The happy ending that sees the clown coupled with the girl never satisfies precisely because we know the clown’s appropriate place is one of “in-between-ness,” a position that stands in for our own private rebellions and our desires not to banally win the girl but to demolish the coercive (and boring) narrative mechanism altogether.
* * *
The psychoanalytic account of desire, beholden to eros and ego, has done much to convince us of the primacy of our interior psychic lives – subjectivity, introspection, self-absorption, and the cult of the individual have become the normative ways we imagine and define ourselves. For Freud, unfortunately, the overwhelming mandate to live erotically always ends in the minor tragedy of neurosis. Whether our objects of desire are coneventional or perverse, the fastidious introspection of psychoanalysis makes our desires invariably neurotic, pathological, and ultimately paradoxical, for whatever we have is unwanted and whatever we want is unachievable. Our endless cycles of neurotic and unrequited desires nevertheless become, for Freud, the groundwork for human individuation, as we evaluate ourselves according to how well we sublimate our drives into socially productive – or at least diminishingly neurotic – activities. Yet the later Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents (if not the earlier, more prejudicial Freud of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality) recognized well enough that our desires are neither necessarily sexual nor merely symptomatic of economic, social, or political needs. The later Freud realized, perhaps better than the existentialists who repudiated him, that sexuality and political structures simultaneously allegorize one another, rather than one phenomenon acting as a fixed cause and the other as a fixed effect. Nevertheless, the 20th century’s numerous cultural subversions – from Surrealism to Wilhelm Reich, from Austrian Actionism to the utopian hybridities of postmodernism – have continually argued that liberatory sexuality is the best weapon to use against a history of sexual repression. We are told by popular culture, too, that seemingly every attempt at personal freedom or political liberation must fixate on sexuality as both an end and a means. We believe sexual desire is inherently the pinnacle of all desire. As a result, any rejection of or disinterest in sexuality is automatically seen as an ascetic’s retreat rather than a proactive or courageous stand.1
Of course, we cannot blame psychoanalysis alone for demonizing asexuality, for millennia of religious prescriptions and fetishes have cast it into a frigid ghetto. The enforced chastity of penned monks and the sexless marriages of nuns to a dead Christ strike us as far more neurotic than the oral fixations of Freud’s Dora. Buddhism’s rejection of the flesh is grounded in a more pragmatic (and laudable) avoidance of suffering, as Nietzsche observed in The Antichrist, but effectually engages in an analogous denial of the lively spirit. But in the past century psychoanalysis has worked just as tirelessly to negate the lively spirit in its own way, especially by identifying polymorphous perversity as a mere phase through which we must pass on our development toward rigid adulthoods. For the Freud of A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, the groping pleasures we derive as infants – through the oral, anal, and phallic stages of Freudian development – are omnidirectional, unsocialized, and qualitatively indistinguishable from pleasures later derived from what adults call “sexuality” (indeed, Freud commonly uses the terms “pleasure” and “sex” interchangeably). As processes of socialization conspire to reduce childhood’s multiform pleasures to singular, heteronormative pleasures, we necessarily lose our polymorphous tendencies and become culturally guided toward procreative and genitally centered sexuality. Civilization must annihilate the freely roaming, unprejudiced perversities we enjoy as children to make way for an adulthood of linear goals and progress, even if that process obliges us to lose a more innocent, diverse, and playful hedonism. As Freud remarks:
What we call “perverse” in the life of the adult differs from the normal in the following respects: first, in disregard for the dividing line of species (the gulf between man and animal); second, being insensible to the conventional feeling of disgust; third, the incest-limitation … fourth, homosexuality; and fifth, transferring the role of the genitals to other organs and other parts of the body. None of these limitations exist in the beginning, but are gradually built up in the course of development and education. The little child is free from them. He knows no unbridgeable chasm between man and animal; the arrogance with which man distinguishes himself from the animal is a later acquisition … he lays no special stress on the difference between the sexes [and …] does not expect pleasure from his sexual organs alone … The child may, then, be called “polymorphous[ly] perverse.2
Freud sees the surrender of polymorphous sexuality as a necessary part of the bargain of socialization. The “little child,” lacking the arrogance man claims for himself and denies the animals, must be relieved of his naiveté and imbued with conventional societal prejudices that, in the analysis of Max Weber, align with the reproductive goals of Protestantism. Children’s socialization, emphasizing the historical progress of “correct,” reproductive sexuality, ushers them into the reality principle, which absorbs and redirects once-polymorphous pleasures into a socially construed “reality” that not only pathologizes unconventional sexualities but identifies asexual pleasures as childish.
