physician, of course, referred to the condition of the wife, but he expressed his apprehension about the patient in such words as to afford the husband the means of utilizing them to assert his conjugal aversion. Concerning a satirical comedy Heine remarked: “This satire would not have been so biting had the author of it had more to bite.” This jest is a better example of metaphoric and common double meaning than of real play upon words, but at present we are not concerned about such strict lines of demarcation. Charles Matthews, the elder, one of England’s greatest actors, was asked what he was going to do with his son (the young man was destined for architecture). “Why” answered the comedian, “he is going to draw houses like his father.” Foote once asked a man why he forever sang one tune. “Because it haunts me,” replied the man. “No wonder,” said Foote, “you are continually murdering it.” Said the Dyspeptic Philosopher: “One swallow doesn’t make a summer, nor quench the thirst.”
A gentleman had shown much ingenuity in evading a notorious borrower whom he had sent away many times with the request to call when he was “in.” One day, however, the borrower eluded the servant at the door and cornered his victim.
“Ah,” said the host, seeing there was no way out of it, “at last I am in.”
“No,” returned the borrower in anticipation, “at last I am in and you are out.”
Heine said in the Harzreise: “I cannot recall at the moment the names of all the students, and among the professors there are some who have no name as yet.”
Dr. Johnson said of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which was poor in purse, but prolific in the distribution of its degrees: “Let it persevere in its present plan and it may become rich by degrees.” Here the wit depends more on the manifold application than on the play on words.
The keen-witted writer, Horatio Winslow, sums up the only too-familiar history of some American families as follows:
A TALE OF TWO AMERICAN GENERATIONS
The last couplet, gold cure, refers to the familiar cure for alcoholism. This wit is an excellent example of unification—everything is, as it were, of gold. The manifold meanings of the adjective which do not very strikingly contrast with one another make possible this “manifold application.”
Another play on words will facilitate the transition to a new subdivision of the technique of double meaning. The witty colleag ue who was responsible for the joke mentioned above is likewise responsible for this joke, current during the trial of Dreyfus:
“This girl reminds me of Dreyfus. The army does not believe in her innocence.”
The word innocence, whose double meaning furnishes the basis of the witticism, has in one connection the customary meaning which is the opposite of guilt or transgression, while in the other connection it has a sexual sense, the opposite of which is sexual experience. There are very many such examples of double meaning and in each one the point of the joke refers especially to a sexual sense. The group could be designated as “ambiguous.” A good example to illustrate this is the story told of a wealthy but elderly gentleman who showed his devotion to a young actress by many lavish gifts. Being a respectable girl she took the first opportunity to discourage his attentions by telling him that her heart was already given to another man. “I never aspired as high as that,” was his polite answer.
If one compares this example of double-meaning-with-ambiguity with other examples one cannot help noticing a difference which is not altogether inconsequential to the technique. In the joke about “innocence” one meaning of the word is just as good for our understanding of it as the other. One can really not decide whether the sexual or non-sexual significance of the word is more applicable and more familiar. But it is different with the other example mentioned. Here the final sense of the words, “I never aspired as high as that,” is by far more obtrusive and covers and conceals, as it were, the sexual sense which could easily escape the unsuspecting person. In sharp contrast to this let us examine another example of double meaning in which there is no attempt made to veil its sexual significance—e.g., Heine’s characterization of a complaisant lady: “She could pass (abschlagen) nothing except her water.” It sounds like an obscene joke and the wit in it is scarcely noticed. But the peculiarity that both senses of the double meaning are not equally manifested can occur also in witticisms without sexual reference providing that one sense is more common or that it is preferred on account of its connection with the other parts of the sentence (e.g., c’est le premier vol de l’aigle). All these examples I propose to call double meaning with allusion.
We have by this time become familiar with such a large number of different techniques of wit that I am afraid we may lose sight of them. Let us, therefore, attempt to make a summary.
(a) with mixed word-formation.
(b) with modification.
II. THE APPLICATION OF THE SAME MATERIAL
(c) The whole and the part.
(d) Change of order.
(e) Slight modification.
(f) The same words used in their full or colorless sense.
III. DOUBLE MEANING
(g) Name and verbal significance.
(h) Metaphorical and verbal meaning.
(i) True double meaning (play on words).
(j) Ambiguous meaning.
(k) Double meaning with allusion.
This variety causes confusion. It might vex us because we have devoted so much time to the consideration of the technical means of wit, and the stress laid on the forms might possibly arouse our suspicions that we are overvaluing their importance so far as the knowledge of the nature of wit is concerned. But this conjecture is met by the one irrefutable fact: namely, that each time the wit disappears as soon as we remove the effect that was brought to expression by these techniques. We are thus directed to search for the unity in this variety. It must be possible to bring all these techniques under one head. As we have remarked before, it is not difficult to unite the second and third groups, for the double meaning, the play on words, is nothing but the ideal case of utilizing the same material. The latter is here apparently the more comprehensive conception. The examples of dividing, changing the order of the same material, manifold application with slight modifications (c, d, e)—all these could, without difficulty, be subordinated under the conception of double meaning. But what community exists between the technique of the first group—condensation with substitutive formation—and the two other groups—manifold application of the same material?
The Tendency to Economy
It seems to me that this agreement is very simple and clear. The application of the same material is only a special case of condensation and the play on words is nothing but a condensation without substitutive formation. Condensation thus remains as the chief category. A compressing or—to be more exact—an economic tendency controls all these techniques. As Prince Hamlet says: “Thrift, Horatio, thrift.” It seems to be all a matter of economy.
Let us examine this economy in individual cases. “C’est le premier vol de l’aigle.” That is, the first flight of the eagle. Certainly, but it is a depredatious flight. Luckily for the gist of this joke “vol” signifies flight as well as depredation. Has nothing been condensed and economized by this? Certainly, the entire second thought, and it was dropped without any substitution. The double sense of the word “vol” makes such substitution superfluous, or what is just as correct: The word “vol” contains the substitution for the repressed thought without the necessity of supplementing or varying the first sentence. Therein consists the benefit of the double meaning.
Another example: Gold mine,—gold spoon, the enormous economy of expression the single word “gold” produces. It really tells the history of two generations in the life of some American families. The father made his fortune through hard toiling in the gold fields during the early pioneer days. The son was born with a golden spoon in his mouth; having been brought up as the son of a wealthy man, he becomes a chronic alcoholic and has to take the gold cure.
Thus there is no doubt that the condensation in these examples produces economy and we shall demonstrate that the same is true in all cases. Where is the economy in such jokes as “Rousseau—roux et sot,” or “Antigone—antique-oh-nay” in which we first failed to find the prime factors in causing us to establish the technique of the manifold application of the same material? In these cases condensation will naturally not cover the ground, but when we exchange it for the broader conception of “economy” we find no difficulty. What we save in such examples as those just given is quite obvious. We save ourselves the trouble of making a criticism, of forming a judgment. Both are contained in the names. The same is true in the “livelihood” example and the others, thus far analyzed. Where one does not save much is in the example of “I am in and you are out,” at least the wording of a new answer is saved. The wording of the address, “I am in,” serves also for the answer. It is little, but in this little lies the wit. The manifold application of the same words in addressing and answering surely comes under the heading of economy. Note how Hamlet sums up the quick succession of the death of his father and the marriage of his mother:
“the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”
But before we accept the “tendency to economize” as the universal character of wit and ask whence it originates, what it signifies, and how it gives origin to the resultant pleasure, we shall concede a doubt which may justly be considered. It may be true that every technique of wit shows the tendency to economize in expression, but the relationship is not reversible. Not every economy in expression or every brevity is witty on that account. We once raised this question when we still hoped to demonstrate the condensation process in every witticism and at that we justly objected by remarking that a laconism is not necessarily wit. Hence it must be a peculiar form of brevity and economy upon which the character of the wit depends, and just as long as we are ignorant of this peculiarity the discovery of the common element in the technique of wit will bring us no nearer a solution. Besides, we have the courage to acknowledge that the economies caused by the technique of wit do not impress us as very much. They remind one of the manner in which many a housewife economizes when when she spends time and money to reach a distant market because the vegetables can there be had a cent cheaper. What does wit save by means of its technique? Instead of putting together a few new words, which, for the most part, could have been accomplished without any effort, it goes to the trouble of searching for the word which comprises both ideas. Indeed, it must often at first transform the expression of one of the ideas into an unusual form until it furnishes an associative connection with the second thought. Would it not have been simpler, easier, and really more economical to express both thoughts as they happen to come even if no agreement in expression results? Is not the economy in verbal expression more than abrogated through the expenditure of intellectual work? And who economized through it, whom does it benefit? We can temporarily circumvent these doubts by leaving them unsolved until later on. Are we really familiar enough with all the forms of techniques of wit? It will surely be safer to gather new examples and submit them to analysis.
Indeed, we have not yet given consideration to one of the largest groups into which the techniques of wit may be divided. In this we have perhaps been influenced by the low estimate in which this form of wit is held. It embraces those jokes which are commonly called “puns.” These are generally counted as the lowest form of wit, perhaps because they are “cheapest” and can be formed with the least effort. They really make the least demands on the technique of expression just as the actual play on words makes the most. Whereas in the latter both meanings find expression in the identical word, and hence usually in a word used only once, in the pun it is enough if two words for both meanings resemble each other through some slight similarity in structure, in rhythmic consonance, in the community of several vowels, or in some other similar manner. The following examples illustrate these points:
“We are now fallen into that critical age wherein censores liberorum are become censores librorum: Lectores, Lictores.”
Professor Cromwell says that Rome in exchanging her religion changed Jupiter to Jew Peter.
It is related that some students wishing to play a trick on Agassiz, the great naturalist, constructed an insect made up of parts taken from different bugs and sent it to him with the question, “What kind of a bug is this?” His answer was “Humbug.”
