- Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel
By Lee Siegel. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015. 162 pp.
The philosophy of Groucho Marx is a game with one move: pick your quip. Two choices are typically made. One is the joke discussed by Woody Allen in the opening to-camera monologue of Annie Hall (1977): “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” The other, a favorite of Slavoj Žižek and other Lacanians, comes from Duck Soup (1933): “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.” Both are paradoxes. The latter lines up with other Groucho-isms to express the paradoxical dialectics of identity and similarity that structure the symbolic order. (Other gags in this group include the following exchange from Animal Crackers : “I used to know a fellow who looked exactly like you by the name of Emanuel Ravelli.” “I am Emanuel Ravelli.” “Well, no wonder you look like him.”) The former toggles between aggression and self-abjection to capture what for Lee Siegel, in his latest book, is the essence of Julius “Groucho” Marx’s comic art. What, after all, is the meaning of the famous club resignation line? To read the quip as Allen does, simply as the epitome of Jewish self-loathing, is to miss the paradoxical sense in which the inward denigration (“I am not worthy of membership in your club . . .”) lays the foundation for an outward sneer (“. . . which must be even more worthless for wanting me”). Siegel’s book builds up to his analysis of this joke—which occupies most of the sixth of his seven brief, appetizing chapters—but a hint of where he is headed is there from the start, hovering from the get-go, implicit in a thesis that proposes to read Groucho’s wit as the “instant conversion . . . of self-pity into a humor that simultaneously excoriates himself and alienates his interlocutor” (7).
Not the least distinctive aspect of that thesis is that it lands the book somewhere between speculative biography and a philosophy of humor. Neither fish nor fowl—and the better for it—Groucho Marx is a biography “of sorts” or a “biocommentary” whose endeavor is at once to “show the man plain, in his full human aspect” (13–14) and to establish in that demonstration what the book’s subtitle describes as a “comedy of existence.” Three caveats, however, should append that description. [End Page 121]
First, it would be a mistake to assume that Siegel’s concern with “the man plain” means that his focus is Julius (the person) rather than Groucho (the persona). Not only does the book’s title tell us otherwise, but the distinction is in any case untenable because “Julius’s persona as Groucho was really who Julius was” (83). Nor, second, is this a book that banally deduces a comic philosophy from the circumstances of a life; rather, it is in the nature of Siegel’s biocommentary that the life itself becomes a kind of enacted philosophy. Siegel’s approach here is quasi-dramaturgical, crystallized in detailed reconstructions of encounters from Groucho’s life in which are unfolded the mechanics, in real-time, of the comedian’s self-abjecting aggression. Such encounters include a tense and strained dinner with T. S. Eliot; an expletive-ridden interview with journalist Richard Anobile for The Marx Brothers Scrapbook (1973); an adult encounter with a former childhood acquaintance unaware of Groucho’s show-business success, and so on.
Third, this “comedy of existence” cannot really be described as existential in a broadly encompassing sense, since Siegel traces its ultimate horizon of interpretation to a specifically Jewish tradition of humor—“which raises the inevitable question of just what is Jewish humor,” he slyly adds. In the face of a critical tradition that has described Groucho’s comic art under the abstractions of “anarchy” and “subversion,” Siegel seeks rather to render it material in social terms, extending his analysis down into the specificities of Groucho’s...