In his latest, poet and essayist Wayne Koestenbaum (Humiliation) examines the work and legacy of Harpo Marx, the mop-headed Marx brother who communicated entirely through pantomime, song, and a brass taxi horn. In The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Koestenbaum provides “a blow-by-blow annotation of Harpo’s onscreen actions” through 13 films, from The Cocoanuts to A Day at the Races. In this excerpt from chapter one, Koestenbaum introduces Harpo, himself, and some reasons for his infatuation.

Concentration, Abstraction, Seriality

Harpo is the silent brother. Could he really talk? Yes, but never onscreen. Later, I’ll explain why.

The Marx Brothers had a stage career (vaudeville, Broadway) before their act immigrated to Hollywood; I will limit my attentions to Harpo’s film embodiment.

Watching his screen adventures, I don’t laugh; I concentrate. Concentration is a sadly dwindling cultural resource; opportunities to pay attention— even going overboard and fastening monomaniacally to a single object— deserve advocacy.

Art, whether visual or literary, may choose to operate in serial fashion, composing its tricks by lining up similarly timed or similarly spaced modules. In Harpo’s performances, one gag, or incremental piece of comic business, follows another. His gestures obey a mysterious nonlogic of mere adjacency. The schtick’s fragments stack up like cubes or buttons—impropriety’s rosary-beads. His performances, like the ocean’s, are abstract. We observe the ebb, but we don’t expect an explanation.

Behaving as a serial artist, Harpo lines up his self’s pieces, one by one, in a row: he gathers comic bits into a transparent assemblage, hieratic as Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, but without didactic baggage. The seeming continuity of Harpo’s performances disguises their origin in separable flashes of comic perception. Walter Benjamin described the art of Charlie Chaplin in similar terms: “Each single movement he makes is composed of a succession of staccato bits of movement.” In a different context, the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, attuned to pieces, theorized an ego’s tendency to be “in bits.”

Sequentially, bit by bit, this book will point to Harpo’s screen gestures. My procedure courts overthoroughness, and therefore stupefaction—an interminability I consider Novocain. As Andy Warhol filmed a man sleeping, and called it Sleep, I want to commit media-heist, to steal a man from his native silence and transplant him into words, if only for the pleasure of taking illusory possession of a physical self-sureness that can never be mine.

The Marx Brothers were not part of my star-infatuated childhood; I fell in love with Harpo only recently. Without foreknowledge, I found myself hypnotized by the curly-wigged man who stared erratically, with a glazed expression, in a direction that was neither toward nor away from the other; his gaze seemed to evade reciprocity, yet also to invite response. Harpo, I discovered, moved more quickly, and more elusively, than I could account for. If I slowed down the film, his gestures could unfold under a different planetary dispensation. I wanted to figure out how he put together “cuteness” from scratch, and how he coined, with tools of no one else’s devising, a grammar of adorability, affection, stupefaction, giddiness, sleepiness, shock, and other category-defying moods. I wanted, above all, to figure out how he seduced me into relinquishing my own thoughts, for a few years, to concentrate, instead, on his gestures, which didn’t need my annotations. Harpo made thirteen films; because my goal is homage and replication, I’ve written thirteen chapters. Anatomizing rather than synthesizing, I bed down with entropy and disarray.

Family Characteristics

The Marx Brothers’s film career officially begins with The Cocoanuts (1929). I take 1929 personally: my mother was born in 1930, my father in 1928. Though my father is certainly a talker, and a master of esoteric words and abstract concepts, in my childhood he was often silent—either sulking, or bitter, or contemplative, or outshouted. I interpreted his silence as a comforting antidote to my mother’s explosiveness, although now I can conceive that her liveliness and candor offered a different kind of comfort, a tactile realm of figuration, a warm materiality, apart from the bodiless void of my father’s abstraction. But when I was growing up, I felt sad that my mother didn’t decode or translate my father’s muteness, and I idealized (and blamed myself for) his gloom, passivity, or nonreactivity, as if we four children had conspired to deprive him of speech.

In Harpo’s first scene, I glimpse his major gimmicks. I note his rouged lips; his thirst; his appetite; his laziness; his musicality; his whistling; his marveling relation to words as material objects; his plug hat’s height and élan; his pants, not as ragged or droopy as in later films; his belt, not connected to the function of upholding pants; his gaze, riveted to any passing woman; his bulbous taxi horn, phallically protruding, and providing protest or emphasis; his willingness to fight against women rather than merely to romance them; his cheerful distaste for regular channels of communication; his large eyes, rapt, like a painter’s or bird-watcher’s, seizing transitory visitations. Harpo’s eyes are bigger than a regular person’s. That is an anatomical fact I can’t prove. His eyes, which tend to brighten and pop, dramatize the attempt to recognize (or to seek recognition from) another person. Harpo’s bug eyes do more than beseech: they attest, grip, sign, declare, accuse, renounce, and mourn.

From The Anatomy of Harpo Marx by Wayne Koestenbaum, Univ. of California Press, Copyright © 2012