Tuesday, September 12, 2006


In a blogpost about what he calls "anomalous responses" in the days after the 9/11 attacks, Tim Hulsey describes the way in which humor served as a leavening among the many other emotions that people felt. Specifically, he remembers jokes told in bad taste, and he remembers them fondly.

Tim writes in "Bad Taste and 9/11":

In the 1930s, Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote extensively about the "carnivalesque" -- which in its broadest sense is a way to live in opposition to the tyranny of "official" society, and in its more narrow sense is a safety valve for impulses that do not lend themselves to strict control. According to Bakhtin, the medieval carnival provided a safe space for ordinary citizens to mock the rigid dogma of the medieval Church through scatological and sexual humor. Free for a brief time from strict social roles, peasants could lampoon priests, women could dance in the streets, and cats could look at kings. The carnivalesque, in short, reminds us that everyone in the power structure is human, and therefore subject to the same infirmities, foibles and peccadilloes as everyone else. (Of course, Bakhtin's real target was not the medieval Church, but Soviet totalitarianism under Stalin, an ideological tyranny which left no room even for social safety valves -- and which therefore had little use for Bakhtin's scholarship.)

In the days after 9/11, my friends and I shared a carnivalesque perspective without knowing it. Of course, we did not seek refuge from governmental or religious tyranny as such. Instead, we fled from something more nebulous, a tyranny of popular sentiment that permitted ordinary citizens to do no more than weep and pray. We were told that Americans had to sympathize with the victims and trust our president unconditionally; anything more or less from that standard line and we were practically playing into the terrorists' hands. Still, my friends and I had to "cock a snook" at this atrocity for the same reason little boys have to tell jokes about Helen Keller (or in extreme cases, Anne Frank). We had had enough of plaster saints and cardboard leaders, of souls soaring in the ether. The sick humor about the victims reminded us of the fact and perhaps the finality of the body: It was anti-spiritual, at a time when a certain mysticism on matters of life and death was considered almost mandatory within the American body politic.
His post reminded me of a news report I read about a recent scholarly book about jokes told in Germany during the Nazi era. David Crossland sums up the books findings in Der Spiegel:
A new book about humor under the Nazis gives some interesting insights into life in the Third Reich and breaks yet another taboo in Germany's treatment of its history. Jokes told during the era, says the author, provided the populace with a pressure release.
The Times of London gave a few examples of jokes collected in the book:

  • Hitler visits a lunatic asylum. The patients give the Hitler salute. As he passes down the line, he comes across a man with his hands by his side. “Why aren’t you saluting like the others?” he barks. “Mein Führer, I’m the nurse, I’m not crazy!”
  • The vanity of leading Nazis was fertile territory. In one cartoon Göring has attached an arrow to the row of medals on his tunic. It reads “continued overleaf”
  • In another, a commentator notes: “The new race will be slim like Göring, blond like Hitler and tall like Goebbels.”
  • Two Berliners meet in early 1945. “What will you do after the war?” asks one. “I'll finally go on a holiday and will take a trip round Greater Germany,” his friend replies. “And what will you do in the afternoon?”
  • As the persecution of the Jews worsened, they relied upon humour: Levi and Hirsch meet in the African jungle, each with a rifle. “What are you doing here?” asks Hirsch. “I’ve got an ivory carving business in Alexandria and I shoot my own elephants,” says Levi. “And you?” “I manufacture crocodile leather goods in Port Said and shoot my own crocodiles — and what happened to our friend Simon?” “He’s turned into a real adventurer. He stayed in Berlin.”

  • With the retrospect of 60 years, these jokes-- collected in the book, "Heil Hitler, The Pig is Dead," by film director and screenwriter Rudolph Herzog -- seem mildly funny but somewhat perplexing, since we don't know the personalities involved. (Imagine someone making a joke about James Webb's charisma 60 -- or 6 -- years from now.) But for people in Nazi Germany, telling them entailed great risks: some people were executed for repeating these jokes, others were jailed. Employers would likely sack anyone who created a hostile business environment by making fun of Hitler.

    In times of crisis -- as I noted in my earlier piece on "homo ludens" (playful man) -- human beings survive through their higher faculties, including joking about their plight. Call it whistling past the graveyard, but this is something that goes far deeper. And we should acknowledge and appreciate it rather than feign shock and offense about it.

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