What%20Courage

What%20Courage - ROBERT COCHRAN “WHAT COURAGE!”...

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Unformatted text preview: ROBERT COCHRAN “WHAT COURAGE!” Romanian “Our Leader”jolees Romanians, asleed about life in their country, very ofien answer by telling jokes. Political jokes, in particular, are important in Romania, offering a traditional, largely covert, means of self-expression to a mightily constrained people. They are oblique testimonies, revelations made with forked tangue. jokes about the nation '5 longtime ruler, Nirolae Ceauscsru, are especially numerous, and address a wide range of contemporary issues. There is something powerful in the whispering of Obscenities, about those in power. —Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale IT IS SEPTEMBER 1985. A Romanian is watching television in his Bucharest apartment. Strangers two months ago, we are becoming friends ofa sort. This is a wary process—he may be an assigned friend; I am surely naive and may be loquacious. On the screen, in grainy black-and—white, N icolae Ceausescu. the country’s ruler, stands at a podium before a seated audience. The audience, men and women, applaud in unison as Ceausescu waves, his arm cocked at a near right angle, only the hand and forearm moving. The camera shifts back and forth several times—the applauding people, the waving ruler. Suddenly the Romanian speaks: “It's one way he serves us," he says. "Almost every night he cleans the television."' It is ajoke, even I know this much. But I don’t know what it means. Not yet. jokes are for insiders, people in the know. I cannot get it. Perhaps. re— membering Bergson, I understand thejoke as an example of”something me- chanical encrusted upon something living" (1956192). What is clearly intended as a personal gesture, a greeting, a sign ofbenevolence. is converted to an im— personal gesture, a menial task. The message is turned on its head, hierarchy is undone, the mighty are fallen, the would—be emperor is a window washer. Later, as my ignorance is modified, 1 learn to see a further reversal in the notion ofCeausescu serving his people, since in real life Romanians are openly urged to devote their lives to serving him. A children's songbook opens with a ditty in his honor. allegedly composed by a child of eight. “You are our heart," the children sing. “We are your hands." New studies of(among other Robert Cochran Li Punt-5s... tql'lfriglisli, Univemly .ifArL-ausas, Fll)‘l'fi('l'illl'. AK 7270! 260 .l"'"'""l 9" Amerimn I‘rIIl'I'nn‘ ('02. '939 subjects) economics and military science stress the brilliant leadership ofl’res— ident Ceausescu.2 A banner on a bus station wall is a model of brevity: “Ro- mania—Communism: Ceausescu-Heroism.” Here is the essence ofpersonality cult leadership: Ceausescu quite unabashedly offers himselfto his people as the nation embodied. To serve him, to work heroically in harvests or factories for him, to bear children for him, is to serve Romania, work for Romania, bear children for Romania. Thejoke turns such rhetoric neatly on its head. The megalomaniac who ar- rogates to his own person a nearly godlike status is reduced to a petty valet, a wiper. Ceausescu’s portrait hangs like an icon in every office, every school classroom; his slogans shout from hallways and waiting rooms. But the joke brings him down. There he is, every night, wiping and wiping. One thinks oftables, ofashtrays, perhaps oftoilets, and it is a pleasure. Still later, after months ofRomanian television, I come to sense a new depth in thejoke’s reference to Ceausescu “cleaning” the television screens. Roman— ian television is indeed very “clean"—on weekdays the program day consists of two hours in the evening. There is one channel, and on it news and docu- mentary shows describe Ceausescu's daily activities and present interviews with dedicated workers who invariably praise him by name. Romanians refer to these as “boy meets tractor" shows, but they do not watch them. Also widely ignored are the folkloric programs recently described by an American Fulbright scholar: The lovely women who sing folk songs on Sunday afternoon television in Romania are straight out ofLawrence Welk. Their hairstyles. gestures. and costumes suggest nothing so much as the Virtuousness ofyoung motherhood. Thc5e are serious madonnas in a country where madonna— hood is a state obligation. [Mizcjewski 1987:57] For people offered such gruel as regular fare, thejoke deepens still further. Ceausescu does indeed “clean” the nation's television screens, wiping away all news, culture, and even entertainment worthy ofthe name. "Clean," in the joke's complex ofreversals, means absolutely sterile. Surely thejoke has still more. has in fact subtleties and echoes I never heard, having too little time, too few friends who could speak freely and interpret, too crude a grasp ofthe language. But I knew otherjokes, and l knew they played a vital, even crucial role in contemporary Romanian life. They were unavoidable. Romanians express themselves most cliaracteristirally and most profoundly in theirjoking. In the ironies, obliquities, and covert aggressions natural to the genre they find a vehicle suited perfectly to their situation. their history, and perhaps even their temperament.’ Living in secular purgatory that at times must seem infernal, they inhabit ajoker's paradise, 'l‘he Jokes, as I hope to demonstrate, tend to cohere thematically, overlapping and enlarging each other, adding depth and detail to the emergent portrait. If you knew all the jokes, you'd know everything important.‘ Cochran) Romanian "Our Leadrr”jakr5 26] ldon’t know all thejokes, though I know many. The discussion here is lim- ited tojokes directly involving Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu, at his own bru- tal insistence the most omnipresent figure in Romanian life, is equally domi- nant in Romanian jokelore. ln jokes about food shortages, as in jokes about border restrictions and ration lines, Ceausescu is the usual butt. In laughter as in life, he is at the center. This centrality may be present even in jokes that do not mention Ceauses— cu's name, as in one popular riddle-joke: “Why are there no pornographic magazines in Romania?" Answer: “Because the first page would be too terri- ble." Thisjoke is thoroughly opaque to outsiders, and turns on two primary fea— tures of Romanian life. It depends first ofall upon the ubiquitous presence of Ceausescu on the “first page" of virtually everything published in Romania, as for instance in the children’s songbook and the academic Studies mentioned earlier. By this line of