Saturday, 15 February 2014

Reviews of Books I've Never Read

Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious by Sigmund Freud
A young Sigmund Freud inspecting a joke-manufacturing machine, Vienna, 1876.
The great Soupy Sales once said, "I don't tell jokes...the jokes tell me." What did he mean by this enigmatic but telling remark? For that I had to turn to the good doctor himself, Sigmund Freud and his fascinating book, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. I have to confess, when I first saw it on the bargain shelf at the local library for fifty cents I actually thought it was a book about bad jokes that go on so long you fall into unconsciousness listening to them, waiting for the story that never ends and the punchline that never arrives and then you have to be prodded with a pole, violin bow, cane, lit cigar, bread stick or the taxidermy penis of a bull elephant to elicit a response or incite a chuckle, a snort or even cause a trickle of drool to descend from your chin to your shirt.
Lo and behold, this book was the exact opposite, being an examination of the psychology behind jokes using some rollicking good examples like:

Customer: How much is that herring over there (pointing to a herring over there)?
Shopkeeper: That's no herring. That's my wife.
Customer: Oh, in that case, how much to have her pickled and brined?

It was that joke alone that put Vienna on the map back in 1809 and soon people from all over Europe were making the journey to the strudel and herring besotted capital of Austria to visit the location where this joke was first uttered just outside of Herr Herman's Herring Emporium. The emporium itself soon became the focus of yearly pilgrimages of hairy and smelly Europeans in heavy overcoats who loved a good joke and a good plate of herring to go with it. Sometimes they stored extra herring in their coats, which is probably what made them so smelly in the first place, especially if you're taking the slow train from Belgrade to Irkutsk in an overheated coach car.   
Some happy customers outside of Herr Herman's Herring Emporium, circa 1900. The lineups became so long in and outside of the shop, sometimes running around the block, that Herr Herman added an outdoor herring cart to deal with the overflow.
Now some of the some of the jokes represented in this book are in the original German so I had to translate them myself. Unfortunately my German is as rusty as a World War I bayonet or actually, I have to admit I don't even speak German. Nevertheless I didn't let that stop me from sounding out the words and trying to ascertain their meaning. I spoke the words through a toilet paper tube in the hopes that the slight echo effect would aid in the deciphering of this ancient and highly expressive language that often involves the spraying of saliva during some of the more hard syllabic  pronunciations. Perhaps this is why so many people in the Germanic-speaking countries always appear to be sweating profusely. It's either the saliva spray causing this faux-sweat effect that beads their hammy faces or else the steady diet of beer, pig's feet and blood sausage creating an actual physical catalyst to cause this unusual phenomenon. Freud once said about the Viennese, "their faces drip like melting pastry, even when they're happy." In fact it was this curious trait that was the cornerstone of Freud's "salivating pastry theory" in which he describes that after urine and feces the greatest gift a child can give its parents is its own saliva and how, over the years, that compulsion remains steadfast into old age where, as old people drool, especially over a nice tray of pastries served up in the senior's home just before Wheel of Fortune comes on the TV, that drooling is actually an expression of trying to recapture those moments of innocent youth where one is still looking for acceptance and to please the parental units with one's babbling and bodily functions. Looking for love in effect. In fact many seniors wrap it all into one weltschmerz of a package, drooling and filling their adult diapers simultaneously in a kind of ode to time past and the overwhelming sadness that comes from life's regrets like letting your wife go out alone in the rowboat to bring in the crab traps only to have the boat capsize and her drown, putting off that trip to Kapuskasing to visit the oven mitt factory or not taking that opportunity to appear on Wheel of Fortune and missing out on the chance to win tons of cash and maybe copping a feel of Vanna White's ass between vowel turning. Essentially we start life on shaky feet and leave it the same way, the only difference being our diaper size changes. Anyway, I'm straying from my review or as Freud would say, "schmitzen dof flugen mit Krakow baden licht und blautzen kop," roughly translated as "if I didn't know you were hit in the head with a horseshoe as a child I'd swear you were the horse's ass of Krakow."And you thought Freud had no sense of humour.
