All entries for Wednesday 23 August 2006

August 23, 2006

Charles Bernstein: 'Comedy and the Poetics of Political Form'

Part 1

Bernstein begins his essay with two quotations from possibly invented characters:

For if a swan could sing we would not know what she was insisting. But we are not, or few of us, swans, and have no excuse. – Flo Amber

The Crooked shall be made Stright and the Straight sundered into a thousand Shards. – Ezekial Horn.

Bernstein responds by denying that a 'swan song' is needed for this, the last essay in the collection and thinking of what job he has to do describes the need to 'plug up some holes and still some more, calling the leaks poetry, the clogs excess' (235). More riddling phrases follow. Bernstein describes: 'An insistence whose luster [sic] is so much scotch–guard against spoilage, whose dethronements dissolve into valedictory reprise' (235). He offers the images of 'putting the cork back on the boat, the wheel around the spin' but finally concludes that his view imagines 'the formal dynamics of a poem as communicative exchanges, as socially addressed, and as ideologically explicit' (235).

In considering convention, authority, persuasion, rhetoric, sincerity and conviction, Bernstein writes: 'Conventions are made to be broken' (235). He notes that in challenging 'the conventions of writing, we are entering into the politics of language' (235).

Bernstein disagrees with 'standardization' of language describing it as a kind of 'arteriosclerosis' (236). For him, 'counterconventions' in poetry or elsewhere can improve communication. Bernstein believes that poetry challenges public language in such a manner. Of course, there is the problem of authority and it is sometimes thought that in order to make a challenge, one must stick to recognized conventional forms of authorised speaking. Bernstein considers 'the power of persuasion versus the coercion of physical force; vatic, or perhaps even fatuous, poetic authority versus the psychological and behavioural manipulation of advertising or behavioural engineering; the authority of the school system versus that of an army, the authority of money versus aesthetic innovation' (236–237).

Bernstein's answer is 'to act out, in dialectical play, the insincerity of form as much as content' (237). This kind of play 'collapses into a more ambiv_o_lent, destabilzing field of pathos, the ludicrous, schtick, sarcasm; a multidimensional textual field that is congenitally unable to maintain an eveness of surface tension or a flatness of affect. where linguistic shards of histrionic inappropriateness pierce the momentary calm of an obscure twist of phrase, before cant_o_ring into the next available trope; less a shield than a probe' (237). This would be 'anti–formalist' and 'un–Modern' (237).

Bernstein diverges from his subject a little here to discuss the reading of poems. For Bernstein 'the stylistic features of a work' are most important. He refers to Jerome McGann's work on Byron which suggests that Byron refuses the Romantic poetics of sincerity through close analysis of formal strategies. Bernstein is also anxious about historicisation and notes that history's 'master narratives need to be partialized as specific historical projections for particular ideological purposes' (238).

Part 2

Bernstein worries about the fact that some forms of convention and authority hide their status as historical constructions. This is what Bernstein calls 'the phallocentric voice of truth or sincerity' centred on 'centrality, objectivity, or neutrality'(239). The problem with this voice is that it adopts 'expedience at the expense of depth, narrative continuity at the expense of detail, persuasion at the expense of conviction' (239).

The answer to this is not to adopt a private voice. Bernstein states: 'I am a ventriloquist, happy as a raven to preach with blinding fervour of the corruptions of public life in a voice of painted honesty that is as much a conceit as the most formal legal brief for which my early education would have seemed to prepare me' (239). He continues: 'If my loops and short circuits, my love of elision, my Groucho Marxian refusal of irony is an effort to explode the authority of those conventions I wish to discredit (disinherit), it constantly offers the consoling self–justification of Art' (239). Yet Bernstein emphasises that this must not be self–centred but an 'interaction' or 'conversation' or 'provocation'(240). Bernstein reaches towards the syncopated, the polyrhythmical, the heterogeneous, the offbeat, because fro too long what he calls male language makes people speak ' to those aspects of their consciousness that have been programmed to receive the already digested scenes or commentaries provided' (240).

Although Bernstein admits that public policy and poetry seem very far apart, he regrets 'the lack of poetic thinking as activated potential for all people' (241). Bernstein concludes: 'The political power of poetry is not measured in numbers; it instructs us to count differently' (242).

Part 3

To begin, Bernstein quotes Adorno: 'truth is the antithesis of existing society' (qtd. in Bernstein, 242). Bernstein uses this to challenge the authority of convention. Bernstein wonders if a synthesis of existing societies could be truth, then rejects his own suggestion because it ignores the 'joke' of Adorno's comment. Bernstein desires something beyond irony: ' a mix of comic, bathetic, and objective modes' to produce ' an intercutting that undercuts the centrality of a governing narrative or prosodic strategy'.

