Humor, Playfulness and Human Aggression (Including eulogy by Eve Steel)

George Christie


The Melbourne Branch arranged for George to give this lecture on Humour to a small group of colleagues at the local Institute rooms on a Saturday morning. He had been too ill to give a public lecture earlier in the year.

_Members who had been close to George from the Group Society were also invited, so his two professional groups could be present for his swan song. George was keen to give his lecture, although he was very ill and died a few weeks later. He said to me beforehand that he feared it was macabre for someone in his condition to speak on humour. In fact it was a gathering filled with laughter and the sharing of jokes. It was a heartening experience for us all and showed how determined George was to be contributively alive in a way that was important for him. He was glad that it was to be shared more widely. _

Eve Steel


In this paper I would like to focus upon what one might call a reasonably mature sense of humour - its essential nature, its possible developmental origins, its creative potential, and its some tmes very important, but often unfortunately limited role in the easing of aggressive tensions among individuals and groups.

Example 1

A 103-old man was being interviewed over some matter and was asked "Are there any advantages in being over a century old?". After some thought the old man quietly answered "Less peer-group pressure".****

Example 2

Warren Poland (1990) gives an example of how a latent capacity for playful humour can emerge during analytic therapy. He had been working with a traumatized woman who for years had been severely restricted in her behaviour and very socially compliant. After being encouraged to explore the reality of her underlying self, and the reality of how this manifested itself in the collaborative analytic work, she begrudgingly acknowledged an interest in this by saying, " All right, I'll look at reality, but only as a tourist ! "

A derivative of her latent capacity for challenge had found voice in a mild 'transgression'. Poland comments that a remarkable capacity for subtle wit had been buried under the rubble of the psychic warfare of her developmental years.

Example 3

In the British Parliament the Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, once said of the Labour leader, Clement Attlee, " Mr Attlee is a very modest man - and he has much to be modest about ! ". These quiet remarks aroused laughter from both sides of the House of Commons, including Mr Attlee himself.

Political jibes are usually so abrasive and forgettable that one might ask what it was about this moment of irony that can still evoke smiles. A significant factor, surely, was the genuine respect that each of the two men felt for the other, a respect that could easily survive a momentary genuinely playful expression of the genuine antagonism between them.

Such a development is impossible where the opponents never come together to experience each other as real persons, e.g. the leaders of Israeli and Hezbollah forces. They can only fall back upon "I am justified, God is with us, and you are a terrorist!"

The Nature of Generative Humour

The first thing obvious here is that there is a connection between a person's use of such humour and his or her underlying aggression. .

Generative or productive humour seems to occupy a healthy middle ground position between two pathological extreme positions presenting as so-called humour. One of these extremes provides a slightly modified avenue for the acting-out of destructive aggression, as with heavy sarcasm, or with a gross form of obscenity. At the other extreme is the frequent laughter commonly found in what has been called the manic defence position, where individuals are drawn into a shared defending against awareness of the underlying primitive aggressive impulses or consequences of these, e.g.depressive and/or paranoid anxieties.

As Freud first showed us, a communication through humour always springs spontaneously from the unconscious, and although it usually engages us at that level, the whole experience quickly comes to life in our conscious awareness.

This allows the momentary enjoyment of a feeling or impulse currently being consciously disavowed or repressed. We experience a sudden release of intellectual tension, and then, all at once, the joke is there, 'ready-clothed in words'.Irony achieves a similar result in the emphasizing of one idea in order to convey the opposite meaning. Both initially contain an aggressive or rebellious element, and may walk a tightrope between something genuinely funny and something rather cruel.

As stated earlier, the more creative, generative form of humour usually involves a transgression within limits, arising more or less spontaneously, in the context of a personal respect already established between two or more individuals. Any ensuing laughter will act in reducing the underlying accumulated tension resulting from these feelings being denied or repressed. It will bring relief.

I would like to give further examples here of moments of humour emerging in situations involving more complex aggressive interactions between individuals in group settings.

Example 4

A co-therapy couple can be put under great strain at times, coping with the projections of disturbed patients in analytic group psychotherapy. This can be particularly so before the group and its leader(s) have earned the trust of the group members.

On one occasion Ann Morgan and I felt utterly exhausted after a group session which had involved considerable aggressive tensions, and where we had both been trying to cope with many confusing developments, and think into their meaning. We were both, surely, on the receiving end of primitive projections from other group members, as well as what was being stirred up in our own psychopathologies. The group members left. Ann and I sat silently, unable to think clearly. I found myself wondering how to tell Ann what had entered my mind during the last prolonged group silence. Eventually I found the courage to say "Ann, during that last difficult period in the session, I was preoccupied with a thought that you might suddenly drop dead! " "Oh, I wouldn't worry, George", she replied, " I was giving the eulogy at your funeral ! "

Our shared laughter gave us considerable relief, of course, making it easier for us to think about and discuss the previous session, which had clearly stirred in each of us fundamentally aggressive impulses towards the other.