reasoning there are no pornographic magazines in R0- 'mania because the first page of such a publication could only be devoted to Ceausescu. In the world of naked bodies, as in the world of economics and children's songs, he could appear only as top banana. The logic of the joke demands his appearance in such a context as a porn star cocksman. Ceausescu is in fact a physically unprepossessing gent of 72. His naked body, displayed as an image of virility, would indeed be “too terrible" to contemplate. Again, as with the joke about wiping the televisiOn screens, savage reversals are accomplished, the emperor’s clothes quite literally stripped. The ruler whose power extends everywhere is revealed as impotent. This joke also lampoons the ostentatious official concern over pornogra- phy—travelers entering the country are routinely asked if they are carrying "guns, drugs, pornography," this trinity being in official eyes the telltale mark of the decadent Western beast. Romanian prudishness can at times fall into comedy—as when M.A.S.H. wasjudged “too pornographic" for showing at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj even though the faculty screening com- mittee kept the cassette for several days of repeated viewing among them- selves. Such obsessive concern with pornography is mocked by thejoke. We don't need pornography, says the covert message, we’ve got a far deeper obscenity running the country. What are mere pictures ofgenitals, it asks, compared to the routine actions ofthe man on the “first page"? Thejokc's deepest irony is here: to see this man naked, that is truly, would be “too terrible." He richly deserves it, for he is surely the unchallenged champion of Romanian pornog— raphy. it is “too terrible," but it is true. A specific aspect ofRomanian sexual politics is lampooned in thejoke where a Party official is dispatched to a remote village, often located by Romanian jokers in Maramures, the country's mountainous northwesrern corner at greatest remove from Bucharest's control. His mission is to explain to the peasants the latest directives on family size. The birth rate is too l0w, he tells 262 journal ofAmen'am Folklore (IOZ, 1939 the assembled villagers. Not enough young comrades are growing up to serve the Fatherland. Everything is put in personal terms: “He needs your children. He cannot build the nation by himself. He needs your help." The villagers listen. but when the Party man finishes and asks for questions they do not im- mediately respond. Finally an old man stands. “We understand you per- fectly," he says, “and we are loyal Romanians, ready to serve him." At this there is applause, a murmur ofassent. “We have only one question," the old man continues. “Do we go down there or does she come up here?" Thisjoke also has deep roots in the conditions ofRomanian life. Ceausescu has on many occasions stressed that his heart needs ever more hands. Citizens, he proclaims, must have children, more children. It is a patriotic duty. Pro- grams have been instituted to ensure the discharge ofthis duty—birth control is banned, abortions are illegal, women are subjected to pregnancy examina— tions and required to register pregnancies with the authorities. These direc- tives have been widely ifnot loudly resisted; people who endure chronic food and energy shortages do not lightly take on the responsibilities of additional children. There is a thriving black market in contraceptives, and anyone who spends time in Romania hears grim tales of desperate women seeking and find— ing illegal abortions (Anonymous 1986:16, 18). The joke takes this background for granted, but its humor is similar to the pornography joke. By taking the “father of the fatherland" metaphor literally, it manages again to convert the image ofpower to one ofimpotence. In a more savage move, it also envisions the strongman's wife in multiple matings with a crowd of rustics. This is, however, no mere jab at Ceausescu, here cuckolded by peasants, for “she” is First Deputy Premier Elena Ceausescu, Director of the Central Institute for Chemical Research and Chairman of the National Sci- ence and Technology Council. Mrs. Ceausescu is enthusiastically hated and widely laughed at in Romania, where sneering reference is made to her lack of even rudimentary scientific training. Of course there is a joke about it: the Ceausescus are enjoying a private dinner at home. As the dishes are cleared away, the Supreme Leader initiates a conversation: “Dear, tell me about the Law ofGravity." “What do you mean?" Elena replies, “I'm a scientist. You're in charge of the laws. " There are many suchjokes, aimed at Mrs. Ceausescu, and at least one prominent Romanian, from the relative safety of exile, has described her as “infinitely more hated than the President" (Greenwald 1986:33). Given such a wife, it’s perhaps not surprising that the husband is said to respond enthusiasrically to a visit from starlet Brigitte Bardot. An audience is arranged, and the Boss is smitten to the point ofbabbling infatuation. (Jokers rarely mention Ceausescu by name, substituting instead terms like “Himself,” “Big Brother, " “the Boss. " "Our Leader, " or simply “He” instead. Everyone knows who is meant.) He turns on the charm and gallantry. “Name anything you want, mademoiselle," he says, “lam in charge here. and your wish shall be my command." “All right," replies Bardot. “Open the borders." Ceau~ Cochran) Romanian “Our Leader"jok¢'5 363 sescu is momentarily taken aback. but he soon recovers. He Smiles at her with understanding: “I know what you want, " he leers. "You wish to be alone with is me. At the obvious level this joke mocks the extremely tight restrictions upon international travel by Romanians, but its deeper message is still more sinister. Ceausescu, thejoke notes, sees what he wants to see, hears what he wishes to hear, is in fact fully capable ofignoring reality in favor ofa pet delusion. He is insane. Ofcourse he says that the country would empty like a punctured bal- loon ifits imprisoned citizens were not kept in by armed guards, but that‘s not what he means at all. He means that Bardot is attracted to him—an absurdity, a rank delusion, but that is the joke's point. Only such a man, with such a genius for misunderstanding and self—aggrandizement, could live with his na— tion and people in ruins around him and persist in imagining his reign benign. At its bitterest depth, then, thejoke lampoons not border policies but a leader's transparent madness and the infinite pervertability oflanguage. Language is also at the heart of thejoke where Ceausescu awakes one fine morning in an expansive