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Early Ecstatic Emptiness
The Holy Fool Flees Language's Stink Bomb
THE COCOANUTS (1929)
He was attached to sounds and because of his attachment could not let sounds be just sounds. He needed to attach himself to the emptiness, to the silence. —JOHN CAGE, Silence
ENTRANCE At the studios of Paramount Pictures in Astoria, Long Island, in his first scene, his first major film, 1929, six years before the Third Reich passed the Nuremberg Laws, Harpo enters honking. Honk honk. Pause. Honk honk. Lemming-like, he pursues a woman who doesn't realize that a kook is shadowing her. What does Harpo want? He wants to honk, copy, play, irritate, smash, point, lean, and rest. He wants to find a double, to be useless, to recognize, and to be recognized. He wants to greet the void. He wants to go blank. Or maybe he wants nothing.
PILLOW BOOKS Originally I intended to write a book about Harpo's relation to history and literature. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Hegel. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Marx. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Stein. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Hitler.
Then I drafted a novella, The Pillow Book of Harpo Marx. The narrator, Harpo, was a queer Jewish masseur who lived in Variety Springs, New York, and whose grandparents had starred in vaudeville with Sophie Tucker.
Then I decided I didn't want to waste Harpo's name on a novella. So I set out to write the book you are now holding—a blow-by-blow annotation of Harpo's onscreen actions. My aim? Assemblage. Homage. Imitation. Transcription. Dilation.
Last night I dreamt that my typewriter's ribbon expatriated from the machine and curled onto the floor. Dreams are evidence I can't omit from my pillow book.
This opening chapter has the fewest pictures. At first I didn't realize how pleasurable it was to interrupt the movie and seize proof that Harpo was god-like, exemplary, in danger of vanishing if I didn't capture him. I won't go back now and resee The Cocoanuts and grab more pictures; I won't doctor my experimental anatomization of Harpo's anti-melancholy body, whose materiality suffuses me with physical contentment, as if I were rocking the infant universe to sleep. When I first fell in love with Harpo, it wasn't, however, his contentment that struck me; I was moved by his hyperkinesis. Other actors handled plot doldrums, while, in the corner, Harpo, unregarded, unspeaking, busied himself with rapid oscillations of head, eye, and hand, self-pleasuring vibrations that sometimes struck sparks in other players, though, mostly, Harpo's butterfly gyrations woke no one else to his centrality. I, as viewer, was responsible for granting him primacy; and I could do so only by slowing him down and giving words to these muscular mutations, these gestures of mouth-opening and wrist-bending that were, on the surface, merely funny but, below the surface, were uncannily empty. The idiosyncrasy—Harpo's nod, or cavern-mouth, or mica-eyes—appeared fleeting and subverbal; and I developed a need to convince strangers that Harpo's hyperkinetic emptiness had metaphysical dimensions.
CONCENTRATION, ABSTRACTION, SERIALITY Harpo is the silent brother. Could he really talk? Yes, but never onscreen. Later, I'll explain why.
The Marx Brothers had a stage career (vaudeville, Broadway) before their act immigrated to Hollywood; I will limit my attentions to Harpo's film embodiment.
Watching his screen adventures, I don't laugh; I concentrate. Concentration is a sadly dwindling cultural resource; opportunities to pay attention—even going overboard and fastening monomaniacally to a single object—deserve advocacy.
Art, whether visual or literary, may choose to operate in serial fashion, composing its tricks by lining up similarly timed or similarly spaced modules. In Harpo's performances, one gag, or incremental piece of comic business, follows another. His gestures obey a mysterious nonlogic of mere adjacency. The schtick's fragments stack up like cubes or buttons—impropriety's rosary-beads. His performances, like the ocean's, are abstract. We observe the ebb, but we don't expect an explanation.