Example 5

When an analytic group has managed to earn the trust of its several members, gradually more and more authentic, understandable aggression can actualize in the sessions.** **The intensity can be quite frightening at times, but often a spontaneous moment of humour from one member towards the end of the session can result in the whole group, including the co-therapists, bursting into laughter, with an easing of tension and a resumed group harmony, the group leaving the session more or less as a team. ** **

The Primary Sexual and Aggressive Forces Within Us

What potentially troublesome unconscious activity is continually present in all of us ? Primary sexual forces and primary destructive aggressive forces are there from the beginning of our lives, together with a hungry aquisitiveness. The latter two, in particular, can be intensified by early deprivations and other early life traumatic experiences. As this early aggression bursts out in the infant it is usually accompanied by moments of terror.

Winnicott points out that both Freud and Klein passed something by in focussing upon the factor of inheritance in explaining the origins of this early aggression and destructive fantasy. What they tended to miss was the full implication of dependence, and of environmental provision, especially by the mother, but also by father, and in ways that we are still only beginning to understand, by the soundness of the parental couple.

This environmental provision is one that either meets dependency needs, or fails to do so. Where it fails to do so, powerful destructive aggression, the propensity for violence, can arise in the child and become part of the developing personality.

These primary destructive forces are then universal, continuing to burst out of control all over the world, requiring military and police forces everywhere. Opening up any daily newspaper we see evidence of uncontrolled primitive aggression continually emerging, even within religious communities (The Holy Wars).

Even the 'good-enough' mother, in Winnicott's terms, fails to meet sufficiently the child's dependency needs from time to time, invoking the baby's destructive rage. The infant's first awareness of a separate 'other' has been seen as the dawning realization by the infant that there is someone out there who repeatedly survives being annihilated in that rage.

Some writers about these unconscious forces (e.g. Joyce McDougall) have initially focussed upon the primary sexual ones i.e. a range of ambisexual impulses. Only later did Joyce state her realization of the concurrent importance of violent aggression or destructiveness, in Eve Steel's words the 'monstrousness' existing in various degrees of intensity within us all. Does the tendency of even our research individuals to focus more upon the primary sexual forces derive in part from the greater fear we all have of the destructive forces within us and others?

** The Role of Play in Our Early Development**

So the baby emerges with its powerful primary instinctual forces alive within, and meets up with the waiting mother. The powerful instinctual forces also meet up with a powerful, controlling or inhibiting force within our developing psyches, a force extremely primitive in nature in the early stages of our development, and e.g. gradually actualizing into what can eventually be represented by a Judaeo-Christian moral conscience.

How do we learn to cope with these opposing forces within us, without a dangerous loss of control, on the one hand, or a restrictive masochistic compliance to a powerful inner moral control on the other ?

All of us need to be able to develop :-

(1) An ability to find avenues for creative transformation of the primitive forces within us.

This is where the fundamental importance of play arises.

According to Winnicott play is our primary area of creativity. He and many writers have emphasized the fundamental transformational importance of play in opening up avenues of creativity for the unintegrated forces of rage, terror and infantile sexual promptings lying within us. Somewhere between the risk of living dangerously, and 'the danger of living safely' (Nietzsche), lies 'the dangerous safety of play' (Peter Blake).

Winnicott (1971) has described how individual creativity can then emerge, not only through artistic, scientific and religious avenues of expression, but also in the enjoyment of life generally, e.g. "... looking at a picture, listening to music, watching a football match, or dressing up for a special occasion". (2) An imaginative capacity and a capacity for thought, i.e. to reflect about what we are experiencing

Play facilitates the development of imagination. And Albert Einstein wrote that a certain combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought - before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others (quoted by Erikson, 1978).

Very perceptive communication can occur at this pre-cognitive level. As one English neurologist has put it, you can hide what you are feeling from most people, but you can't hide it from very young children or from dementing old people (who are losing their rational-cognitive capacities but uncovering their pre-cognitive communicative capacities).

There was once a small boy who became lost in the wonder of his building blocks and jigsaw puzzles, but who remained slow in learning to talk. He sometimes failed to meet the academic requirements in secondary school, e.g. he failed foreign languages, but throughout this period two words retained key significance for him, 'Image' and 'Play'. He proceeded to fail the entrance examination for a Polytechnic Institute, and was told to return to school. The young man's name, of course, was Albert Einstein (Erikson, 1978).

