Humour and September 11

After the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (400,000 people were incinerated), many onlookers, both Japanese and American, spoke of the awesome beauty of the sight.

Few people have dared to speak in similar terms about September 11, despite the fact that Hollywood discerned long ago that watching things explode seems to be one of our greatest pleasures. It resonates somewhere inside us. The idea that our emotional reactions to this terrible event are all of a piece (that is to say, unalloyed horror) is tantamount to a rejection of the concept of the unconscious. A high price to pay, I think.

An equally insensitive bizarre thought came to me shortly after the horrific tragedy and has stuck: why were there no jokes or humour left by the victims of the attack?

My question seemed less bizarre after the recent Moscow theatre siege. The hostages, surrounded by bombs and terrorists, and with the certain knowledge that no negotiations would be made on their behalf, still managed to send text messages such as “At least its helping my diet’ to their loved ones on the outside. I have heard of no equivalent messages being sent on September 11, but if I am wrong, please let me know.

As well as the lack of humour, there was a lack of hate. Given that so many marriages end in acrimonious divorce, surely someone wanted to leave a message of hate to their husband or wife? Perhaps it’s just an English thing.

Instead of hate or humour, the cloying protestations of love came thick and fast, as if no other emotion was permissible. Of course it is unlikely that other kinds of messages would have made it into the public domain, but that in itself may say something about American sensibilities.

Europeans often complain that American culture exhibits a po-faced lack of irony and subservience to authority figures and symbols which perhaps constricts the range of emotional reactions permissible in any given situation. Something about all this – I’m not sure what – is tied up with the structure of the superego.

Freud would have been equally surprised at this lack of humour. After the SS broke into his house in 1938 and took away the family passports and money, he drily remarked “It’s more than I’ve ever made from a single house call”. And when forced to sign a document stating that he had been well treated by the Nazi authorities, he allegedly said he felt like writing at the bottom of the form: “I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anybody”.

In one of his late papers Freud investigated the function that humour might play in our psychic economy. You can probably guess that his specimen example is concerned with death. A man is going to the gallows on a Monday morning. He looks up at the beautiful blue sky (the ‘beautiful blue sky’, of course, was the only acknowledgement of beauty that commentators were allowed to make regarding Sept 11) and says: “Well, the week’s beginning nicely”.

Freud himself calls it ‘crude’, but it is a fitting example for a man who places an Egyptian death mask at the foot of his analytic couch. From such unpromising material he derives some important insights.

“Like jokes and the comic, humour has something liberating about it; but it also has something of grandeur and elevation, which is lacking in the other two ways of obtaining pleasure from intellectual activity. The grandeur in it clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability. The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure….”

“Humour is not resigned; it is rebellious. It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle”

“In what, then, does the humorous attitude consist, an attitude by means of which a person refuses to suffer, emphasises the invincibility of his ego by the real world, victoriously maintains the pleasure principle – and all this, in contrast to other methods having the same purposes, without overstepping the bounds of mental health” (p163)

As so often in his work, Freud takes as his starting point the relation between a parent and child. In the situation when one person adopts a humorous attitude to another person, he is behaving as an adult does to a child when he recognises and smiles at the triviality of interests and suffering which seem so great to it. The humourist, says Freud, identifies himself with his father, and reduces other people to children.

When somebody adopts a humorous attitude within himself, in order to ward off possible suffering, something similar occurs, but in this case the relation is internalised. The superego adopts the same attiitude to the ego, as the adult to the child and the humourist to other people.

“In other connections we knew the superego as a severe master. It will be said that it accords ill with such a character that the superego should condescend to enabling the ego to obtain a small yield of pleasure… It is also true that, in bringing about the humorous attitude, the superego is actually repudiating reality and serving an illusion. But (without rightly knowing why) we regard this less intense pleasure as having a character of very high value; we feel it to be especially liberating and elevating.. It means: ‘Look! here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children – just worth making a jest about!'”

In this way, the superego tries, by means of humour, to console the ego and protect it from suffering.

Since his usual conception of the superego is like the wrathful old testament God, Freud adds: “This will teach us that we still have a great deal to learn about the nature of the superego”

But our question remains: what does it mean for the ‘American psyche’ that this benign function of the superego could find no expression on the fateful day of September 11? What are the other forms of ‘consolation’ and ‘protection’ that the nation must adopt? I look forward to the answer with a certain trepidation.

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