Judge Barrett’s eloquence

Dr. Bedřich Welfer is an episodic but memorable character in Jaroslav Hašek’s great novel, The Good Soldier Švejk. Welfer’s uncle left him a generous allowance in his will, enabling the lucky nephew to remain a student of medicine for as long as he wanted. The allowance, however, was due to expire at the moment Welfer received his MD.

It was about four times the average salary of a rookie doctor. Naturally, Welfer put off getting his degree for as long as possible, to the dismay of his uncle’s direct heirs.

Unfortunately for him, World War One began. His uncle’s heirs made every effort to ensure he was recruited and commissioned as a “wartime doctor.” He was ordered to take an exam – to complete a written questionnaire in fact:

He was offered a number of questions, all of which he answered in a stereotypical fashion: “You may kiss my ass.” Three days later, a colonel announced solemnly that Friedrich Welfer had received his doctor of medicine decree, which he had amply deserved for a long time…

…and so Welfer was assigned to a hospital for resupply troops, where he would meet another memorable character, Cadet Biegler.

The SCOTUS confirmation hearings under way in the US Senate are very much like that episode. Judge Amy Coney Barrett is answering the non-softball, adversarial questions in the same stereotypical fashion: by suggesting that the Democratic senators worship her posterior.

Others would charitably allow that she is only channeling Bartleby the paralegal: “I’d prefer not to” give an answer. No, not really. She knows what’s going to happen: the Republican majority will vote her in no matter what, just like Dr. Welfer was destined to get his wartime degree.

I should add that Welfer had spent his journeyman years actually studying medicine in depth so his professional expertise was far above the entry level, while Justice Barrett’s knowledge of constitutional law appears to be quite a few notches below it.

A couple of language notes. Bedřich and Friedrich are the Czech and German versions of the same name. Hašek wrote the novel in Czech but occasionally used German: in particular, Welfer’s response is quoted in German. Literally, “Lecken Sie mir Arsch.” I don’t know German enough to judge whether an article is absolutely required before “Arsch” – i.e. “Lecken Sie mir den Arsch.” There’s a canon by Mozart entitled Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber so I guess the article shouldn’t be omitted. What’s clear though is that Welfer used the polite form, “Lecken Sie,” meaning no pro forma disrespect to the exam graders.

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