The Morphine Experience at Epworth Hospital

In January 2006 I was being treated in Epworth Hospital. I was in severe pain. My doctor ordered intra-venous morphine, my first experience of this.

The inner chaos that resulted - a multiplicity of past objects, scenes, levels in a house, mixed inextricably with objects, scenes, etc from my more recent life. In a dozing state these images presented in brightly detailed visual hallucinatory forms, There were also periodic sharp and very brief auditory hallucinatory forms. There was clearly a regression to a preverbal, psychotic level of experiencing for me. I initially felt intrigued and disturbed by all this, and was unable to relax and go to sleep. However I suddenly felt very alive and made a request for a piece of paper and a pencil. I wrote something down that felt three-dimensionally alive and important. I now felt very relaxed and went to sleep for 8 - 10 hours.

A day os so later I remembered I had written something and found the following :- "We only need to dig far enough into the unconscious to open up future avenues of creativity". Put into contact with my own creative potential I had then been able to relax and go to sleep.

Compare the above with what the Sydney analyst, Maurice Whelan, wrote :-

"The role of psychoanalysis is to unearth and uncover inner obstacles to creativity".

There is also F. Nietzsche's statement from 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' :-

"One must have chaos within oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star".

It is necessary for each one of us to let go of our usual defensiveness, draw upon a sense of humour, and be a little uncontained at times - 'the dangerous safety of play'. It is, of course, far more dangerous for us to be too conforming, too compliant in response to the world and its demands. We need Joyce McDougall's 'plea for a measure of abnormality', or the irony in Winnicott's 'we are poor indeed if we are only sane'.

**The Creative Process and Humour **

Freud's greatest achievement, according to Jones, was the distinction he drew between the two fundamental forms of mental functioning, primary and secondary process.

Primary process thinking is indestructible. Arising as part of the swell of our ruthless, unconscious desires, and representing 'the invincible core of our being' (Ricouer, 1970), primary process cannot be stopped on its path except by a conversion or transformation of its powerful intrinsic forces.

Secondary process thinking , on the other hand, has to do with objective, focussed, rational and logical thinking, operating within a clear sense of time and space. Its energy is bound, there is inhibition of discharge, and one idea tends to prevail, with repression of the opposite idea. Such thinking, of course, can be completely undermined by internal or external forces. Marion Milner (1989) says primary process should not be seen as something to be grown out of, but rather as something complementary to secondary process, and as necessary to it as male and female are to each other. Winnicott wtites similarly, and Ernst Kris once referred to the creative union of the two processes as 'inspirational insemination'. Such metaphors resonate nicely with the generative view of creativity, seen as the spawning of new ideas, initiatives and directions. Incidentally Milner sees Winnicott as having been on excellent terms with his primary process, describing it as an inner marriage to which there was very little impediment.

William Blake employed a similar metaphor in his extraordinary work "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell". Using Energy and Reason to denote what Freud a century later called primary and secondary process, he wrote :- ""With contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human Existence".

According to Williams and Waddell (1997), Blake saw the positive emotional tension between such contraries as opening a way to lead the mind out of the impasse of the negative state. They describe him as favourably contrasting a poetic and progressive ethic with the static application of moral and religious codes.

The recently published findings of the Swedisl experimental psychologists, Smith and Carlsson (1990) seem to confirm the psychoanalytic view of creativity as a generative way of experiencing reality, favoured by open communication between primary and secondary processes, and requiring a capacity to tolerate such 'contraries' or ambiguities, and the anxiety associated with them.

So what have creative people got the enables them to do this? Smith and Carlsson sees the answer in their capacity to confront and transform such threats into increasingly manageable forms at a symbolic level, i.e. their capacity to play with the material. Those individuals who cannot stay with the anxiety tend to repress one idea, feeling or impulse, and to intensify consciously the opposite one in the shape of a reaction-formation, e.g. an obsessional trait or an idealization.

Blake makes a strident cry of protest about such a response :- "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires", he thunders provocatively. Williams and Waddell understand him to mean by this that desires which achieve no aesthetic organization or fulfilment are, in effect, like murdered infants in the mind :- Each one is an aspect of truth which has been aborted from fruition and lies enchained, potentially vengeful".

It is in such a context, surely, that playful humour can emerge, with all its creative potential. The ego or self is able to allow an 'adaptive regression' (i.e. an active unmasking of unconscious thoughts, feelings and motives), is able to tolerate the anxiety this may entail, and is then able, through play, to facilitate new creative structuring of the material.