mood, and goes to his balc0ny to greet the sun. “Good morning, sun," he says, and is stunned to hear a polite reply out of the heavens. “Good morning, Mr. President." Ceausescu rushes to waken Elena with the news. "Wake up!" he says. “Even the sun respects me now!" He tells her what happened. “You’re crazy," she replies, and goes back to sleep. At noon he repeats the experiment. “Good day, sun" he says, and once again the respectful voice booms from the sky. “Good day, Mr. President." Again he begs his wife to accompany him to heat for herself, but again she refuses. Fi- nally, late in the afternoon, he persuades her to listen. Out on the balcony they go, where a lovely sunset is in progress. “Good evening, sun," says Ceau- sescu. “Fuck you. asshole," comes back the heavenly voice. no longer benign. Ceausescu is distraught. He asks for an explanation. “This morning, and again at noon, " he complains, “you addressed me with respeCt. Now you insult me. Why?" “You idiot," answers the sun, “I'm in the West now." Despite its greater length, this joke is more straightforward than most. It notes, of course, the hubris inherent in presuming to conversational relation— ships with celestial bodies, but more importantly it highlights the role ofex- pedient compliment in Romanian discourse. All those dedications and hymns ofpraise in the interviews on television, the fiatteries on every “first page" in the country—these are words ofthe morning and noonday sun, says thejoke. uttered or written under duress. Thejoke notes covertly what Soviet leader Gorbachev apparently said openly during his recent visit to Romania. As Tum- reported it, “Gorbachev waded into a crowd of Rumanians, and, inviting an open exchange. said, ‘Even if you were to tell me that everything is all right in the country and in every family. I wouldn't believe it. There are problems.’ The quote was reported in the Soviet press but not in the Rumanian media" (Smolowe1987236). He may rise inglasnos! and set "in the West, " but even the sun has to kiss ass in Romania. 264 journal of American Folklore (l02, I989 Another popularjoke about respect for a Ceausescu is aimed at Elena. The Great Couple are visiting England (as they in fact did in 1978). After visiting Buckingham Palace and being received by the Queen herself, the Ceausescus are back in their rooms. "We’ve made a great impression, dear," says Elena. “The Queen treated me with great reverence." “How do you know this?" asks her husband. “Well, do you remember when we first came in, wearing our sashes and medals?" "Yes." he answers, “I remember. But what ofit?" "l was closer to the Queen than you,” responds Elena. “and as we ap- proached I distinctly heard her say, ‘Oh my God!‘ " No analysis ofRomanianjokes should fail to include some examples ofline jokes or food jokes, since standing in lengthy queues for scanty staples is a daily feature of Romanian life. There are scores ofsuch jokes, and it not sur prising that several of them feature Ceausescu in a starring role. One day, on his way to the airport. he notices a line of waiting citizens. He orders his driver to stop. "Find out what they are waiting for," he demands. The whole mo- torcade pulls over, and soon the driver returns with the answer. “The people are waiting for bread." “My people should not have to wait for bread," thunders the concerned leader. “Let there be bread immediately!" Sure enough, a truck appears in no time and bread is distributed. Satisfied, Ceausescu resumes his journey only to see another, longer line. Again he orders a halt, and dispatches the driver. "The people are waiting for eggs," he is told. “My people should not have to wait for eggs," he cries. “Bring my people cggsl" As before, a truck appears promptly, eggs are handed out, and Ceau- sescu's motorcade continues on its way. Very soon, however, the President spots a third line, the longest yet. Again he stops, and sends the driver to in— vestigate. “The people are waiting f0r meat." For a moment Ceausesm is si- lent, but finally he speaks with the same authority as before. “Bring my people chairs!" he says. Thisjoke is clear enough even to outsiders, but for Romanians generally and for residents of Bucharest especially, the details concerning the presidential motorcade bound for the airport are a significant part ofits appeal. Ceausescu‘s comings and goings play a major role in his increasingly imperial style. and are the real point ofcontact, such as it is, with his people. Elaborate security arrangements precede and accompany his every movement: streets are cleared oftraffic and crossings blocked with buses and trucks; upper story apartments facing the motorcade route are also cleared. The President, in short, is care- fully whisked pasta populace clearly viewed as a gauntlet to be run rather than a “people” to be greeted. Great trouble is taken to ensure that he does no! no— tice the long queues that are the daily lot ofhis suffering citizens. Against such a background, thejoke’s portrayal offrequent stops, an observant leader c011— cerned about “my people." gains additional bitter humor. Political cartoons are of course very rare in Romania, owing to extreme of— ficial vigilance in regard to printing and copying rescurces. Even personal Cochran) Romanian "Our Leader"_lol:es 265 typewriters must be regularly registered with the police. But I did see three cartoons—each one a crude, hand-drawn or carbon-copy affair, folded re- peatedly and passed from hand to hand—and one ofthese depicts a presidential motorcade halted behind a tram. A policeman stands by the tram, whose rails, clearly draWn, run down the center ofthe street. The caption gives his orders to the driver: "Pull over, and don't give me any more argument!"S Another popularjoke does not mention lines or motorcades, butjuxtaposes again the isolation of Ceausescu from the realities of Romanian life with his self—consci0us offering of himself as a model for emulation by the citizenry. At 6:00 A.M. the radio stations begin the day's programming with a terse an— nouncement: “Our leader is getting up. You should too.” At 6:30 a second announcement is broadcast: "Our leader is doing his morning calisthenics. You should too." Finally, at 7200 there is a third announcement: "Our leader is now sitting down to his breakfast. Wish him ban appe’lit." A third food joke is also a Bulijoke and a world leaders compared joke— three common types in a single example. Eula—usually a traditional numskull. figure, often a schoolboy, but occasionally (as here) more ofa prankster or trickster—comes up with a money—making scheme.6 First he journeys to the