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Humor is the name given to the psychic process that operates in the field of the preconscious, based on the dynamic interrelation between the agencies of the mind, and akin to a defense mechanism, consisting of an unexpected re-evaluation of the demands of reality that reverses their painful emotional tone and thereby offers to the triumphant ego that yield of pleasure which enables it to demonstrate its invulnerable narcissism.

Freud's first insight into the mechanism of this phenomenon, which was entrenched in the family and community life in which he was deeply involved, came in the last pages of Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905c). It was, in fact, on the death of his father that he started to collect Jewish jokes (Witze) and, at the insistence of Wilhelm Fliess, developed a theory to explain them, bringing out how their very condition of possibility lay in the activity of this process within the humorist. Although he pointed out (1908c) the kinship between this process and children's games, he did not elucidate it in metapsychological terms until the brief article of 1927 (1927d).

Unlike comedy and wit, or even irony, all of which aim at the satisfaction of erotic or aggressive drives and necessitate, for this purpose, the effective presence of a real third party, humor involves a strictly intrapsychic process of indirection whose purpose is economic, viz., sparing the subject from the painful feelings (pity, irritation, anger, suffering, disgust, tenderness, horror, etc.) that the situation ought to occasion. The energy of these feelings is thus diverted and transformed into the moderate but triumphant pleasure (so different from the explosion of hilarity) that is expressed in the smile of humor. As a result, the humorist reaffirms his narcissistic invulnerability, assuring himself that nothing traumatic can affect him, and that he can in fact find in such things a yield of pleasure.

This being the case, although humor is an autonomous process, it is encountered most often mixed with other forms of the comic, in which it finds a mode of expression, with which it is often confused, and for which it intervenes as a mechanism that inhibits any emotions that would obstruct its development.

Nonetheless, Freud considers humor as a particularly salubrious activity, making of it the rarest and most elaborate form of defense. Yet its benefits turn out in fact to be costly, necessitating a large outlay, since while this economic process, being neither denial nor repression, leads to a reversal of emotional tone, it does not eliminate the painful representation. Freud explained this as the result of a new topographical arrangement: the humorist takes the psychic emphasis off the ego and displaces it onto his superego: "Look! here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children—just worth making a jest about!" (1927d, p. 166).

In fact, humor leads to a set of notions whose origin, nature, history, and development thus all need to be re-examined, as they all indubitably hark back to the genesis of the ideal psychic agencies and their function in establishing a humorous attitude towards reality. All of these dimensions, indeed—whether it be the invulnerable narcissistic kernel of which the humorist is a living testimony, the exercise of the reality principle, the experience of pain, the mechanism of illusion, or the alchemy of the emotions that it produces—invite reflection on the precocious relations that were formed between the humorist and his mother who bequeathed to him this precious gift (Donnet, J.-L., 1997; Kameniak, J.-P., 1998). For example, we need to reflect—as did Freud—on the enigma of the "essence of the Super-ego," a superego that manifests itself in an atypical form of functioning: as a reassuring and consoling agency—even a maternal one—that is barely consistent with the severity usually associated with it, whether in the commands it issues or in its role as representative and guardian of the reality principle.

While humor was initially considered as a variety of the comic genre, in the same way as wit (with which it is often confused), Freud early on endeavored to distinguish it through topographical localization, the kind of gratification it affords, the absence of the need for a third person, and, finally, the specific nature of the process, all of which make it a character disposition or trait rather than a random production. Consequently, over and above the defensive use that has been classically recognized and associated with the process of humor, we might want to ask whether it could have a specific function of working-through, very different from the relaxation which is brought about by the comic effect, thus tempering any excess of emotion; how any real "work of humor" is actually accomplished; and what its nature might be. Whereas, when faced with the hostility of events, the risk of trauma may appear to be significant, humor does allow the subject to maintain the integrity of his psychic functions and their availability while also acknowledging the "disruptive" nature of reality. We can surely envisage the possibility (Bergeret, 1973) that there are hints of a working-through involved in humor, or, at the very least, the establishment of the framework needed for any possible integration of the sufferings inflicted on the subject.

Nevertheless, it cannot escape notice that there has been a general lack of interest and a relative silence on the part of contemporary analysts when it comes to this subject, apparently so frivolous though in fact it raises fundamental questions. Up until now, analytic literature on this theme has scarcely extended beyond a few scattered remarks or occasional articles, and most of them use humor as a generic category succeeding that of "the comic" proposed by Freud. Consequently, they are more likely to discuss the techniques and procedures of the modes of expression to which humor resorts than to examine the process of humor itself.


See also: Almanach der Psychoanalyse; Creativity; Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious; Paradox. Bibliography