The Importance of the Parent's Role in Playfulness

Winnicott (1971) has described how play first emerges in the potential space between the baby and the mother.

The baby is presenting with acquisitive hunger, potential rage if not held and fed adequately, and anxiety. The baby faces two aspects of mother and oscillates between them. There is firstly the someone that the baby is able to find and seem to make actual (omnipotently) as the source of food and of feeling held, and the object of angry attack (with accompanying fear of retaliation). As mentioned earlier, it has been suggested that the baby's first awareness that there is another person out there is the realization that someone is surviving being annihilated in the baby's periods of rage.

Secondly there is mother's genuine self waiting to be found. When the mother can do this well, the baby begins to enjoy experience based upon a marriage of the omnipotence of its imagination with the dawning of its capacity for rational thinking. Winnicott states that play is immensely exciting in the precariousness of this marriage.

Brazelton and Als (1979) have shown that the good-enough mothers are are better able to bond later with their babies if as earlier they have been able to own their ambivalent feelings about being pregnant. The revival of early anxieties, conflicts and ambivalent feelings in these women will have served to facilitate their further growth and individuation (Pines, 1982). This appears to prepare a way for the essential process of bonding between mother and baby.

In her state of 'primary maternal preoccupation', a good-enough mother is able to transcend her underlying ambivalent feelings about the pregnancy, and bring the primitively ambivalent new-born into a blissful engagement with her. A creative (adaptively regressive) state in the mother draws the two individuals close enough together to allow the emergence and gradual unfolding of a new relationship. Regressive states of this kind are commonly characterized by playfulness and humour. They, in turn, allow the emergence and gradual unfolding of a new relationship in which the child will also have space in which to love and to hate. And, as Winnicott points out, the mother's reliability in all this will lie in her genuine love and hate feelings, and not in her reaction-formations.

In a paper "Winnicott and the Developmental Psychology of Infancy" Lynne Murray informed us that many researchers have noted a growing motivation in the infant for a different form of experiencing around the age of 3-4 months. Mother-infant communication ceases to be an exclusive 2-part relating and instead becomes a 3-part one, incorporating a new element, either an object (a person or a thing) or an action sequence.

As the infant's visual acuity improves, reach and grab movements start to become effective. The infant will now start grabbing at the hair, nose, tongue etc. of the mother or any other interested person. Such episodes, and others initiated by the mother or other person attracting the infant's attention, gradually develop into play, i.e. into what Trevarthen calls 'games of the person' in which both parent and infant take on assertive, teasing roles which may become set into play routines.

Example 6

Over 50 years ago I was sitting beside my wife, holding our first-born baby, when the little girl happened to grab a lock of my hair and pull it sharply. My sudden sharp "Ow" caused her to freeze in instant terror, her pupils widely dilated, her hand still gripping my hair. I wasn't sure what to do next, but I continued to hold as before, our eyes locked in contact. Gradually her eyes lost their frightened expression, the pupils returning to their usual size. Time continued to pass. A new expression began to emerge in her eyes, and eventually I again felt a pull, this time a very faint one. I gave a quietly histrionic 'Ow' in response. After a considerable pause there came a sudden peal of delighted laughter from the little girl. Another pull - another 'Ow' and more laughter.

A moment of terror - a holding situation - and the birth of a game, with a shared enjoyment of humour. Something rendered possible by earlier similarly productive experiences when held in the arms of her mother.

This experience here was in line with what Blomfield (1987) has described as a transitional period between a destructive (ruthless) foetal parasitism and the emergence of a potentially creative baby. It seems to follow then that playful experiences in the space between infant and mother (or any other care-taking figure) can provide early opportunities for the infant to discover exciting avenues for resolving terrifying fantasies of annihilating and/or of being annihilated. The importance of such a discovery is suggested by the quality of relief and joy in the laughter of an infant in the midst of the play.

So play, and healthy humour in play, can provide an essential medium for the mother in her role as organizer in the child's early movements towards ego-integration, and for mother, father and other responsible caregivers in the child's further development, including the gradual emergence of a rich and ultimately metaphorical use of language leavened, by humour. Such play must arise initially out of a creative use by mother and child of the powerful ambivalent forces inherent in the mother-infant dyad.

'Good-enough' parents, in Winnicott's terms, can own their ambivalence, come to terms with it, and find derivatives of both love and hate feelings towards the baby, with access to a shared sense of humour. They can then proceed to allow their growing children space in which to own and express feelings of love and hate towards them in ways that are appropriate for their respective stages of development, helping the children to open up playful avenues for the generative transformation of their destructive impulses, facilitated by access to the shared family humour.

