Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nu, let us go then

A small detour on our trudge through life's vale of tears  . . .

I have been diverting myself lately from the travails of national politics and the legions of wrong-thing sayers abroad in our land with bits and pieces from the new Oxford Book of Parodies, a wonderful reminder of the devastating power of this ancient art form when wielded by the hands of a professional.

Great parodies are not just funny: they can kill. The best exemplars let their victims practically destroy themselves: one deft poker-faced flick of the wrist, and the target is left sprawling helplessly across his own pretentiousness, unoriginality, and pedantry. The more "high-minded," earnest, and self-regarding the original, the funnier and deadlier the resulting pratfall.

One of my favorite specimens (which Paul Fussell introduced me to in his superb book on World War II, Wartime) is Edmund Wilson's venomous demolition of the very self-regarding Archibald MacLeish. As Librarian of Congress, MacLeish was given to delivering lectures praising American literary earnestness and decrying the satire and wit of writers like H. L. Mencken (who served only "to poison the belief of the people in themselves"). MacLeish himself had written a very earnest and high-minded poem entitled The Hamlet of A. MacLeish, a monologue in which the author casts himself as sensitive soul, spiritually akin to Shakespeare's tragic hero, full of pathos and inner torment. Executed slavishly in the style of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, MacLeish's poem goes on for about 300 lines and even includes the italicized marginal glosses, à la Coleridge's original, that ostensibly explain the poem's meaning and moral ("He is reproved his melancholy by the uncle-father.")

In Wilson's version (The Omelet of A. MacLeish ), MacLeish's high-sounding language is laid bare for the pompous, empty, copy-cat, middle-brow hackery it is:

                                        Anabase and The Waste Land:
These and the Cantos of Pound: O how they came pat!
Nimble at other men's arts how I picked up the trick of it:
Rode it reposed on it drifted on it: passing
Shores that lay dim in clear air: and the cries of affliction
Suave in somniferous rhythms: there was rain and there was moons:
Leaves falling and all of a flawless and hollow felicity . . .

The brilliant part, though, is Wilson's parodies of the marginal glosses:

MacLeish breaks 
an egg for his 

He puts plovers' 
eggs and truffles 
into his omelet.

He is doomed to go 
on doctoring his 

The omelet 
becomes a 
national institution . . .

Speaking of recipes, the real treasure in the Oxford Book is "Lamb with Dill Sauce à la Raymond Chandler," which comes from Mark Crick's Kafka's Soup: A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes:
. . . I needed a table at Maxim's, a hundred bucks and a gorgeous blonde; what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues. I took hold of the joint. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner's handshake. I took out a knife and cut the lamb into pieces. Feeling the blade in my hand I sliced an onion, and before I knew what I was doing a carrot lay in pieces on the slab. None of them moved. . . .
     In this town the grease always rises to the top, so I strained the juice and skimmed off the fat. . . . I put the squeeze on a lemon and it soon juiced. It was easy. It was much too easy . . .
The Oxford Book contains but a passing mention of another work of parodical genius which I gather has been well known in certain circles for some time, but which was also news to me. I need to preface this by saying that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is one of two poems I ever committed completely to memory, something I did to distract myself during a less than completely happy year I spent in graduate school attempting to grasp quantum mechanics, differential equations, and girls (read that however you want); it's still one of my favorite poems of all time.

That said, I can well appreciate why Robert Pinsky would cite "Der shir hashirim fun Mendl Pumshtok" as the finest poem written by an American in the twentieth century. "Pumshtok" is a glorious Yiddish send-up of "Prufrock" composed in the 1930s by Isaac Rosenfeld and Saul Bellow. Though they never published it, the poem was passed on enthusiastically in a sort of oral tradition by friends who had memorized at least a part of it. I was able to find the Yiddish transliteration in several places on the Web. ("Shir hashirim" is the Hebrew for "The Song of Songs"):

Nu-zhe, kum-zhe, ikh un du,
Ven der ovnt shteyt uf kegn dem himl
Vi a leymener goylm af tishebov.
Lomir geyn zikh, durkh geselekh vos dreyen zikh
Vi di bord fun dem rov.

Oyf der vant fun dem koshern restorant
Hengt a shmutsiker betgevant
Un vantsn tantsn karahod. Es geht a geroykh
Fun gefiltefish un nase sokn.
Oy, Bashe freg nisht keyn kasha, a dayge dir
Lomir oyfenin di tir
In tsimer ve di vaybere senen
Redt men fun Marx un Lenin.

Ikh ver alt...ikh ver alt...
Un der pupik vert mir kalt.
Zol ikh oykemen di hor,
Meg ikh oyfesn a floym?
Ikh vel tskatsheven di hoyzn
Un shpatsirn bay dem yam.
Ikh vel hern di yam-moyden zingen khad gadyo
Ikh vel zey entfern, Borukh-habo.

An English translation was harder to come by, and of course nothing can quite do justice to the Yiddish "original," but here is an approximation, with some further explanatory notes below:

Nu, then, come, then, me and you,
When the evening stands beneath the sky
Like a clay golem on Tisha B'av.
Let us go, through streets that twist themselves
Like a rabbi's beard.

On the wall of the kosher restaurant
Hangs dirty bedding
And bedbugs dance in circles. There is a stink
Of gefilte fish and wet socks.
Oy, Bashe, don't ask questions, why bother?
Let me open the door
In the room where the wives are
Speaking of Marx and Lenin.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
And my navel grows cold.
Should I comb my hair?
May I eat a prune?
I will put on pants
And walk by the sea.
I will hear the sea-maidens sing Chad Gadya,
I shall answer them: Baruch Ha-ba.

The genius of this lies not just in Ronsenfeld's and Bellow's cultural one-upmanship of producing deliriously Yiddish equivalents of Eliot's waspy images of tea and neckties and white flannel trousers, but in exploding the entire air of aestheticized pathos that surrounds "Prufrock" —  exposing, thanks to their commonplace Yiddishisms, that there is absolutely nothing so special about Prufrock's sense of tragic, existential alienation other than the linguistic polish Eliot gives it.

Prufrock's ethereal "Let us go then, you and I" becomes simple nagging ("Nu, then, come, then"); Eliot's "patient etherised upon a table" becomes "a clay golem on Tisha B'Av" — which is actually about a triple-play, as a "leymener goylm" doesn't really refer to the golem that's the supernatural creature of Jewish folklore but is rather a vivid Yiddish metaphor for a clod, a person who's a hunk of wood, and Tisha B'Av is the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; as Ruth Wisse observes, it's as perfect "an image of national impotence as one can imagine." It's Pumshtok saying to Prufrock: "You think you've got troubles?"

And of course, "May I eat a prune?" is absolutely no different in substance or meaning or intent from Eliot's famous "Do I dare to eat a peach?"; likewise there's nothing to "Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?" Let us go and make our visit" that isn't completely covered by the plain language of "Oy, don't ask questions, why bother?" In each case, as "Pumshtock" mercilessly reveals, Eliot's poem owes its glow of poetic profundity simply to a patina of refined language, which the Yiddish version unceremoniously strips bare, revealing its absurdly ordinary core. Baruch Ha-ba!