Harpo Never Scolded Me for My Excesses: Berfrois Interviews Wayne Koestenbaum
|May 11, 2012|
by Lucas Hilderbrand
Wayne Koestenbaum, author of numerous books, including The Queen’s Throat, Andy Warhol, Humiliation and several volumes of poetry, turns his gaze to the mute Marx brother in his latest book, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx. With his trademark mode of associative analysis and determination to document every moment and every thought, Koestenbaum reflects on the star’s physical comedy and reflects upon the very process of reflection.
Thank you for getting me in touch with Harpo’s perverse imbecility. How did you decide to transition from writing a book about humiliation to one about a star who performs deviance without shame? Or, in the longer view, from opera voices to slapstick silence?
I wrote Humiliation after The Anatomy of Harpo Marx. I started Harpo in 2006, several months after (as I say in my book) my favorite singer, Anna Moffo, died, and I wrote Humiliation after Harpo was finished, in 2010. Anna Moffo was one epicenter of The Queen’s Throat, and of my first book of poems, Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems. I say, in Harpo, that she was “famous for having a voice of unusual voluptuousness and lightness, and also famous for having lost that voice prematurely.” The loss of voice—Callas’s lost voice was another central node, as it were, in The Queen’s Throat–suggests the basis for the transition, not abrupt, from operatic vocalism to Harpo’s vaudevillian silence. Another way to put it: opera is always already silent, or carries the germ of silence—the threat of loss—within its vocal folds. As for Humiliation: that book was a mournful, purgative coda to Harpo. I consider the two books to be pendants, linked by their concern with the shamed rear–the shamed rear as synecdoche for all the other shamed zones in consciousness and corporeality. Humiliation opens with a strip search; Harpo’s “fragile” rear (remember, in The Big Store, a sign saying “Fragile” finds itself on his buttocks) may not cause him shame (indeed, he seems humiliation-proof), but he travels within shame’s dirty circuit. He dives without embarrassment into situations and actions that would cause a non-clown to tremble with horror. And yet perhaps Harpo’s shocked demeanor–his stunned silence–implies a prehistory of shame; I suggest as much, in the book, arguing that Harpo’s experiences (in real life) of being ejected from school by bullies, and of being shamed out of speaking by a harsh critic of an early Marx Brothers vaudeville performance, symbolically underwrite his future silence, a silence he may pretend not to mind, and may even wield as a tool of aggression.
Does Harpo’s refusal to speak for himself in his films allow you more play with projection, interpretation, and language?
Harpo’s silence gave me license as large as carnival. Not only his silence: his foolishness–or purported puerility–gave me leave to be foolish, but also to be smart, or “smart,” and to enjoy the pleasure of my “smartness” reverberating ironically as amplified foolishness. In other words: I felt, for the first time in my writing life, a liberty to be serious, because Harpo could never chide me for misinterpreting him (his business is not to chide, but to surrender to inanity), and because the notion of explicating Harpo was itself so foolish, or tautological, that my athletic attempts to turn on him an exegetical flashlight (whose beams always radiated backward on myself) could only come across as antics that derived from the same family schtick-closet as the Marx’s. I always allow my subjects, when I write, to bestow on me on this simple gift: you may speak about your own methods. My methods–my critical and writerly procedures–are the clay and paint in my hands; how could I not mention them, when my fingers are so inky with their residue? I decided, writing about Harpo, writing at length about Harpo, that I would turn him into The Book, my One Book, the only book I would ever again need to write; I tried to put everything into him, into it, into this Book. I got wildly (manically?) over-invested in the notion of Harpo-as-book, as Ark. A foolish idea. But Harpo never scolded me for my excesses.
This reminds me of a number of passages in the book. For instance, “every Harpo gesture is sacred and equal: each bears witness to his actually, even if the actual seems to take a backseat, in this book, to the imagined.” (141) And in the last chapter, you explain Harpo’s “MO: receive a command, misconstrue it, execute the misinterpretation, and then let it mutate into a new ploy.” (287) Is this your process, “misconstruing” scenes and actions to reveal new meanings? To what extent is The Anatomy of Harpo Marx a book of criticism? Fiction? Poetry? Memoir? Self-help? Is genre even a useful framework?
I never intentionally misconstrue. Misinterpretation is a natural byproduct of over-naming, over-interpretation; to that crazy, sacred call, I’m always diligently responding. Also, I try always to say what I am really thinking and feeling and remembering. If an idea or flash of recollection hits me, I feel ethically obligated (this is my lunatic writerly ethic) to put that flash into words, with the trust that to some reader, somewhere, this flash will also then occur, and that I am doing a wild and necessary justice to my subject by intruding and including this seemingly digressive flash, this spasm of misconstruing.
As for genre: the book is prose (is prose a genre?). Its prose, however, is carefully worked, and compacted. You’re welcome to think of each subtitled subsection, in each chapter, as a “prose poem,” though I don’t actually like that designation. I prefer “prose.” When you call a book of criticism “prose” you thereby emphasize that it is secretly poetry. I consider this book to be my most serious work of criticism–serious to the extent that it tries not to skip any detail; serious in the sense that I don’t take short-cuts, I don’t stint. If the book is “self-help,” I don’t know what self it’s helping. Certainly not mine. “Memoir,” maybe, but I don’t like the word “memoir,” either–it seems to imply a too cozy and complacent self-knowledge, as if one could truly remember the things one is pretending to remember, as if one could truly narrate and describe past events, rather than concoct new word-puzzles, word-collages, out of those memories.
In your book, you write, “Praise neurosis, for allowing us to turn our personalities [when I first transcribed this word, I inadvertently typed “perversities”] into cathedrals, uselessly ornate and dank.” (115) You suggest, both in the book and in your comments earlier, that your strategy of rigor in this book meant exploring—and disclosing—everything. Do you find that the most engaging critics are those who fully commit to their own subjective perspective—as opposed to presuming to speak more generically?