Poland (1990) suggests that there is a line of development of the sense of humour, which parallels both psychosexual development and the development of maturity of object relationships.

"The line of development is determined by constitutional drive pressures and by maturing capacity to appreciate otherness, finiteness and the limits of reality. The adult gift of laughter refers to the relatively mature capacity to acknowledge urges and frustrations, hopes and disappointments, with a humour in which bitterness is tamed but not denied.

Chasseguet-Smirgel has developed an interesting view of the psychopathology of the humorist in terms of an early lack of maternal care, modified by a glimpse of what the loving mother might have been (e.g. a nurse or a grandmother). The humorist, in her view, is always trying to be his own loving mother.

Example 7

The baby mentioned above now has five children of her own. Impressed by how they are developing I said to her "When I can learn something from how my children are bringing up their children, I feel I must have done something right as a father". She replied "Of course you did something right, Dad - you married Mum !"

** Pathological Responses to Arousal of the Primitive Forces Within Us**

(1) The ego can remain more or less intact while the sexual and / or violent impulses can actualize in the form of sexual perversions or psychopathic outwardly destructive or severe sado-masochistic behaviour.

(2) A psychosis can emerge if the ego can not cope with a disintegrative intensification of these forces. Sometimes the developing psychosis can quickly transform into bodily expression, manifest in an acute psychosomatic illness, even a fatal one. So, as Joyce McDougall has said, it is better to be mad for a while than dead.

** Forms of Creative Response to Arousal of the Primitive Forces Within Us**

(a) We can recognize dreaming as a first move in that direction.

(b) Well-developed sporting activities clearly provide avenues for some degree of creative transformation of underlying primitive aggressive, competitive impulses. e.g. the importance of two nations fighting these out on a sporting arena, rather than on a battle field. The primitive aggression can still break out at times on the field or in the crowd, but can soon be contained.

c) The birth of a religion offers people the opportunity for creative activity. A religion is based upon idealization, among other things. However idealization is not a generative defence. Despite the possibility of different religious groups coming together to share their creative experiences, the repeated emergence of holy wars between the religions is a demonstration of how they fail to successfully transform the hidden violence within their members.

(d) The wide range of creative avenues, such as poetry, painting, pottery, music, gardening, etc,etc. The importance here again of early opportunities for playfulness in helping to establish these creative avenues

(e) Genuine spontaneous humour is a most important creative avenue, e.g. available to two antagonists who have gained respect for each other. The importance here of early playfulness in helping to establish this avenue.

** Factors Increasing a Child's Capacities for Creative Transformation**

The creative capacity can be facilitated by the following :-

a) Early holding & containment

b)** The young child being allowed to express his or her genuine feelings of love & hate.** The opposite of Love is not Hate - it is Indifference.

(c)** Opportunities for play, including symbolism.**

For Winnicott play is the area of primary creativity.

(d)** The development of Janusian thinking, helped by (b)**. This consists of actively conceiving two or more opposite or antithetical concepts, ideas or images simultaneously, both existing side-by-side and/or as equally operative or equally true.

Examples :- Yin & Yang formulations (Taoist religion), God & the Devil (Christianity), Nietzsche's Dionysian & Appollonian principles, etc.

Example 8 (illustrates c)

Pam, aged 3, was 4th in a family of 5 children, and was in a supermarket with her mother and 3-month old brother Tim (in a pusher). She became very angry with Tim, stood over him, red in the face, and shouted "I hate you and would like to kill you!"

Several women were checking out nearby. There were clicking of tongues, one woman cried out "Shame!", and another said "You don't mean that, little girl". Pam, still red in the face, looked up at the line of women, and shouted "Matter of fact, I'd like to kill all of you as well!"

Pam's mother said to me that it was an embarrassing moment, but she thought how, of the 4 children older than Tim, Pam was the gentlest and most tender one with Tim, revealing how if little children are free to express their genuinely angry feelings, then they will be free to express their love.

Pam is now 20. was co-captain of her private school in Melbourne, spent 6 months in Moscow last year (the GAP scheme) teaching English to university students, is now at ANU University in Canberra, is an accomplished musician (hobby) and has an engaging sense of humour.

The Janusian form of thinking, apparently unique to creative people, plays a constant role in diverse types of creative processes. It clearly operates during the creation of poems, novels, plays, paintings or sculptures, and it has operated during the creation of new scientific theories and creative leaps of thought connected to very important scientific discoveries. Occurring at crucial moments during the process of creating, usually at moments of inspiration, this form of thinking has effects that are not always overtly manifest in the final product. The Janusian formulation, in other words, is often a crucial step or way station that later undergoes a good deal of transformation and revision.

