16 May, 2006

A language joke, twice

1. Sigmund Freud, Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious (1905):

The doctor who had been summoned to help the baroness in her confinement declared that the critical moment had not arrived, and proposed to the baron that they play a game of cards in the adjoining room in the meantime. After a while the doleful cry of the baroness reached the ears of the men. "Ah, mon Dieu, que je souffre!" The husband jumped up, but the physician stopped him saying, "That's nothing; let us play on." A little while later the woman in labor-pains was heard again: "My God, my God, what pains!" "Don't you want to go in, Doctor?" asked the baron. "By no means, it is not yet time," answered the doctor. At last there rang from the adjacent room the unmistakeable cry, "A-a-a-ai-e-e-e-e-e-e-E-E-E!" The physician then threw down the cards and said, "Now it's time".

2. Karl Vossler, The Spirit of Language in Civilization (1925):

An Alsatian woman, of German parentage but French 'education' came to give birth to a child. As long as she vented her anguish in the cry ai! ai! the doctor did not take the matter seriously; only when she gave forth the German cry au! au! did he feel that her time had come.

The first lesson from this comparison is, naturally, that Vossler can't tell a good joke. To be fair, he calls it an anecdote, but it is still an anecdote smacking of the half-told joke. (When telling Freud's version aloud, I have found it best to shriek the final cry as violently as possible, for maximum comic impact.)

It is enlightening to compare the two writers' respective interests and analyses. Freud uses the story to demonstrate one function of wit, the solution of psychological problems 'by bringing the entire character to full expression through a minute detail'. The joke shows us not only 'how pain allows one's original nature to break through all the strata of education', perhaps the more obvious point, but moreover 'how an important decision is rightly made dependent upon a seemingly inconsequential utterance'. We see here an instance of Ginzburg's description of the Freudian method. Tellingly, Freud focuses not on the baroness, but on the doctor as interpreter of the baroness, her physical condition revealed by her psychical condition, which in turn is revealed by her language. This focus points to Freud himself as the interpreter of the psychology underlying given situations.

Vossler's primary concern is not the psyche itself, but rather its activity in language-usage; thus he strips away the wit of the story to make an academic point. Where Freud's baroness regresses from sentences to feral yelps, Vossler's woman regresses from yelps in one phonetic paradigm to yelps in another; the conclusion is that 'of two different language-habits the more deeply rooted is the more 'natural', though it need not be the most frequent'. Vossler is arguing that spoken language conforms only contingently to a pre-determined nature; in the present example, the woman's speech falls away from the expected French sound-pattern, towards the deeper German pattern. The concept of a natural language, obeying natural laws, abstracted from particular usages (idiolects), is merely an illusion. Vossler, like Hermann Paul before him, thus propounds a sort of linguistic existentialism. The dry irony of Freud's doctor, which provides the first joke's humour, and hence its significance, all but vanishes for Vossler, leaving the gravid Alsatian at his story's centre, a mouthpiece for verbal spontaneity.


language said...

Years ago I read an excellent version of this joke that had the woman crying out first in English, then some European language (French?), finally in Yiddish, whereupon the doctor said "It's time" and went in. I wish I could find it again; for me, it's funnier than Freud's.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, if you do find it again, by all means let me know and I'll add it as a footnote.