Puns are especially fond of modifying one of the vowels of the word; e.g., Hevesi (Almanaccando, Reisen in Italien, p. 87) says of an Italian poet who was hostile to the German emperor, but who was, nevertheless, forced to sing his praises in his hexameters, “Since he could not exterminate the Cæsars he at least annihilated the cæsuras.”
From the multitude of puns which are at our disposal it may be of special interest to us to quote a really poor example for which Heine (Book Le Grand, Chapter V) is responsible. After parading for a long time before his lady as an “Indian Prince” the suitor suddenly lays aside his mask and confesses, “Madam, I have lied to you. I have never been in Calcutta any more than that Calcutta roast which I relished yesterday for lunch.” Obviously the fault of this witticism lies in the fact that both words are not merely similar, but identical. The bird which served as a roast for his lunch is called so because it comes from, or at least is supposed to come from, the same city of Calcutta.
K. Fischer has given much attention to this form of wit and insists upon making a sharp distinction between it and the “play on words” (p. 78). “A pun,” he says, “is a bad play on words, for it does not play with the word as a word, but merely as a sound.” The play on words, however, “transfers itself from the sound of the word into the word itself.” On the other hand, he also classifies such jokes as “famillionaire, Antigone (Antique-Oh-nay),” etc., with sound-wit. I see no necessity to follow him in this. In the plays on words, also, the word serves us only as a sound to which this or that meaning attaches itself. Here also usage of language makes no distinction, and when it treats “puns” with disdain but the play on words with a certain respect it seems that these estimations are determined by others as technical viewpoints. One should bear in mind the forms of wit which are referred to as puns. There are persons who have the ability, when they are in a high-spirited mood, to reply with a pun for a long time to every sentence addressed to them. Brill relates that at a gathering some one spoke disparagingly of a certain drama and wound up by saying, “It was so poor that the first act had to be rewritten.” “And now it is rerotten,” added the punster of the gathering.
At all events we can already infer from the controversies about the line of demarcation between puns and play on words that the former cannot aid us in finding an entirely new technique of wit. Even if no claims are made for the pun that it utilizes the manifold application of the same material, the accent, nevertheless, falls upon the rediscovering of the familiar and upon the agreement between both words forming the pun. Thus the latter is only a subspecies of the group which reaches its height in the real play on words.
There are some witticisms, however, whose techniques baffle almost every attempt to classify them under any of the groups so far investigated. It is related that while Heine and the poet Soulié were once chatting together in a Parisian drawing-room, there entered one of those Parisians whom one usually compared to Midas, but not alone on account of their money. He was soon surrounded by a crowd which treated him with the greatest deference. “Look over there,” said Soulié to Heine, “and see how the nineteenth century is worshipping the Golden Calf.” Heine cast one glance upon the object of adoration and replied, as if correcting his friend: “Oh, he must be older than that” (K. Fischer, p. 82).
Wherein lies the technique of this excellent witticism? According to K. Fischer it lies in the play on words. Thus, for example, he says, “the words ‘Golden Calf’ may signify Mammon as well as idol-worship,—in the first case the gold is paramount; in the second case it is the animal picture. It may likewise serve to designate in a rather uncomplimentary way one who has very much money and very little brains.” If we apply the test and take away the expression “Golden Calf” we naturally also abrogate the wit. We then cause Soulié to say, “Just see how the people are thronging about that blockhead only because he is rich.” To be sure, this is no longer witty. Nor would Heine’s answer be possible under these circumstances. But let us remember that it is not at all a matter of Soulié’s witty comparison, but of Heine’s retort, which is surely much more witty. We have then no right to disturb the phrase “the golden calf” which remains as a basis for Heine’s words and the reduction can only be applied to the latter. If we dilate upon the words, “Oh, he must be older than that,” we can only proceed as follows:
“Oh, he is no longer a calf; he is already a full-grown ox.” Heine’s wit is therefore based on the fact that he no longer took the “golden calf” metaphorically, but personally by referring it to the moneyed individual himself. If this double meaning is not already contained in the opinion of Soulié!
Let us see. We believe that we can state that this reduction has not altogether destroyed Heine’s joke, but, on the contrary, it has left its essential element untouched. It reads as if Soulié were now saying, “Just see how the nineteenth century is worshipping the golden calf,” and as if Heine were retorting, “Oh, he is no longer a calf. He is already an ox.” And even in this reduced form it is still a witticism. However, another reduction of Heine’s words is not possible.
It is a pity that this excellent example contains such complicated technical conditions. And as it cannot aid us toward enlightenment we shall leave it to search for another in which we imagine we can perceive a relationship with the former one.
It is a “bath” joke treating of the dread which some Jews are said to have for bathing. We demand no patent of nobility for our examples nor do we make inquiries about their origin. The only qualifications we require are that they should make us laugh and serve our theoretical interest. It is to be remarked that both these demands are satisfied best by Jewish jokes.
Two Jews meet near a bathing establishment. “Have you taken a bath?” asked one. “How is that?” replies the other. “Is one missing?”
When one laughs very heartily about a joke he is not in the best mood to investigate its technique. It is for this reason that some difficulties are experienced in delving into their analyses. “That is a comic misunderstanding” is the thought that comes to us. Yes, but how about the technique of this joke? Obviously the technique lies in the double meaning of the word take. In the first case the word is used in a colorless idiomatic sense, while in the second it is the verb in its full meaning. It is, therefore, a case where the same word is taken now in the “full” and now in the “empty” sense (Group II, f). And if we replace the expression “take a bath” by the simpler equivalent “bathed” the wit disappears. The answer is no longer fitting. The joke, therefore, lies in the expression “take a bath.”
This is quite correct, yet it seems that in this case, also, the reduction was applied in the wrong place, for the joke does not lie in the question, but in the answer, or rather in the counter question: “How is that? Is there one missing?” Provided the same is not destroyed the answer cannot be robbed of its wit by any dilation or variation. We also get the impression that in the answer of the second Jew the overlooking of the bath is more significant than the misconception of the word “take.” However, here, too, things do not look quite clear and we will, therefore, look for a third example.
Once more we shall resort to a Jewish joke in which, however, the Jewish element is incidental only. Its essence is universally human. It is true that this example, too, contains undesirable complications, but luckily they are not of the kind so far which have kept us from seeing clearly.
In his distress a needy man borrowed twenty-five dollars from a wealthy acquaintance. The same day he was discovered by his creditor in a restaurant eating a dish of salmon with mayonnaise. The creditor reproached him in these words: “You borrow money from me and then order salmon with mayonnaise. Is that what you needed the money for?” “I don’t understand you,” responded the debtor, “when I have no money I can’t eat salmon with mayonnaise. When I have money I mustn’t eat it. Well then, when shall I ever eat salmon with mayonnaise?”
Here we no longer discover any double meaning. Even the repetition of the words “salmon with mayonnaise” cannot contain the technique of the witticism, as it is not the “manifold application of the same material,” but an actual, identical repetition required by the context. We may be temporarily nonplussed in this analysis, and, as a pretext, we may wish to dispute the character of the wit in the anecdote which causes us to laugh. What else worthy of notice can be said about the answer of the poor man? It may be supposed that the striking thing about it is its logical character, but, as a matter of fact, the answer is illogical. The debtor endeavors to justify himself for spending the borrowed money on luxuries and asks, with some semblance of right, when he is to be allowed to eat salmon. But this is not at all the correct answer. The creditor does not blame him for eating salmon on the day that he borrowed the money, but reminds him that in his condition he has no right to think of such luxuries at all. The poor bon vivant disregards this only possible meaning of the reproach, centers his answer about another point, and acts as if he did not understand the reproach.
Is it possible that the technique of this joke lies in this deviation of the answer from the sense of reproach? A similar changing of the viewpoint—displacement of the psychic accent—may perhaps also be demonstrated in the two previous examples which we felt were related to this one. This can be successfully shown and solves the technique of these examples. Soulié calls Heine’s attention to the fact that society worships the “golden calf” in the nineteenth century just as the Jewish nation once did in the desert. To this an answer from Heine like the following would seem fit: “Yes, that is human nature. Centuries have changed nothing in it;” or he might have remarked something equally apposite. But Heine deviates in his manner from the instigated thought. Indeed, he does not answer at all. He makes use of the double meaning found in the phrase “golden calf” to go off at a tangent. He seizes upon one of the components of the phrase, namely, “the calf,” and answers as if Soulié’s speech placed the emphasis on it—“Oh, he is no longer a calf, etc.”
The deviation is much more evident in the bath joke. This example requires a graphic representation. The first Jew asks, “Have you taken a bath?” The emphasis lies upon the bath element. The second answers as if the query were: “Have you taken a bath?” The displacement would have been impossible if the question had been: “Have you bathed?” The witless answer would have been: “Bathed? What do you mean? I don’t know what that means.” However, the technique of the wit lies in the displacement of the emphasis from “to bathe” to “to take.”
Let us return to the example “salmon with mayonnaise,” which is the purest of its kind. What is new in it will direct us into various paths. In the first place we have to give the mechanism of this newly discovered technique. I propose to designate it as having displacement for its most essential element. The deviation of the trend of thought consists in displacing the psychic accent to another than the original theme. It is then incumbent upon us to find out the relationship of the technique of displacement to the expression of the witticism. Our example (salmon with mayonnaise) shows us that the displacement technique is absolutely independent of the verbal expression. It does not depend upon words, but upon the mental trend, and to abrogate it we are not helped by substitution so long as the sense of the answer is adhered to. The reduction is possible only when we change the mental trend and permit the gastronomist to answer directly to the reproach which he eluded in the conception of the joke. The reduced conception will then be: “What I like I cannot deny myself, and it is all the same to me where I get the money for it. Here you have my explanation as to why I happen to be eating salmon with mayonnaise today just after you have loaned me some money.” But that would not be a witticism but a cynicism. It will be instructive to compare this joke with one which is closely allied to it in meaning.
