On Jokes and the Difference between Austria and Prussia

I think that the carnival is an irrational institution, and that St Philip Neri was entirely right to try to abolish it. The irrationality is mostly limited to February, but in German-speaking parts it “officially” begins on the 11th of November. This is because of the confusion of the “little” pre-Advent carnival with the “big” pre-Lent carnival to form one giant “carnival Season”. Various rationalizations have been attempted for the carnival. What interests me about them is that they fall into basically two types, which correspond to the two accounts of the nature of jokes that I referred to in my last post as the Prussian and the Austrian view.

The first type of carnival-rationalization claims that before the asceticism of Lent one needs to relax a bit and indulge in silliness and excess. Whilst getting rid of butter and meat one indulges all ones appetites before getting down to the serious business of disciplining them. On this account the carnival is an exception to normal life, a momentary descent into the irrational that allows normal, rational life to go on. The second account is even worse. According to the second account the purpose of carnival is not to be an exception to normal life but rather to show the true nature of normal life preparatory to a supernatural liberation from the normal. The idea is that the carnival masks are there to unmask the world; to give a caricature of the vices of the world, a demonstration of the folly worldliness from which we must be liberated.

The first account matches the view of jokes that I associate with Prussia. The great Prussian comedian Loriot, who passed away this year, was once asked in an interview (linked by Andrew Cusack) whether there is any truth to the cliché that Germans have no sense of humor. He answered:

That’s not exactly true. The Germans certainly do have a tradition of humor. What is true though, is that with us Germans humor does not have the same centrality for life that it has for example in Great Britain or even in Austria. Just think of the theater: an Englishman values comedy just as much as tragedy. Among the Germans it is quite different.

So the Prussian idea is that life is basically a serious matter, but occasionally it’s good to relax a bit and make a joke. The joke is seen as an exception to the serious business of life.

The Austrian account on the other hand is that a joke is not so much an exception to the seriousness of life as rather a revelation of the basic character of life.  There is a famous anecdote of a joint Prussian-Austrian operation in WWI: the Prussian officer sends a dispatch back to headquarters with the message, “Die Lage ist ernst, aber nicht hoffnungslos” (the situation is serious but not hopeless). The Austrian commander sends back the message “Die Lage ist hoffnungslos, aber nicht Ernst.” (The situation is hopeless but not serious). The same sentiment is expressed in the oft-used Austrian saying “Keine Sorge, wird schon schiefgehen” (Don’t worry, things are bound to turn out wrong). Germans get annoyed at this saying – seeing it an expression of typical Austrian defeatism and despair (“No wonder you Austrians lost every war you ever fought!”) But it is not really meant as an expression of despair, it is meant to be comforting, in fact it is meant as a joke – even if the joke is on us.

The Prussian-Austrian contrast is somewhat similar to an American-English contrast made by Christopher Hollis. Hollis once toured America with the Oxford Union (a debating society). The difficulty of debating in America, he says, is partly that the Americans have a different view of the purpose of a joke. For the American’s jokes are used in a debate merely an external ornament irrelevant to the argument: “Americans have little sense of making a serious point in a comical way.” But what if the only possible way of making some points is through a joke? What if reality is itself a kind of joke?

The master of trying to show reality itself as a joke is of course an Englishman: G.K. Chesterton. But in Chesterton the joke is decidedly a good joke, the situation is not serious, but neither is it hopeless. The one major contemporary philosopher who takes Chesterton seriously on these things takes the joke as a far darker one: the Lacanian-Hegelian Marxist Slavoj Žižek. Although he is not an Austrian he is at least the next best thing, a Slovenian; of all the Slavic former Habsburg Crown Lands the provinces of Slovenia are perhaps the closest in mentality to Austria proper. It is no accident that Josef Roth makes the archetypically Austrian family in Radetzkymarsch be of Slovenian extraction. In stark contrast to Chesterton Žižek has a consistently nihilistic view of what it means that reality is a joke:  the world is the absurd dialectical dance of the self-negation of nothingness. There is a wonderful debate between Žižek and the Anglican theologian John Milbank, which turns on the interpretation of Chesterton. Žižek argues that Chesterton was not radical enough and he ought to have pushed his paradoxes into the realm of Hegelian dialectics. Milbank argues that on the contrary Chesterton was the true radical; one only really gets the joke of the world if one understands it as divina commedia, as the ultimate Aristotelian comedy in which the unworthy characters receive undeserved good fortune, the lowly creatures of our world become partakers of the Divine Life.


8 thoughts on “On Jokes and the Difference between Austria and Prussia

  1. This is one really great entry. I have been thinking along similar lines myself (with regard to jokes) for some years. And it is also interesting to note that in my own experience, Austrians and Bavarians have a very similar mentality to the English, whereas other Germanics, not just the Prussians, do not seem to really “get” them.

    Keep up the good work, and thanks for an interesting blog. P. Raphael


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  3. This one from ‘Orthodoxy’ is also to the point: ‘We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce…So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear’.


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