Chapter 5

Suddenness: Hâsa and Vismaya (Surprise) Distinguished

1)    [page 158>] Suddenness (unexpectedness) as essential constituent of both bisociative hâsa and of surprise (vismaya). Confusion of this suddenness with surprise has led Freud to make surprise itself the precondition of a successful joke, which becomes less funny as it loses its novelty.

2)    Clear distinction of laughter and surprise in Indian aesthetics. La Fave’s criticism of Hobbesian confusion of suddenness and surprise applied to Freud. Surprise neither necessary nor sufficient condition of humor (as shown by Hollingsworth’s experiments).

3)     Clash of opposing fields of the bisociation at their junction must be sudden (Koestler’s ‘surprise’): for most jokes, repetition results in the formation of a new association at the junction which increasingly muffles and eliminates the clash. Here loss of surprise due to novelty coincides with loss of suddenness in bisociative clash. The associative currents involved in either field and their operator(s) must be familiar if they are to accelerate towards the crucial clash: for some jokes, repetition facilitates the required associative channels. Here loss of surprise in novelty is more than compensated for by the increasing suddenness of the clash. In either case, the suddenness is in-built within the joke structure, whereas the surprise in an external factor.

4)    Surprise is indeterminate (niranusandhâna) because the stimulus resists integration into any available operative field; whereas hâsa is determinate because the stimulus simultaneously seeks integration into two incompatible though immediately available fields.

5)    Where opposing fields are permanently incompatible, the joke remains evergreen. [159>]

6)    Confusion of suddenness of comic incongruity with surprise has induced some experimental researchers (like Rothbart) to interpret non-comic surprise-stimuli as evidence against incongruity theory of humor. Problem-solving consequent to surprise is detrimental to humor appreciation.


[160>] By suddenness is understood here unexpectedness such as that occasioned by the perception of something extraordinary that does not easily fit into our habitual modes of organizing our thoughts, emotions, movements or perceptions, rather than swiftness, though the two ideas are closely associated. For often it is the swiftness with which the unexpected element intrudes into the dominant operative field that prevents the harmonious integration—or at least the tendency to such integration—of the new element by modifying the existing field or the element itself. In the previous chapter, Abhinava was seen associating hâsa with ‘suddenness’ (taDit-tulya = “lightning-like”), but which he also attributed to the emotional reaction of surprise (vismaya). While expounding his superiority-theory of humor, Hobbes has claimed that “whatsoever it be that moveth laughter, it must be new and unexpected.”1 Subjecting Hobbes’ theory of humor to close scrutiny, La Fave et al conclude that “the insight which amuses typically (perhaps invariably) is sudden. Thus a useful humor formula might be: amusement results from a sudden happiness increment consequent to a perceived incongruity” (Humor and Laughter p.86). This element of suddenness in the comic or in jokes has been felt by most theorists and explicitly recognized by some, but since [161>] suddenness is even more intimately linked to the reaction of surprise, this has understandably led the latter, of whom Freud is an outstanding example, to see in surprise itself one of the essential ingredients of a living joke. “We are able to understand the peculiar fact about jokes that they only produce their full effect on the hearer if they are new to him, if they come as a surprise to him. This characteristic of jokes (which determines the shortness of their life and stimulates the constant production of new jokes) is evidently due to the fact that the very nature of surprising someone or taking him unawares implies that it cannot succeed a second time. When a joke is repeated, the attention is led back to the first occasion of hearing it as the memory of it arises. And from this we are carried on to an understanding of the urge to tell a joke one has heard to other people who have not yet heard it. One probably recovers from the impression the joke makes on the newcomer some of the possibility of enjoyment that had been lost owing to its lack of novelty. And it may be that it was analogous motive that drove the creator of the joke in the first instance to tell it to someone else” (Freud, JU p.207).