A man who was addicted to drink supported himself in a small city by giving lessons. His vice gradually became known and he lost most of his pupils in consequence. A friend of his took it upon himself to admonish him to reform. “Look here,” he said, “you could have the best scholars in town if you would give up drinking. Why not do it?” “What are you talking about?” was the indignant reply. “I am giving lessons in order to be able to drink. Shall I give up drinking in order to obtain scholars?”
This joke, too, carries the stamp of logic which we have noted in the case of “salmon with mayonnaise,” but it is no longer displacement-wit. The answer is a direct one. The cynicism, which is veiled there, is openly admitted here, “For me drink is the most important thing.” The technique of this witticism is really very poor and cannot explain its effect. It lies merely in the change in order of the same material, or to be more exact, in the reversal of the means-and-end relationship between drink and giving lessons or getting scholars. As I gave no greater emphasis in the reduction to this factor of the expression the witticism is somewhat blurred; it may be expressed as follows: “What a senseless demand to make. For me, drink is the most important thing and not the scholars. Giving lessons is only a means towards more drink.” The wit is really dependent upon the expression.
In the bath wit, the dependence of the witticism upon the wording “have you taken a bath” is unmistakable and a change in the wording nullifies the joke. The technique in this case is quite complicated. It is a combination of double meaning (sub-group f) and displacement. The wording of the question admits a double meaning. The joke arises from the fact that the answer is given not in the sense expected by the questioner, but has a different subordinate sense. By making the displacement retrogressive we are accordingly in position to find a reduction which leaves the double meaning in the expression and still does away with the wit.
“Have you taken a bath?” “Taken what? A bath? What is that?” But that is no longer a witticism. It is simply either a spiteful or playful exaggeration.
In Heine’s joke about the “golden calf” the double meaning plays a quite similar part. It makes it possible for the answer to deviate from the instigated stream of thought—a thing which happens in the joke about “salmon and mayonnaise”—without any such dependence upon the wording. In the reduction Soulié’s speech and Heine’s answer would be as follows: “It reminds one very much of the worship of the golden calf when one sees the people throng around that man simply because he is rich.” Heine’s answer would be: “That he is made so much of on account of his wealth is not the worst part. You do not emphasize enough the fact that his ignorance is forgiven on account of his wealth.” Thus, while the double meaning would be retained the displacement-wit would be eliminated.
Here we may be prepared for the objection which might be raised, namely, that we are seeking to tear asunder these delicate differentiations which really belong together. Does not every double meaning furnish occasion for displacement and for a deviation of the stream of thought from one sense to another? And shall we agree that a “double meaning” and “displacement” should be designated as representatives of two entirely different types of wit? It is true that a relation between double meaning and displacement actually exists, but it has nothing to do with our differentiation of the techniques of wit. In cases of double meaning the wit contains nothing but a word capable of several interpretations which allows the hearer to find the transition from one thought to another, and which with a little forcing may be compared to a displacement. In the cases of displacement-wit, however, the witticism itself contains a stream of thought in which the displacement is brought about. Here the displacement belongs to the work which is necessary for its understanding. Should this differentiation not be clear to us we can make use of the reduction method, which is an unfailing way for tangible demonstration. We do not deny, however, that there is something in this objection. It calls our attention to the fact that we cannot confuse the psychic processes in the formation of wit (the wit-work) with the psychic processes in the conception of the wit (the understanding-work). The object of our present investigation will be confined only to the former.
Are there still other examples of the technique of displacement? They are not easily found, but the following witticism is a very good specimen. It also shows a lack of overemphasized logic found in our former examples.
A horse-dealer in recommending a saddle horse to his client said: “If you mount this horse at four o’clock in the morning you will be in Monticello at six-thirty in the morning.” “What will I do in Monticello at six-thirty in the morning?” asked the client.
Here the displacement is very striking. The horse-dealer mentions the early arrival in the small city only with the obvious intention of proving the efficiency of the horse. The client disregards the capacity of the animal, about which he evidently has no more doubts, and takes up only the data of the example selected for the test. The reduction of this joke is comparatively simple.
More difficulties are encountered by another example, the technique of which is very obscure. It can be solved, however, through the application of double meaning with displacement. The joke relates the subterfuge employed by a “schadchen” (Jewish marriage broker). It belongs to a class which will claim more of our attention later.
The “schadchen” had assured the suitor that the father of the girl was no longer living. After the engagement had been announced the news leaked out that the father was still living and serving a sentence in prison. The suitor reproached the agent for deceiving him. “Well,” said the latter, “what did I tell you? Do you call that living?”
The double meaning lies in the word “living,” and the displacement consists in the fact that the “schadchen” avoids the common meaning of the word, which is a contrast to “death,” and uses it in the colloquial sense: “You don’t call that living.” In doing this he explains his former utterance as a double meaning, although this manifold application is here quite out of place. Thus far the technique resembles that of the “golden calf” and the “bath” jokes. Here, however, another factor comes into consideration which disturbs the understanding of the technique through its obtrusiveness. One might say that this joke is a “characterization-wit.” It endeavors to illustrate by example the marriage agent’s characteristic admixture of mendacious impudence and repartee. We shall learn that this is only the “show-side” of the façade of the witticism, that is, its sense. Its object serves a different purpose. We shall also defer our attempt at reduction.
After these complicated examples, which are not at all easy to analyze, it will be gratifying to find a perfectly pure and transparent example of “displacement-wit.” A beggar implored the help of a wealthy baron for a trip to Ostend, where he asserted the physicians had ordered him to take sea baths for his health. “Very well, I shall assist you,” said the rich baron, “but is it absolutely necessary for you to go to Ostend, which is the most expensive of all watering-places?” “Sir,” was the reproving reply, “nothing is too expensive for my health.” Certainly that is a proper attitude, but hardly proper for the supplicant. The answer is given from the viewpoint of a rich man. The beggar acts as if it were his own money that he was willing to sacrifice for his health, as if money and health concerned the same person.
Nonsense as a Technical Means
Let us take up again in this connection the instructive example of “salmon with mayonnaise.” It also presents to us a side in which we noticed a striking display of logical work and we have learned from analyzing it that this logic concealed an error of thought, namely, a displacement of the stream of thought. Henceforth, even if only by way of contrast association, we shall be reminded of other jokes which, on the contrary, present clearly something contradictory, something nonsensical, or foolish. We shall be curious to discover wherein the technique of the witticism lies. I shall first present the strongest and at the same time the purest example of the entire group. Once more it is a Jewish joke.
Ike was serving in the artillery corps. He was seemingly an intelligent lad, but he was unwieldy and had no interest in the service. One of his superiors, who was kindly disposed toward him, drew him aside and said to him: “Ike, you are out of place among us. I would advise you to buy a cannon and make yourself independent.”
The advice, which makes us laugh heartily, is obvious nonsense. There are no cannon to be bought and an individual cannot possibly make himself independent as a fighting force or establish himself, as it were. One cannot remain one minute in doubt but that this advice is not pure nonsense, but witty nonsense and an excellent joke. By what means does the nonsense become a witticism?
We need not meditate very long. From the discussions of the authors in the Introduction we can guess that sense lurks in such witty nonsense, and that this sense in nonsense transforms nonsense into wit. In our example the sense is easily found. The officer who gives the artilleryman, Ike, the nonsensical advice pretends to be stupid in order to show Ike how stupidly he is acting. He imitates Ike as if to say, “I will now give you some advice which is exactly as stupid as you are.” He enters into Ike’s stupidity and makes him conscious of it by making it the basis of a proposition which must meet with Ike’s wishes, for if Ike owned a cannon and took up the art of warfare on his own account, of what advantage would his intelligence and ambition be to him? How would he take care of the cannon and acquaint himself with its mechanism in order to meet the competition of other possessors of cannon?
I am breaking off the analysis of this example to show the same sense in nonsense in a shorter and simpler, though less glaring case of nonsense-wit.
“Never to be born would be best for mortal man.” “But,” added the sages of the Fliegende Blätter, “hardly one man in a hundred thousand has this luck.”
The modern appendix to the ancient philosophical saying is pure nonsense, and becomes still more stupid through the addition of the seemingly careful “hardly.” But this appendix in attaching itself to the first sentence incontestably and correctly limits it. It can thus open our eyes to the fact that that piece of wisdom so reverently scanned, is neither more nor less than sheer nonsense. He who is not born of woman is not mortal; for him there exists no “good” and no “best.” The nonsense of the joke, therefore, serves here to expose and present another bit of nonsense as in the case of the artilleryman. Here I can add a third example which, owing to its context, scarcely deserves a detailed description. It serves, however, to illustrate the use of nonsense in wit in order to represent another element of nonsense.
A man about to go upon a journey intrusted his daughter to his friend, begging him to watch over her chastity during his absence. When he returned some months later he found that she was pregnant. Naturally he reproached his friend. The latter alleged that he could not explain this unfortunate occurrence. “Where has she been sleeping?” the father finally asked. “In the same room with my son,” replied the friend. “How is it that you allowed her to sleep in the same room with your son after I had begged you so earnestly to take good care of her?” remonstrated the father. “Well,” explained the friend, “there was a screen between them. There was your daughter’s bed and over there was my son’s bed and between them stood the screen.” “And suppose he went behind the screen? What then?” asked the parent. “Well, in that case,” rejoined the friend thoughtfully, “it might be possible.”
In this joke—aside from the other qualities of this poor witticism—we can easily get the reduction. Obviously, it would read like this: “You have no right to reproach me. How could you be so foolish as to leave your daughter in a house where she must live in the constant companionship of a young man? As if it were possible for a stranger to be responsible for the chastity of a maiden under such circumstances!” The seeming stupidity of the friend here also serves as a reflection of the stupidity of the father. By means of the reduction we have eliminated the nonsense contained in the witticism as well as the witticism itself. We have not gotten rid of the “nonsense” element itself, as it finds another place in the context of the sentence after it has been reduced to its true meaning.