Behaving as a serial artist, Harpo lines up his self's pieces, one by one, in a row: he gathers comic bits into a transparent assemblage, hieratic as Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, but without didactic baggage. The seeming continuity of Harpo's performances disguises their origin in separable flashes of comic perception. Walter Benjamin described the art of Charlie Chaplin in similar terms: "Each single movement he makes is composed of a succession of staccato bits of movement." In a different context, the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, attuned to pieces, theorized an ego's tendency to be "in bits."
Sequentially, bit by bit, this book will point to Harpo's screen gestures. My procedure courts overthoroughness, and therefore stupefaction—an interminability I consider Novocain. As Andy Warhol filmed a man sleeping, and called it Sleep, I want to commit media-heist, to steal a man from his native silence and transplant him into words, if only for the pleasure of taking illusory possession of a physical self-sureness that can never be mine.
The Marx Brothers were not part of my star-infatuated childhood; I fell in love with Harpo only recently. Without foreknowledge, I found myself hypnotized by the curly-wigged man who stared erratically, with a glazed expression, in a direction that was neither toward nor away from the other; his gaze seemed to evade reciprocity, yet also to invite response. Harpo, I discovered, moved more quickly, and more elusively, than I could account for. If I slowed down the film, his gestures could unfold under a different planetary dispensation. I wanted to figure out how he put together "cuteness" from scratch, and how he coined, with tools of no one else's devising, a grammar of adorability, affection, stupefaction, giddiness, sleepiness, shock, and other category-defying moods. I wanted, above all, to figure out how he seduced me into relinquishing my own thoughts, for a few years, to concentrate, instead, on his gestures, which didn't need my annotations. Harpo made thirteen films; because my goal is homage and replication, I've written thirteen chapters. Anatomizing rather than synthesizing, I bed down with entropy and disarray.
FAMILY CHARACTERISTICS The Marx Brothers film career officially begins with The Cocoanuts (1929). I take 1929 personally: my mother was born in 1930, my father in 1928. Though my father is certainly a talker, and a master of esoteric words and abstract concepts, in my childhood he was often silent—either sulking, or bitter, or contemplative, or outshouted. I interpreted his silence as a comforting antidote to my mother's explosiveness, although now I can conceive that her liveliness and candor offered a different kind of comfort, a tactile realm of figuration, a warm materiality, apart from the bodiless void of my father's abstraction. But when I was growing up, I felt sad that my mother didn't decode or translate my father's muteness, and I idealized (and blamed myself for) his gloom, passivity, or nonreactivity, as if we four children had conspired to deprive him of speech.
In Harpo's first scene, I glimpse his major gimmicks. I note his rouged lips; his thirst; his appetite; his laziness; his musicality; his whistling; his marveling relation to words as material objects; his plug hat's height and élan; his pants, not as ragged or droopy as in later films; his belt, not connected to the function of upholding pants; his gaze, riveted to any passing woman; his bulbous taxi horn, phallically protruding, and providing protest or emphasis; his willingness to fight against women rather than merely to romance them; his cheerful distaste for regular channels of communication; his large eyes, rapt, like a painter's or bird-watcher's, seizing transitory visitations. Harpo's eyes are bigger than a regular person's. That is an anatomical fact I can't prove. His eyes, which tend to brighten and pop, dramatize the attempt to recognize (or to seek recognition from) another person. Harpo's bug eyes do more than beseech: they attest, grip, sign, declare, accuse, renounce, and mourn.
DEADNESS I offer verbal attunement to a dead man—a man already "dead" (or abstracted) when alive. We consider his stupefaction funny. By misinterpreting deadness, we wound him; we misread his incapacity as a joke, and we admire his fanatically precise reassembly of woundedness into action.
