Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Destiny of a Joke

There are situations when the only truly “practical” thing to do is to resist the temptation to engage immediately and to “wait and see” by means of a patient, critical analysis. Engagement seems to exert its pressure on us from all directions. In a well-known passage from his “Existentialism and Humanism”, Sartre deployed the dilemma of a young man in Franz in 1942, torn between the duty to help his lone, ill mother and the duty to enter the Resistance and fight the Germans; Sartre’s point is, of course, that there is no a priori answer to this dilemma. The young man needs to make a decision grounded only in his own abyssal freedom and assume full responsibility for it. An obscene third way out of the dilemma would have been to advise the young man to tell his mother that he will join the Resistance, and to tell his Resistance friends that he will take care of his mother, while, in reality, withdrawing to a secluded place and studying...

There is more than cheap cynicism in this advice. It brings into mind a well-known Soviet joke about Lenin. Under socialism, Lenin’s advice to young people, his answer to what they should do, was “Learn, learn, and learn.” This was evoked at all times and displayed on all school walls. The joke goes: Marx, Engels, and Lenin are asked whether they would prefer to have a wife or mistress. As expected, Marx, rather conservative in private matters, answers, “A Wife!” while Engels, more of a bon vivant, opts for a mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Lenin says, “I’d like to have both.” Why? Is there a hidden stripe of decadent jouisseur behind this austere revolutionary image? No- he explains: “So that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress, and my mistress that I have to be with my wife…” “And then, what do you do?” “I go to a solitary place to learn, learn, and learn!”

Is this not exactly what Lenin did after the catastrophe of 1914? He withdrew to a lonely place in Switzerland, where he “learned, learned, and learned,” reading Hegel’s logic. And this is what we should do today when we find ourselves bombarded with mediatic images of violence. We need to “learn, learn, and learn” what causes this violence.
(Zizek, Slavoj. “Violence: Six Sideways Reflections”. New York: Picador, 2008. p 7-8)

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