Patrick Blanchfield in n+1:
IN JOKES AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO THE UNCONSCIOUS (1905), his three-hundred page book on humor, Sigmund Freud shares his favorite yuks, none of which are funny to begin with, and then proceeds to slowly murder them by explaining their punchlines. The book is so turgid that modern interpreters sometimes argue that the whole enterprise is itself a kind of meta-joke, which may be true, but still doesn’t make it funny. Reading the book in the election year of 2020, however, one bit stands out. Freud describes it as “an American anecdote”:
Two not particularly scrupulous businessmen had succeeded, by dint of a series of highly risky enterprises, in amassing a large fortune, and they were now making efforts to push their way into good society. One method, which struck them as a likely one, was to have their portraits painted by the most celebrated and highly paid artist in the city, whose pictures had an immense reputation. The precious canvases were shown for the first time at a large evening party, and the two hosts themselves led the most influential connoisseur and art critic up to the wall upon which the portraits were hanging side by side, to extract his admiring judgment on them. He studied the works for a long time, and then, shaking his head, as though there was something he had missed, pointed to the gap between the pictures and asked quietly: “But where’s the Savior?”
Getting this joke, such as it is, presumes familiarity with an implied reference: depictions of the crucifixion, wherein the savior (i.e., Christ), famously hangs on the cross between two thieves. Even then, it’s not really laugh-out-loud funny. It is, however uncannily relevant. As we find ourselves in the quickening of our election season, we Americans are increasingly being asked to contemplate the prospect of voting for one of two unsavory businessmen. Redemption is nowhere to be found in this forced choice between two scoundrels; the savior isn’t even absent. The daylight between Mike Bloomberg and Donald Trump can be measured in the rays of sun that shine out of a billionaire’s ass.