The (we hope eventually) prodigal son of William F. Buckley said in his New Yorker obituary on Christopher Hitchens:
As for the wit…one day we were talking about Stalin. I observed that Stalin, eventual murderer of twenty, thirty—forty?—million, had trained as a priest. Not skipping a beat, Christopher remarked, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?” [ellipsis original]
I thought—as I did perhaps one thousand times over the course of our three-decade long tutorial—Wow.
A few days later, at a dinner, the subject of Stalin having come up, I ventured to my dinner partner, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?” The lady to whom I had proferred this thieved aperçu stopped chewing her salmon, repeated the line I had so casually tossed off, and said with frank admiration, “That’s brilliant.” I was tempted, but couldn’t quite bear to continue the imposture, and told her that the author of this nacreous witticism was in fact none other than Christopher. She laughed and said, “Well, everything he says is brilliant.”
I don’t get it. Tbilisi is obvious and ordinands clear, but married in service to the object of the priesthood does not a bon mot make—to me that is, in my admitted state of ignorance. It is not wow, but why? I am hoping that one of you can help me.
I don’t know enough about local Georgian dialects to discover a pun in Tbilisi, and Stalin’s ties with that city produces no chuckles. Perhaps the humor lies in the stretching of ordinands: ordinand –> ordinance –> bombs –> means of murder? But then Stalin mostly starved his victims (equality for all!), so this route leads to a dead end, no?
Perhaps the sentence predicate is the real bone rattler? Could it be—it really cannot, can it?—that Hitchens was equating most promising with Stalin’s head count, one matched only by that other superb socialist stalwart Mao? But if so, then Hitchens was implying that it is a goal of the priesthood to murder pitilessly. To induce a laugh thus requires prior sympathy with this asinine, mendacious, preposterous point of view. This interpretation also paints the scene of Buckley and Hitchen’s lunch as two teens elbowing each other, snorting over a stupidity.
Ah, that argument is a stretch (it took me several minutes of pondering to come to it); further, ignorance that monumental cannot be presumed. Yet Buckley was clearly presupposing his dinner companion held in common some list of premises that led unambiguously down the path comical. I can discover no other premises.
But it is a fallacy to suppose that because I cannot think of them, they do not exist. Hence my plea for enlightenment. Ideas?