Our own experience tells us that Freud here has put his finger on some valid and fundamental element of the mechanism of appreciating a joke, and linguistic usage which recognizes the distinction between ‘fresh’ jokes and ‘stale’ or ‘dead’ jokes seems to vouch for this insight. Yet anyone familiar with the clear-cut distinction between hâsa and vismaya, between the funny and the surprising, in Indian aesthetics cannot help but question [162>] the manner of conceiving this relationship between jokes and the element of surprise. Freud apparently implies that it is the newness of the joke, the fact of its never having been heard before, that is directly responsible for the effect of surprise, though there is nothing to prove this definitively. On the other hand, he leaves unsolved the exact role of surprise in the psychic mechanisms that release the necessary quota of superfluous energy to be discharged as laughter: why should this mechanism cease to be fully operative in the absence of surprise? The criticisms leveled by La Fave et. al. against the conception of suddenness in Hobbesian humor theory apply with full force against Freud’s own appeal to surprise: “Suddenness seems a necessary ingredient in an adequate recipe for humor—a humorous experience appears to require that the amused experience a sufficient rate of increment in happiness or joy per unit time. Without suddenness the slope of the happiness increment would conceivably be insufficiently precipitous to generate amusement. However, Hobbes apparently conceives of suddenness in a different sense: that which is new and unexpected generates surprise. Clearly, however, surprise cannot be a necessary component of humor, or jokes heard before could hardly amuse. Yet often they do. Contrary to Hobbes’ opinion Hollingsworth2 reported some types of jokes more amusing if already familiar. Apparently surprise is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of amusement (though such ‘novelty’ [163>] probably does often serve to enhance the magnitude of the amusement). In any event Hobbes’ view on suddenness seems clearly erroneous” (Humor and Laughter p.64).

The existence of jokes which remain as fresh as ever provoking as much amusement now as in their first telling—‘classics’ as it were—or even greater amusement, is sufficient to prove that the suddenness characteristic of jokes lies in reality elsewhere than in the surprise of novelty, though we need not exclude a priori a possible relation between the two. The following anecdote about the casual meeting of the corpulent G.K. Chesterton and the lean G. Bernard Shaw, whose mutual antagonism is well-known, at a dinner party, never fails to elicit much amusement in me even when I repeat it to myself for the umpteenth time. When Chesterton remarked mockingly to Shaw, “my dear man, anyone seeing you would think there’s a famine going on,” Shaw retorted deftly with, “and anyone who looks at you will know who is the cause of it!” The effect of surprise somehow seems to linger on, even when the witticism has grown old. La Fave et. al. attribute the suddenness to the sharp rate of joy-increment but are unable to account for this sharp rate, necessary for amusement, in terms of the dynamics intrinsic to the processing of the joke itself. At the same time, they do not account for Freud’s nevertheless valid observation that, with most jokes, repeated telling erodes the surprise-effect of the joke and in the process deprives it of its original funniness. If suddenness is the precondition for the happiness increment to be high enough to generate amusement, we must certainly ask ourselves how familiarity, in the case of [164>] Hollingsworth’s jokes, could possibly enhance the effect of suddenness.

