30 March, 2006

Sartor ne ultra bracas

A good while ago, back when I really had no readers, I wrote a long post on Intelligent Design; at the end of this piece was quoted my favourite joke, about the tailor's trousers, from Beckett's Endgame. Well, it turns out that Beckett didn't come up with this joke. I just stumbled on an article by Richard Raskin ('God Versus Man in a Classic Jewish Joke'), which quotes the same joke, although told without Beckett's brilliantly subtle command of irony, translated from a 1925 French collection by Raymond Geiger:
Yossel stops in at Rabinovitch's shop and orders a pair of pants from him.

— "But it's on one condition: that you deliver the pants to me tomorrow evening. I need them; I'm about to set out on a trip. Otherwise I'll go to Hirschberg."

— "Count on me. I give you my word of honor that you will have them tomorrow evening."

But Rabinovitch is lazy and forgets his customer's order. Two years later, he remembers, hurriedly makes the pants and rushes off to deliver them. Yossel looks very displeased:

— "Rabinovitch, you're some tailor! It takes you two years to make a pair of pants, while God needed only six days to create the world!"

— "Yossel, please, don't compare me to God: take a look at the world and just look at these pants!"
As my readers can probably tell, this is obviously a Jewish joke. It all makes sense now! Raskin discusses the mechanism of Jewish humour, as exemplified here. He detects two comic currents in the narrative, both focusing on the punchline; firstly, the 'crafty salesman' reading, according to which the tailor is duping his customer—this produces a joke akin to those found in the mediaeval fabliau or jestbook traditions. The other reading is one which identifies with the tailor's sincere lament—this produces a genuinely tragic vision of the world, with man's dominion narrowed in scope to mere 'tailoring', man the creator succeeding at least where God the creator has failed so miserably.

Raskin doesn't mention Beckett's version in his survey article; when I asked him about this, he admitted ignorance. I wonder, though, to what extent Beckett's comedy derives from Jewish models, either in general tone or by direct borrowing. Perhaps there has already been a book on the subject. . . or one waiting to be written?


Elsa said...

Hey, you posted this a good while ago but the book waiting to be written might be mine ;) Thanks for the information; I had another explanation for Nagg's story in Endgame, according to which Beckett himself is said to have experienced the tailor incident in 1937... I'll investigate this!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, I look forward to reading it. Let us know if you find anything more!