Albert Rothenberg

An increasing awareness of contrary feelings can facilitate creative impulses and initiatives in each one of us. The primary libidinal and destructive forces within us are themselves indestructible. However the repressive side of our evolving secondary process functioning (rational, cognitive thinking) tends to inhibit full awareness of our capacity to love and hate.

Separated by 150 years or so, the poet Blake and the analyst Winnicott were united in their insistence that such awareness is essential to our sense of being alive. Rothenberg (1988) and others have developed the theme further in showing how our creative imagination depends upon the capacity to tolerate antithetical ideas, images or concepts simultaneously. Our imaginative and rational processes have to come together in allowing the conception of an inspirational idea and the struggling emergence of a created object, as in early transitional phenomena and subsequent play.

As McDougall has pointed out, we require a healthy part of the ego to bring about creative transformations of the pathological forces existing within us. Even severe symptomatology will often wane temporarily during periods of creativity, as if some symbolic transformation of destructive forces is occurring. This tends to support Joyce McDougall's view (1995) that the part of the personality allowing us to create, and impelling us to keep on creating, is the healthy part. The majority of creative people, as she reminds us, are astonishingly productive.

The Willoch Paper

Willoch (1990) has written an important paper in which he points out that much of the acting-out that dominates the treatment situation with hyper-aggressive children can be understood in terms of arrested and distorted development of interactive play. "In the driven, aggressive (sometimes sexualized) manifestations of this blocked play development, it is possible to detect a potentially healthy element of play. If treatment continues long enough, this hidden element begins to expand and the provocative, antisocial patterns transform onto more normal versions of parent-child play".

Willoch gives an example from an institution for placement of seriously hyper-aggressive children. Apparently more than one psychoanalyst was invited to take on treatment of selected children there. However this seemed doomed to failure as the chosen children just ran away from the consulting rooms when taken there.

However one analyst responded to the hastened departure of his prospective patient by chasing him. When he eventually caught up with the boy and grabbed hold of him, the boy burst into laughter. After one or two such further chases the boy stopped running away, and it became possible for the analyst to persuade him to take part in a more productive assertion of self, i.e. on a sports playing field. The combination of sessions with the analyst and membership of a sporting team cleared the way for an eventual discharge into the community and a continuation of further development.****

** Freud and Humour**

Freud was interested in the nature of Jewish humour even before the end of last century. In 1905 he published three major works - The Dora Case, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. It is a striking fact that the three essays and the joke book were written simultaneously. According to Ernest Jones (1953) Freud kept the manuscript of each book on adjoining tables, writing now in one book, now in the other, as the mood took him. "It was the only occasion I know of when Freud combined the writing of two essays so close together, and it shows how nearly related the two themes were in his mind".

Freud was intrigued by the resemblance between 'dream-work' and 'joke-work', but drew distinctions between the two phenomena as well. A dream is more disguised and tends to take over a passive ego, whereas a joke has more intentionality, as it were, and is less disguised. It can come from nowhere, like a dream, but the ego is more in charge of the situation, and retains easy access to secondary process thinking.

Freud recognized that good humour is usually short-lived, producing a few moments of highly-valued pleasure, a brief triumph of the hum an psyche over the forces of repression or the pain of reality. In the genesis of a joke, a preconscious thought is given over for a moment to unconscious revision, enabling a partial, transient and involuntary release of some impulse or feeling ordinarily, or at least currently, repressed. The outcome is at once grasped by conscious perception. We experience a sudden release of intellectual tension, and then all at once the joke is there, ' ready-clothed in words'.

By 1927 Freud was seeing humour as 'a rare and precious gift', something rather rebellious, yet possessing a certain grandeur. " The grandeur in it clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, i.e. love of self, the victorious assertion of the self's invulnerability, and a triumphant re-assertion of one's narcissism via an adaptive regression. The self refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer ".

In these reflections, Freud was clearly influenced by his interest in the history of Jewish humour, and its gradual evolution as an adaptation to centuries of persecution. Reik (1962), Schleslinger ((1979) and Megnhagi (1991), among others, have developed this theme further in acknowledging, in Jewish humour, not only a pseudo-masochistic self-preservation, but also a latent self-assertion, in the face of an overwhelming world of enemies.