We can now also attempt the reduction of the joke about the cannon. The officer might have said: “I know, Ike, that you are an intelligent business man, but I must tell you that you are very stupid if you do not realize that one cannot act in the army as one does in business, where each one is out for himself and competes with the other. Military service demands subordination and co-operation.”
The technique of the nonsense witticisms hitherto discussed really consists in advancing something apparently absurd or nonsensical which, however, discloses a sense serving to illustrate and represent some other actual absurdity and nonsense.
Has the employment of contradiction in the technique of wit always this meaning? Here is another example which answers this affirmatively. On an occasion when Phocion’s speech was applauded he turned to his friends and asked: “Did I say something foolish?”
This question seems paradoxical, but we immediately comprehend its meaning. “What have I said that has pleased this stupid crowd? I ought really to be ashamed of the applause, for if it appealed to these fools, it could not have been very clever after all.”
Other examples teach us that absurdity is used very often in the technique of wit without serving at all the purpose of uncovering another piece of nonsense.
A well-known university teacher who was wont to spice richly with jokes his rather dry specialty was once congratulated upon the birth of his youngest son, who was bestowed upon him at a rather advanced age. “Yes,” said he to the well-wishers, “it is remarkable what mortal hands can accomplish.” This reply seems especially meaningless and out of place, for children are called the blessings of God to distinguish them from creations of mortal hands. But it soon dawns upon us that this answer has a meaning and an obscene one at that. The point in question is not that the happy father wishes to appear stupid in order to make something else or some other persons appear stupid. The seemingly senseless answer causes us astonishment. It puzzles us, as the authors would have it. We have seen that the authors deduce the entire mechanism of such jokes from the change of the succession of “clearness and confusion.” We shall try to form an opinion about this later. Here we content ourselves by remarking that the technique of this witticism consists in advancing such confusing and senseless elements.
An especially peculiar place among the nonsense jokes is assumed by this joke of Lichtenberg.
“He was surprised that the two holes were cut in the pelts of cats just where their eyes were located.” It is certainly foolish to be surprised about something that is obvious in itself, something which is really the explanation of an identity. It reminds one of a seriously intended utterance of Michelet (The Woman) which, as I remember it, runs as follows: “How beautifully everything is arranged by nature. As soon as the child comes into the world it finds a mother who is ready to care for it.” This utterance of Michelet is really silly, but the one of Lichtenberg is a witticism, which makes use of the absurdity for some purpose. There is something behind it. What? At present that is something we cannot discuss.
Sophistic Faulty Thinking
We have learned from two groups of examples that the wit-work makes use of deviations from normal thought, namely, displacement and absurdity, as technical means of presenting witty expressions. It is only just to expect that other faulty thinking may find a similar application. Indeed, a few examples of this sort can be cited.
A gentleman entered a shop and ordered a fancy cake, which, however, he soon returned, asking for some liqueur in its stead. He drank the liqueur, and was about to leave without paying for it. The shopkeeper held him back. “What do you want of me?” he asked. “Please pay for the liqueur,” said the shopkeeper. “But I have given you the fancy cake for it.” “Yes, but you have not paid for that either.” “Well, neither have I eaten it.”
This little story also bears the semblance of logic which we already know as the suitable façade for faulty thinking. The error, obviously, lies in the fact that the cunning customer establishes a connection between the return of the fancy cake and its exchange for the liqueur, a connection which really does not exist. The state of affairs may be divided into two processes which as far as the shopkeeper is concerned are independent of each other. He first took the fancy cake and returned it, so that he owes nothing for it. He then took the liqueur, for which he owes money. One might say that the customer uses the relation “for it” in a double sense, or, to speak more correctly, by means of a double sense he forms a relation which does not hold in reality.
The opportunity now presents itself for making a not unimportant confession. We are here busying ourselves with an investigation of technique of wit by means of examples, and we ought to be sure that the examples which we have selected are really true witticisms. The facts are, however, that in a series of cases we fall into doubt as to whether or not the example in question may be called a joke. We have no criterion at our disposal before investigation itself furnishes one. Usage of language is unreliable and is itself in need of examination for its authority. To decide the question we can rely on nothing else but a certain “feeling,” which we may interpret by saying that in our judgment the decision follows certain criteria which are not yet accessible to our knowledge. We shall naturally not appeal to this “feeling” for substantial proof. In the case of the last-mentioned example we cannot help doubting whether we may present it as a witticism, as a sophistical witticism, or merely as a sophism. The fact is that we do not yet know wherein the character of wit lies.
On the other hand the following example, which evinces, as it were, the complementary faulty thinking, is a witticism without any doubt. Again it is a story of a marriage agent. The agent is defending the girl he has proposed against the attacks of her prospective fiancé. “The mother-in-law does not suit me,” the latter remarks. “She is a crabbed, foolish person.” “That’s true,” replies the agent, “but you are not going to marry the mother-in-law, but the daughter.” “Yes, but she is no longer young, and she is not pretty, either.” “That’s nothing: if she is not young or pretty you can trust her all the more.” “But she hasn’t much money.” “Why talk of money? Are you going to marry money? You want a wife, don’t you?” “But she is a hunchback.” “Well, what of that? Do you expect her to have no blemishes at all?”
It is really a question of an ugly girl who is no longer young, who has a paltry dowry and a repulsive mother, and who is besides equipped with a pretty bad deformity, relations which are not at all inviting to matrimony. The marriage agent knows how to present each individual fault in a manner to cause one to become reconciled to it, and then takes up the unpardonable hunch back as the one fault which can be excused in any one. Here again there is the semblance of logic which is characteristic of sophisms, and which serves to conceal the faulty thinking. It is apparent that the girl possesses nothing but faults, many of which can be overlooked, but one that cannot be passed by. The chances for the marriage become very slim. The agent acts as if he removed each individual fault by his evasions, forgetting that each leaves behind some depreciation which is added to the next one. He insists upon dealing with each factor individually, and refuses to combine them into a sum-total.
A similar omission forms the nucleus of another sophism which causes much laughter, though one can well question its right to be called a joke.
A. had borrowed a copper kettle from B., and upon returning it was sued by B. because it had a large hole which rendered it unserviceable. His defense was this: “In the first place I never borrowed any kettle from B., secondly the kettle had a hole in it when I received it from B., thirdly the kettle was in perfect condition when I returned it.” Each separate protest is good by itself, but taken together they exclude each other. A. treats individually what must be taken as a whole, just as the marriage agent when he deals with the imperfections of the bride. One can also say that A. uses “and” where only an “either-or” is possible.
Another sophism greets us in the following marriage agent story. The suitor objects because the bride has a short leg and therefore limps. The agent contradicts him. “You are wrong,” he says. “Suppose you marry a woman whose legs are sound and straight. What do you gain by it? You are not sure from day to day that she will not fall down, break a leg, and then be lame for the rest of her life. Just consider the pain, the excitement, and the doctor’s bill. But if you marry this one nothing can happen. Here you have a finished job.”
Here the semblance of logic is very shallow, for no one will by any means admit that a “finished misfortune” is to be preferred to a mere possibility of such. The error in the stream of thought will be seen more easily in a second example.
In the temple of Cracow sat the great Rabbi N. praying with his disciples. Suddenly he emitted a cry and in response to his troubled disciples said: “The great Rabbi L. died just now in Lemberg.” The congregation thereupon went into mourning for the deceased. In the course of the next day travelers from Lemberg were asked how the rabbi had died, and what had caused his death. They knew nothing about the event, however, as, they said, they had left him in the best of health. Finally it was definitely ascertained that the Rabbi of Lemberg had not died at the hour on which Rabbi N. had felt his death telepathically, and that he was still living. A stranger seized the opportunity to banter a pupil of the Cracow rabbi about the episode. “That was a glorious exhibition that your rabbi made of himself when he saw the Rabbi of Lemberg die,” he said. “Why, the man is still living!” “No matter,” replied the pupil. “To look from Cracow to Lemberg was wonderful anyhow.”
Here the faulty thinking common to both of the last examples is openly shown. The value of fanciful ideas is unfairly matched against reality; possibility is made equivalent to actuality. To look from Cracow to Lemberg despite the miles between would have been an imposing telepathic feat had it resulted in some truth, but the disciple gives no heed to that. It might have been possible that the Rabbi of Lemberg had died at the moment when the Rabbi of Cracow had proclaimed his death, but the pupil displaces the accent from the condition under which the teacher’s act would be remarkable to the unconditional admiration of this act. “In magnis rebus voluisse sat est” is a similar point of view. Just as in this example reality is sacrificed in favor of possibility, so in the foregoing example the marriage agent suggests to the suitor that the possibility of the woman’s becoming lame through an accident is a far more important consideration to be taken into account; whereas the question as to whether or not she is lame is put altogether into the background.
Automatic Errors of Thought
Another interesting group attaches itself to this one of sophistical faulty thinking, a group in which the faulty thinking may be designated as automatic. It is perhaps only a stroke of fate that all of the examples which I shall cite for this new group are again stories referring to marriage agents.
The agent brought along an assistant to a conference about a bride. This assistant was to confirm his assertions. “She is as well made as a pine tree,” said the agent. “Like a pine tree,” repeated the echo. “She has eyes which one must appreciate.” “Wonderful eyes,” confirmed the echo. “She is cultured beyond words. She possesses extraordinary culture.” “ Wonderfully cultured,” repeated the assistant. “However, one thing is true,” confessed the agent. “She has a slight hunch on her back.” “And what a hunch!” confirmed the echo.
The other stories are quite analogous to this one, but they are cleverer.
On being introduced to his prospective bride the suitor was rather unpleasantly surprised, and drawing aside the marriage agent he reproachfully whispered to him: “Why have you brought me here? She is ugly and old. She squints, has bad teeth, and bleary eyes.” “You can talk louder,” interrupted the agent. “She is deaf, too.”
