The Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont
Several years ago Slavoj Žižek described the three widely recognized Marx Brothers—Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (Zeppo being left out of the account as the poor fellow so often is)—as an analogy for understanding Sigmund Freud’s division of the mind into three strata: the superego, ego, and id. Groucho, as the putative representation of the superego is the “most popular” and characterized by “nervous hyperactivity”. (Since when is the superego popular or nervous?).
Chico, the avatar of the ego, is “rationalistic [and] calculating”. Seriously? Anyone watching a single Marx Brothers film will fail to recognize any of these characters as in any way rational. Finally, Harpo, the mute manifestation of the rapacious id (Žižek reminds us that Freud claims the drives are silent—but he neglects to remember that the id is not a drive—it may derive from drives and it may house drives but it is not a drive) is “innocent” but possessed by some kind of primordial evil—aggressive all the time”.
It’s the typical Žižekian move: take something familiar and relatively comfortable; compare it to a theoretical insight in Freud, Lacan, Marx, or some other much discussed but under-read authority; and use the comparison to explain the theoretical construct while defamiliarizing the famous popular culture referent. Usually that defamiliarization is designed to reveal an underlying ideology that we (dupes that we are) blithely imbibe without recognizing it.
As is nearly invariably the case with Žižek’s theory-driven apercus, what seems whimsically illuminating at first glance reveals itself to be rather ill-conceived upon further examination. What appears to be Žižek’s greatest gift, his facility with recondite theory and his ability to explicate such matters in an accessible manner, turns out to be his fatal flaw in that it leads him to make facile comparisons and to do violence to both the example and the theoretical construct in order to force them to reconcile.
The problem is, of course, that the rollercoaster ride of his imaginative leaps is so riveting that we forget to make sure that the car remains firmly on the rails. We are so caught up in his flight of fancy that we don’t realize that the ground has fallen from our feet. And what is that if not a fanciful description of succumbing to ideology?
At first the comparison seems plausible. Groucho is often in a position of authority and the superego is an internalizing of social authority (although Žižek’s idiosyncratic definition of the superego obscures its social role as designated by Freud). Chico is the con man, always trying to twist a situation to his advantage—perhaps in the manner that the ego deals with the reality principle to gain some charge of pleasure. Harpo seems driven by instant gratification much like the id.
But even a moment’s thought reveals the problems that explode the comparison altogether. All three of them are driven by instant gratification; none of them seem capable of sublimating desire in order to gradually achieve some greater purpose. All three deal with the reality principle by conning those around them, manipulating and outwitting their friends and enemies alike. Groucho only inhabits roles of social authority in order to demonstrate how perfectly ridiculous it is for a character like him to hold such power (and perhaps to imply that all those in power are ultimately characters like him).
This isn’t to say that Freud isn’t capable of providing useful tools for coming to grips with the essential kernel of truth found within the hilarious peculiarities of one of film history’s finest comedic teams. The guide to understanding is not, however, to be found in the three strata as Žižek maintains but rather in one of Freud’s most remarkable books: Civilization and its Discontents.
The original German title is Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, which may translate as “Discontentedness in Civilization”. The word “Unbehagen” can also be translated as “unease” or “discomfort”. I would propose another translation, not often found in discussions of the book, but I think the most appropriate: “unassuaged”. When we attempt to assuage our guilt, our grief, or our pain, we attempt to make it milder, to soothe it, to relieve it. The unassuaged is not merely in pain (or guilty or what have you), she is somehow denied the balm that would alleviate that pain. To be unassuaged is to assume that relief ought to be available but simply is not.
This is the damning conundrum central to civilization in Freud’s account. It purports to offer a salve for our suffering and yet it compounds that suffering in its attempts to mitigate it. Freud here builds on a well-worn notion about society: society works insofar as we trade in some of our freedoms in order to attain security. For Freud, of course, this boils down to pleasure.
According to Freud, the strongest form of pleasure is that which arrives suddenly in an overwhelming flood of sensation through sexual release, preferably after being dammed up for a protracted period before achieving climax. Too much pleasure and it reduces its impact, becoming mere contentedness. True pleasure is typified by the eruption of orgasm, the explosion of essence as a physical manifestation of a (temporary) fulfillment of what had been a mental cathexis (a mental or emotional charge invested in an object of desire). Possession is total but fleeting. Thus, the charge rebuilds and pleasure may be had again.
