A Joke on Freud

The Analyst Gets Analysed by The Cartoonist of the Famed New Yorker Magazine

Why do people laugh about patients being in therapy? How come they find discussions concerning childhood problems so amusing? In short, what’s so funny about psychoanalysis?
If you ask cartoonists at The New Yorker, the answer is: everything.

Since the 1920s, innumerable cartoons have appeared in the weekly magazine about couches and their occupants, about bearded men sitting behind these couches, sometimes with funny German names, occasionally with an accent and often with an impressive diploma pinned on the wall behind them.

For over 80 years people have been joking about Freud | Photo: New Yorker

Freudian therapy has tickled the fancies and funny bones of the artists, and they have made public many aspects of a treatment method that values privacy.

One person could explain best how and why these jokes work so well, namely Sigmund Freud himself. After all, he wrote a book about the subject in 1905, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, that is still considered a fundamental text on the subject.

He described the power of jokes “to arouse a feeling of pleasure.” They operate with techniques to divert attention from a forbidden, unpleasant, censored thought that is primarily of an aggressive or sexual nature. The thought is then expressed indirectly.

To illustrate his points, Freud drew from a vast reservoir of mostly Jewish jokes he had been collecting – the kind told in coffee houses throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He also referred to caricatures as being so “attractive to us“ because, like a good joke, they represent “a rebellion against […] authority, a liberation from the oppression it imposes.”

In fact, around the time Freud published his book, the New York-based cartoonist Winsor McCay, of Little Nemo in Slumberland fame, already incorporated psychoanalytic preoccupations: His comic strip series Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was at least partly inspired by Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. But it took awhile until psychoanalysis itself became the target of more or less aggressive humor, and possibly nowhere as consistently as in urban America, for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, Freud enjoyed more popularity across the Atlantic than in Austria or elsewhere in Europe. Since his visit to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1909, the analytic technique became a standard method in therapeutic circles fairly quickly. As the founder would later recall:

“In Europe I felt as though I were despised, but over there I found myself received by the foremost men as an equal […]. It seemed like the realisation of some incredible daydream.”

With the growing acceptance of psychoanalytic theory and practice in the 1920s came what Freud would have called a reaction formation. The Austrian satirist Karl Kraus may have set the high tone of caustic critique when he said that “psychoanalysis is the disease whose cure it purports to be.”

Looked at in a Freudian vein, humorous invectives against the couch were betraying clear signs of aggression and defensiveness vis-a-vis the provocative new concepts of the Oedipus complex, anal retention, infantile sexuality and a host of previously unsuspected traumas.

Retaliation by joking was – and still is – particularly prominent in American cultural circles too.  The New Yorker, being published in one of the two cities most obsessed with analysis (the other one is Buenos Aires), reflects this. From two psychoanalysis-related New Yorker cartoons in 1927, the number increased to four in 1932, five in 1936 and eight in 1947. During the “golden era” of Freudianism, from the 1940s through the 1970s, the magazine ran between eight and 15 cartoons on depth therapy every year.

The psychoanalytic community took notice, and it did using Freudian tools. As early as 1950, Yale psychiatrist Frederick C. Redlich analysed “the unconscious attitudes toward psychiatry” in magazine cartoons, half of them from The New Yorker. Redlich arrived at several key conclusions: “the aggressive allusions are partly correct and have their counterpart in reality,” i.e., “some psychiatrists may charge too much and offer too little [and] may not be kindly healers but authoritarian fakers;” there is “an increasing public interest in psychiatry;” and overall “the unconscious image of the psychiatrist is one of a domineering, sexually aggressive father figure,” though occasionally “through projection [the psychiatrists] become ‘infantilized’ like their patients.”

In more recent New Yorker cartoons, there has been a shift from the established conventions to a kind of open-source code for use in the most varied situations.

“As in a dream,” New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff noted, “the components of the [therapy] situation have become peculiarly malleable. The analyst may be a rabbit, and the analysand may be a chicken or even a bowling pin.”

There may be no final word as to why and how any drawings, and especially those on Freudian therapy, “work.” Perhaps it is best to move on to the cartoons themselves.

Or, as the therapist in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint tell his patient after listening to him for the entire length of the book: “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

The author, professor of media communications at Webster University Vienna, has curated “On The Couch”, an exhibition of cartoons about psychoanalysis from The New Yorker. At the Freud Museum, Berggasse 19, 1090 Vienna; until June 24.

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