Wayne Koestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum talks about The Anatomy of Harpo Marx

Left: Cover of Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (2012). Right: Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, The Cocoanuts, 1929, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 96 minutes.

Wayne Koestenbaum is a poet and cultural critic and a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His previous books include The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (1993), Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon (1995), Andy Warhol (2001), and Humiliation (2011). His latest volume, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, has recently been published by the University of California Press. Koestenbaum will read selections from it at 192 Books in Manhattan on February 16 at 7 PM.

HARPO IS, FOR ME, THE ONE. Not even the trinity—the One. That’s what biographers, or anyone in love, must feel—a lunatic absorption in this other person, this One, who contains everything. The Harpo project did not begin with love; as with all obsessions, only repeated visitations allow a subject or object to accrue aura.

The first time I saw Harpo, I thought: “He’s cute.” The second time, I thought: “There’s that cuteness again.” The third time, I thought: “How can I memorize or categorize this haunting refrain?” Falling in love demands a return.

I began to notice Harpo in the scene’s periphery and I developed a hunger to slow the film down so I could figure out his inscrutable behavior. Harpo aroused a physical feeling in me, a wish to impose on him a different duration, a slower one. If I were heterosexual, and if I were watching Lana Turner, or Rita Hayworth, or Marilyn Monroe, I would want to figure out why and how she was sexy—I’d want to analyze the sexiness. Perhaps this thirst for analysis is already a queer approach to flesh, a wish to take apart Lana’s walk, to remove it from merely the cumulous cloud of seductiveness and discover its underlying technology or Technik.

Writing about Harpo, I was searching for my own location both psychologically and phenomenologically—I wanted to affix myself in a certain place and time within a recognizable body, within a landlocked sense of the real. Harpo appeared to have that grounded quality and he also seemed to be chasing it. The search for fixed, solid, and verifiable location became the book’s theme and my quest’s goal. Inspired by Dostoyevsky’s flash-stunned idiot, I permitted every stray particle into the book, a recuperative memory-theater, a nickelodeon for absolute allowance, for writerly liberation, for a self-granted mandate to include every glancing reflection.

Originally, I was torn between two book projects: One was about Harpo and the other was about shininess, the metaphysical and luminous properties of things that shine. Shininess is a code word for me. Shininess is the state where a soul loses grip. Shine elicits desire—Freud harped on “shine.” Shine is ephemeral, a trickster, an illusionistic source of corporeality. When confronted with shine, one slips and slides and glides and falls. One does not land. Harpo, however, always lands solidly—often on his rear.

Jackie O. and Andy Warhol, for example, are very shiny—twin epitomes of shine. Jackie had shiny aura because she was the most famous person in the world, famous for intangible and floating reasons, but nonetheless branded with a fixed, indubitable identity. So, if my identity, as a normal, regular, nonfamous person, was constantly slipping away and vanishing, and entirely dependent on the recognition of others, I could imagine that Jackie—a consoling and chimerical fantasy of self-sureness!—always had the power to say “I’m Jackie.” She came already stamped, permanently recognizable, seared by identity, without danger of losing her name tag. As a mental calisthenic, I played the Jackie trick: I imagined being Jackie so I could imagine having an identity, a caption, a logo. To contemplate Jackie was to entertain a paradox: What does it mean to be Jackie by herself, alone? What is Jackie’s solitude like? Shine is the loss of location and so I brought the topic of “shine” to Harpo: I shone my interrogation-beam on Harpo to figure out what it might feel like to exist solidly within one’s own puny yet chunky universe—think of Harpo’s body, its edible boxiness. The origin of my Harpo fetishism or wish to enclose him in a book came from my zeal as a child to own a piece of vanished, silent male embodiment—say, an 8-mm film reel of Charlie Chaplin in The Vagabond, or an 8-mm reel of the soon-to-be-disgraced Fatty Arbuckle in Fatty’s Magic Pants.

In my book, I analyze a scene in which Harpo sees shadows on a wall. He greets an apparation, a mere appearance, a nonsubstantial phenomenon, and he accords it momentary solidity. He blesses the shadow: Through dumb show, he says, “You exist.” Harpo is in the business of according every passing phenomenon its minuscule interlude of solidity—he proves that the void can be greeted. The void will answer back. From Harpo’s gaze-saturated point of view, there is no such thing as the void. Reality—sometimes thuggishly—interpellates Harpo: To Harpo, reality says, “You exist.”

Harpo is constantly rejected. Language has rejected him. His brothers essentially have rejected him. Conjugality has rejected him. Gender has rejected him. Proper habiliments have rejected him. School has rejected him. Speech and sartorial dignity have rejected him. The harp has not rejected him, but proper harp technique has rejected him. So how does he achieve the power not to care about rejection, to be humiliation-proof? That interpretation depends on a viewer—I, as interpreter, accord him this hypothetical state of shame-proofness. Granting it to him is an act of interpretive forcefulness or doggedness. By projection and by analytic perseverance, I prove Harpo’s immunity to rejection. I could have given Lassie the identical hermeneutic gift.