Thinking Like Harpo


Matt Longabucco discovers the pleasures and theories of useless actions in The Anatomy of Harpo Marx by Wayne Koestenbaum. (University of California Press)

Too bad about humiliation. Otherwise I’d have the guts to buck convention and call the author “Wayne” throughout this review, the better to emphasize the way he’s no less singular than his subject, who doesn’t technically go by one name but easily could: Harpo. The better to underscore the depth of identification between the two. For while yes, Harpo Marx is silent, and Koestenbaum delirious with words, both mobilize outrageous, eloquent energies, pressurized by the precision of, in one case, vocabulary and phrase, or in the other, gesture and timing. Koestenbaum proclaims this book an anatomy, a “blow-by-blow annotation of Harpo’s actions,” with each fragment inspired by an accompanying film still. He probes the corpus of Harpo’s work to draw close enough to share the performer’s attitude and his gift.  Harpo’s gift is nothing less than to give meaning’s most constricting patterns the slip, and inhabit a space whose real pleasures, freed or at least in effective flight from power’s reach, might also evade the whole grim legacy of modern life itself. Harpo is, in other words, a great American for whom the old world’s exhausted categories of oppressor and oppressed, gazer and gazed-upon, human and subhuman are not merely shed but more tantalizingly exposed, from the vantage of Hollywood-via-Vaudeville, to a thunderous kick in the pants. 

Never departing from its encyclopedic structure (one chapter=one film from the Marx Brothers’ ouevre) to build a more traditional argument, this book will nevertheless seem inevitable to anyone who has followed Koestenbaum’s recent trajectory as a critic. His most ambitious books have been monographs (“star immersion”), focusing on Jackie O in Jackie Under My Skin and Andy Warhol in a penetrating theoretical evaluation of the artist’s work—especially his films—disguised as a humble Penguin biography. More importantly, Harpo pursues Koestenbaum’s increasing fascination with a figure he’s given many names including, for example, “the dumbfounded,” whose “stupor we can treat as a stepladder to intensified consciousness.” Jackie O and Warhol were likewise secular but saintly, famously if dubiously inarticulate to the point of otherworldliness, thrust in the way of violence, and possessed of an ability—maybe by the very virtue of their apparent emptiness—to transmute the ordinary into the sacred.

Koestenbaum explores this idea widely in his other recent book, Humiliation, which he claims to have written as a purgative in the aftermath of Harpo (though it was published first). He discovers the titular concept everywhere in culture, even as he confirms that we refuse to acknowledge it. Humiliation makes its case using evidence from the collage of our contemporary circus whose exhibits include Michael Jackson, Abu Ghraib, and even the New York literary world (of course). Harpo, by contrast, is a precursor and avatar to our condition, and the book traces the mesmerizing coalescence, in his person, of humiliation’s thousand forms.

One of them: A Night in Casablanca. The brothers play roulette at a casino. When they win big, Harpo presses his hands together and holds his mouth open with glee. As Koestenbaum describes it, “This shot, evangelical, argues for miracles and peripeteias . . . Harpo abandons himself to rapture but also simulates abandon: he experiences an emotion and then demonstrates it to others.” As the scene progresses, Harpo’s excitement grows and he begins kissing casino patrons as well as his brother Chico, who pushes him away. Koestenbaum describes the next moment:

Expulsion sends Harpo reeling toward the pile of chips. In this image, my favorite, Harpo takes emotions to extremes. Performing ablutions, he smothers his face with chips—symbolic siblings to coins, trinkets, buttons, bubbles, words, manna. Skipping the intermediate steps between winning money and spending it, he attempts instant transubstantiation, like trying to fuck a pinup.