It's a known fact that Freud based many of his jokes and sayings on actual historical figures and events and so he didn't merely toss the "horse's ass of Krakow" off the top of his head or pull it out of his ass nor was the horseshoe in the noggin some strange feat of imagination. The truth is "the horse's ass of Krakow" was an actual person, one Dimitri Kobolasitzsky, pictured above, greatly feared during the early 1900's on the streets of Krakow where, with his incredible horseshoe tossing skills he cracked the skulls of many an innocent passerby, the impetus behind this all stemming from some unresolved anger issues from his childhood when his father forced him to rub goat dung on his grandmother's feet as a home-remedy for plantar warts.That and the fact that he lived in a yurt up until he was sixteen and was often taunted by neighbourhood children who called him Goat Dung Dimitri and Dirty Yurty.
So, back to jokes and their relation to that part of the mind that, given legs, would dance the Watusi in its underpants in a gymnasium full of high school basketball fans and by that I mean the unconscious and not the super-ego that usually tends to hog the spotlight, especially where the Watusi, underwear and a captive audience is involved. To sum it up in a nutshell, the good nut doctor, Sigmund Freud, theorized that all jokes and forms of humour are born out of deeper and darker motivations, a veritable bubbling bouillabaisse of neurosis, psychosis and even halitosis (few people realize the effects of bad breath on the human mind), and behind the joviality and jocularity there lies deep-seated fears and anxieties that can ruin many a punchline, wedding speech or late night sales pitches for food chopping devices or hair replacement systems. To illustrate this point I again turn to the great Soupy Sales (Freud could have had a field day with Soupy if they had lived at the same time but alas, never would the two great minds meet and share some zippy bon mots, boners and engage in good-natured buffoonery), primarily in one of his greatest routines beloved my millions and simply called "The Bear Mauled My Wife and Children."   
Soupy taking a break during the TV filming of his famous and hilarious "The bear mauled my wife and kids" routine. The bear's name was Wilfred and he and Soupy were inseparable, traveling together to engagements from Las Vegas to the Antarctic. In his declining years Wilfred was unable to perform the famous routine due to loss of teeth, which made the mauling more like a gumming instead. When old age eventually took Wilfred's life Soupy was inconsolable for weeks and instead of finding a new bear Soupy simply retired the act.
In this skit Soupy and his family are camping and while Soupy is attempting to put up a tent his wife and two kids are exploring the campsite. That's when a bear emerges from the woods and as Soupy is hilariously getting entangled in the tent and poles and rope, the bear attacks his family, killing them easily and then mauling them, removing limbs and heads with great pulls of its teeth and chewing on entrails with great relish. As this is happening Soupy is now fully covered by the tent, thrashing around and yelling, "Hey honey, a little help here, please. Hey, kids, where are you guys? Can't you give me a hand?" That's when the bear deposits a severed hand into Soupy's hand that's jutting out from under the tent and if the audience isn't already laughing at these amusing antics this sends them into hysterics. The side-splitting skit continues with Soupy eventually freeing himself from the tent and then being chased by the bear around the stage, all the while having to dodge the mauled, dismembered and bloodied bodies of his wife and children while he waves the severed hand around manically. What does this tell us? Yes, Soupy Sales trying to outrun a bear that has killed and partially eaten his wife and children is funny, especially in the hands of a comedic master like Soupy himself, but also that humour comes from very dark places, just like Sigmund Freud had earlier interpreted when Soupy was just a wee obnoxious thing named Milton and being spanked by his mother for peeing on the Yahrzeit candles.

Which leads us further into Freud's text and the idea that jokes, by nature are a judgmental impulse rooted in the unconscious where dissimilar thoughts find humorous purchase when combined absurdly and then spoken by a person with a mouth full of herring. Or a ventriloquist's dummy with an Oedipus Complex. Or an enormous man whose jowls resemble the mudflaps on a semi-trailer. As Freud himself so aptly put it in his book, "sich etwas zuruckgelegt mitzhoofen Schenectady einschlafreig tuchas schaden schmutz koffen mit ordentlich vasht kuglefloffen," that translated reads "though you dreamed that you once owned a dry-cleaning business in Schnectady, the only pants you're fit to press are those on the hind quarters of an incontinent walrus whose rear end can barely fit into those slacks in the first place and so eventually you're forced to take a job in a denture cream factory working the viscosity machine and secretly rubbing your man-nipples against the molar adhesion metal testing plates." What does Freud mean by this? Simply, the vehicle for obtaining and discharging pleasure and laughter in the first place is created from an intimate connection to a disturbed psychological condition manifesting itself first in the joke and then in the elicited response, a distribution of energy that in a sense is a reaction to repression, both sexually, culturally and in some instances agriculturally like when a farmer wants to grow, say wheat but his banker says, "There's no money in that, grow soybean and if you don't I'll repossess your farm and by the way, I had sex with your daughter and also your ox and I'm still not sure which was better."         