United States, to the White House, where he prepares a shit sandwich and begins eating it. Reagan looks out, is horrified and disgusted, and sends cut an aide with $100. Bula next visits London, goes to Buckingham Palace, and re— peats the performance. Again he collects a substantial donation. Back home in Romania, in Bucharest, Bula goes over to Cotroceni Palace and tries the trick again. Ceausescu looks out,‘ sees him, and sends out an aide to confiscate one slice of bread.7 jokes are told not only about food, but focus also upon the myriad other shortages that plague life in Romania. During the long and brutal winter of 1984—85, when subfreezing temperatures indoors were common in Bucharest due to gas shutoffs (and things were reportedly even worse in the countryside and provincial cities), a whole cycle of coldjokes became popular overnight. “What is the difference between Hitler and Ceausescu?" asked an especially bitter one. Answer: “Hitler turned on the gas. " Or, very similarly, though not aimed specifically at cold or gas shutoffs: “Did you hear they’ve renamed Bu— charest?” “No, what‘s it called now?" "Ceauswicz." Perhaps the best shortagesjoke, however, is the one where Himselfis giving a press conference for Western reporters. “Is it true," onejournalist asks, “that there are severe food shortages and long daily queues for meager rations?" “Yes,” Ceausescu replies, “but nobody ever died of that." “Is it also true," asks a secondjournalist, “that there is often no heat in the winter?" “Yes, that‘s true too," he admits, “but we are a rugged people, and nobody ever died Of it." Finally a thirdjournalist speaks: “Sir. have you thought of cyanide?“ In several ofthesejokes the analogies with Nazi Germany are explicit. Ceau— sescu is Hitler, only more ofa bungler. Romanians are captive jews. and the nation at large is a death camp (Anonymous 1986). 265 journal qf American Folklore (102, 198‘) In another world leaders compared joke a similar comparison is made in cosmic terms. Ceausescu visits Reagan in Washington, where his hosr shows offAmerican technological achievement by exhibiting a new telephone on his desk. “See this," says Reagan, “it’s connected all the way to Hell." Ceausescu is skeptical, but Reagan dials a long series of numbers, waits a moment, then hands over the receiver. Sure enough, it's Mephistophcles himselfon the line. Reagan closes the call by asking for charges—it's very expensive, $150 for a very short call, but Ceausescu is impressed anyway. He returns home and or— ders his own engineers to get to work hooking up a similar connection in time for Reagan‘s return visit. At last they are successful, just in time, and Ceau- sescu is able to put through an identical call for his American guest. He too asks for charges at the end, and is surprised to hear the operator request only one leu (only about ten cents, even at Romania's absurd official exchange rate). “How can that be?” he asks. “When I was in Washington, it cost $150." “That was long distance," says the operator. In onejoke Romania is a death camp, in another it is Hell itself, and in both Ceausescu is the responsible figure. The point is the same, though the latter joke surely includes glancing critiques (understood only by Romanians) ofthe high cost and restrictive legislation governing telephone calls to the West. and also of their leader’s devotion to grandiose "development" programs that in— variably fail after swallowing huge investments of money and labor.8 The for- mer topic was emphasized by a Romanian friend now living in Canada. "I really like the long distance joke," she wrote, “because as you know telephone rates are astrOnomical to the West where you can only place one call per trimester anyway.” Prominent among Ceausescu’s disastrous economic schemes are steel mills, oil refineries, and the infamous Danube-Black Sea Canal. One durable joke pictures the Great Leader making a speech at opening ceremonies for one or another of these megaprojects. “Friends, countrymen, sailors," he begins, only to be interrupted by a tug at the sleeve from one of his deputies. “Net now, " he whispers. “I’m trying to make a speech." He begins again: “Friends. countrymen, sailors"—but again there is the persistent tug at his sleeve. "Mr. President, ” whispers the deputy, “the men in the striped suits are nor sailors. " No, they are not sailors. They are convicts, inmates ofa concentration camp or legions of the damned, depending upon a given joke's analogies. Once again, as in the Brigitte Bardotjoke, it is made clear that the President sees and hears only such things as are fit for presidents to notice. ACtually. such openly cosmic motifs as the telephOne to Hell are quite common in Romanianjokc— lore. One widely told world leaders comparedjoke is overtly purgatorial in nature. It is judgment Day, and Reagan, Gorbachev, and Ceansescu are gath- ered at St. Peter's office. Reagan goes in firsr, and comes out grimacing with pain and holding his butt. "What happened?" the others ask. “They're pun— ishing us with needle pokes in the ass." says Reagan. “I got ten pokes.” Gor- bachev is called in next, and soon he returns in a similar posture. But he is Cochran) Romanian “Our Leader"joL-es 267 laughing. “What's so funny?" asks Reagan. “I got ten pokes too," reports Gorbachev, “and it does hurt. Butjust as l was going out I saw them grab Ceausescu and stick him under a sewing machine." To the people who suffer the consequences of his ill-conceived ambitions, a hated ruler’s omnipotence may at times almost seem to include immortality. Ceausescu has ruled Romania since 1965, but among such ajoke's several as— surances is the message that this mighty one too will eventually fall, and get his comeuppance. Here again he is literally stripped, as in thejoke about por- nography in Romania. In this light there is one joke especially popular among the Hungarian mi— nority, and in fact dependent upon a Hungarian pun for its effect, that may be the most pessimistic of all. Ceausescu robs a bank, shooting a teller in the pro— cess, but is quickly captured and sentenced to die in the electric chair. “It won't work, " he tells the court, and he proceeds to execution with triumphant con- fidence. And sure enough, when they strap him in the chair and throw the switch, hejust sits there, smiling through the sparks and smoke. They turn up the voltage, but again get no results. Eventually, after the switch has been turned to its highest levels, the machine short-circuits, with Ceausescu still unharmed. "La‘tjdtok, mindig is r0552 uezetd' voltam,” he says. [“You see, I al- ways was a bad