He comments on comedy here:

'Anything that departs from the sincere or serious enters into the comic, but the comic is anything but a unitary phenomenon, and the range of comic attitudes goes from the good–humoured to the vicious, from clubby endorsement of the existing social reign to total rejection of all existing human communities: Poet as confidence "man", deploying hypocrisy in order to shatter the formal autonomy of the poem and its surface of detachment; the sincere and the comic as interfused figure, not either/or but both/and . We are pathetic and heroic simultaneously, one by virtue of the other, a vision of a human being that is the basis of the work of the other Williams, Tennessee.' (242)

Bernstein wants 'stylistic innovations' to be 'alternative social formations'(242) that receive a 'synoptic, multilevel, interactive response' (243). Bernstein explains that, 'the aesthetic and the political make an inseparable poetics' (243).

'Poetry can bring to awareness questions of authority and conventionality, not to overthrow them, as in a certain reading of destructive intent, but to reconfigure: a necessary deconfiguration as prerequisite for refiguration, for the regeneration of the ability to figure —– count —– think figuratively, tropically. The poetry of which I speak is multidirectional and multivectoral; for while some vectors are undermining others just keep on mining.

The interpretive and compositional model I am proposing, then, can be understood as a synthesis of the three Marxes (Chico, Karl, Groucho) and the four Williamses (Raymond, William Carlos, Tenessee and Esther).' (243)

Part 4

'When convention and authority clash you can hear the noise for miles. And this social noise is a sound that poetry can not only make but echo and resound. And while the convention of permanent committees on the politics of poetic form is over, there is one last directive to pass on: Hold your own hearings.' (243)

'Comedy and the Poetics of Political Form'. The Politics of Poetic Form . Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 235–244. (Note to self: note the reversal between title of book and title of essay).


Yeah and I used to be a hunchback by C.P. Lee, an article on the Marx Brothers

Lee, C.P. ‘ “Yeah and I used to be a hunchback”: Immigrants, humour and the Marx Brothers’. Because I Tell A Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference. Edited by Stephen Wagg. London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 1998. 165–179.

Marx Brothers - Animal Crackers

C.P. Lee begins the essay with two quotations: one from Theodore Roosevelt stating that there can be one language only and the other a play on words by the Marx Brothers. Lee responds: ‘So much for legislating the most amorphous and misleading of things—–language’ (165). Lee suggests that verbal displays were a means of defence for immigrant in the US. This was a way of coming to grips with ‘WASP (White Anglo–Saxon Protestant) principles’ which were used as a means of controlling how people thought and behaved (166). The Marx Brothers’ humour is thought of as a means of rebelling against this and Lee quotes Groucho from Animal Crackers: ‘Put it on the penultimate Jameson, not on the dipthonic’ (qtd. in Lee, 166). Lee admires the Marx Brothers who are described as ‘three Jews pretending to be a harp–playing mute, an Italian con–man and a motor–mouthed shyster’ who ‘could cross over from the ethnic melting pot and establish a rich vein of absurdist humour’ (166).

Lee argues that the situation of immigrants lends itself to this kind of comedy. Those immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island faced hostility and the difficulty of integrating into a new language. In juxtaposition with comments on the polylingualism that existed within US communities, Lee offers a sketch from Animal Crackers that plays with pronunciation and mispronunciation:

GROUCHO: Put it in a box Jameson. Mark it Fra–Gilly.
ZEPPO: Fra–Gilly?
GROUCHO: Look it up in a dictionary Jameson. It’s under fragile. (qtd. in Lee, 166)

Lee considers how ‘mini–language communities’ survive giving examples of patois, argot and slang. The essay argues that ‘the English of The Marx Brothers is that of a dominant tongue filtered, mediated and regurgitated through the consciousness of an essential ethnicity of perception’ (168).

Lee outlines the Marx Brothers background. They were brought up in Harlem , New York, which was then not a predominantly black neighbourhood but a mixture of different ethnicities. Their father, Sam, was French (from Alsace), while their mother, Minnie, was German. The Marx Brothers grew up speaking German and Yiddish at home. Groucho later based routines on his act as a dialect comic. Lee sees this kind of dialect comedy not as racist but ‘as an agent of cohesion, awaiting recognition, agreement and unity’ and he then quotes a scene from Go West (170).

GROUCHO: White man’s red friend. White man want to make friends with red man’s brother.
CHICO: And sister too.
INDIAN: Beray! Beray! Kulah! Kulah! Cocho! Rodah! Nietzsche! Pardo.
GROUCHO: Are you insinuating that the white man is not the Indian’s friend? Who swindled you out of Manhatten Island for $24?
CHICO: White man.
GROUCHO: Who turned you into wood and stood you in front of a cigar store?
CHICO: White man.
GROUCHO: Who put your head on a nickel and then stole the nickel away?
CHICO: Slot machine. (qtd. in Lee, 170)

Dialect became an essential part of the Marx Brothers’ developing act – they experimented with Irish and German accents, but finally Chico was the only brother to retain the cod–Italian accent. However Lee suggests that one element of the original act was retained – the idea of otherness. The dowager, Margaret Dumont, then becomes a means for hegemony to be undermined.