If you think a ventriloquist's dummy with an Oedipus Complex is a strange thing look no further than this image as an example of the love that dare not speak its name, even if the speaker is someone throwing their voice using the dummy as a delivery system for their most primal and taboo desires. Or not, as in this case where the dummy truly did want to sleep with his mother and conspired with her to murder the father and then move away together to the banks of the Mississippi and run an owl sanctuary. Amen indeed and if the dummy and his mother hadn't later produced this album as a testament to their love they may never have been caught. Fortunately an off-duty policeman at a church rummage sale came across this album and once he heard the first song, "Is That An Oedipus Complex In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To See Me," he realized he had an important clue to the death of Morton Pizzle, an out-of-work ventriloquist whose dead body had been found in his trailer home, stabbed repeatedly with a taxidermy swordfish. His wife and dummy had vanished and couldn't be found for questioning.
In yet another humorous anecdote, Freud relates this joke of a rabbi introducing the village butcher to his daughter in the hopes a marriage might be made.
"She's a real looker," the rabbi says to him.
"Especially if you have cataracts," the butcher replies as he sees the daughter for the first time.
"What, you don't like her hump?" the rabbi inquires.
"It's not the hump," the butcher responds. "A little hump is nice. It shows hard work, diligence, a sense that with a hump you have nothing to hide or inclination to do so in the first place. My first wife had a hump and I was very fond of it, stroking it at night and talking tenderly to its cartilage."
"That's very touching and very wise," the rabbi replied.
"Yes, but what is not so wise," the butcher continued, whispering now not to be overheard by the daughter, "is that your daughter is old, she squints, she has bad teeth and her mustache is but barely a wisp on her wrinkled face."
"You need not lower your voice," the rabbi said, "since she's also deaf."
Part of the joke here plays on the conceptual framework of the closeness in sound of two words with different meanings, thus in German, "dist fluchbranggen schvitz halfinbrot kunst mit gimmelflaushcen," works on the premise that the words "dist fluchbranggen" or "little hump" is similar to "dost fluchblangitten" that means "mouse diarrhea" and so the double meaning adds a second layer of humour whose psychology is at once both playful and equally traumatic as mouse diarrhea is not a thing to be taken lightly, especially if you step in it in the middle of the night on your way to the bathroom but when you yell, "Yeech, I just stepped in mouse diarrhea," that will naturally elicit guffaws and knee-slaps. Secondly, schvitz, or sweat is close to Schmitz, a famous janitor in Germany known for being the guy responsible for cleaning Hitler and Eva Braun's bunker and on the day they committed suicide Hitler turned to Schmitz and said "Please do a good cleanup, Herr Schmitz because Eva and I are going to commit suicide and there's no telling how the cyanide will effect us but I'm guessing we are going to shit our pants profusely and we don't want to be found like that. We've eaten a lot of bratwurst, sauerkraut, sauerbraten, spatzel and strudel the past few days and it's not going to be a pretty sight. I'm pretty sure our deathbed will be a stench-filled swamp from the great gushes of diarrhea our Nazi bodies will eject." This revelation caused Schmitz to sweat uncontrollably, giving rise to the phrase "you're schvitzing like a Schmitz who has stepped in the fuhrer's feces," and it's at this precise point where Freud's theory of the "two-headed meerschaum pipe dilemma" finds fruition based on the layering of meanings and innuendo and the double-edged interpretations of common phrases that lead a listener into the fulcrum of the joke, the resting spot from which all of the machinations begin turning in the search for laughter or its most treasured result, the spit-take.  