A prospective bridegroom made his first call on his future bride in company with the agent, and while in the parlor waiting for the appearance of the family the agent drew the young man’s attention to a glass closet containing a handsome silver set. “Just look at these things,” he said. “You can see how wealthy these people are.” “But is it not possible that these articles were just borrowed for the occasion,” inquired the suspicious young man, “so as to give the appearance of wealth?” “What an idea,” answered the agent protestingly. “Who in the world would lend them anything?”
In all three cases one finds the same thing. A person who reacts several times in succession in the same manner continues in the same manner on the next occasion where it becomes unsuited and runs contrary to his intentions. Falling into the automatism of habit he fails to adapt himself to the demands of the situation. Thus in the first story the assistant forgot that he was taken along in order to influence the suitor in favor of the proposed bride, and as he had thus far accomplished his task by emphasizing through repetition the excellencies attributed to the lady, he now emphasizes also her timidly conceded hunch back which he should have belittled.
The marriage agent in the second story is so fascinated by the failings and infirmities of the bride that he completes the list from his own knowledge, which it was certainly neither his business nor his intention to do. Finally in the third story he is so carried away by his zeal to convince the young man of the family’s wealth that in order to corroborate his proofs he blurts out something which must upset all his efforts. Everywhere the automatism triumphs over the appropriate variation of thought and expression.
That is quite easy to understand, although it must cause confusion when it is brought to our attention that these three stories could just as well be termed “comical” as “witty.” Like every act of unmasking and self-betrayal the discovery of the psychic automatism also belongs to technique of the comic. We suddenly see ourselves here confronted with the problem of the relationship of wit to the comic element—a subject which we endeavored to avoid (see the Introduction). Are these stories only “comical” and not “witty” also? Does the comic element employ here the same means as does the wit? And again, of what does the peculiar character of wit consist?
We must adhere to the fact that the technique of the group of witticisms examined last consists of nothing else but the establishment of “faulty thinking.” We are forced to admit, however, that so far the investigation has led us further into darkness than to illumination. Nevertheless we do not abandon the hope of arriving at a result by means of a more thorough knowledge of the technique of wit which may become the starting-point for further insight.
The next examples of wit with which we wish to continue our investigation do not give us as much work. Their technique reminds us very much of what we already know. He re is one of Lichtenberg’s jokes. “January,” he says, “is the month in which one extends good wishes to his friends, and the rest are months in which the good wishes are not fulfilled.”
As these witticisms may be called clever rather than strong, we shall reinforce the impression by examining a few more.
“Human life is divided into two halves; during the first one looks forward to the second, and during the second one looks backward to the first.”
“Experience consists in experiencing what one does not care to experience.” (The last two examples were cited by K. Fischer.)
One cannot help being reminded by these examples of a group, treated of before, which is characterized by the “manifold application of the same material.” The last example especially will cause us to ask why we have not inserted it there instead of presenting it here in a new connection. “Experience” is described through its own terms just as some of the examples cited above. Neither would I be against this correction. However, I am of the opinion that the other two cases, which are surely similar in character, contain a different factor which is more striking and more important than the manifold application of the same word which shows nothing here touching upon double meaning. And what is more, I wish to emphasize that new and unexpected identities are here formed which show themselves in relations of ideas to one another, in relations of definitions to each other, or to a common third. I would call this process unification. Obviously it is analogous to condensation by compression into similar words. Thus the two halves of human life are described by the inter-relationship discovered between them: during the first part one longs for the second, and in the second one longs for the first. To speak more precisely there were two relationships very similar to each other which were selected for description. The similarity of the relationship that corresponds to the similarity of the words which, just for this reason, might recall the manifold application of the same material—(looks forward) (=looks backward).
In Lichtenberg’s joke, January and the months contrasted with it are characterized again by a modified relationship to a third factor: these are good wishes which one receives in the first month, but are not fulfilled during the other months. The differentiation from the manifold application of the same material which is really related to double meaning is here quite clear.
A good example of unification-wit needing no explanation is the following:
J. B. Rousseau, the French poet, wrote an ode to posterity (à la postérité). Voltaire, thinking that the poor quality of the poem in no way justified its reaching posterity, wittily remarked, “This poem will not reach its destination” (K. Fischer).
The last example may remind us of the fact that it is essentially unification which forms the basis of the so-called repartee in wit. For ready repartee consists in using the defense for aggression and in “turning the tables” or in “paying with the same coin.” That is, the repartee consists in establishing an unexpected identity between attack and counter-attack.
For example, a baker said to a tavern keeper, one of whose fingers was festering: “I guess your finger got into your beer.” The tavern keeper replied: “You are wrong. One of your rolls got under my finger nail” (Ueberhorst: Das Komische, II, 1900).
While Serenissimus was traveling through his domains he noticed a man in the crowds who bore a striking resemblance to himself. He beckoned him to come over and asked: “Was your mother ever employed in my home?” “No, sire,” replied the man, “but my father was.”
While Duke Karl of Würtemberg was riding horseback he met a dyer working at his trade. “Can you color my white horse blue?” “Yes, sire,” was the rejoinder, “if the animal can stand the boiling!”
In this excellent repartee, which answers a foolish question with a condition that is equally impossible, there occurs another technical factor which would have been omitted if the dyer’s reply had been: “No, sire, I am afraid that the horse could not stand being boiled.”
Another peculiarly interesting technical means at the disposal of unification is the addition of the conjunction “and.” Such correlation signifies a connection which could not be understood otherwise. When Heine (Harzreise) says of the city of Göttingen, “In general the inhabitants of Göttingen are divided into students, professors, Philistines, and cattle,” we understand this combination exactly in the sense which he furthermore emphasized by adding: “These four social groups are distinguished little less than sharply.” Again, when he speaks about the school where he had to submit “to so much Latin, drubbing, and geography,” he wants to convey by this combination, which is made very conspicuous by placing the drubbing between the two studies, that the schoolboy’s conception unmistakably described by the drubbing should be extended also to Latin and geography.
In Lipps’s book we find among the examples of “witty enumeration” (Koordination) the following verse, which stands nearest to Heine’s “students, professors, Philistines, and cattle.”
“With a fork and with much effort his mother pulled him from a mess.”
“As if effort were an instrument like the fork,” adds Lipps by way of explanation. But we get the impression that there is nothing witty in this sentence. To be sure it is very comical, whereas Heine’s co-ordination is undoubtedly witty. We shall, perhaps, recall these examples later when we shall no longer be forced to evade the problem of the relationship between wit and the comic.
Representation Through the Opposite
We have remarked in the example of the Duke and the dyer that it would still have been a joke by means of unification had the dyer replied, “No, I fear that the horse could not stand being boiled.” In substituting a “yes” for the “no” which rightly belonged there, we meet a new technical means of wit the application of which we shall study in other examples.
This joke, which resembles the one we have just cited from K. Fischer, is somewhat simpler. “Frederick the Great heard of a Silesian clergyman who had the reputation of communicating with spirits. He sent for him and received him with the following question: ‘Can you call up ghosts?’ ‘At your pleasure, your majesty,’ replied the clergyman, ‘but they won’t come.’” Here it is perfectly obvious that the wit lies in the substitution of its opposite for the only possible answer, “No.” To complete this substitution “but” had to be added to “yes,” so that “yes” plus “but” gives the equivalent for “no.”
This “representation through the opposite,” as we choose to call it, serves the mechanism of wit in several ways. In the following cases it appears almost in its pure form:
“This woman resembles Venus de Milo in many points. Like her she is extraordinarily old, has no teeth, and has white spots on the yellow surface of her body” (Heine).
Here ugliness is depicted by making it agree with the most beautiful. Of course these agreements consist of attributes expressed in double meaning or of matters of slight importance. The latter applies to the second example.
“The attributes of the greatest men were all united in himself. Like Alexander his head was tilted to one side: like Cæsar he always had something in his hair. He could drink coffee like Leibnitz, and once settled in his armchair he forgot eating and drinking like Newton, and like him had to be awakened. He wore a wig like Dr. Johnson, and like Cervantes the fly of his trousers was always open” (Lichtenberg: The Great Mind).
J. V. Falke’s Lebenserinnerungen an eine Reise nach Ireland (page 271) furnishes an exceptionally good example of “representation through the opposite” in which the use of words of a double meaning plays absolutely no part. The scene is laid in a wax figure museum, like Mme. Tussaud’s. A lecturer discourses on one figure after another to his audience, which is composed of old and young people. “This is the Duke of Wellington and his horse,” he says. Whereupon a young girl remarks, “Which is the duke and which is the horse?” “Just as you like, my pretty child,” is the reply. “You pay your money and you take your choice.”
The reduction of this Irish joke would be: “It is gross impudence on the part of the museum’s management to offer such an exhibition to the public. It is impossible to distinguish between the horse and the rider (playful exaggeration), and it is for this exhibit that one pays one’s hard-earned money!” The indignant expression is now dramatized and applied to a trivial occurrence. In the place of the entire audience there appears one woman and the riding figure becomes individually determined. It is necessarily the Duke of Wellington, who is so very popular in Ireland. But the insolence of the museum proprietor or lecturer who takes money from the public and offers nothing in return is represented by the opposite, through a speech, in which he extols himself as a conscientious business man whose fondest desire is to respect the rights to which the public is entitled through the admission fee. One then realizes that the technique of this joke is not very simple. In so far as a way is found to allow the swindler to assert his scrupulosity it may be said that the joke is a case of “representation through the opposite.” The fact, however, that he does it on an occasion where something different is demanded of him, and the fact that he replies in terms of commercial integrity when he is expected to discuss the similarity of the figures, shows that it is a case of displacement. The technique of the joke lies in the combination of both technical means.
This example is closely allied to another small group which might be called “outdoing-wit.” Here “yes,” which would be proper in the reduction, is replaced by “no,” which, owing to its context, is equivalent to a still stronger “yes.” The same mechanism holds true when the case is reversed. The contradiction takes the place of an exaggerated confirmation. An example of this nature is seen in the following epigram from Lessing.
“The good Galathee! ’Tis said that she dyes her hair black, yet it was black when she bought it.”
