Friday, August 1, 2014

The best joke of the 20th century?

I am still working on 'context' but as an interlude, here is a candidate for the best joke of the 20th century. It comes from a book about the publication of one of my favourite stories, Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. In The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee (New York: Pantheon Books, 2014), the story is told of how Zhivago lived a charmed life under Stalin, relative to other artists being executed or exiled, despite his growing disenchanted with Communist rule. Nevertheless he did suffer some punishment for his unwillingness to write in a way more in tune with the political correctness of 1930s and 40s Soviet Russia. That punishment included pulping of 25,000 copies of his poetry. But in the strange spirit of those times he was not completely placed outside the pale and he was able to earn some money by translating foreign literature such as Shakespeare's works.

On p. 60 we read, "Pasternak was able to exact some sly revenge. In a revision of his translation of Hamlet, he introduced lines that bear little fidelity to the original. Even allowing for Pasternak's belief that a translation should never be an attempt at "literal exactitude," the lines from Hamlet, when translated back into English again, were a biting commentary on the politics of the hour.

Where Shakespeare wrote of the "whips and scorns of time," Pasternak had Hamlet say: "Who would bear the phony greatness of the rulers, the ignorance of the bigwigs, the common hypocrisy, the impossibility to express oneself, the unrequited love and illusoriness of merits in the eyes of mediocrities."

A very clever and very brave joke at the expense of the authorities!

3 comments:

Father Ron Smith said...

Hi Peter. You have a commenter on your site who writes quite a bit like Boris Pasternak's quoted substitution here. Convoluted arguments are often so cleverly disguised, one is often rendered helpless to translate what the writer is talking about.

Maybe you might think this comment to be a little too covert. I do hope not, because we mere plodders do need to understand what the arguments are really all about.

I guess Pasternak had very good reasons for his obscurity. IMHO, there is no such excuse for this to happen in theological debate. It just makes one tired!

Glen Young said...

Hi Peter,
Pasternak suceeded where so many others failed.He said what he wanted to say and stayed alive as well as out of the prison camps.
I,to have noted the convoluted
waffalings of a certain commenter.

Barney Pitt said...


The best joke of the 20th century is this one, from South Park:

1) Collect underpants
2) ?
3) Profit

Knocks Pasternak into a cocked hat.