Economic wise men: self-healing of the underdog

Social class is increasingly becoming a literary theme – associated with this is a renaissance of the male joke.

Home of men’s jokes: the corner pub Photo: dpa

Men’s jokes are manual labor jokes. Sure, there are civil servant jokes, janitor jokes, boss jokes, doctor jokes, etc., but these are, if not headworker jokes, then professional jokes. "Male humor, with its jokes about beer and naked women, seems on the one hand to have fallen completely out of time, but on the other hand it persists," writes Die Welt. They belong to a certain form of existence that was widespread in West Germany until recent times: the man works hard, earns the dough, and the woman takes care of the household and the children. To gain distance from both, he goes to "his" pub. "Landlady," he calls out as he enters, "did I really drink away 20 marks last night?" When the landlady confirms this to him, he says, "Thank God, I already thought I’d squandered the dough."

Many men’s jokes make fun of wives at their expense. There were times when they went to the factory gate on Fridays and took the pay bags from their husbands at the end of their shifts so that they wouldn’t drink up the money. Just recently, a Berlin author told an event that he collected books, and when he went to the antiquarian bookstore, he had to make sure that his wife didn’t find out what he had spent on them. There was laughter in the audience. Now I knew, however, that his wife is a well-earning lawyer and is not interested in his money at all, at most in the one or other book. I was annoyed by this twisting of the truth into conservatism at the expense of his wife.

In his book "Ein Mann seiner Klasse" (2020, tr: A man of his class), Freitag editor Christian Baron tells male jokes of a completely different kind, referring to his father – a furniture mover who afforded a family with four children. The beer joke told at the beginning comes from him. He told another one in his pub: "A prison warden jabs his guard: "’How could that man have broken out? And from a high-security prison?’ ‘He had the key.’ ‘What,’ asks the warden, ‘did he steal it?’ ‘No, he won it honestly at poker.’"

The man joke, like the former joke of the Berliners, is the verbal self-healing of an underdog. Christian Baron’s father, or rather his milieu in the working-class district of Kaiserlautern and his son’s (the author’s) growing up in it, is an almost unbearable West German working-class cliche – to the point that his son is the only one of four children to break out of his "class" and become a sociologist.

Brutally honest cliches

The cliche he paints is brutally honest. As a child, Christian Baron thought it best to be taken to the pub where his father was so popular. He wanted to be like his father. Later, he often heard the not particularly well-intentioned sentence "You’re strange" – from a German teacher, among others, "because when I was in first grade, I said the Bild newspaper when asked about my favorite reading.

The biography "A Man of His Class", which is at the same time an autobiography, has predecessors in France – beginning with the books of Annie Ernaux, whose laconic-melancholic tone, which expresses the most intimate things, is also echoed in Christian Baron’s book. Likewise Didier Eribon’s attempt to understand his own proletarian origins in their sociological dimension. And similarly edouard Louis’ novel The End of Eddy, an international bestseller. In 2018, he published a biography of his father, "Who Killed My Father."

In it, he explained, it’s about the "destructive power of politics, for example, how it can destroy a body." "The more the social class to which you belong is subjected to the relations of domination, the more immediate are the effects of politics on your life." The abolition of the separation of hand and head work has chosen out of necessity, but very empathetically, the writer Katja Oskamp in her experienced "Stories of a pedicurist: Marzahn mon Amour" (2019).