I read The Joke, Milan Kundera’s first novel, when I was a schoolboy. Bit above my level, but, even as a teenager, I liked the premise. Ludvik is a young man in post-war, newly Communist Czechoslovakia. He’s a smart, witty guy, a loyal Party member with a great future ahead of him. His girlfriend, though, is a bit serious. So when she writes to him from her two-week Party training course enthusing about the early-morning calisthenics and the “healthy atmosphere,” he scribbles off a droll postcard:
Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.
A few weeks later, he’s called before a committee of the District Party Secretariat. He tries to explain he was making a joke. Immediately they remove him from his position at the Students Union; then they expel him from the Party, and the university; and shortly thereafter he’s sent to work in the mines. As a waggish adolescent, I liked the absurdity of the situation in which Ludvik finds himself. Later, I came to appreciate that Kundera had skewered the touchiness of totalitarianism, and the consequential loss of any sense of proportion. It was the book I read on the flight to Vancouver, when Maclean’s magazine and I were hauled before the British Columbia “Human Rights” Tribunal for the crime of “flagrant Islamophobia.” In the course of a week-long trial, the best part of a day was devoted to examining, with the aid of “expert witnesses,” the “tone” of my jokes.
Like Ludvik at the District Party Secretariat, I faced a troika of judges. Unfortunately, none of them had read Milan Kundera, or apparently heard of him. So immediately after my trial they ensnared a minor stand-up comic, Guy Earle, who had committed the crime of putting down two drunken hecklers. Alas for him, they were of the lesbian persuasion. Last month, he was convicted of putting down hecklers homophobically and fined $15,000. Mr. Earle did not testify at his trial, nor attend it. He lives on the other side of the country, and could afford neither flight nor accommodation. Rather touchingly, he offered to pay for his trip by performing at various comedy clubs while in town, before he eventually realized that no Vancouver impresario was going to return his calls ever again. Ludvik would have recognized that, too. Comrade Zemanek, the chairman of the plenary meeting that decides his fate, participated with him in earlier jests with the same girl, but he makes a brilliant speech explaining why Ludvik has to be punished, and everyone else agrees:
No one spoke on my behalf, and finally everyone present (and there were about a hundred of them, including my teachers and my closest friends), yes, every last one of them raised his hand to approve my expulsion.
And so it went for Guy Earle, hung out to dry by his comrades at the plenary session of the Canadian Collective of Edgy Transgressive Comedians. I speak metaphorically. But, if you’d like something more literal, let’s move south of the border. Recently, Surgery News, the official journal of the American College of Surgeons, published a piece by its editor-in-chief, Lazar Greenfield, examining research into the benefits to women of . . . well, let Dr. Greenfield explain it:
They found ingredients in semen that include mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and, of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%. Delivering these compounds into the richly vascularized vagina also turns out to have major salutary effects for the recipient.
As this was the Valentine’s issue, Dr. Greenfield concluded on a “light-hearted” note:
Now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.
Oh, my. When the complaints started rolling in from lady doctors, Surgery News withdrew the entire issue. All of it. Gone. Then Dr. Greenfield apologized. Then he resigned as editor. Then he apologized some more. Then he resigned as president-elect of the American College of Surgeons. The New York Times solemnly reported that Dr. Barbara Bass, chairwoman of the department of surgery at Methodist Hospital in Houston, declared she was “glad Dr. Greenfield had resigned.” But Dr. Colleen Brophy, professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University, said “the resignation would not end the controversy.”
Dr. Greenfield is one of the most eminent men — whoops, persons — in his profession, and, when it comes to vascularized vaginas, he would appear to have the facts on his side. But, like Ludvik, he made an ideologically unsound joke, and so his career must be ended. An apology won’t cut it, so the thought police were obliged to act: To modify the old line, the operation was a complete success, and the surgeon died.
Years later, Ludvik reflects on the friends and colleagues who voted to destroy him. I wonder if, in the ruins of his reputation, Dr. Greenfield will come to feel as Kundera’s protagonist does:
Since then, whenever I make new acquaintances, men or women with the potential of becoming friends or lovers, I project them back into that time, that hall, and ask myself whether they would have raised their hands; no one has ever passed the test.
Who would have thought all the old absurdist gags of Eastern Europe circa 1948 would transplant themselves to the heart of the West so effortlessly? Indeed, a latter-day Kundera would surely reject as far too obvious a scenario in which lesbians and feminists lean on eunuch males to destroy a man for disrespecting the vascularized vagina by suggesting that semen might have restorative properties. “Give it to me straight, doc. I can take it”? Not anymore. Kundera’s Joke is now on us.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline. (www.steynonline.com).