Lichtenberg’s make-believe mocking defense of philosophy is another example.
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Prince Hamlet had disdainfully declared. Lichtenberg well knew that this condemnation was by no means severe enough, in that it does not take into account all that can be said against philosophy. He therefore added the following: “But there is also much in philosophy which is found neither in heaven nor on earth.” To be sure, his assertion supplements what was lacking in Hamlet’s philosophical utterance, but in doing this he adds another and still greater reproach.
More transparent still, because they show no trace of displacement, are two Jewish jokes which are, however, of the coarse kind.
Two Jews were conversing about bathing. “I take a bath once a year,” said one, “whether I need one or not.”
It is clear that this boastful assurance of his cleanliness only betrays his state of uncleanliness.
A Jew noticed remnants of food on the beard of another. “I can tell you what you ate yesterday,” he remarked. “Well, let’s hear it,” said another. “Beans,” said the first one. “You are wrong,” responded the other. “I had beans the day before yesterday.”
The following example is an excellent “outdoing” witticism which can be traced easily to representation through the opposite.
The king condescended to pay a visit at a surgical clinic, and found the professor of surgery engaged in amputating a leg. He watched the various steps of the operation with interest and expressed his royal approval with these loud utterances: “Bravo, bravo, Professor.” When the operation was over the professor approached the king, bowed low, and asked: “Does your majesty also command the amputation of the other leg?”
Whatever the professor may have thought during this royal applause surely could not have been expressed unchanged. His real thoughts were: “Judging by this applause he must be under the impression that I am amputating the poor devil’s diseased leg by order of and for the pleasure of the king. To be sure, I have other reasons for performing this operation.” But instead of expressing these thoughts he goes to the king and says: “I have no other reasons but your majesty’s order for performing this operation. The applause you accorded me has inspired me so much that I am only awaiting your majesty’s command to amputate the other leg also.” He thus succeeded in making himself understood by expressing the opposite of what he really thought but had to keep to himself. Such an expression of the opposite represents an incredible exaggeration or outdoing.
As we gather from these examples, representation through the opposite is a means frequently and effectively used in the technique of wit. We need not overlook, however, something else, namely, that this technique is by no means confined only to wit. When Marc Antony, after his long speech in the Forum had changed the mood of the mob listening to Cæsar’s obsequies, at last repeats the words,
“For Brutus was an honorable man,”
he well knows that the mob will scream the true meaning of his words at him, namely,
“They are traitors: nice honorable men!”
Or when Simplicissimus transcribes a collection of unheard-of brutalities and cynicisms as expressions of “people with temperaments,” this, too, is a representation through the opposite. However, this is no longer designated as wit, but as “irony.” Indeed, the only technique that is characteristic of irony is representation through the opposite. Besides, one reads and hears about “ironical wit.” Hence there is no longer any doubt that technique alone is not capable of characterizing wit. There must be something else which we have not yet discovered. On the other hand, however, the fact that the reduction of the technique destroys the wit still remains uncontradicted. For the present it may be difficult for us to unite for the explanation of wit the two strong points which we have already gained.
Since representation through the opposite belongs to the technical means of wit, we may also expect that wit could make use of its reverse, namely, the representation through the similar and cognate. Indeed, when we continue our investigation we find that this forms the technique of a new and especially extensive group of thought-witticisms. We can describe the peculiarity of this technique much better if instead of representation through the “cognate” we use the expression representation through “relationships and associations.” We shall start with the last characteristic and illustrate it by an example.
Indirect Expression with Allusion
It is an American anecdote and runs as follows. By undertaking a series of risky schemes, two not very scrupulous business men had succeeded in amassing an enormous fortune and were now intent on forcing their way into good society. Among other things they thought it advisable to have their portraits painted by the most prominent and most expensive painters in the city, men whose works were considered masterpieces. The costly pictures were exhibited for the first time at a great evening gathering, and the hosts themselves led the most prominent connoisseur and art critic to the wall of the salon on which both portraits were hanging side by side, in order to elicit from him a favorable criticism. He examined the portraits for a long time, then shook his head as if he were missing something. At length he pointed to the bare space between the pictures, and asked, “And where is the Savior?”
The meaning of this expression is clear. It is again the expression of something which cannot be represented directly. In what way does this “indirect expression” come about? By a series of very obvious associations and conclusions let us work backwards from the verbal setting.
The query, “where is the Savior?” or “where is the picture of the Savior?” arouses the conjecture that the two pictures have reminded the speaker of a similar arrangement familiar to him as it is familiar to us. This arrangement, of which one element is here missing, shows the figure of the Savior between two other figures. There is only one such case: Christ hanging between the two thieves. The missing element is emphasized by the witticism, and the similarity rests in the figures at the right and left of the Savior, which are not mentioned in the jest. It can only mean that the pictures hanging in the drawing-room are likewise those of thieves. This is what the critic wished to, but could not say, “You are a pair of scoundrels,” or more in detail, “What do I care about your portraits? You are a pair of scoundrels, that I know.” And by means of a few associations and conclusive inferences he has said it in a manner which we designate as “allusion.”
We immediately remember that we have encountered the process of allusion before. Namely, in double meaning, when one of the two meanings expressed by the same word stands out very prominently, because being used much oftener and more commonly, our attention is directed to it first, whereas the other meaning remains in the background because it is more remote—such cases we wished to describe as double meaning with allusion. In an entire series of examples which we have hitherto examined, we have remarked that their technique is not simple and we realized that the process of allusion was the factor that complicated it. For example, see the contradiction-witticism in which the congratulations on the birth of the youngest child are acknowledged by the remark that it is remarkable what human hands can accomplish (p. 77).
In the American anecdote we have the process of allusion without the double meaning, and we find that the character of this process consists in completing the picture through mental association. It is not difficult to guess that the utilized association can be of more than one kind. So as not to be confused by large numbers we shall discuss only the most pronounced variations, and shall give only a few examples.
The association used in the substitution may be a mere sound, so that this sub-group may be analogous to word-wit in the pun. However, it is not similarity in sound of two words, but of whole sentences, characteristic combinations of words, and similar means.
For example, Lichtenberg coined the saying: “New baths heal well,” which immediately reminds one of the proverb, “New brooms clean well,” whose first and last words, as well as whose whole sentence structure, is the same as in the first saying. It has undoubtedly arisen in the witty thinker’s mind as an imitation of the familiar proverb. Thus Lichtenberg’s saying is an allusion to the latter. By means of this allusion something is suggested that cannot be frankly said, namely, that the efficacy of the baths taken as cures is due to other things beside the thermal springs whose attributes are the same everywhere.
The solution of the technique of another one of Lichtenberg’s jokes is similar: “The girl barely twelve modes old.” That sounds something like the chronological term “twelve moons” (i.e., months), and may originally have been a mistake in writing in the permissible poetical expression. But there is a good deal of sense in designating the age of a feminine creature by the changing modes instead of by the changing of moons.
The connection of similarity may even consist of a single slight modification. This technique again runs parallel with a word-technique. Both kinds of witticisms create almost the identical impression, but they are more easily distinguishable by the processes of the wit-work.
The following is an example of such a word-witticism or pun. The great singer, Mary Wilt, who was famous not merely on account of the magnitude of her voice, suffered the mortification of having a title of a play, dramatized from the well-known novel of Jules Verne, serve as an allusion to her corpulency. “The trip around the Wilt (world) in eighty days.”
Or: “Every fathom a queen,” which is a modification of the familiar Shakespearian quotation, “Every inch a king,” and served as an allusion to a prominent woman who was unusually big physically. There would really be no serious objection if one should prefer to classify this witticism as a substitution for condensation with modification (cf. tête-à-bête, p. 25).
Discussing the hardships of the medical profession, namely, that physicians are obliged to read and study constantly because remedies and drugs once considered efficacious are later rejected as useless, and that despite the physician’s best efforts the patient often refuses to pay for the treatment, one of the doctors present remarked: “Yes, every drug has its day,” to which another added, “But not every Doc gets his pay.” These two witty remarks are both modifications with allusion of the well-known saying, “Every dog has his day.” But here, too, the technique could be described as fusion with modification.
If the modification contents itself with a change in letters, allusions through modifications are barely distinguishable from condensation with substitutive formation, as shown in this example: “Mellingitis,” the allusion to the dangerous disease meningitis, refers to the danger which the conservative members of a provincial borough in England thought impended if the socialist candidate Mellon were elected.
The negative particles make very good allusions at the cost of very little changing. Heine referred to Spinoza as:
“My fellow unbeliever Spinoza.”
“We, by the Ungrace of God, Laborers, Bondsmen, Negroes, Serfs,” etc., is a manifesto ( which Lichtenberg quotes no further) of these unfortunates who probably have more right to that title than kings and dukes have to the unmodified one.
Finally omission, which is comparable to condensation without substitutive formation, is also a form of allusion. For in every allusion there is really something omitted, namely, the trend of thought that leads to the allusion. It is only a question of whether the gap, or the substitute in the wording of the allusion which partly fills in the gap, is the more obvious element. Thus we come back through a series of examples from the very clear cases of omission to those of actual allusion.
Omission without substitution is found in the following example. There lived in Vienna a clever and bellicose writer whose sharp invectives had repeatedly brought him bodily assault at the hands of the persons he assailed. During a conversation about a new misdeed by one of his habitual opponents, some one said, “When X. hears this he will receive another box on his ear.” The technique of this wit shows in the first place the confusion about the apparent contradiction, for it is by no me ans clear to us why a box on one’s ear should be the direct result of having heard something. The contradiction disappears if one fills in the gap by adding to the remark: “then he will write such a caustic article against that person that, etc.” Allusions through omission and contradiction are thus the technical means of this witticism.
Heine remarked about some one: “He praises himself so much that pastils for fumigation are advancing in price.” This omission can easily be filled in. What has been omitted is replaced by an inference which then strikes back as an allusion to the same. For self-praise has always carried an evil odor with it.