leader/conductor."] Even as this joke delights in Ceausescu's overthrow and exposure as a crim- inal (he has not only robbed a bank, he has plundered a country), it also ex- presses the despair occasioned by his longevity. After all, it presents him as unkillable, and yet again suggests his ability to ignore the obvious. He would not get the pun (the joke turns on the word “uezetd', ” which means leader, but also an electrical conductor); he would still in his own eyes be a great leader. A similar despair haunts thejoke about a desperate citizen who attempts to assassinate Ceausescu. Somehow, he manages at last to acquire a small pistol and sneak into the front row ofa massive rally—there they are, right in front of him, the whole clan. The citizen pulls out the pistol and opens fire. He shoots until his bullets are gone, but, incredibly, he hits nobody. Finally, the Cops grab him. The interrogation is long and exhaustive, but the obvious question is never asked. At last the chief examiner can stand it no longer— sending his subordinates from the room, he bends to the prisoner‘s ear and whispers, “How did you miss him?" “It was the people next to me," answers the citizen. “They kept poking me in the back and arms, saying, ‘Get her.’ Cot him tool’ " This wonderfuljoke makes its main point twice, or even three times. Nor only the citizen, but the crowd of bystanders, the policemen who interfere only after he’s emptied his pistol, and even the interrogator who cannot re— strain his curiosity—all share the basic urge to‘be rid of Big Brother and his clan. But they are not rid ofhim, as thejoke also makes clear. Ceausescu's demise is also the subject ofajoke that depends for its compre- hensiOn on a familiarity with the nation's newspapers. But of course they are 268 ' journal of American Folklore (102. I989 not newspapers at all, in the ordinary sense of the word. Even in the large provincial cities—Brasov, Cluj, lasi, Timisoara, Constanta—the daily news- paper is a pathetic, one-fold, four-sided sheet with the front page devoted to Ceausescu, the inside covering sports, theater, and cinema schedules, and per— haps a brief“lnternational Digesr" with more reports from Pyongyang and Havana than from London, Washington, or Paris, and the back page filled with classified notices and obituaries. One day I asked a Romanian friend if this formula was unvarying. “Yes, it is always the same,” he replied, "but we dream ofa day when it will be reversed." A witty remark, l assumed, until I repeated it. Everyone knew it—like the similarly unframed reference to Ceau— sesai wiping television screens, it was an oldjoke. It will last, no doubt, until it comes true. In another widely known joke Ceausescu actually does die, after careful preparations on his part, in which he distributes power and possessions among his children. To one he gives the office of President, with all its prerogatives; to another he gives the Peles Castle in Sinaia and the priceless rugs and jewels stolen from Brasov's famous Black Church. But to his last child he leaves only his portrait, having by this time given everything else away. Then he dies, but later begins to worry over the fate of the disenfranchised child. So he decides to return, just to see how all the young Ceausescus are getting along. What he finds is shocking. All the children he left with palaces and huge bank accounts and powerful positions have fallen into the gutter. He‘s down to the last child, and all he's seen are drunks and prostitutes and beggars. “My son must certainly be dead," he thinks. “After all, look what’s happened to those I really provided for." But to his surprise he finds the last son in flour— ishing state—he has a fine, richly furnished home and a luxurious automobile. Finally Ceausescu can contain himself no longer. “How did you do it?” he asks. “The others had money, houses, offices, and they're in terrible shape." “Easy,” says the last son. “I took the portrait you gave me, and printed thousands of copies—every leu I could get I spent on copies ofyour portrait. I hid them away. Then, on the day you died, I took one of them downtown to the Piata Unirii and spread it out on the sidewalk. Then I stook there and shouted, ‘Spit—ten lei. Piss—100 lei.‘ Every day I took another picture. [ still do, whenever I need money." This is a simplejoke, easy to understand, but even here full appreciatiOn of its use of the portrait is available only to Romanians. Ceauseseu’s portrait is everywhere in public Romania—he smirks from every wall and schoolroom. is on display in every train and bus station. On holidays he hangs on huge banners over streets and on the sides of buildings. No surprise, then, that the omnipresent face is the subject of numerous jokes. One favorite story tells how the likeness now in use replaced a predecessor several years ago because the former displayed only one Ceausescu ear. Rumors of a one—cared leader circulated, and ofcourse the new portrait, two ears clearly present, served only to stimulate newjokes. In the current number. for instance, Ceausescu wears Cochran) Romanian “Our Leader”}akes a dark tie ornamented with ovoid shapes. These, jokes assert, are meant to resemble the small heel plates used on shoes, and this in turn is sufficient to generate mocking references to the Great Leader's “school tie.” He may be calling himselfthe "Father ofthe Fatherland" and “Supreme Leader" now, but under the pomp he's a village cobbler's son, and a citizenry forced to live under his omnipresent gaze takes special pleasure in ajoke fOCused upon his humble origins. The Brigitte Bardot joke, centered upon Ceausescu's absurd recasting of reality, raised on its surface the issue of closed borders and restricted travel. Other jokes deal more directly with this topic. One day Ceausescu notices a long line, and st0ps to ask the man at the back what he’s waiting for. But no sooner does the man turn to answer than he recognizes the Great Leader, and immediately dashes off without a word. This process is repeated again and again, Ceausescu gradually working his way to the front of the line as. person after person flees. Finally, there is no one left, and Ceausescu stands before an official seated at a table. This figure also recognizes him. “Mr. President!” he says. “Why do you wish to emigrate?" A popular spy joke makes a similar point. A Romanian agent is captured in the United States, and charged with attempting to assassinate Reagan. He pleads innocent, and is unshaken even when detailed White House plans and a number of exotic weapons are introduced as evidence against him. "Yes," he says, “all