On the Smiling Face of Harpo Marx
by Paul Elliott
There is an intriguing but seemingly insignificant aside in Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis concerning the face of one of American cinema’s iconic figures:
It is enough to evoke a face which is familiar to every one of you, that terrible dumb brother of the four Marx brothers, Harpo. Is there anything that poses a question which is more present, more pressing, more absorbing, more disruptive, more nauseating, more calculated to thrust everything that takes place before us into the abyss or void than the face of Harpo Marx…?
This passage comes towards the end of Lacan’s discussion of das Ding and, as we shall see, the staring eyes of Harpo Marx, neither smiling nor scowling but somewhere in between, say as much about the fear and discomfort we feel when presented with images of terror as anything we experience when we watch a film like Hitchcock’s Psycho or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In his book on French thought, Ethics – Politics – Subjectivity, philosopher Simon Critchley cites the passage above in relation to the processes inherent in silent comedy. Harpo is a mute fool and, as such, ironically has the power of ultimate speech. Like a child who knows no better, we forgive him his indiscretions and laugh at the discomfort we feel when he surprises us with his inappropriate behaviour (chasing after women, displaying his phallic car-horn, running around like a madman and so on). But this is only part of Lacan’s statement is it not? He also points to the horror inherent in that face, the terror. What is it about the face of this mute cinema clown that inspires so much emotion from Lacan? What is it about this particular face that transforms it and renders it a void or, even worse an abyss?
A clue to understanding what horrors Lacan saw in the speechless Marx brother can be glimpsed if we simply translate das Ding into its Hollywood equivalent: The Thing. The Thing (or The Thing From Another World) was originally produced in 1951, remade in 1982, and has had a recent prequel produced by Marc Abraham who as the producer of Dawn of the Dead knows a thing or two about scaring people.
One of the most notable aspects of these films is the tension caused by being presented with something outside of our understanding, something, literally and metaphorically, from another place. The Thing exists outside of our rational minds, it can never be articulated and moreover its desire can never be known. We may encounter its shape, we may see its consequences but we can never fully know it and therein lies the terror. The horror arises from precisely this sense of the unknown, this encounter with a void that cannot be reasoned with or calculated away.
It is no co-incidence that The Thing is set on a remote arctic base, where scientists strive to understand the world about them in a rational and reasoned manner. Like a black dot against the white of the snow, The Thing appears; an unknowable blot on the landscape.
The Thing, Universal Pictures, 1982
We see the same in many horror films where the blank eyes of the psychopath are all the more terrifying than the snarling face of the murderer. Michael Myers, Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, even the mechanized doll from the Saw heptalogy present us with this image of the impassive face that cannot fully be known, the pre-subjective thing that escapes our knowledge. The smile on the face of Norman Bates at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho is rendered all the more horrifying through our inability to fix its meaning or incorporate it into our frames of reference; our fear comes from not knowing.
For Lacan the speech act negates some of this fear. Language enables us to negate some of the ‘unknowable-ness’ of the Other; it serves as an ethical mediator. How much less horrific is Frankenstein’s monster after he learns to speak? It is his very muteness that renders him inhuman and therefore horrific. Speech mediates out relationship with ‘the thing’ that disturbs us about other people, it allows us to glimpse what they are thinking.
Perhaps this explains the current fear of the hoodie, a simple item of clothing that has been elevated to a psycho-social statement on the state of British youth and the intimidating nature of its streets. In a recent British horror film, F, a middle class schoolteacher is terrorized by a group of feral teenagers in black and grey hoodies that completely cover their faces. Never do we see their spotty bored faces underneath, never do we hear them whine about homework or the cost of Playstation games and they are all the more frightening for it. With the addition of a hood, a sweatshirt becomes a way of complicating the consolations of an Other’s subjectivity.
This is surely what Lacan sees in the face of Harpo Marx, a kind of stain of psychotic autism that threatens to disrupt the chain of signification that is the cinema screen. As I said earlier it is surely no accident that his citing of Harpo Marx comes in the middle of his discussion of das Ding, for just like the face of Norman Bates, Harpo Marx is the silence underneath symbolisation that inspires both terror and fascination, both pain and pleasure. This can manifest itself in extreme comedy but also unnerving horror.
Piece crossposted with I. B. Taurus Blog
About the Author:
Paul Elliott is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Worcester and the author of Guattari Reframed and Hitchcock and the Cinema of Sensations.