It is the bisociation theory alone that can satisfactorily account for the vital role of suddenness in the comic experience without confusing it with surprise in general, in such a way that both Freud’s and Hollingsworth’s observations become intelligible within the framework of a single theory of humor. The sharper the contrast or opposition between the two operative fields forming the bisociation, the more sudden or unexpected will be their mutual collision at the junctional concept corresponding to the convulsion O. “The effect of a joke may thus be described as the sudden clash of two swift-flowing, independent association streams in the listener’s mind. The clash must have the impact of surprise; and this can only be achieved if every contact between the two streams is avoided until they meet at the appointed junction. But…a person responds only to that type of joke which sets of a train of habit-formed associations, leading to automatic expectations, in his mind. Receptivity for a given kind of joke varies with intellectual level and habitus; the joke will have no effect if the listener’s mind is unable to embark on the proper association current. But it will be equally ineffective if the level of his intelligence is too high, so that he takes in the whole pattern of the joke at one glance, from a bird’s eye view, as it were; in this case the convergence of the two streams is seen from the beginning, and the effect of surprise is lost” (Koestler, Insight and Outlook, p.27). [165>] Since both association currents are derived from the content of the joke, the element of ‘surprise’ is already contained within the structure of the joke and is not external to it. In other words, it is not the unexpectedness of the total joke-content when heard for the first time that is responsible for the surprise, but the sudden juxtaposition of two associative contexts that are habitually never brought into relation with each other in this particular manner. It is the inner consistency and cohesiveness of one field that resists the sharing of some of its members with the opposing field, held together by its own selective operator incompatible with the first field, and thereby ensures the suddenness of the clash when it comes. The sudden intensity of the bisociative clash, therefore, depends not only on 1) the mutual incompatibility of the two fields but also 2) the strength of the bond holding the junctional concept to the particular form of coherence constituting each field. Where both fields have a simple and familiar principle of coherence, the attention is simultaneously and easily trapped into the opposing networks to produce the clash. But where either or both fields are more complex, subtle and require unfamiliar thought processes, the repetition of the joke can only intensify and accelerate the associative currents necessary for producing the desired clash, and our appreciation of the joke’s funniness seems to be heightened through repetition. A similar gain in amusement is also possible through exposure to a variety of jokes possessing a similar structure and calling up the same associations. The effect of repetition is to increase what Koestler has aptly termed [166>] the ‘facilitation’ of the associative flow in the listener’s mind.3 This permits us to understand why certain jokes are more amusing if already familiar.

On the other hand, the first of the two conditions stipulated above also explains why most jokes grow stale and lose their funny appeal with time, for “after a concept has become bisociated with two previously independent associative currents, these cease to be ‘independent’; that is, the contact thus established between them will make them coalesce into one continuous flow. What came originally as a surprise has become a though habit. Hence a joke is only effective the first time; hence, also, a revolutionary discovery becomes a platitude after a while. In other words, a given bisociative connection becomes, after a few repetitions, if not at once, transformed into an ordinary associative connection and is incorporated into the mental habitus” (Koestler, Insight and Outlook pp.37-38). The suddenness consists in the unexpected juxtaposition of two impressions of the self-same stimulus. For bisociation to occur the two contrary impressions, though simultaneous, should remain distinct and sharply conflicting—they should not blend or harmonize—and the suddenness or unusualness of an event, object or perception is a common and highly effective technique of ensuring this sharp contrast. It is this refusal to coalesce that explains why in our experience “the insight which amuses is [167>] typically (perhaps invariably) sudden.” But where this suddenness is merely the effect of the inhabitual juxtaposition of familiar modes of processing a familiar object, the repetition can only have the effect of making the inhabitual habitual and what was originally a bisociation of the link concept becomes just another association. Such is especially the case with jokes that depend primarily on word-play, particularly word-play based on sound affinities.

As we have see, in the rasa-aesthetics ‘surprise’ (vismaya) is classified as a different emotion from hâsa, and it is the basis of the rasa called ‘wonder’ (adbhuta). Just after defining hâsa as described in the preceding section, Abhinava defines surprise too in terms of suddenness: vismayasya niranusandhâna-taDit-tulya-sukha-rûpatâ / (Abhinavabhârati I, p.43; cf. note 18, chapter V) which may be rendered as follows: “Surprise is characterized by a pleasure that is sudden (literally: ‘lightning-like’) and indeterminate.” How does suddenness differ in the reaction of pure surprise and in that of bisociative laughter? Anything unexpected or extraordinary evokes surprise insofar as it captures our total attention and interest, provoking a pleasurable curiosity. This reaction, so long as it is not compounded with fear and other negative emotions, is in itself pleasurable, and only then can it be called vismaya proper. The attention has been switched to the intruding element but is unable to integrate it into the conceptual or perceptual frameworks at its immediate disposal, ether because the intruder is so extraordinary in itself, because it presents itself in a [168>] context to which it does not seem to belong, or because its emergence is so swift that it seizes the total attention before the appropriate framework for comprehending or assimilating it can be called up. This is just another way of saying that it provokes surprise only so long as it remains ‘indeterminate’ (niranusandhâna), that is, not integrated into the frame of reference appropriate to it. And it is this clash with the operative fields reigning at the moment, that gives this intrusion the character of suddenness. The suddenness of surprise therefore results in curiosity, problem-solving or concept learning, involving behavioral reactions of approach, and other purposive activity that aims at reintegrating the surprise-stimulus into more familiar frames of reference. The stimulus is ‘incongruous’ not in the sense that it is bisociated with two opposing yet familiar and habitual operative fields, not because we are unable to integrate it simultaneously into two conflicting modes of association, but simply in the sense that it does not seem to belong to any field at all. The suddenness in hâsa does not abolish the ‘determinate’ (sânusandhâna) nature of the perception that underlies it, for it is due not to the strange stimulus impinging upon frameworks that resist it but to the mutual clash of stubborn frameworks over a stimulus that can escape neither.