Baptism-bound, he believes, like Elizabeth Bishop, “in total immersion.” Center of the image, he leans forward, 3-D, coming toward us. He relinquishes face and identity for the pleasure of cresting into abandonment’s mystical embrace. He wants unconsciousness. He wants to be seen wanting unconsciousness. (Note this division between feeling and wanting to be seen feeling.) The mysticism in this passage reflects Koestenbaum’s interest in the way that Harpo’s humiliation and debasement (having been pushed away by a homophobic Chico) is the vehicle for his utterly committed, potentially self-annihilating bid for exaltation. But there’s a twist, too, which is the level of self-conscious performativity that Koestenbaum also traces through the scene. Without that layer, Harpo’s not comic but tragic, a self-serious dupe of religiosity. He is in fact, however, occupying a delicate, devious space between a genuine leap for the divine and an acknowledgement of that leap as a too-earnest trope, the cherished wish of the interior sucker (What if we win big at a casino, and all our dreams come true!) that makes anyone not a Marx brother in a Marx Brothers film merely a foil or stooge.

This condition Harpo inhabits has a name: the Neutral—Roland Barthes’s term for what Koestenbaum, in his introductory essay to the French theorist’s A Lover’s Discourse, calls “a space outside the doxa…where the battle between binaries (such as ‘male’ and ‘female’) has ceased to rage.” Doxa, for Barthes, are those “repressive discourses that hamper consciousness and prevent it from being a useless, illogical thing.” Koestenbaum, following Barthes, asks, “How do we travel between the doxa and the neutral” or “between the obvious and the obtuse? How can we switch from ordinary to sacred time?” And answers: “Recklessly. Don’t signal. Don’t make an announcement. Simply drift, or veer, into the other lane.” Looking to Barthes, then, explains what’s so powerful about humiliation, despite its seeming terror: it has the power to banish the subject from the system in which binaries bind him. Paradoxically freed from an obligation to participate in those codes, the subject is released, all of a sudden, into sacred time, which is the place to be “useless” and “illogical.”

Enter Harpo. With scissors. No point writing a treatise on the Neutral—he’d cut it to ribbons anyway. Besides, the point is to embody it, to “act chummy with the void.” Harpo skips steps in routines, brings scenes to a halt, repurposes props, overdoes it, underdoes it, falls asleep for the important part while getting hyper-excited over nothing much at all. While busy “imitating normal people’s blah-blah-blah,” he’s “impatient with pomposity, law, linearity, or group behavior.” Harpo “softens existence’s percussiveness—the click, bang, thud, or thwack of impact the self makes when it butts against the world”; he “slithers between fixed qualities,” “shrugs off what other people consider momentous labor,” and “is always, phenomenologically, a virgin: each moment offers him a new chance to rewrite natural law.” At a formal level—in terms of his function in the films themselves—Harpo lives “in that crack where narrative breaks down.” And yet it is for this reason, according to Koestenbaum, that “Most scenes end with his satisfaction: Harpo’s psychic economy leaks perpetual excess.”  All of this explains what’s so funny about Harpo, why he’s able, in his doxa-defying ways, to make us laugh. But for Koestenbaum that subversive energy has social ramifications.

Once, at a panel, I heard Koestenbaum describe his own “political temperature” as “low.” But of course in saying so he was affirming not a disinterest in politics but a stake in the Neutral as the necessary position in the face of binary thinking. For Koestenbaum, then, Harpo represents a particularly effective spoiler of certain orthodoxies.

One of these is sexuality, in whose realm Harpo is not just queer but, in neutralizing all categories, queers queerness itself. Koestenbaum, watching Harpo, tells us “it is possible, whether man or woman, to feel lighthearted about the state of being castrated.” And that “Harpo, like most men, has a symbolic vagina, somewhere on his person. Harpo, a starry man, has many vaginas. One is his wig. Another is his silence.” (Bar game: identify the symbolic vaginas of the men you know.) Of a scene of Harpo stuffing garbage into the pockets and folds of his clothes, Koestenbaum writes, “His ability to be multiply invaginated presupposes a cantering toward ruin, a wish to become fallen, a readiness to repress disgust and to relinquish skin’s barricade.” But Harpo is no less fluid among his brothers: “Cocks come in many sizes. Arousal lengthens the organ, but more important than the enlarged cock is the compared cock, suffering or enjoying its incremental modicum of difference.” It’s a surface game, a chance to slide around a code that is pleasurable here, rather than the cocks themselves. Watching Harpo act bored during a swordfight leads to the clarification that “Harpo’s not homo. Two guys going at it with their rods is yawnsville,” he writes.  Name the category you identify with, and Harpo will send you up, cut you down, slip away, fall asleep at the height of your seduction or the climax of your speech.  And this game is precisely the point.