A group of Freudian scholars including the renowned Herr Guttenschmutz (far right) and his French counterpart, Monsieur Le Fenetre (holding the pipe) examining the actual over-sized meerschaum pipe that inspired Freud to come up with his "two-headed meerschaum pipe dilemma" in which he put forth his theory that the meerschaum pipe is really a physical manifestation of castration anxiety in that the carved head at the end of the meerschaum pipe is well aware of the fact that the smoker is placing in his mouth the pipe's stem or, subliminally, the head of the penis belonging to the meerschaum pipe's body, clenching the mouthpiece at times as if threatening to bite off the meerschaum's symbolic phallus thus supporting the completely unsubstantiated and yet convincing theory that the combination of castration anxiety, emasculation and penis envy between the genders, when they meet say at a cocktail party or shuffleboard tournament, creates an almost anti-matter energy, much like a black hole in space, and in this vortex of negative matter there is a kind of synergy that encompasses both birth and destruction and a good reason why meerschaum pipe smoking has taken such a downward turn, replaced by such substitutes as cigarettes, cigars, hookahs and water bongs. It also prompted Freud to coin his famous phrase, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar unless it's an unlit penis in your mouth." Or, might I add, a meerschaum pipe for that matter. The old adage "two heads are better than one" comes to mind but as Freud was sure to remind us, when one of them is the head of your penis then can it really be trusted to make split-second and sometimes life-saving decisions or even rationally buy a bus ticket to the Hvalfjorour fjord in Iceland wen you don't even understand the currency in the first place.
As we can see poo-poo and pee-pee play a large role in Freud's psychoanalytic joke theories and I identify these two functions by those babyish words on purpose in order to underscore Freud's belief that all our motivations are born from our suckling years and as we progress from the oral to the anal to the vaginal and finally the anginal, whereupon we have a stroke and would be lucky if we could even pronounce the  words poo-poo and pee-pee ever again, our impulses in humour are never far from our childhood yearnings and thus jokes have a way of both infantalizing and tantalizing us with their crude forms and double entendres along with some of their higher cultural commentaries exemplified by puns, word play, ventriloquism and dirty limericks sung by bearded midgets in dresses.
The famed Reginald Doothings, dirty limerick reciter extraordinaire and popular guest in all the great royal houses of Europe where his filthy little poems were so well received. Technically he wasn't quite a midget as he measured just over an inch too tall on the Hapsburg Midget-ometer, the standard midget measurement of the time but his well-groomed beard, fetching dresses and lewd limericks won over even the prudest of minds. Freud treated Doothings for a short time when Doothings had a mental block while reciting "There once was a young man from Horsham," for the queen of Norway, was unable to finish and fled to his tiny estate in the foothills of Estonia where he sunk into a deep depression and his only comfort was in being licked by his three-legged Alsatians. Freud was able to work through Doothings' problems, astutely realizing that the dirty limerick blockage stemmed from previously repressed and unaddressed childhood experiences where Doothings, an early bloomer in the facial hair department, was ridiculed by his father for his bushy beard when in effect it was jealousy that drove his father to take mental jabs at his son and also tell him he would never look good in crinoline, no matter how many weasels he hid under the bustle caging.
The great Mama Kublich, star of the vaudeville stage once asked Freud after he attended one of her performances for joke research, "Siggy, my little pisher, what did you think of my salmon mayonnaise routine tonight?" Freud replied, "I thought the mayonnaise was a little off and the salmon being stuffed in your brassiere, well, that was a little cynical perhaps considering it was a trout in the first place." Mama Kublich countered, "Siggy my little kugel-schtupper, you miss the point. The joke is not in the displacement of the fish but in the verbal misdirection independent of the psychical emphasis on its subsidiary meaning. Thus, the mayonnaise may be off but the trout leaps from the stage with the force of a derailed train on the outskirts of Antwerp, not far from the Museum of Modern Turnip Art. The real question here, Siggy, is whether indirect illusion-much like the ostrich that hides its head in the sand but then is mounted from behind by a chicken-fat covered sociopath with a fetish for long legs, necks and feathered bodies-is really just a carefully constructed allusion whose intellectual content is not much better than, say, Baroness Kunstschmeyer flicking the ears of two of her more tenacious suitors in the drawing room where the Baron himself, recently deceased, once invented the ottoman, which in turn would spawn an empire of furniture accessories as well as Turkish despots looking for a place to rest their feet. You see where I'm going with this my little matzah-ball head?" As Freud testifies in the book, Mama Kublich with great mental dexterity, had just handed him his testicles in a teacup and would cause him to revisit his theory of cathectic energy released through inhibition at the auditory perception of a punchline, especially if the punchline involved a drunken mule talking to a bartender, a rabbi wearing a parachute at a circumcision or an alien from outer space having sex with a lawn mower. In the end it's all based on discharge, whether physical or mental, though mental is better because there's less clean-up involved but the two-fold failure of the joke's dream-work foundation sets up the subjective determinants that fulfill the small ambitions of a continent chock full of a neurotic population who still insist on wearing jodhpurs to cockfights and cheese-rolling contests. On this basis Freud invented his punchline prod to measure the effects of a joke on sedentary patients but it also led him towards a further set of theories about the joke-tellers themselves.
