Humor and Psyche: Psychoanalytic Perspectives

By Richman, Joseph | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Humor and Psyche: Psychoanalytic Perspectives


Richman, Joseph, American Journal of Psychotherapy


JAMES W BARRON (ED.) Humor and Psyche: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, NJ, 1999, 232 pp., $45.00, ISBN 0-88163-257-0.

Humor and Psyche can be read fruitfully for both enjoyment and knowledge (Most books I read are for one or the other purpose). It will be of interest for a large audience, from beginning therapists to seasoned analysts, as well as for those in the general public who are interested in humor, psychoanalysis, and their relationship. The work is well organized into three main sections and ten chapters, consisting of theory, therapy, and "Character and Creativity" (usually called "applied psychoanalysis"), with an Introduction and Conclusion by the editor. Dr. Barron and all ten authors are, or have been, practitioners in the analytic field. The main topics include the role of the unconscious and the primary and secondary thought processes in humor and therapy, how to recognize the dangers and pitfalls of humor, how to utilize humor effectively, and-most interesting and important-- the personality of the analyst.

An important theoretical topic was humor as a coping mechanism for dealing with reality. Barron's Conclusion has as epigraph a quote from T. S. Eliot: "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." I question that epigraph, and Martin Bergmann's statement that humor allows us to relinquish the reality principle in a way that does not enlarge our reality testing. I have been touched by the depths, complexities, and truths made possible by humor. The value of this book, in fact, is its demonstration of how humor can put us more in touch with "very much reality."

The various chapters present differing and conflicting views that are true to the spirit of contemporary psychoanalysis, yet the book emerges as a unified work. Psychoanalysis is not and never was monolithic and rigid, but instead, has been a growing and developing field. The reader can follow the controversies surrounding vital topics in psychoanalytic theory and technique.

There is something of value in every chapter, but I shall just discuss a few of the highlights. In the opening chapter, Martin Bergmann's broad erudition in the humanities and arts, as well as psychoanalysis, set the tone for the rest of the book. Similar examples of wide erudition appear throughout this work, including Sanville's brilliant history of humor from the English Renaissance in the 16th century to Freud and the present. Feder's chapter near the end of the book, "This Scherzo Is [Not] a Joke," is an engaging, psychoanalytic inquiry into the music of Charles Ives. Feder describes an analogy between Ives music, Freud's "free associations," and William James's "stream of consciousness." Not being a musician, I expected this chapter to mean nothing to me. I am glad to say I was wrong. I was fascinated and convinced that a musical education should be made available to many more people.

Jean Sanville is the only contributor to present a developmental approach that ranges throughout the life span from the psychoanalytic treatment of children to the elderly. She describes herself as a former child therapist whose patients taught her the role of play in the treatment of adults. Freud, she recalls, suggested using the "transference as a playground."

I was particularly interested in the personality and theoretical bent of the analysts as they emerge in their theoretical preferences, humor styles, and the implications for their overall treatment style. The two major approaches could be divided between the cautious versus the spontaneous, the former represented by the formal procedures of classical analysis, and the latter by contributions of Klein and Winnicott. One protects the analyst by "preserving his incognito," the other takes the risk of exposing his or her true self.

Ronald Baker is of the more formal school. He supports the warning by Lawrence Kubie that humor in analysis is subject to abuse, and should be used sparingly and carefully, if at all.

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