Sorry everyone, I’ve been in a cesspool of work which I have yet to clamber out of, and the weekend after Kuching flew by with judging debates, watching plays written by friends, and doing household chores. I hardly even got a chance to go to Baybeats, though what I did manage to hear of it (A Vacant Affair, Bittersweet, Panda No Panda) was really boring.
While I’m treading water in shit, you could do worse than enjoy Hammer & tickle, a rather delightful article about Communist jokes. Apart from a number of rather funny jokes (Q: Why is Czechoslovakia the most neutral country in the world? A: Because it doesn’t even interfere in its own internal affairs.) the article tells of Eulenspiegel, the East German state’s official satirical magazine. Singaporeans especially may enjoy the following quotes, though of course for no other reason than that Singaporeans have a great sense of humour.
Eulenspiegel was founded in 1954 as the state’s official organ of humour. There were no censorship laws, as the East Germans were so proud of telling the west. Instead the editors had to guess what kind of jokes were permissible. Every week the magazine carried three or four pages of anti-imperialist humour, in which capitalists in top hats counted their money, GIs enslaved Africans and doves sat atop hammers and sickles. Eulenspiegel could also print anodyne comic critiques of daily life in East Germany, as long as they didn’t incriminate the politburo. Ernst RÃ¶hl was able to write things like this: Man doesn’t live from bread and ham alone. He needs something green. And green things have been in short supply for a long time. Cabbage has been more the subject of discussion than digestion. And the Adam’s apple is the closest one gets to fruit at the dinner table. But this year Mother Nature has been particularly green. Cucumbers are no longer the shoemaker’s bribe. Onions no longer raise laughs in cabaret sketchesâ€¦
People like RÃ¶hl saw themselves, rather self-indulgently, as fifth columnists, eating away at the regime from the inside. But there were limits to permissible satire. Once the cover featured “young pioneers” with long hairâ€”a decadent western fashion. The politburo was livid, but the magazine had already been sent out, so the police reclaimed all the copies they could from newsagents and post offices. Eulenspiegel once tried to make common cause with Pardon, its West German left-wing counterpart. After all, Pardon also attacked Adenauer and American imperialism. But the editors of Eulenspiegel were stung when Pardon rebuffed their advances, on the grounds that the communist satirists should criticise their own leader, Walter Ulbricht, the same way the capitalist ones went for theirs. The editors of Euelenspiegel printed a rebuttal entitled “How do we write about Walter Ulbricht?” in 1963: “We know from various reliable sources that President Ulbricht has a terrific sense of humourâ€¦ [but] the transparency and virtue of our state makes it not only difficult but simply impossible to write a satire about its representatives. Where there is nothing to uncover, the satirist will find no material. So how do we satirists write about Walter Ulbricht?â€¦ We send our greetings and best wishes to the first secretary of the central committee. We wish comrade Ulbricht health, stamina and a long life.”
This article could have been satirical, but wasn’t. Rather, it occupies the strange socialist space where the serious and the humorous are identical. Eulenspiegel was the only place where serious criticism of the state could be published. Readers wrote in with complaints about their leaking prefab apartments and so on, and there was a column called Erledigt (Dealt With) which celebrated the grievances that the Eulenspiegel had managed to redress, and often came with printed apologies from factory managers and landlords. Nothing illustrates better the inverted reality of communism: real problems could only be presented in a context of laughter, presumably so that one could always claim one was only joking. In this realm, where humour turns out to be a complex social dance, the idea of the joke as simply subversive breaks down.