Freud's assistant, Leopold Flugenbrau, measuring the effects of a joke via a cerebral cortex punchline prod on a difficult patient who had laughed only once in his life and that in reaction to the image of a man polishing a staircase banister without any pants on, an image that was far from funny by any stretch of the imagination as this practice was well-known to be used by wealthy European families to humiliate the household staff and keep them from asking for raises. Once you've polished a banister in your underpants, you're just happy to have a job in the first place, even if you're paid in toenail clippings, goose droppings or the colourful scabs siphoned out of loofah sponges. 
"The comic," Freud writes, "is looking to stick his tongue out as a means of personifying the animalistic, the infantile and the excretory, bundling it as such into one innervatory expenditure as to appear both mentally deficient and highly astute simultaneously. That these are also the necessary ingredients for constructing the paradigms of psychical automatism puts both the comic and the listener in a state of mind that in German is known as the einschlafrig gut machen sturbebett metzger socken fleisht und haven, or translated, the 'borrowing of the beige socks from beneath the butcher's death-bed,' the butcher being a popular comic trope as evidenced earlier in a joke and which supplies a transient sense of pleasure weighed against all that befalls one upon the Day of Judgement, even with a salami in your pocket for bribery purposes at the gates of heaven or hell if you want to bump yourself up from shoveler of feces to the wart and boil aisle and thus the preconscious cathexis of attention forces a laugh which unmasks the participants and releases their repression allowing them a type of superfluous conformity leading to the picking of lentils from yesterdays soup out of each others' beards with a spontanaiety, sense of comfort, ease and economy of movement that one usually reserves for bathing and/or the self-pleasuring of oneself onto the backs of decoy ducks in the basement of a library." Of course Freud based this entire premise on the old Bavarian parable of a dying butcher and his ne'er-do-well brother-in-law who coveted the butcher's socks and upon the butcher's passing attempted to pilfer the butcher's sock supply that was hidden beneath the death-bed that the butcher lay upon for family viewing, swapping them with his own socks but soon the smell of bratwurst grease emanating from the brother-in-law's feet gave him away and the family banished him to the Black Forest where he lived out his days as a sex slave to the dwarfs that called the forest their home and where they smoked hams in the burning stumps of once-stately elm trees, feeding the fires with cut-rate fairy dust bought off some shifty Russian importer and that turned out to be the dandruff of bridge trolls, hence the cheap price. So there you have it, summed up as neatly as a schizophrenic in a straitjacket and honestly, never have I gleaned so much information from a book I didn't read and found so much insight in the meanderings and occasional voices in my own mind (voices I might add that sound very much like Peter Lorre with a chicken on his head).  It's a veritable cornucopia of comic relief and obsessive desire, a psychoanalytic smorgasbord where the pickled herring is not what it seems. Is it a dream? Is it reality? Did someone just relate a joke or are you laughing because you just awoke on public transit wearing swim fins, a thong and brandishing a garlic press. Just remember, the next time a traveling salesman knocks at your door and you're not the farmer and you have no daughter, he's undoubtedly looking to have sex with your vacuum cleaner, not because he's attracted to it but because it will make a great story to tell his other salesmen cronies at the bar while they have a laugh at your expense. If I were you I'd have a good talk with your penis first before reading this book because if you and it are not on the same page comedy will soon turn to tragedy and that tragedy will make an Oedipus Complex look like a platypus conference compared to what will be happening in your underpants. If you don't have a penis or just misplaced it temporarily then please disregard this warning and go ahead and enjoy Mr. Freud's psychological probing of jokes because the next time someone says "Take my wife, please," it will help to know whether they're talking about their actual wife, their mother or that half pound of raw ground beef they made love to when they were thirteen.

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