Since both fields in bisociative laughter are already implied in the content and structure of the joke, the suddenness is internal to the joke and is recreated at each retelling of the joke. It is only when the opposing fields begin to coalesce through the force of habit that the suddenness of the impact [169>] begins to diminish and the surprise-effect of the joke disappears. But where the nature of the fields is such that they of themselves resist all tendency to the blurring of their mutual contrast, the inherent suddenness persists, and may even increase; though the joke lacks the surprise of novelty it yet remains fresh like an evergreen. Such is that case where the fields involved owe their respective coherence not to mere habitual association but to stringent rules of a logical and/or psychological nature that ensure the permanent incompatibility of these two mutually exclusive yet simultaneous modes of organizing the joke-content. But where it is a question only of an inhabitual but mechanical juxtaposition, as in many species of the comic, the repetition of the juxtaposition creates a new association, if it does not merely extend the existing associative fields, and the suddenness, and with it the laughter, fades. Though it cannot be claimed that surprise and bisociative laughter are mutually exclusive, for many stimuli, as evidenced especially by magic tricks, produce both simultaneously, the above analysis, it is hoped, has satisfactorily demarcated the province of the suddenness of comic incongruity (or contrast) from the suddenness of surprise.

For some empirical researchers, by confusing the suddenness of comic incongruity with the suddenness of surprise, have ended up confusing incongruity with surprise (or unexpectedness) itself and elaborated experiments to verify incongruity theory of humor on the basis of such confusion. Then finding that unexpected or surprising events often fail to provoke laughter/humor, they [170>] have naturally questioned the validity of the incongruity principle itself. Such is the case with M.K. Rothbart’s projects though she is otherwise favorably disposed to the incongruity-theory: “To Beattie’s credit, three of the chapters in the present volume [Humor and Laughter] contain the word ‘incongruity’ in the title, and numerous theorists of laughter and humor have used an incongruity principle to define a laughter- and humor-producing situation (cf. Berlyne, Schultz).4 Theories of laughter and humor based on an individual’s experience of surprise or incongruity have been especially useful to observers of laughter and humor in children. We expect that an infant or young child will find different stimuli to be more incongruous or surprising than will older children or adults, making possible both (a) developmental predictions about the possible occurrence of laughter and smiling, and (b) the use of laughter and smiling as indices of the existence of a child’s expectations (McGhee, Rothbart).56 It therefore becomes necessary to define the concept of incongruity in such a way that its application is restricted to causes of bisociative laughter alone and does not cover unexpectedness in general as a [171>] stimulus of surprise. It can be shown, and indeed has been shown by Rothbart herself, that the characteristic result of surprise, namely, problem-solving behavior, is detrimental to and even wholly impedes appreciation of humor. But since this has been shown in the context of answering another critique of incongruity theory which also claims that mere incongruity is insufficient to account for humor, which requires a biphasic incongruity-cum-resolution (of incongruity) mechanism as an adequate formula, we may more profitably take up both objections together in the following chapter devoted to the justification of incongruity-theory alone.

[this concludes chapter V on “Suddenness: Laughter and Surprise (Vismaya) Distinguished”]