Lee suggests that there are three ‘geopsychical spaces within the language community’ that the three brothers represent.
•Groucho, the ‘intellectual’, is ‘quick–witted’ and ‘fast–talking’ and he ‘controls the speech situation’ (173).
•Chico battles with the ‘weapon’ of ‘unyielding literalness’ and he represents ‘the eternal battle of the plain speaker up against the Latinate ruling class culture’ (174).
•The primitive noises and gestures of Harpo take us into the realm of the Shaman according to Lee – a world of magic, of Levi–Strauss’ bricolage.

Lee now makes a strange diversion into discussing Kaballah in which ‘all words resonate with power, and this power can be concentrated in order to effect changes in reality’ (175). Lee states that although the Marx Brothers were not interested in this kind of magick, they did have an awareness of the power of language. He compares Kaballah with the tradition of Calypso.

Lee now tackles the topic of the Marx Brothers’ Jewishness and while he admits that there is a brand of ‘Jewish humour’, he is reluctant to suggest that the Marx Brothers’ comedy was exclusively Jewish. However, Lee points out ‘a survival mechanism adopted by European Jewry in the nineteenth century of carrying your trade in your head’ and Lee wonders if this could be a reason for the proliferation of Jewish performers.

Lee suggests that post–war, so–called ‘ethic comedy’ was less in favour and that performers became more detached from their cultural identities. Yet Lee suggests that the Marx Brothers championed a brand of comedy that acted as a tool of defence and integration for immigrants. To conclude his essay, he cites one of Groucho’s anecdotes:

‘In the 1920s two friends of the Marx Brothers were walking along 5th Avenue. The first was Otto Kahn, a patron of the Metropolitan Opera. The second was Marshall B. Wilder, a hunch–backed script writer. As they walked past a synagogue Kahn turned to Wilder and said, “You know I used to be a Jew”. And Wilder said, “Yeah and I used to be a hunchback”.’ (qtd. in Lee, 179)


'American Classic' by Richard Rowland, an article on the Marx Brothers

Rowland, Richard. ‘American Classic’. Hollywood Quarterly. Vol 2. No. 3. (April 1947). 264-269.

The Marx Brothers

In this essay, Richard Rowland wonders which films will stand the test of time (and as this article was written in 1947 one feels rather strange looking back on it nearly sixty years later). Rowland suggests that Marx Brothers films have such a legacy, although he admits that some of the humour is dated. Rowland proceeds to ask why the films persist. One reason suggested is the excellent script writer S.J. Perelman who worked mainly on the early films. Rowland states, ‘Perelman has a remarkable talent for torturing the English language into a sort of insane poetry, formed by weird juxtapositions of formal diction and advertising copy, of slang and preciosity, so that he becomes a slapstick James Joyce’ (265). Yet Rowland notes that the Marx Brothers continued to be funny after Perelman finished writing for them, so he wonders could the legacy be rooted in the ‘comic genius’ of the acting?

Rowland rejects this line of thought too and he concludes that the nature of reality is what is at stake here:

‘They deal with the gravest question with which comedy can deal. They ask us, at least the successful ones do, “What is the nature of reality?” ’(265).

What unfolds is an interesting argument as Rowland notes the inherent unreality of the Marx Brothers’ world:

‘Harpo’s wig is clearly a wig and, indeed, often seems in danger of falling off. Groucho’s mustache [sic] is either painted or fastened to his cigar, we are never quite sure which. Chico’s accent is as detachable as the wig or the mustache [sic], and is sometimes similarly askew.’ (265-266)

Rowland describes how in some scenes, the Marx Brothers miraculously provide all the comforts of home aboard a travelling steamer and he concludes that, ‘disorder succeeds, and the way of order becomes the way of failure’ (266). Margaret Dumont and the other ‘stooges’ are consequently ‘doomed’ because the rules of logic that they try to use do not apply in this world (266).

‘This is more than a joke; it is a moral lesson. No world, dream or real, will allow itself to be fitted into a system—-though the nature of man demands that he go on trying to make it fit’ (266).

Sometimes the Marx Brothers deal with the nature of reality directly. Rowland gives the example of Night at the Opera where a huge number of people are fitted into a small room. The idea of it is unreal, yet one witnesses it before one’s very eyes. In the same film, a harassed tenor continues to sing as the Marx Brothers accidentally change the back-drops to scenes totally inappropriate for the opera being performed. Rowland also mentions the famous scene is Duck Soup in which the brothers all dress as Groucho leading up to the broken mirror scene where Harpo pretends to be Groucho’s reflection.

‘Are there two of me? Is that other figure real? Who, indeed, am I? Am I real myself? Never, perhaps, has the shifting instability of the dream world been more vividly presented on screen.’

Rowland gives further examples, such as the Punch and Judy scene in Monkey Business where Harpo fights with puppets. Who is real and who is make-believe?

Some of the most interesting insights that Rowland makes, however, are on the nature of language in the Marx Brothers films. Rowland describes how faith is words has ‘collapsed’ (267). To the admonition not to ‘burn the candle at both ends’, Harpo can produce just that object – a candle burning at both ends – and Rowland describes how we respond by feeling ‘the failure of words which seemed real but which have suddenly proved worse than useless since they always mean the wrong thing’ (267).


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