Bullied, Harpo fled school during second grade and never returned. His onscreen silence rebukes an America that refused him an education. Shouldn't a New York City truant officer have knocked on his family's door, 179 East 93rd Street, and demanded that little Arthur—pronounced "Ahtha"—go back to school? In his act's staccato periodicity, I hear a percussive, repeated complaint, unspecified in content and in addressee. He is rebuking himself for failing to speak, rebuking others for speaking, and rebuking the social contract for ignoring his existence. Watching, we, too, become wounded. Stars mar us; we receive vicarious illumination, but they outshine and therefore humiliate us by reminding us of our nugatory status as nonparticipants in screen existence. Let's revise the public discourse that considers us vultures, feeding on celebrity carrion; stars damage us by colonizing our consciousness and by persuading us that being cinema-worthy is the only way to shine. I will concentrate on moments when Harpo's eyes shine, as if they were trying to articulate a desire on the threshold of awareness.
BIRTH ORDER Harpo is the second brother. (So am I.) Actually, Harpo is the third brother. The very first Marx child, Manfred, died as an infant. (I, too, am the third child: my oldest sibling was stillborn.)
After Manfred came Leonard, a.k.a. Chico, in 1887. Chico is the wheeler-and-dealer, the charming gambler and schemer, the dolt with a stereotypical Italian accent.
In 1888, Adolph was born. He later changed his name to Arthur. We know him, however, as Harpo, the silent one.
In 1890, Minnie Marx gave birth to Julius Henry, who grew into Groucho. Loudmouth with a cigar and painted mustache, he is the most educated of the brothers, and the most celebrated. Deposing Groucho from vocal sovereignty might have been Harpo's covert aim.
The youngest child, Herbert, born in 1901, ended up as Zeppo, the conventionally handsome, matinee-idol brother, the straight man, the only plausible love-interest.
I'll ignore the second-to-youngest, Gummo, who doesn't appear in films.
I have two brothers, one sister. Maybe one day I'll write about sisters. But my subject here is brothers, or the sensation of losing identity amid fraternal haze.
DUCK-MOUTH Harpo, in his first scene, juts out his lips to compose an indignant chute, like a piggybank slot, or a vacuum-cleaner attachment: I call this mannerism duck-mouth, or chute-mouth. I will often mention it—because it attracts me, and because it confuses me, and because its repetition (again and again the duck-mouth) might have comforted him. He doesn't want to be a duck, but he seems to realize that duck-mouth brings results. Harpo is a pragmatist, though the fruits of his actions are often ephemeral—trifles like satisfaction, attention, recognition, surfeit, stasis, excess, magnification.
As soon as Chico says, "We sent you a telegram," Harpo faces forward, greeting the Broadway audience, the camera, or some offscreen presence. Seismic processes—gravity, time, sequence—transpire without intervention; we needn't manually turn causality's wheel. Harpo proposes liberation from the need to push reality into prescriptive, fixed formations.
CONSUMING THE INEDIBLE Harpo sits on the couch. Beside him, at attention, gazing upward to the ceiling, and not looking at Harpo, stands a hotel porter in white tux jacket. Harpo removes one of its silver buttons, holds it at a distance to identify its nature, polishes it, and pops it in his mouth. He turns toward the camera, smiles, and nods: tastes good. The experiment succeeded. Eating a button, he violates dietary laws, and ingests the forbidden, the inedible: Judaism calls it "treif." Harpo plucks another button, chews it, and wipes his mouth with the stooge's bow-tie. Sacrilege intensifies: loafing on the couch, Harpo rests an ankle in the lackey's hand. The poor guy, demoted to furniture, ignores the insult and stands stiffly at attention, forced to obey a fool.
Groucho calls Harpo a "groundhog." Button-eating has turned him into an animal, an escapee from a Kafka story. Becoming an animal (or, as theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari put it, becoming-animal) is a laudable human tendency. Harpo may, in fact, represent a semi-utopian condition of permanent ascent into animality, a variety of exalted consciousness.
All this talk of "exaltation" shouldn't make you forget that my topic is a dead man. I began writing about Harpo in the months after the death of my favorite singer, the soprano Anna Moffo, who is famous for having a voice of unusual voluptuousness and lightness, and also famous for having lost that voice prematurely. She died on March 10, 2006. The word anatomy, in the title, accidentally refigures her name: Anatomy is "Anna to Me."