In criticism, I like the “subjective perspective.” I like Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet and Susan Howe’s The Birthmark. I like Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, and her essay on Emily Dickinson. (May I continue with my litany?) I like Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and the talk-poems of David Antin. I like everything by Roland Barthes. And everything by Joan Didion. I like Avital Ronell’s Fighting Theory. I enjoy when the voice of a writer–the unpleasant or pleasant daily experience–cracks through the veneer of thinking, and shatters complacency. The subjective perspective–as reader and as writer–keeps me awake. Right now I’m reading Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and its best parts are her accounts of life–her own life–in Greenwich Village. Her “lived experience” of street life, its diversity and electricity, allows her argument to sing. I could name another hundred books of criticism that benefit from the adrenaline of the writer’s subjective perspective. That perspective always exists, whether acknowledged or not; I like it when the perspective speaks out loudly and idiosyncratically, even at the risk of embarrassment. Have you read Boyd Mcdonald’s Cruising the Movies? Talk about subjectivity! Intellectual rigor includes being specific about exactly which bodies turn you on, and why.
In the interest of rigor, I must self-position by stating that I find Chico’s hands sexy when he plays piano. Your own book does seem to reflect different strains of Barthes, or, at least, he’s the critic who most immediate comes to mind. Your writing performs a kind of flowing associative analysis, but as you remark, it was subject to multiple drafts. How do you preserve the impulsivity of thought through revision? How do you maintain the writing’s “kinetic” (p 11) quality?
Chico’s hands: yes, sexy, perhaps (in my opinion) because of their large knuckles and joints, their self-confidence, their metaphoric connection to sleight-of-hand, card tricks, shuffling, deception. To say, as you did, “I find Chico’s hands sexy when he plays piano,” you’re indirectly arguing that sexiness resides most powerfully where it doesn’t belong and where culture usually won’t place it: in, for example, a clown’s hands. When we find ourselves noticing Chico’s knuckles, and when we allow ourselves, for a moment, to step back and conceptualize “Chico’s knuckles,” and then when we dare to make a personal claim for the effect of Chico’s knuckles on our erotic consciousness, we are traveling into deep, necessary waters.
Impulsivity of thought, kinesis: in writing, there are two kinds of kinesis. One is propulsive–the forward-moving thrust, the projectile, the vector, the onward-racing. The other is the retained, the held-back, the highlighted: like Chico’s knuckles. The knuckle doesn’t move forward; the knuckle doesn’t perform a futurism-worthy vector. But we see it, and we name it, and the very word, “knuckle,” its monosyllabic compactness (the word is nearly onomatopoeic, or at least mimetic), contains a latent kinesis, a volcano’s kinesis, a held-back fire, more fiery because held back. By revising my sentences to make them more compact, knuckle-like, thorny, hedged, comma-laden, I may seem to be slowing down my prose, but I’m also creating (I hope) sparks, electricity, clash. I suppose I’m describing, now, the kinesis obtained by juxtaposition, demarcation. The leap. Associative leaps become wilder and quicker when the intervening transitions are cut; but scissoring my prose so severely, at least in the Harpo book, the associations tumble more quickly and impulsively.
My favorite description of Harpo in your book might be “this extreme responsiveness and attunement, carried almost to the point of promiscuity (I’ll touch anyone, in skirts or pants), has a valor and tenderness halfway between a whore’s and a teddy bear’s.” (73) There seems to be a sweetness–or at least generosity–at the heart of the dialectic of schtick/sexuality in Harpo’s characters. Does Harpo have a politics?
Yes, Harpo has a politics: the politics of the wanderer, the occupier, the anarchist, the destroyer, the player. That’s an easy answer: critics and fans have understood the anarchy of Marxian antics, ever since Duck Soup. Harpo’s politics, however, wander away even from Duck Soup’s clear embrace of anarchy: Harpo’s politics involve a happy, close inhabitation of a peculiar, particular body. Harpo’s politics include sleep–its valor, its necessity, its seductiveness. Always wanting to fall asleep: he’s no slacker, but he is a steady, slow occupier, like Gertrude Stein at her best (she was the master of steady sitting), and like any squatter or Situationist. I’d call Harpo a sex worker, but there’s little sex, and little work: “whore” fits him better, as name-tag, as vocation. Whore, he happily crosses any bar of prohibition, with a delusional, magical sense of permanent immunity from law, toxicity, and death.
In the documentary Public Speaking, Fran Liebowitz says that one of the major losses of the AIDS epidemic was the death of an erudite queer audience. I would consider your work a latter-day exemplar of such an audience, but your prose-criticism also seems so remarkably singular now. Have we lost a larger audience of rigorous queens?
Yes, the audience of rigorous queens! Was such an audience ever large? Without the petri dish of rigorous queens, there would have been no Andy Warhol: he arose from that scene of spontaneous generation. James McCourt’s Queer Street epitomizes (and memorializes) the demimonde of rigorous queens from which culture came, and came, and came, in multiple jets. New rigorous queens are being born, or made, every minute; among the young, I’m always pleased to discover that molten, new, bright epiphemonenon, the rigorous queen, a 21-year-old who, born in a small town in Texas, discovers the prose of Parker Tyler and the musical poems of Alexander Scriabin, and anoints himself an aesthete. Yes, the rigorous queen still exists; I meet him everywhere, in new guises, in surprising places. At poetry readings. In bookstores. In the subway. And, yes, at the opera.
About the Interviewer:
Lucas Hilderbrand is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine and author of Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright (2009) and Paris Is Burning: A Queer Film Classic (2013). He is currently researching the cultural history of gay bars in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present.
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