this is mine, but I was not sent to kill Reagan." A skeptical prose- cutor, his voice loaded with irony, asks him just who he was going to kill, if not Reagan? "Kennedy!" says- the hapless spy. “But my passport was held up!" The briefes't joke I know also centers on the frustrations of closed borders and restricted travel. "What would you do if He opened the borders?" “Climb a tree." [fCeausescu's border guards keep Romanians from leaving, his dreaded Sc— curitate guarantees their day—to—day obedience. The vital role of fear in the maintenance of his control is clear in the world leaders compared joke where Reagan, Gorbachev, and Ceausescu are traveling together on a luxury liner. accompanied by their bodyguards. One day they are sailing through shark— infested waters when Reagan decides to show off the skill and courage of his guard. He removes his watch and throws it Overboard. “Go get it. john," he orders, and like a shot the Marine is over the side. The bystanders watch in awe as he dives for the watch, dispatches a few sharks with his commando knife, and climbs back aboard, presenting the watch to Reagan with a sharp salute. “What courage!" they cry, breaking into applause. Gorbachev. not to be outdone, flings his own watch overboard and sends his guard after it. The results are the same, and the crowd is similarly impressed. “What courage!" they say, applauding as before. Ceausescu, no less eager than the others to exhibit the bravery ofhis Romanian bodyguard, now throws his watch over— board. “Go get it, Mihai," he orders. But the guard does not move. “No chance, sir," he says. And the crowd cries out, even louder than before. and with prolonged applause. “What courage!" 270 journal of American Folklore (102. W39 What courage indeed. Few individuals actually speak out openly against Ceausescu, and those few surely do so knowing it will cost them dearly. An engineer named Radu Filipescu is still talked about in Romania—he apparently distributed leaflets in Bucharesr denouncing Ceausescu’s economic policies, and got a ten—year sentence for his trouble (Tismaneanu 1986:74). Also re— membered in private conversations is the denunciation of Ceausescu nepotism by a Party official named Constantin Pirvulescu. Pirvulescu reportedly spoke up at a Party congress, only to be forcibly interrupted and hustled from the meeting (Gilberg 19841377). Most Romanians, however, do not go so far; they tell jokes instead. And how do they telljokes? Very carefully. In a nation where the arm (and ear) of the Securitate extends into every workplace, there is an unspoken subtext to every politicaljoke. “You are my friend," it says. “We have our situation in common. There is a bond of trust and basic accord between us." Even this. this act of smaller stature, takes courage. There is, ofcourse, ajoke about it. Did you hear about the political joke contest? Third prize is 100 lei, second prize is 1000 lei, first prize is fifteen years.9 But perhaps the best jokes of all are those that actually happen. Truth, per— haps especially in a place like Romania, can be funnier than fictions, even when the fictions are jokes, deliberately funny. It is quite true, for example, that dur— ing the 19705 Ceausescu’s public behavior, already self-important by any earthly standard, took a marked turn toward a truly imperial style. Prominent among the bizarre manifestations of this growing loss of touch was a tendency. to sport a jeweled scepter as a part of his regulation ruler costume. ‘° The com- edy of this—a leader aping a Sun King even as his nation slides into squalor— was sufficiently surreal to attract the notice of Salvador Dali, well known for his taste in such matters. Dali, so the story is told, dispatched a congratulatory telegram. The artist was happy to note, he said, that somewhere in the werld there still lived a ruler capable of the Grand Manner. True majesty was not fled, as he had previously sometimes feared, but was now at home in Romania. The scepter was singled out for special praise. It wasjust the right touch. The telegram, taken at face value, was duly printed. Taken as a great joke, it is deeply treasured. ” A similar though less spectacular incident occurred in the summer of 1986. As part ofits dutiful coverage ofhis every move, the Romanian press regularly prints items of Ceausescu's official correspondence with other heads ofstatc. It thus happened that his brief chief—of-State note congratulating fellow thug Ferdinand Marcos on his reelection to office was printedjust after Marcos had fled in disgrace to Guam and Hawaii under the embarraSSCd aegis ofAmerican protection. This gem too was clipped for saving, and relished for its perfect appropriateness. One thug was suddenly, unexpectedly, out of power. a pa— thetic old man without a country. It had actually happened, and in Romania this was celebrated almost in the abstract, for its insistence upon the ubiquity oflpossibility. Cochran) Romanian "Our L:ad(r"jokc.t 271 Other manifestations of Ceausescu’s heightened sense ofhimself as Great Leader were an increased concern with his writings (a vast library of these works, actually collections of speech excerpts 0n various topics, is promi- nently displayed in every bookstore), a commitment to celebratory architec— tural projects on the greatest scale (to make way for one of these a whole Bu- charest neighborhood was razed, along with several notable churches), and the transformation ofhis native village ofScornicesti into a national shrine. Romanians have been quick to poke fun at each new expression ofthe Boss Man's megalomania. His theoretical works are derided as the work of a would-be Mao in jocular references to “Maosescu” (Binder 1986:34), while his bulldozing of Bucharest houses is known as “Ceaushima” (Kaplan 1984:10). The Scornicesti project, for its part, developed several full-scale jokes. A foreign visitor is being shown about the hallowed village by an enthusiastic guide. Suddenly they see a tiger. “You have tigers here?" asks the astonished visitor. “Oh no,“ replies the guide, “that’s a Scornicesti cat. A pet fit for a hero.” Soon they pass an ostrich, and again the visitor expresses his surprise. “That’s a Scornicesti hen," says the guide, "Eggs for a hero’s breakfast. ” At lunch a sumptuous banquet is served, during which a large crab is brought in on a tray. The guide begins to speak, but suddenly the visitor in— terrupts. “Don’t tell me,” he says. “It’s a Scornicesti louse. Nursed in a hero’s hair?”2 .Finally, to return to jokes that really happened, there is the tale of Matei Haiducu, filtered back into Romania from reports in the