HARPO'S EMPTINESS Emptying myself, I try to become as erased and vigilant as Harpo, who, sitting on the couch while Chico and Groucho talk, maintains a spy's posture, eyes attuned to ambient frequencies. The porter tries to take Harpo's suitcase. Harpo, thinking himself robbed, fights back. In the scuffle, the suitcase opens and proves to be empty, like Harpo's wordless mind. His blankness lacks presuppositions and forbids reciprocation. If you don't interfere with Harpo, and you satisfy his oral needs (give him coat buttons to chew, and ink to drink), he will be a glad groundhog; but if you thwart him, he will bop you over the head with his honker, a subaltern's scepter, providing a merely playpen sovereignty.
The title's "cocoanuts" refers to the Marx Brothers, whose Jewish "nuts," their testicles, their masculinities, have a suspect, pigmented, tropical undertone; but the fruity title especially applies to Harpo, a sweet nothing with a hollow noggin that promises a forbidden medley of milk and meat.
EXCOMMUNICATION: THE THIRD LETTER Harpo, baby monster, sits on the desk and methodically tears up mail. Excommunication delights him. Advocating witless increase, magnification for magnification's sake, Harpo is overjoyed to repeat the same action: reach into the mail cubicle, retrieve a letter, rip it up, remove another letter, rip it up. * His eyes flash as he probes the postal beehive; his other, unoccupied hand hangs suspended, conducting a phantom orchestra. Enthralling, the speed and efficiency of Harpo's reverse factory, an assembly line that destroys rather than produces. His gaze pivots between letters and Groucho, to whom the mail-destroying feat is a potlatch obediently offered.
When a hotel employee hands Groucho a telegram (actually, a bill), Harpo intercepts and shreds it. Harpo, bookkeeper, performs his favorite function, erasure, canceling debt in medias res. If asked to perform a three-part task, he skips the middle step. If ordered to deliver a message, he destroys it.
Comedy's rhythm: do anything, however trivial, three times. Make a motion; repeat it; repeat it again. Harpo's eyes flash when he tears the third letter. The first two gestures are exploratory. With the third letter, he moves from experiment to ecstasy. Like an anteater examining its prey, or like an absorbed infant contemplating a rattle, Harpo glances at the letter-about-to-be-delivered. By ripping it up, he reenacts the destruction of his own voice. * Toward his voicelessness—as toward the letters he aggressively destroys—he exhibits no pity, no chagrin. We might consider language's disappearance a nightmare, but Harpo finds it Lethean.
Excerpted from The Anatomy of Harpo Marx by Wayne Koestenbaum. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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I. Early Ecstatic Emptiness
The Holy Fool Flees Language’s Stink Bomb: The Cocoanuts 1929
Pinky, the Pointing Scapegoat, Lags Behind: Duck Soup 1933
The Mad Mohel’s Goo-Goo Eyes of Monomaniacal Attunement: A Night at the Opera 1935
Poppy Power; or, The Thick-Enough Art of Zombie Dumbfoundment: Animal Crackers 1930
II. Later Astonishments
Fake Dead Jew as Cute Zoo-Idiot: Room Service 1938
Passé Punchy’s Humiliated Buddy Huddle: At the Circus 1939
Freeze Rusty’s Anal Rage in a Cozy Void: Go West 1940
Incremental Lines of Flight: The Big Store 1941
The Bubble-Blowing Demarcator Tickles Totality: A Night in Casablanca 1946
Bulge, Glaze, Pause, Shock; or, The Bushy-Haired Ragpicker’s Burnt Offering: Love Happy 1949
III. The Idiot Tumbles Back to the Beginning of Time
The Undeliverable Ice of Pinky’s Mom-Mouth: Horse Feathers 1932
The Kippering, Bopping, Shushing, Bear-Hugging, Beard-Pulling Bustle: Monkey Business 1931
The Pretzel Glimmer-Eye of Stuffy’s Stuttering Surge: A Day at the Races 1937