Society foils this in two primary ways: 1. by thwarting (either through legal proscription or social mores) the more extreme and anti-social forms of pleasure; and 2. by offering milder forms of pleasure (amounting to mere contentment). The latter involves the classic libido trade-off; it purports that it’s better to be mildly contented (or at least not outwardly unhappy) most of the time, rather than risk one’s happiness on those ephemeral moments bought through an extreme output of energy and susceptible to derailment.
The problem here is that the power of enjoyment derives precisely from the fact that it involves an extreme outflowing of energy and that its actual attainment is exceedingly rare. Without risk, without the unlikeliness of fulfillment, it isn’t the same kind of happiness at all—it’s a happiness devoid of real pleasure. Indeed, society’s strategy, in a sense, is to diffuse the power of love by generalizing it and removing its aim-directedness. That is to say, we replace the desire for the love object with “love of thy neighbor”, but as Freud memorably notes: nothing is less natural than to have some kind of automatic love for one’s neighbor.
So the unassuaged here isn’t merely the discontented. If society works to offer up mere contentedness as a palliative for the lack of true pleasure, then actual contentedness through pleasure is denied everyone. The unassuaged is the person who refuses to be mollified, the person who rejects mere passive, narcotic satisfaction for a chance at the unalloyed charge of an engagement with real pleasure. The unassuaged is no lotus-eater; she knows that enjoyment requires expenditure, even expenditure unto death. The unassuaged is the Nietzschean der ja-sager that knows that saying “yes” to life is saying “no” to all that stands in its way. Thus, for Freud true pleasure is inherently antisocial.
This is where Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and yes, even Zeppo, emerge in all their twisted, perverse splendor. The Marx Brothers are the emblems of the unassuaged; they sound the manic clarion call announcing the transgression of all values without the promise of an installation of new ones. This is an important aspect of the truly antisocial nature of their humor. They are not merely against this society, nor are they asocial in the sense that they can simply do without society. They are against the very notion of society and its mores, and yet they require it as a foil. They require society as an impediment to allow for the damming up of their desire so that when they burst through the boundaries it has erected, they can experience the destructive rush that only derives from success in disrupting a superior force. They are the anarchic force that would have no fun in an actual state of anarchy. What joy is there in tearing down the shibboleths of civilization if they are no longer sacred?
The wonderful thing about a Marx Brothers film is the fact that such anarchic force erupts within such a staid setting. In one sense, we might dismiss these films as at least partial failures, owing to their reliance on conventions that seem utterly banal next to the frenzied momentum brought to the screen by the brothers. One wonders how great the films could have been had they given way entirely to the logic of dissolution represented by the Groucho and company.
To entertain such a thought is to miss what is so remarkable in these films. The dance numbers and songs in The Cocoanuts (1929), the loving romantic couple that serves as a narrative device in most of the films, the various villains who rely on the way the world normally works in order to carry out their crimes—all of these relatively dull and predictable elements featured in these films are vital to their effectiveness. They are reminders that society is a relatively staid and stabilizing force, that it operates by diffusing extremes and by providing an anticipated sequence of events that will have a foreseeable output.
That is where the Marx Brothers intercede. There would be no need for intercession without the predictable security of society itself; there would be no system to disrupt, no stasis to explode. Moreover, the films analogize the hedonistic surging force of the moment of pleasure by allowing the familiar dance and song numbers to cool down the temperature of the film’s antic, cathartic upheavals. In the same way that true pleasure requires the damming up of energy before its exquisitely excruciating release, so these films require scenes that are generic and low-energy, so to speak, in order to heighten the affective impulse of the frenzied paroxysm of release that results from the Marx Brothers’ flagrant lunacy.
One gets the impression from The Cocoanuts that one is watching two films. One film is generic, not all that engaging, but logical and comforting. There are heroes to root for and villains to vilify. There’s a teleological drive toward some ideal outcome where contentment will be achieved (generally in the form of a marriage). There’s not much action, per se, in this film. It is assembled of recognizable tableaux. At the end of this tale, the world is returned to order and indeed that order was shown to be under no serious threat all along.