Example 9

Arthur Marx, the son of the Jewish Groucho, and a Gentile mother, describes an incident when the Marx family moved into a new home, and Groucho tried to enrol the family with a local beach club. He filled out an application form and handed it to the manager. " Are you Jewish ?" asked the manager. Groucho indicated that he was.. " Well, we don't allow Jews to swim at our beach " was the answer. Arthur, aged 8, immediately felt felt anxious, fearing what would happen.

However Groucho's immediate reply was - " What about my son ? He's only half-Jewish. Can he go into the water up to his knees ?"

And the manager burst out laughing.

**Example 10**

** **Chasseguet-Smirgel (1988) adds something to Jones's well-known story of Freud's departure from Vienna to London in 1938. After the Nazi's forced their way into his apartment, and seized his money, they ordered Freud to sign a paper, declaring he had been correctly treated. He did this, and is said to have added in writing "I can heartedly recommend the Gestapo to everyone".

Chassequet-Smirgel points out how this statement is phrased along the lines of letters of reference given to servants in the Vienna of those days. So here this frail 82-year-old man, facing the Nazi machine, proceeds to adopt, tongue-in- cheek, a position of domination over the whole world, including the persecutor/

** **So here are two examples of a 'victorious assertion of the ego's invulnerability'. However we are not always capable of such a humorous attitude. As we see with our patients, and in observing ourselves, a capacity for humour rapidly wanes when we are overwhelmed by persecutory or depressive feelings, by shame or guilt, or when defensive obsessionality or excessive idealization of the self or other - or even excessive idealization of an idea or cause. These all involve aspects of the functioning super-ego (and ego-ideal).

Freud's interest turns to the super-ego in the seldom-quoted 1927 paper on Humour. He points out here that we already know the super-ego as a severe master, but in humour find something very different - a super-ego comforting an intimidated ego by repudiating reality and serving up an illusion. This, according to Freud, does not contradict its origin in the parental agency.

Example 11

A woman who speaks with a Yiddish accent enters a posh restaurant.

We don't serve Jews here," the manager tells her.

That's alright," the woman says, "I don't eat them."

Example 12

Three elderly Jewish women are bragging about how devoted their sons are to them.

The first one says; "My son is more devoted. For my seventy-fifth birthday last year, he catered an affair for me. And even gave me money to fly down my friends from New York."

The second one says: "My son is more devoted. Last year for my birthday he gave me an all-expenses-paid cruise around the world, First Class."

The third one says; "My son is the most devoted. Three times a week he goes to a psychiatrist. One hundred and twenty dollars a week he pays him. And who does he speak about the whole time? Me."


by Eve Steel

"Memorial Gathering at Caulfield Grammar School, December 20.12.06"

(This was George's old school, so had special significance.)

_ We are here today to honour George and share a little of our experiences of him, so we can be comforted by our rich memories and know they remain with us. I have been asked to speak this afternoon as a friend and colleague._

_ A few weeks ago George presented his last paper to the Melbourne Institute of Psychoanalysis. His sister Joan told me as a little boy hed run the race right to the end. He did this all his life, fighting his illness with great courage and continuing to be alert and alive and responsive to others and he was able to die peacefully. His gentle manner belied his inner strength that helped others to fight their demons in various forms. His capacity to listen and be an ally to the creative force for healing was something George believed in and practiced. George focused on the creative potential present in us and has written about this theme and spoke on this to us, also when he was ill this last winter._

Georges last paper was on Humour. This was a particular aspect of his contribution as a person and in his work. Those with whom he worked have told me how this capacity to create a space, where a quality of distance could allow humour to emerge was precious to them and can still be drawn upon.

George came to psychoanalysis already an experienced psychiatrist and group psychotherapist. His registrars from that earlier time always found him encouraging and enabling, as did psychoanalytic trainees. He did not come from a didactic position of knowing, but from one of shared exploration. He was modest. He presented papers around the world in Brazil, Turkey, Israel, Finland, Denmark, Italy and Canada. His response to these travels was characteristically an eagerness to learn. He started learning Italian. From his Canadian venture he became enthusiastic about learning of Canadian indigenous peoples beliefs, particularly through the work of Hugh Brody. George found it was relevant to our understanding of ourselves.He was first introduced to anthropology at the Austen Riggs Centre and was in seminars with Margaret Mead. Visiting Groot Island through his son John and family, also expanded his horizons. George had a fascination with the so called primitive, gaining insights from early human development and other cultures. His bringing together individual work and group work was a natural thing for George to practice and it enriched his understanding and had good outcomes. He made bridges with other disciplines and worked in partnership with the London Obstetrician Mike Pawson, giving papers at international conferences on infertility and how offering group work with couples by a therapy couple affected the outcomes positively.