Once more we encounter the two Jews in front of the bathing establishment. “Another year has passed by already,” says one with a sigh.
These examples leave no doubt that the omission is meant as an allusion.
A still more obvious omission is contained in the next example, which is really a genuine and correct allusion-witticism. Subsequent to an artists’ banquet in Vienna a joke book was given out in which, among others, the following most remarkable proverb could be read:
“A wife is like an umbrella, at worst one may also take a cab.”
An umbrella does not afford enough protection from rain. The words “at worst” can mean only: when it is raining hard. A cab is a public conveyance. As we have to deal here with the figure of comparison, we shall put off the detailed investigation of this witticism until later on.
Heine’s “Bäder von Lucca” contains a veritable wasps’ nest of stinging allusions which make the most artistic use of this form of wit as polemics against the Count of Platen. Long before the reader can suspect their application, a certain theme, which does not lend itself especially to direct presentation, is preluded by allusions of the most varied material possible; e.g., in Hirsch-Hyacinth’s twisting of words: You are too corpulent and I am too lean; you possess too much conceit and I the more business ability; I am a practicus and you are a diarrheticus, in fine, “You are altogether my Antipodex”—“Venus Urinia”—the thick Gudel of Dreckwall in Hamburg, etc. Then the occurrences of which the poet speaks take a turn in which it merely seems to show the impolite sportiveness of the poet, but soon it discloses the symbolic relation to the polemical intention, and in this way it also reveals itself as allusion. At last the attack against Platen bursts forth, and now the allusions to the subject of the Count’s love for men seethe and gush from each one of the sentences which Heine directs against the talent and the character of his opponent, e.g.:
“Even if the Muses are not well disposed to him, he has at least the genius of speech in his power, or rather he knows how to violate him; for he lacks the free love of this genius, besides he must perseveringly run after this youth, and he knows only how to grasp the outer forms which, in spite of their beautiful rotundity, never express anything noble.”
“He has the same experience as the ostrich, which considers itself sufficiently hidden when it sticks its head into the sand so that only its backside is visible. Our illustrious bird would have done better if he had stuck his backside into the sand, and had shown us his head.”
Allusion is perhaps the commonest and most easily employed means of wit, and is at the basis of most of the short-lived witty productions which we are wont to weave into our conversation. They cannot bear being separated from their native soil nor can they exist independently. Once more we are reminded by the process of allusion of that relationship which has already begun to confuse our estimation of the technique of wit. The process of allusion is not witty in itself; there are perfectly formed allusions which have no claims to this character. Only those allusions which show a “witty” element are witty, hence the characteristics of wit, which we have followed even into its technique, again escape us.
I have sometimes called allusion “indirect expression,” and now recognize that the different kinds of allusion with representation through the opposite, as well as the techniques still to be mentioned, can be united into a single large group for which “indirect expression” would be the comprehensive name. Hence, errors of thought—unification—indirect representation—are those points of view under which we can group the techniques of thought-wit which became known to us.
Representation Through the Minute or the Minutest Element
On continuing the investigation of our material we think we recognize a new sub-group of indirect representation which though sharply defined can be illustrated only by few examples. It is that of representation through a minute or minutest element; solving the problem by bringing the entire character to full expression through a minute detail. Correlating this group with the mechanism of allusion is made possible by looking at the triviality as connected with the thing to be presented and as a result of it. For example:
A Jew who was riding in a train had made himself very comfortable; he had unbuttoned his coat, and had put his feet on the seat, when a fashionably dressed gentleman came in. The Jew immediately put on his best behavior and assumed a modest position. The stranger turned over the pages of a book, did some calculation, and pondered a moment and suddenly addressed the Jew. “I beg your pardon, how soon will we have Yom Kippur?” (Day of Atonement). “Oh, oh!” said the Jew, and put his feet back on the seat before he answered.
It cannot be denied that this representation through something minute is allied to the tendency of economy which we found to be the final common element in the investigation of the technique of word-wit.
The following example is much similar.
The doctor who had been summoned to help the baroness in her confinement declared that the critical moment had not arrived, and proposed to the baron that they play a game of cards in the adjoining room in the meantime. After a while the doleful cry of the baroness reached the ears of the men. “Ah, mon Dieu, que je souffre!” The husband jumped up, but the physician stopped him saying, “That’s nothing; let us play on.” A little while later the woman in labor-pains was heard again: “My God, my God, what pains!” “Don’t you want to go in, Doctor?” asked the baron. “By no means, it is not yet time,” answered the doctor. At last there rang from the adjacent room the unmistakable cry, “A-a-a-ai-e-e-e-e-e-e-E-E-E!” The physician then threw down the cards and said, “Now it’s time.”
How the pain allows the original nature to break through all the strata of education, and how an important decision is rightly made dependent upon a seemingly inconsequential utterance—both are shown in this good joke by the successive changes in the cries of this child-bearing lady of quality.
Another kind of indirect expression of which wit makes use is comparison, which we have not discussed so far because an examination of comparison touches upon new difficulties, or rather it reveals difficulties which have made their appearance on other occasions. We have already admitted that in many of the examples examined we could not banish all doubts as to whether they should really be counted as witty, and have recognized in this uncertainty a serious shock to the principles of our investigation. But in no other material do I feel this uncertainty greater and nowhere does it occur more frequently than in the case of comparison-wit. The feeling which usually says to me—and I dare say to a great many others under the same conditions—this is a joke, this may be written down as witty before even the hidden and essential character of the wit has been uncovered—this feeling I lack most. If at first I experience no hesitation in declaring the comparison to be a witticism, then the next instant I seem to think that the pleasure I thus found was of a different quality than that which I am accustomed to ascribe to a joke. Also the fact that witty comparisons but seldom can evoke the explosive variety of laughter by which a good joke proves itself makes it impossible for me to cast aside the existing doubts, even when I limit myself to the best and most effective examples.
It is easy to demonstrate that there are some especially good and effective examples of comparison which in no way give us the impression of witticisms. A beautiful example of this kind which I have not yet tired of admiring, and the impression of which still clings to me, I shall not deny myself the pleasure of citing. It is a comparison with which Ferd. Lassalle concluded one of his famous pleas (Die Wissenschaft und die Arbeiter): “A man like myself who, as I explained to you, had devoted his whole life to the motto ‘Die Wissenschaft und die Arbeiter’ (Science and the Workingman), would receive the same impression from a condemnation which in the course of events confronts him as would the chemist, absorbed in his scientific experiments, from the cracking of a retort. With a slight knitting of his brow at the resistance of the material, he would, as soon as the disturbance was quieted, calmly continue his labor and investigations.”
One finds a rich assortment of pertinent and witty comparisons in the writings of Lichtenberg (2 B. of the Göttingen edition, 1853). I shall take the material for our investigation from that source.
“It is almost impossible to carry the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody’s beard.” This may seem witty, but on closer examination one notices that the witty effect does not come from the comparison itself but from a secondary attribute of the same. For the expression “the torch of truth” is no new comparison, but one which has been used for a long time and which has degenerated into a fixed phrase, as always happens when a comparison has the luck to be absorbed into the common usage of speech. But whereas we hardly notice the comparison in the saying, “the torch of truth,” its original full force is restored it by Lichtenberg, since by building further on the comparison it results in a deduction. But the taking of blurred expressions in their full sense is already known to us as a technique of wit; it finds a place with the Manifold Application of the Same Material (p. 35). It may well be that the witty impression created by Lichtenberg’s sentence is due only to its relation to this technique of wit.
The same explanation will undoubtedly hold good for another witty comparison by the same author.
“The man was not exactly a shining light, but a great candlestick…. He was a professor of philosophy.”
To call a scholar a shining light, a “lumen mundi,” has long ceased to be an effective comparison, whether it be originally qualified as a witticism or not. But here the comparison was freshened up and its full force was restored to it by deducting a modification from it and in this way setting up a second and new comparison. The way in which the second comparison came into existence seems to contain the condition of the witticism and not the two comparisons themselves. This would then be a case of Identical Wit Technique as in the example of the torch.
The following comparison seems witty on other but similarly classifiable grounds: “I look upon reviews as a kind of children’s disease which more or less attacks new-born books. There are cases on record where the healthiest died of it, and the puniest have often lived through it. Many do not get it at all. Attempts have frequently been made to prevent the disease by means of amulets of prefaces and dedications, or to color them up by personal pronunciamentos; but it does not always help.”
The comparison of reviews with children’s diseases is based in the first place upon their susceptibility to attack shortly after they have seen the light of the world. Whether this makes it witty I do not trust myself to decide. But when the comparison is continued, it is found that the later fates of the new books may be represented within the scope of the same or by means of similar comparisons. Such a continuation of a comparison is undoubtedly witty, but we know already to what technique it owes its witty flavor; it is a case of unification or the establishment of an unexpected association. The character of the unification, however, is not changed by the fact that it consists here of a relationship with the first comparison.
Doubt in Witty Comparisons
In a series of other comparisons one is tempted to ascribe an indisputably existing witty impression to another factor which again in itself has nothing to do with the nature of the comparison. These are comparisons which are strikingly grouped, often containing a combination that sounds absurd, which comes into existence as a result of the comparison. Most of Lichtenberg’s examples belong to this group.
“It is a pity that one cannot see the learned bowels of the writers, in order to find out what they have eaten.” “The learned bowels” is a confusing, really absurd attribute which is made clear only by the comparison. How would it be if the witty impression of this comparison should be referred entirely and fully to the confusing character of their composition? This would correspond to one of the means of wit well known to us, namely, representation through absurdity.
Lichtenberg has used the same comparison of the imbibing of reading and educational material with the imbibing of physical nourishment.
“He thought highly of studying in his room and was heartily in favor of learned stable fodder.”
The same absurd or at least conspicuous attributes, which as we are beginning to notice are the real carriers of the wit, mark other comparisons of the same author.
“This is the weatherside of my moral constitution, here I can stand almost anything.”
