Tuesday 4 November 2014

Žižek, Freud and The Marx Brothers

I've always been a big fan of both Woody Allen and The Marx Brothers. Woody pays tribute to The Marx Bros in several of his films including "Hannah & Her Sisters" and "Everyone Says I Love You." Woody's most celebrated film Anne Hall begins with a mention of Groucho...
"(An)important joke for me is one that's, uh, usually attributed to Groucho Marx but I think it appears originally in Freud's Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious. And it goes like this – I'm paraphrasing: Uh... "I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." That's the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women." Groucho's joke doesn't actually appear in a Marx Brothers movie. Arthur Marx explained that his Dad was asked to join the Friars club and did so only to please an old pal (the actor Georgie Jessell.) Groucho was asked why he wasn't coming to the club and initially made jokes about not liking shaking hands and having his back slapped. It was only when they pleaded with him to visit the club that he wrote a letter featuring the now famous line. Groucho mentions the story in his autobiography but he gives the club a different name so as not to offend anyone.
I've never read Freud's Wit and it's Relation to the Unconscious but I have read a few books about the Marx Brothers and I can imagine Mr Freud would be interested if he knew how the act grew from a desire to please their mother and I'm sure he'd have something to say about Groucho's cigar. Recently I saw a clip of Marxist philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek explaining Freud's idea of the ID, the Ego and The Super Ego by talking about Groucho, Chico and Harpo. At first I enjoyed what he was saying as it seemed amusing but as he continued it irritated me slightly. I asked a friend who has studied Freud for his views. Like me he began enjoying playing along... "So Harpo would be the ID as he's an animal, unable to reflect, he's driven by desires like a child. Groucho is more intelligent and cynical. Whilst Harpo chases women like a dog chases cats he wouldn't know what to do with them whereas Groucho would. And whilst Groucho plays the authority figures like The Head Master or Famous Explorer, Harpo is mute and needs Chico to explain his actions..." When I asked about Harpo playing the harp my friend suggested that it could be likened to a bird singing but before too long we had to accept the comparison doesn't really work at all - and what about the 4th Marx brother - how come Zeppo doesn't get a mention?
If I'm going to claim Žižek isn't quite on the money I guess I should explain what I think Freud actually meant and what it was I think The Marx Brothers were actually displaying...
Freud studied the human mind and believed he had discovered mental structures and the forces that flowed between them. Freud believed these structures and forces control all human behavior - people don't have free will or choice - behavior is the result of unseen, unlearned and unconscious processes. He suggested there were 3 structures: The Id, The Ego and The Super Ego. The Id is the earliest and most basic component of personality. At birth the baby is only an Id. A Baby has wants and needs but can't express them in words, in Freud's system anything it can't verbalizes unconscious. When the Id wants something it wants it immediately - it works on the Pleasure Principle: "Whatever gives pleasure is good", and since it cannot consciously express itself the Id generates an image of the object it desires. But it cannot satisfy it's needs itself, the Id is completely unconscious and needs the ego to deal with reality. The Ego is Freud's second structure - it operates on the reality principle: "What is real is good". Together the ego and Id form an yin/yang relationship The Id generates a psychic energy called libido and creates and image of what it wants. The ego regulates the energy and searches for something that will satisfy the ID. Although the two process compliment each other it's not a perfect match - The ego can't always find what the Id wants so it tries different substitutes (in the same way a mother can't always stop her baby crying with a dummy.) As it learns right from wrong, the ego creates a third mental component - "a super ego". Like The Id, The Super Ego can't distinguish "imagined" from "real" and consequently it punishes you equally for a bad idea or for a bad action. Composed of the conscious (what you should not do)and the Ego ideal (what you should do) the super ego is in direct opposition to the Id (what you want to do). The conflict produced by the fighting caused between the Id and super ego caused is called anxiety. For Freud, human behaviour is a function of the ego mediating between the forces of ID and the super ego
Psychoanalysis is the analysis of the mind, the goal is to indentify how your inner structures relate to each other - this is not something you can do yourself (unless you're Freud) you would need someone to be there and guide you through the process - you lay on a coach, and say anything that comes into your mind, no guidance is given so this is free association, you're free to say whatever is in your conscious this is thought to give voice to the unconscious Id and a portion of the ego which is unconscious - but it's a difficult process the ego wants to avoid anxiety so it puts up resistance. The analyst analyses the defences of the ego and helps guide you to underlying truths - the primarily painful experiences from your childhood. Freud believed all current problems were based in childhood. Patients were required to see Freud for an hour a day, every day, 6 days a week for a year or more weekly hour long session for as many years as needed.
Rather than seeing him as a wild child my take on Harpo was that he was kind old man who would clown around to make young people laugh. I like the way he would take on those much bigger than himself - Harpo's message to me was more "don't let people wind you up, enjoy yourself while you can". In Animal Crackers (1930)Harpo plays the part of The Professor. He appears wearing a top hat and cape. He shoots at a clock and some statues as though he were a hunter and they were animals - was he sending up huntsman or just being silly? Chico (who got his name because he used to chase the chicks) plays an incredibly long piano solo to an unimpressed crowd of people including Groucho. Feeling bored Groucho asks when he asks when the song will end, Chico boasts he once kept it up for three days. In Horse Feathers (1932)all the brothers perform a version of "Everyone Says I Love You". When Groucho and Chico perform the song it's played for laughs but when Harpo performs the song on his harp he does so to seranade a women in a window above, and it's a very beautiful moment. In Duck Soup (1933) Harpo plays the part of a spy called Pinky. In the film's most famous scene he ingeniously mirrors every single move that Groucho makes.
I love the fact that fast talking Groucho can still make us laugh in a silent scene. Zizek says that Chico represents Ego as he's "calculating, egotistical and rational" whilst Harpo's mix of childlike innocence and violence/corruption perfectly sums up The Id. Groucho's "nervous hyper activeness" makes him the Super Ego. But what about Zeppo who appears in the first 5 films as the romantic lead? And what's rational about the way Chico pretends to be Italian? Maybe Zizek would answer my questions in the style of Groucho as say "These are my opinions. And if you don't like them, I've got others"? . "In Freud's view, jokes (the verbal and interpersonal form of humor) happened when the conscious allowed the expression of thoughts that society usually suppressed or forbade. The superego allowed the ego to generate humor. A benevolent superego allowed a light and comforting type of humor, while a harsh superego created a biting and sarcastic type of humor. A very harsh superego suppressed humor altogether. Freud’s humor theory, like most of his ideas, was based on a dynamic among id, ego, and super-ego. The commanding superego would impede the ego from seeking pleasure for the id, or to momentarily adapt itself to the demands of reality, a mature coping method. Moreover, Freud followed Herbert Spencer's ideas of energy being conserved, bottled up, and then released like so much steam venting to avoid an explosion. Freud was imagining psychic or emotional energy, and this idea is now thought of as the relief theory of laughter". I'm sure there are many other essays, lectures and books about comedy out there somewhere. I wouldn't go as far as Groucho who famously said "Whatever it is I'm against it" but I do think there is more wit and warmth in the scene in Hannah and Her Sisters where Woody goes to see Duck Soup at the cinema. Having tried joining various religions and attempting suicide when Woody sees the four Marx Brothers he has a change of heart:"I got hooked on the film and I started to feel - how can you think about killing yourself - isn't it so stupid? look at all the people up there on the screen. They are really funny and what is the worst is true -there's no God - you only go round once and that's it - well don't you want to be part of the experience? I decided I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never going to get and just enjoy it while it lasts!"