Thursday, March 31, 2011

From the shelves of the Paco library

Let’s face it: we all enjoy the adept use of mockery to pop the balloons of the smug, to uncover the third-rate, to reveal the shortcomings of our fellow man (which, by definition, includes our own occasionally sorry selves). Many classic examples of mockery as an art form were collected by Dwight Macdonald in Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm. There are, as one would expect, some choice takeoffs of such notable writers as Pope, Swift, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Browning (and many others, too numerous to mention here); however, there are also darts hurled at political figures and even at the language of the common man, American version.

As an example of the latter, the editor has included H.L. Mencken’s translation of the elegant 18th century English of the Declaration of Independence into the contemporary American idiom of his time. For the benefit of those who may not recall the exact wording of the original, or who may never have encountered it at all, I reproduce the first paragraph here:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Mencken renders it thusly:
When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to pull nothing over on nobody.
The classic phrase, which every schoolchild learned and took to heart as a crucial part of his heritage (at least, until fairly recent times) – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” – is translated as, “All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better.” And perhaps my favorite alteration:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to give it the bum’s rush…
Dwight Eisenhower may have been a great general and at least a good president, but his speeches (as president) were rather notorious for their mangled syntax and rambling subordinate clauses. Oliver Jensen translates the Gettysburg Address into “Eisenhowese”. Here is the last paragraph of Lincoln’s original:
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
If President Eisenhower had written and delivered this speech, Jensen believes it may have come out sounding something like this:
Now, frankly, our job, the living individuals’ job here, is to pick up the burden and sink the putt they made these big efforts here for. It is our job to get on with the assignment – and from these deceased fine individuals to take extra inspiration, you could call it, for the same theories about the set-up for which they made a big contribution. We have to make up our minds right here and now, as I see it, that they didn’t put out all that blood, perspiration – well –that they didn’t just make a dry run here, and that all of us here, under God, that is, the God of our choice, shall beef up this idea about freedom and liberty and those kind of arrangements, and that government of all individuals, by all individuals and for the individuals, shall not pass out of the world-picture.
Macdonald’s book was published in 1960, and is likely out of print; however, the Oxford University Press has recently come out with The Oxford Book of Parodies - see review here - and it looks promising.


Yojimbo said...

That certainly looks like a must read. Shouldn't be too hard to find even if it is out of print.

Col. Milquetoast said...

If I didn't already have a pile of books to read, I'd go order every book Mencken ever wrote.

bruce said...

I am a fan of Ike and I could imagine him saying this,

"Now, frankly, our job, the living individuals’ job here, is to pick up the burden and sink the putt they made these big efforts here for..."

Great stuff.