“Every person has also his moral backside which he does not show except under the stress of necessity and which he covers as long as possible with the pants of good-breeding.”
The “moral backside” is the peculiar attribute which exists as the result of a comparison. But this is followed by a continuation of the comparison with a regular play on words (“necessity”) and a second, still more unusual combination (“the pants of good-breeding”), which is possibly witty in itself; for the pants become witty, as it were, because they are the pants of good-breeding. Therefore it may not take us by surprise if we get the impression of a very witty comparison; we are beginning to notice that we show a general tendency in our estimation to extend a quality to the whole thing when it clings only to one part of it. Besides, the “pants of good-breeding” remind us of a similar confusing verse of Heine.
“Until, at last, the buttons tore from the pants of my patience.”
It is obvious that both of the last comparisons possess a character which one cannot find in all good, i.e., fitting, comparisons. One might say that they are in a large manner “debasing,” for they place a thing of high category, an abstraction (good-breeding, patience), side by side with a thing of a very concrete nature of a very low kind (pants). Whether this peculiarity has something to do with wit we shall have to consider in another connection. Let us attempt to analyze another example in which the degrading character is exceptionally well defined. In Nestroy’s farce “Einen Jux will er sich machen,” the clerk, Weinberl, who resolves in his imagination how he will ponder over his youth when he has some day become a well-established old merchant, says: “When in the course of confidential conversation the ice is chopped up before the warehouse of memory; when the portal of the storehouse of antiquity is unlocked again; and when the mattings of phantasy are stocked full with wares of yore.” These are certainly comparisons of abstractions with very common, concrete things, but the witticism depends—exclusively or only partially—upon the circumstance that a clerk makes use of these comparisons which are taken from the sphere of his daily occupation. But to bring the abstract in relation to the commonplace with which he is otherwise filled is an act of unification. Let us revert to Lichtenberg’s comparisons.
“The motives for our actions may be arranged like the thirty-two winds, and their names may be classified in a similar way, e.g., Bread-bread-glory or Glory-glory-bread.”
As so often happens in Lichtenberg’s witticisms, in this case, too, the impression of appropriateness, cleverness, and ingenuity is so marked that our judgment of the character of the witty element is thereby misled. If something witty is intermingled in such an utterance with the excellent sense, we probably are deluded into declaring the whole to be an exceptional joke. Moreover, I dare say that everything that is really witty about it results from the strangeness of the peculiar combination bread-bread-glory. Thus as far as wit is concerned it is representation through absurdity.
The peculiar combination or absurd attribution can alone be represented as a product of a comparison.
Lichtenberg says: “A twice-sleepy woman—a once-sleepy church pew.” Behind each one there is a comparison with a bed; in both cases there is besides the comparison also the technical factor of allusion. Once it is an allusion to the soporific effect of sermons, and the second time to the inexhaustible theme of sex.
Having found hitherto that a comparison as often as it appears witty owes this impression to its connection with one of the techniques of wit known to us, there are nevertheless some other examples which seem to point to the fact that a comparison as such can also be witty.
This is Lichtenberg’s characteristic remark about certain odes. “They are in poetry what Jacob Böhm’s immortal writings are in prose—they are a kind of picnic in which the author supplies the words, and the readers the meaning.”
“When he philosophizes, he generally sheds an agreeable moonlight over his topics, which is in the main quite pleasant, but which does not show any one subject clearly.”
Again, Heine’s description: “Her face resembled a kodex palimpsestus, where under the new block-lettered text of a church father peek forth the half-obliterated verses of an ancient Hellenic erotic poet.”
Or, the continued comparison of a very degrading tendency, in the “Bäder von Lucca.”
“The Catholic priest is more like a clerk who is employed in a big business; the church, the big house at the head of which is the Pope, gives him a definite salary. He works lazily like one who is not working on his own account, he has many colleagues, and so easily remains unnoticed in the big business enterprise. He is concerned only in the credit of the house and still more in its preservation, since he would be deprived of his means of sustenance in case it went bankrupt. The Protestant clergyman, on the other hand, is his own boss, and carries on the religious businesses on his own account. He has no wholesale trade like his Catholic brother-tradesman, but deals merely at retail; and since he himself must understand it, he cannot be lazy. He must praise his articles of faith to the people and must disparage the articles of his competitors. Like a true small trader he stands in his retail store, full of envy of the industry of all large houses, particularly the large house in Rome which has so many thousand bookkeepers and packers on its payroll, and which owns factories in all four corners of the world.”
In the face of this, as in many other examples, we can no longer dispute the fact that a comparison may in itself be witty, and that the witty impression need not necessarily depend on one of the known techniques of wit. But we are entirely in the dark as to what determines the witty character of the comparison, since it certainly does not cling to the similarity as a form of expression of the thought, or to the operation of the comparison. We can do nothing but include comparison with the different forms of “indirect representation” which are at the disposal of the technique of wit, and the problem, which confronted us more distinctly in the mechanism of comparison than in the means of wit hitherto treated, must remain unsolved. There must surely be a special reason why the decision whether something is a witticism or not presents more difficulties in cases of comparison than in other forms of expression.
This gap in our understanding, however, offers no ground for complaint that our first investigation has been unsuccessful. Considering the intimate connection which we had to be prepared to ascribe to the different types of wit, it would have been imprudent to expect that we could fully explain this aspect of the problem before we had cast a glance over the others. We shall have to take up this problem at another place.
Review of the Techniques of Wit
Are we sure that none of the possible techniques of wit has escaped our investigation? Not exactly; but by a continued examination of new material, we can convince ourselves that we have become acquainted with the most numerous and most important technical means of wit-work—at least with as much as is necessary for formulating a judgment about the nature of this psychic process. At present no such judgment exists; on the other hand, we have come into possession of important indications, from the direction of which we may expect a further explanation of the problem. The interesting processes of condensation with substitutive formation, which we have recognized as the nucleus of the technique of word-wit, directed our attention to the dream-formation in whose mechanism the identical psychic processes were discovered. Thither also we are directed by the technique of the thought-wit, namely displacement, faulty thinking, absurdity, indirect expression, and representation through the opposite—each and all are also found in the technique of dreams. The dream is indebted to displacement for its strange appearance, which hinders us from recognizing in it the continuation of our waking thoughts; the dream’s use of absurdity and contradiction has cost it the dignity of a psychic product, and has misled the authors to assume that the determinants of dream-formation are: collapse of mental activity, cessation of criticism, morality, and logic. Representation through the opposite is so common in dreams that even the popular but entirely misleading books on dream interpretation usually put it to good account. Indirect expression, the substitution for the dream-thought by an allusion, by a trifle or by a symbolism analogous to comparison, is just exactly what distinguishes the manner of expression of the dream from our waking thoughts. Such a far-reaching agreement as found between the means of wit-work and those of dream-work can scarcely be accidental. To show those agreements in detail and to trace their motivations will be one of our future tasks.
- Since this joke will occupy us again and we do not wish to disturb the discussion following here, we shall find occasion later to point out a correction in Lipps’s given interpretation which follows our own.
- The same holds true for Lipps’s interpretation.
- Psychoanalysis: Its Theories and Application, 2nd Ed., p. 331.
- This same witticism was supposed to have been coined before by Heine concerning Alfred de Musset.
- One of the complications involved in the technique of this example lies in the fact that the modification through which the omitted abuse is substituted is to be taken as an allusion to the latter, for it leads to it only through a process of deduction.
- Another factor which I shall mention later on is also effective in the technique of this witticism. It has to do with the inner character of the modification (representation through the opposite—contradiction). The technique of wit does not hesitate to make use simultaneously of several means, with which, however, we can only become acquainted in their sequential order.
- Translation of 4th Ed. by A. A. Brill, the Macmillan Co., New York, and Allen & Unwin, London.
- The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 280.
- Cited by Brill: Psychoanalysis, p. 335.
- l. c., p. 334.
- The excellence of these jokes depends upon the fact that they, at the same time, present another technical means of a much higher order.
- Given by Translator.
- This resembles an excellent joke of Oliver Wendell Holmes cited by Brill: “Put not your trust in money, but put your money in trust.” A contradiction is here announced which does not appear. At all events it is a good example of the untranslatableness of the witticisms of such technique.
- Brill cites a very analogous modification wit: Amantes—Amentes (lovers—lunatics).
- Compare here K. Fischer (p. 85), who applies the term “double meaning” to those witticisms in which both meanings are not equally prominent, but where one overshadows the other. I have applied this term differently. Such a nomenclature is a matter of choice. Usage of speech has rendered no definite decision about them.
- l. c., page 339.
- Heine’s answer is a combination of two wit-techniques—a displacement and an allusion—for he does not say directly: “He is an ox.”
- The word “take,” owing to its meanings, lends itself very well towards the formation of plays upon words, a pure example of which I wish to cite as a contrast to the displacement mentioned above. While walking with his friend, in front of a café, a well-known stock-plunger and bank director made this proposal: “Let us go in and take something.” His friend held him back and said: “My dear sir, remember there are people in there.”
- For the latter see a later chapter. It will perhaps not be superfluous to add here a few words for better understanding. The displacement regularly occurs between a statement and an answer, and turns the stream of thought to a direction different from the one started in the statement. The justification for separating the displacement from the double meaning is best seen in the examples where both are combined, that is, where the wording of the statement admits of a double meaning which was not intended by the speaker, but which reveals in the answer the way to the displacement (see examples).
- See Chapter III.
- A similar nonsense technique results when the joke aims to maintain a connection which seems to be removed through the special conditions of its content. A joke of this sort is related by J. Falke (l. c.): “Is this the place where the Duke of Wellington spoke these words?” “Yes, this is the place; but he never spoke these words.”
- Following an example of the Greek Anthology.
- Cf. my Interpretation of Dreams, Chap. VI, The Dream Work, translated by A. A. Brill, The Macmillan Co., New York, and Allen & Unwin, London.