The game applies to history, too. As Koestenbaum asserts, “Harpo was a comic genius before the Third Reich came along, but the Third Reich gave Harpo’s anarchy extra pointedness.” A friend found it glib when I told her that Koestenbaum reads Holocaust imagery into films that predate the event, as when in 1933’s Duck Soup, after Harpo’s cart is overturned by an antagonist, Koestenbaum claims that he “stands like a victim of Kristallnacht beside his wrecked shop.” The image can’t be a reference, not literally, but calling it a presentiment suggests the way in which the Marxes, in plumbing the matrix of humiliation and power, theorized as well as anyone how susceptible we can be to the rise of totalitarianism. Harpo himself is anything but peaceful—he’s amoral and aggressive—but his leveling energies are the opposite of pseudo-rational enforcement and violent “purification.” Harpo pricks the totalitarian by finding its power unseductive. He’s not afraid to fight, but only if the fight is for nothing but its own sake.

The piety of pieties is discourse itself, and Koestenbaum finally looks to his subject as the strangely mute paragon of criticism itself. From the beginning, Koestenbaum regards his own project in Harpoesque terms: “Anatomizing rather than synthesizing, I bed down with entropy and disarray.” Embodiment courts chaos, criticism-by-procedure risks nonsense or the “pointless drudgery” of that worst-of-all-gambits: explaining the joke. But Koestenbaum’s language is as embodied as Harpo’s clowning, since it’s never not informed by the former’s other vocation as an avant-garde poet schooled in the concrete word. He claims as much:
Am I stammering? Incremental poetics involves never finishing a point, never knowing my destination, rushing through culture’s big store on sissy white roller skates without a stunt double, and enjoying “generalized chromaticism”: every moment is an occasion to wave, point, bump, or stop, under the auspices of failing to speak properly. Why make such a big deal out of the “proper”?Like Harpo, Koestenbaum is both economical (skipping steps) and madly profuse, multiplying meanings or scissoring insights to discover that, as in a dream, the material he cuts magically regenerates, and is always whole (“Harpo is as close to totality as I’ll ever come,” could be the book’s motto). The result is critical bliss: when Harpo eats from his horse’s feedbag in Horse Feathers the meaning of the act activates Koestenbaum’s own delirious anaphora:

Harpo eats horse food for many good reasons. He wants to shock us. He loves his horse. He imitates nearby behavior. He degrades himself to earn affection. He ignores nourishment hierarchies. He has problems regulating intake. He is poor. He wants to satirize Jew/Gentile dietary differences. He practices a religious ritual but has forgotten what it commemorates.

Bravura interpretation doesn’t happen in a vacuum here, and as he designates Harpo, Koestenbaum too is a ragpicker, quoting Dostoevsky, Deleuze and Guattari, Althusser, Freud, Benjamin, and others. But what he mostly does—does as few can—is name, even “overname.” His critical energy is audaciously limitless. Neither Harpo not Koestenbaum wants to be regulated or contained. Why should they, when in their furious activity they make us crazy, and therefore vulnerable? Koestenbaum proclaims, “We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death.” That’s an academic position, ostensibly, but also, as Barthes showed, a lover’s.

Though this book is neither strict theory nor essay, it draws on strategies of interpretation and exposition to teach us not only how to watch Harpo but also seduces us into becoming Harpo-like thinkers: innocent, manic, miscreant critics of propriety’s pageant as it marches absurdly past.

Matt Longabucco’s poems have appeared in Clock, With+Stand, Painted Bride Quarterly, Conduit, Pleiades, and Washington Square. He teaches writing and literature in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University, and co-curates the POD reading series in Park Slope. He lives with his wife and daughter in Brooklyn.

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