_ George was dedicated and committed to his work, working long hours and loving it._

Thinking about what George embodied does indeed convey a true gentleman - courteous, considerate, gentle, kind, encouraging and holding hope in the face of despair. He modelled the qualities of manhood and fatherhood that may be seen to belong to another time. His quiet courage to practice as he thought appropriate in each circumstance has been valued by those he worked with. I remember meeting George and Margaret and Annie when we were in England at the same time, by the ancient Iron Age white horse of Uffington, carved in the hillside. George was enthusiastic about ancient history and at the time was immersed in Saxon England and reading about King Harold, his court and times. Never mind some English history books focusing on the period after 1066, George discovered the culture of the Saxon court and times and was delighted and surprised by it. This is an example of his exploring the past in a way that was beyond the usual and the orthodox. George also loved poetry and again went beyond quoting Keats on negative capability and without irritably reaching after fact & reason. This was something he espoused and it was congruent with his practice of holding, not knowing and taking time, to the advantage of his work. He read all of Keats poetry and biographies, really enjoying getting to know the poet and his work. He loved William Blake and his iconoclastic voicing of the monsters and devils of his time and within us. George was keenly aware that to be creative one had to be destructive and one had to struggle to know what the un-thought destructive forces may be by whatever means, not necessarily words, in order to find a way of fighting them and unleashing creative forces. George was utterly dedicated to his work and loved it. However this could not have taken place without the support of Margaret and the love of his precious family. His understanding of humour, fears, aggression and creativity, also grew from his delight in his children and grandchildren and seeing their spontaneous healthy expression of such feelings. In his last presentation to us, George quoted how he said to one his daughters, I must have done something right, and she replied quick as a flash, Yes, you married mum! We all responded with the laughter of recognition.

_ Georges work with infertility was based in his collaboration with Anne Morgan, as his long time work partner, providing a special coupling model for the couples in groups. His actual practice was held administratively by Marcia Hocking, again enabling George to be the practitioner unencumbered by all those practical necessities that are the grounding of the work. Piloo Rustomjee at Georges 80th celebration dinner joked that George had 3 good women in his life. This raised chuckles from George and others, again laughter of recognition, which George would be the first to acknowledge. George had a capacity for life long friendship. His many accomplishments may only be realised more fully now. He was a modest person, concerned about the work he did and always wanting to share that work and understanding with others. _

_ George was always himself and never hid behind a role or persona. We may be unable to speak to him now, but the memories and experience of being with him are alive in us and we can draw on them with gratitude._


Blomfield. O.H.D. (1987), Human Destructiveness; an essay on instinct, foetal existence & infancy. Int. R. of P/A, 14, p. 21-32.

Brazelton, T.B. & Als ), Four Early Stages in the Development of Mother - Infant Interaction, in The P/A Study of the Child 34: p. 349-370.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine(1988), The Triumph of Humour in Fantasy, Myth & Reality, Int. Univ. Press, Madison, Conn., p.197-213.

Christie, G. L. (1994) Some Psychoanalytic Aspects of Humour, Int. J. of P/A, 75, 3, p. 479-489.

Erikson,, E. (1977), Toys & Reasons, Boyars, London, p. 139-145.****

Freud, S. (1905), Jokes & threir Relation to the Unconscious, S.E. 8.

Freud, S, (1908), Creative Writers & Day-Dreaming, S.E..9, p. 141-153.

Freud, S. (1927), Humour, in S.E. 21, P. 161-166.

Steel, Eve

McDougall, J. (1995), The Many Faces of Eros, W. W. Norton & Co., N. Y. Ch. 4- 6.

Milner, Marion (1989, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men), Tavistock, London.

Murray, Lynne (Winnicott & the Developmental Psychology of Infancy . Brit. J. of P/Therapy, 5, p. 333-352.


Poland, W. (1990) The Gift of Laughter, P/A. Quarterly, LIX, p. 197-225.

Rothenberg, A. (1979) The Emeging Goddess, Univ. Chicago Press.

Ricouer, P. (1970) Freud & Philosophy, Yale Uni. Press.

Smith, G. & Carlsson, I. (1990) The Creative Process: A Functional Model, Int. Univ. Press, Inc. Madison, Conn.

Williams, M. & Waddell, M. (1991) The Chamber of Maiden Thought, Routledge/Tavistock, London, p. 74-75.

Whelan, M.

Willoch, B. (1990), From Acting-Out to Interactive Play, Internat. J. of P/A.,

Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing & Reality, Penguin Books.