Western press. It is a great cloak and dagger story, still relished today, years after the fact, by Ro- manian storytellers. Haiducu was a Romanian intelligence agent in France. He’d worked there for years gathering industrial data, when one day he got new orders: kill dissident Romanian writers Virgil Tanase and Paul Goma. It was too much. Haiducu went to his French counterparts, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, and together they worked out a plan. Haiducu, following his original instructions. used a fake pen to inject poison into Goma's drink at a reception, only to have another guest accidentallyjostle his arm and spill it. The guest was a French agent, ofcourse, but it looked like a good attempt thwarted by sheer bad luck. Haiducu was told to try again, going after Tanase. His suggestion that French hitmen be used was accepted. The attempt on Tanase was successful—neighbors reported him hustled into a car and driven offby two toughs. The abduction was big news, Securirale was widely blamed, President Francois Mitterrand spoke on television of harm to Franco-Romanian relations. A Mitterrand visit to BucharCSt was can- celled. Meanwhile Haiducu returned to Romania, where Ceausescu congratulated him and the newspapers reported his commendation for public service. Two months later, with Haiducu and most ofhis family safely out ofRomania, the story broke in French newspapers. Tanase was alive, holed up in Brittany. The 272 journal of American Folklore (102. I989 kidnappers were French agents. Even Mitterrand's outrage had been part of the act. '3 Romanians, like the newspapers, differ on the story's details—names are changed, one writer is actually killed before the agent Switches sides. Goma becomes Tanase—but the core is always present, always the same. Ceausescu is fooled, somebody else gets away. It is a cherished story. It confirms in the everyday world the portrait of the jokes. He really is Bula, and people every- where are laughing. But counterbalancing such pleasures. there is a defeat at the heart of every joke, a sorrow in the heart of the joker. Romanian jokes brim with the bitter- ness of life in Romania, with the bread lines and freezing apartments, the in— formers and closed borders, the controlled newspapers and television screens. The joke is a protest, certainly, even in its sharing of risk and laughter a more than private protest. But its efficacy is psychological, not political. Generi— cally, the joke is janus-faced—at once assertion of defiance and admission of defeat, it disparages itself even in its telling, proclaims its own limits, is always at least partly told on the teller. A private independence is maintained, but no public change is effected. “Yes. we are wonderful jokers,” says one woman, her voice weary, heavy with self—contempt. “Do you know what they say? The Hungarians, they make revolutions. The Poles, they make Strikes. The Romanians, they make jokes. " Or as a Transylvanian proverb puts it: “We are all laughing, but the pig is dead in the basket.” [In the original: “Rfdem noi ridem, darpurceaua e moarta' in (agar. "] . It’s on such somber notes that a study of Romanian jokes must end. and with the saddest joke of all. A Russian dog, a Polish dog, and a Romanian dog meet to discuss plans for celebrating the New Year. “We could have the pa rty at my place," suggests the Russian dog. “I've got some meat, but we can't bark." The Polish dog then suggests his home. “There isn't any meat,” he says. “but it’s OK to bark." Meanwhile the Romanian dog looks more and more puz- zled. Finally he speaks. “What’s meat?" he asks. “What’s barking?" That’s not about Ceausescu. But it is. Notes For obvious reasons. no specific information regarding Romanian informants can be given. The jokes presented here were collected between September I985 and January l987 in Bucharest and other Romanian cities. Most jokes were heard many times. in circumstances ranging from chance encounters on trains and buses to lengthy joking sessions among close associates. Many forciin students and teachers assisred my work. but nojoke has been used that was not heard at least once. by me. from a Romanianjokc teller. leven now associate many Romanian places—Otopeni Airport. for example. or the city ofConsranta—with spc- cificjokcs and their tellers. Mostjokcs were either told to me originally in English or translated for me by the teller. No attempt was made to obtain verbatim texts. and in every instance the vcrsmn here is my own. based on notes. To all who must remain unthankcd. thanks. This article is for you. 'He was an assigned friend. ofcoursc. But a friend nonetheless. and “C (Old "W SCVCr-‘l BOWUOkCS- This wasjust one ofRomania's complexities. Saul Bellow gets this aspect of Romanian personal relationships well in The Dean's December (1983). See especially pages Ill, 78—80, [87-188. Cochran) Romanian "Our Leader"joke5 273 JCtmteplitt eronomt'tu' a presidiutelui Nirolae Cratqerru is described (in English) by the Romanian publishers as follows: The whole work emphasizes the idea that President Nicolae Ceausescu studies economic processes by means of materialisr-dialectical methods creatively and consistently applied in science. Thus. once more are proved the strong personality ofthe party leader. his capacity to analyze the objective demands ofthe socio-economic development. his great receptivity of the new. According to the same publishers. the Boss's contributions to military science are no less brilliant: Stressing President Nicolae Ceauscscu's original thinking. his determining contribution to the scientific elab- oration antl substantiation of Romanian military doctrine. to building the national defence system. the work is a homage paid to the founder of contemporary Romania. This work is modestly titled: Opera tor/era'sului Nita/ac Ceattsesru. mitt-lie a gindirii sipmrlt'a'i militate ramiuqti cantemporane [The Work of Comrade Nicolac Ccauscscu. the Basis of Contemporary Romanian Military Thought and Practice]. The authorship ofboth works is corporate; the first is attributed to the “teaching Staff from the Academy of Economic Studies." These blurbs are in no sense unusual—they are taken from an English language catalogue. Romanian Books (Bucharest: Publishing Centre. 1986). pp. 2-3. For the children's songbook and the bus station banner. I can cite only my own memory. Jllie Ceausescu. brother ofthe Boss. an officer in the Ministry ofDefense. was happy to confirm an Amer- icanjournalist's suggestion that Romanian military strategy had displayed a persistent liking for ambushes. See Binder 1986:38. 