The other film is not only illogical, but it gives the lie to all pretenses toward the reasonable. It’s not comforting, because there’s no position to occupy where one might find comfort. All positions shift so rapidly that there’s no predictability and certainly no stasis. All is flow, deflection off of illusory surfaces, vectors without nodes. In Deleuzian terms (because why not?) the Marx Brothers are the impossible irruption of the virtual into the field of the actual. They are pure possibility in that every time they seem to decide upon a course of action, they veer off into another frantic tumble to nowhere.
This film has no heroes or villains. The Marx Brothers are neither, and while they often serve to assist “the good guys” to save them from the villains, one always gets the impression that they might just as easily go the other way. One doesn’t root for or vilify the brothers. One waits to see what comes next—because with them “what comes next” is not a given.
There’s no telos in the Marx Brothers portion of a film. There’s no preferred outcome because there’s no goal toward which they are tending. When you really observe their sense of being in a film, you realize that the end of the film was not a goal; it’s just where they ended up when the camera stopped rolling. The Marx Brothers are all action, unlimited action, action without goals and thus, action without surcease.
Sure, there’s plenty of desire in the brothers, but by definition directed desire ceases to exist when it attains a goal. I desire a soda; now I have the soda so I no longer desire it. The Marx Brothers represent the undirected, ontological truth of Desire as goalless, free-floating, irrepressible. No one brother stands in for the id because all of them explode the neat Freudian division of the strata. There’s no conscience of the superego here—not because they are reprobates who ignore conscience, but because they disavow the very possibility of a conscience. Conscience is there to smooth the rough edges of one’s social obligations to others. The brothers acknowledge no such obligation insofar as its existence would be counter to the unhindered pursuit of pleasure.
Pleasure for the brothers can be found everywhere. They are polymorphously perverse. Take their first film, The Cocoanuts, as our concrete example, although one could just as easily adduce scenes from any of the films. Harpo eats the buttons off of the coat of a bellboy. He also feasts on a telephone while drinking ink from a well. His gustatory pleasure does not depend on the satiation of actual hunger. Indeed, the logic of animal need seems to run counter to Harpo’s anti-logic of ineluctable desire. The pleasure derives from the fact that it serves no purpose.
Harpo also delights in a strange trick wherein he grabs someone’s arm and forces the person to hold his leg. This running gag appears in multiple films and is worth examining. Often Harpo plays on the inattentiveness of his victim. The person is expecting a handshake or simply standing at attention (as is the case with the bellhop, Harpo’s first sucker). In other words, the victim is attempting to fulfill a social role. Invariably, it takes a moment for the absurdity of the situation to dawn on the victim. What amuses is our witnessing of that instant of realization and the fact that prior to that the victim is unwittingly complicit in her/his victimhood by “going along” with it.
Of course, “victim” seems like the wrong word here, and that’s nearly always the case with the people on whom the wit of the Marx Brothers is visited. From the point of view of society as a stabilizing force they are indeed victims. In fact they have been victimized by their reliance upon social mores that are so easily derailed by even a modicum of the absurdity the Marx Brothers bring to bear. In a more positive sense, however, they’re not victims, but perhaps beneficiaries of a rare insight into the disruptive force of the ludic. If society is perforce repressive, the Marx Brothers offer liberation through play.
My favorite scenes are the ones in which one of the brothers (usually but not always Groucho) at first resists the call to play but then gleefully abandons himself to the pleasures of the ludic. Take, again from The Cocoanuts, the scene where Chico and Harpo are supposed to be registering at the hotel run by Groucho. Harpo grabs a pen and hurls it at the wall like a dart. At first, Grouch scolds him: “Hey! Don’t do that.” After all, there’s business at hand.
Almost immediately, Groucho falls into the game. He takes on the role of the carnival barker and offers Harpo a cigar as a prize. Many of the finest moments in these films derive from this sort of collapse into the absurd. It’s as though the brothers suggest that society simply cannot withstand the pressures of its attempts to provide a firm logical foundation for social intercourse. The floor will always fall through, the walls will always crumble. What appeared to be the domicile of reason turns out to be a house of cards—and they are all jokers.
The Film Forum in New York City is offering a festival including several Marx Brothers films in the context of a look back at vaudeville. It runs from 23-29 September, and features brand new restorations of the early Paramount films.