40. Thejoke. I'm suggesting. is an analogous taste. an ambush in the realm of words. even as the ambush is ajoke in the realm of war. ‘News reports of life in Romania make frequent use of jokes. suggesting that others have sensed their central role in Romanian self-expression. See for example Binder (1986234. 40). Ellis (19752698). Gilberg (1984:375). and Kaplan (1984:10). ’For straightforward accounts of Ceausescu's motorcade see Anonymous (1986:”) and Fischer 0981:1351). ‘For additional Bulijokes. see Bane and Dundes (l986:6l. 64. 90—92. 156). Bane may be a pseudonym. since "bane" is Romanian for "joke." but I have seen it also as a surname. Dundes's earlier article (1971) does not mention Bula. His sample ofjokes. gathered in 1969. includes several that present: Ceauscseu in a positive light. Another American folklorist. Jan Harold Brunvand. includes ajoke often attached to Buli. but dees not use his name (1973zl84). 7A wonderful Polishjoke. collected in Warsaw in june I988. is roughly analogous: Reagan visits a Polish village. where he is shocked to see a peasant eating grass. Why? he asks. "We have no bread." Touched. he hands over 5100. Soon Gorbachev comes. encounters the same peasant. and also contributes generously. Fi- nallyjaruzelski. Poland's own Supreme Leader. visits the village. “Why are you eating grass?" he asks the peasant. "We have no bread." comes the reply. "You fool!" snaps the leader. "What will you do in the winter?" “The latest such plan. announced in March I988. is the biggest yet. and ifeven partially cnacred will cause incaleulable suffering. Labeled "Systematization." this madness calls for the razing ofhalfthe nation‘s villages and the relocation to urban areas of their inhabitants. all in the name ofincreased arable land and greater proximity to educational and medical facilities. For a briefdescription of this project included in .I protest against its implementation see the open letter by Natalie 2. Davis. lstvan Dcak. and Carl E. Schorske in the New Yell.- Retlit'wtthonki (l9_]anuary I989). p. 59. "For an earlier variant set- Beckmann (196912). Others have .llSO remarked the intimate nature ofsuehjnk~ mg relationships—see for example Brandcs 0977:344). ""l‘he scepter. also called a mace. has been frequently noted in newspaper and magazmc articles: see Anon- ymous (l986:l0). Binder (l986:34). Fischer (l98l1l3l). Lukacs “98218). and TiSnIJIIL'JIIII (1986;76) "Dali's message. granting that he sent it and that the story ofits publication is true. I.\' surely cryptic. This would seem to inhere in surrealistic utterance. ln Dali's own The Uni-probable (:tItt/i‘j.iit’tt.i tifSnlr-mlnr Dali. ".is told to Andre l’arinaud“ and translated by Harold}. Snlcmsuu. the following unspeakable thing is spoken "All regimes merely ape the tnonarchic order \\'l!l‘l more or less tlcntngoguery and efficiency That is why I expect to see Rumanla with a king again. Russu with .l Czar. and China an emperor" (1976123). lll first heard thisjokc in Hungarian. where the “Scornicesti louse" is a "rt-n7"; (lit: Romanian version is quite similar. substituting “llritltllllt'. " For another Scorniccstljoke (which I did not hear) see Binder (I‘MG'MI) 274 journal ofAmtritan Folklore "For news accounts ofthe Haiducu story see “L‘alTaire Virgil Tanase." Le Maude, I September I982. p. I. Also. in the same issue. Bertrand Le Gendre, “M. Mittérrand en premiére lignc. " pp. 1. 8, and Bruno Frappat. “Histoire d'une mystification.“ p. 7. Other accounts include "Mittcrrand ‘was aware of fake murder proj- ect,’ " The Times. I September 1982. p. 5; “Romanian Sting." Time, 13 September I982, p. 37; and Scatt Sullivan, "The Case ofthe Missing Exile." Newsweek. l3 September I982. p. 51. References Cited L'afl'aire Virgil Tanase. 1982. Le Monde, I September. p. l. Anonymous. 1986. Birth and Death in Romania. New York Review ofBooks 33zl0—l8. Banc. C., and Alan Dundes. 1986. First Prize Fifteen Years: An Annotated Collection of Romanian Political jokes. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Beckmann. Petr. 1969. Whispered Anecdotes: Humor From Behind the Iron Curtain. Boulder: The Golem Press. Bellow, Saul. I983. The Dean's Derember. New York: Pocket Books. Bergson. Henri. 1956[I900]. Laughter. In Comedy, ed. Wylie Syphcr. pp. 59—l90. New York: Doubleday. [First published as Le Rite: Essai sur la signification du (antique. Paris: F. Alcan.| Binder. David. 1986. The Cult ofCeausescu. New York Times Magazine, 30 November. pp. 32—- 40. Brandes, Stanley H. 1977. Peaceful Protest: Spanish Political Humor in a Time of Crisis. Western Folklore 36:331—346. BrunvandJan H. 1973. “DOn't Shoot Comrades": A Survey of the Submerged Folklore ol'East- em Europe. North Carolina Folklore journal 21 2181-188. Dali. Salvador. 1976. The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali. As told to Andre Parinaud. translated by Harold]. Salcmson. New York: William Morrow. Davis, Natalie Z., lstvan Dcak. and Carl E. Schorske. 1989. Razing Romania. Letter to New York Review of Books, l9january, p. 59. Dundes, Alan. 1971. Laughter Behind the Iron Curtain: A Sample ofRumanian Politicaljokes. The Ukrainian Quarterly 27:50—59. Ellis. William. 1975. Romania: Maverick on a Tightrope. National Ceagmp/rit (November):688— 712. Fischer. Mary Ellen. l98l. Idol or Leader? The Origins and Future of the Ceausescu Cult. In Romania in the 1980s, ed. Daniel N. Nelson. pp. “7—141. Boulder: Westview Press. Frappat, Bruno. 1982. Histoire d'une mystification. Le Monde, 1 September. p. 7. Le Gendre. Bertrand. 1982. M. Mittérrand en premiere ligne. Le Monde, 1 September. pp. 1. 8. Gilberg. Trond. 1984. Romania's Growing Difficulties. Currenl History (November):37S—39l. Greenwald.john. 1986. Mother ofthe Fatherland. Tinn', 14july. p. 33. Kaplan. Robert D. 1984. Romanian Gymnastics. New Republic, l7 December, pp. 10, ll. Lukacs.john. 1982. In Darkest Transylvania. New Republir, 3 February. pp. lS—Zl. Mitterrand ‘was aware offakc murder project.‘ 1932. The Times. I September. p. 5. Mizejewski. Linda. 1987. The Erotic Stripped Bare. Harper’s Magazine (March):57-62. Romanian Books. 1986. Bucharest: Publishing Centre. Rumanian Sting. 1982. Time, l3 September. p. 37. Smolowc,_]ill. 1987. With Friends Like These. . . . Time, BJunC. p. 36. Sullivan. Scott. 1982. The Case ofthe Missing Exile. Nat/swede, l3 September. p. 5|. Tismaneanu, Vladimir. I986. Byzantine Rites. Stalinist Follies: The Twilight of Dynastic So— cialism in Romania. Orbis 30:65~90. ...
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What%20Courage - ROBERT COCHRAN “WHAT COURAGE!”...

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