While critics of traditional psychoanalysis have made valiant attempts to recuperate polymorphous perversity and claim it as a legitimate form of pleasure, they have usually met with limited success. In Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse had eloquently explored ways to expand our notion of pleasure beyond the Freudian trap of genital sexuality, but his examples are mainly literary, not pragmatic. In The Politics of Experience, the existentialist psychologist R. D. Laing had similarly tried to deliver polymorphous play from the ghetto of infantilism and into the spectrum of legitimate, valued human behavior. As Laing says:
Infantile phantasy may be a closed enclave, a dissociated undeveloped “unconscious,” but this need not be so … Phantasy as it is encountered in many people today is split off from what the person regards as his mature, sane, rational, adult experience. We do not then see phantasy in its true function but experienced merely as an intrusive, sabotaging, infantile influence.3
Laing correctly recognizes that many of our greatest, most pleasurable fantasies are in fact not sexual but belong to the realm of everyday “play,” daydreaming, and poetic flights of whimsy, all commonly regarded as “intrusions” into the industrious mandates of adulthood and masculinity. Laing argues that Freud’s pleasure principle got human sexuality backwards: rather than supposedly neurotic behaviors being sublimations of tabooed sex, genitally centered fixations are in fact reductions of the full spectrum of human behavior, which ideally does not privilege any single pleasure. Civilization’s exclusive, reductive focus on sex trivializes our natural human creativity, which logically should be polymorphous. Nevertheless, academics and intellectuals have done little to convince the masses that the pleasures of asexual play are equal to those of genital sexuality. The mainstreaming of the gay rights movement, furthermore, has only reinforced the primacy of the (nuclear) family unit and ghettoized unconventional elicitations of pleasure.
In the following analysis of the clown, we will speak of asexuality in the admittedly broad terms of polymorphous perversity, not in the overtly politicized terms of sexual identity or gender politics. While social scientists and gender theorists may define asexuality as the literal absence of sexual attraction or desire, the present analysis of film archetypes imagines asexuality more loosely, not as a subset of sexual orientation but as part and parcel of a literarily existential orientation, in which asexuality is one facet of an overriding asociality. Obviously, framing asexuality in terms of polymorphous or antisocial perversity is only one approach, and indeed the potential power and meaning of asexuality cannot be reduced to the definitions of psychology, sociology, biology, or any single disciplinary framework. Yet this approach allows us to see that asexuality has long existed in multiple, shifting, and often metaphorical forms, many of which – like the tradition of clowning – have mass appeal and are far removed from contemporary minority discourses.
Because the clown is not a realistic, three-dimensional character but an archetype, our analysis cannot engage individualistic notions of desire and must instead focus on his outward behavior and, inevitably, the marriage plots in which the film clown typically finds himself. We must assume that the clown’s momentary behavior reflects only momentary desire and not any fixed orientation or goals, for the clown cannot imagine either fixities or futures. The clown has neither an internal life to psychologize nor an autonomous identity to politicize; our broader analysis of the clown’s asocial nature should therefore not be seen as a diversion from his asexuality, but the context in which it must necessarily be placed.
While it may appear from certain plot outlines that the clown is merely a failed heterosexual, his overarchingly ahistorical, asocial status negates his sexual viability from the start, even if his emplotments temporarily tempt him – and us – to think otherwise. The clown desires, yes, but his true desires are of freedom and unfettered spiel, not procreativity or future-oriented sexual relations; only the romantic narratives into which society misguidedly forces the clown obscure his inevitable alienation from sexuality. The clown’s final rejection of sex or marriage is in fact a victory for the audience, who wishes the rebellious clown to transcend his generic emplotments in ways that heroes rarely can. Hamlet, the aloof philosopher, must reluctantly seek revenge simply because he finds himself in a revenger’s tragedy, and action heroes must kill because that is their sole narrative function. The clown’s predicament, especially in silent comedy, is more complex and multiform – he is allowed to rebel against his own romance narratives so frequently that audiences begin to question sexual conventions themselves. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the masses would unthinkingly exchange their sex lives for the clown’s prepubescent psychology and asociality, but it does mean that audiences willingly identify with the clown’s rejection of sex because they, too, often wish to escape the impossible societal pressure to be constantly sexual.
The Heroism of the Man of Action Is Only Apparently Sexual
We cannot forget that we’ve always mythologized the asocial and asexual aspects of polymorphous perversity in the form of two common literary-cinematic archetypes: the stalwart, lonesome man of action, licensed to commit violence, and the clown outcast from society, licensed to speak the truth. For both the man of action and the clown, genital pleasure is displaced to violent anarchy, even though the action hero reinforces Freud’s reality principle and the clown demoralizes it. As inspirational (or aspirational) character types, both the asexual martial hero and the clown do not reject the body per se but variously attempt to transcend the history in which the body has been trapped. Generally, the chastity of the cowboy is directly proportionate to his martial or athletic power, for the exceptional action hero acknowledges compulsory heterosexuality but, like an amateur Buddhist, refuses permanent romantic attachments. The American clown,4 contrarily, is an infantile daydreamer whose heroism is unwilled and unintentional, the result not of Protestant manhood but of a perversity that metaphysically guides him – and it usually is a “him” – through life’s travails.
The flagrant heterosexism of the modern, urban man of action may lead us to believe he is anything but asexual. In a literal sense, this is obviously true – he is hypersexual. Yet his Don Juanism is the appendage of a loneliness that desperately substitutes known sexual penetrations for unknown societal ones. The action hero’s obligatory heteronormative liaison halfway through the plot demonstrates not the wild man’s romantic viability but simply the fact that there’s one thing from which he isn’t alienated – his heterosexuality. But this sort of heterosexuality never really convinces us of anything because it is customarily presented with the immaturity – or, in the case of the cowboy, the shyness – of a twelve-year old boy. As stoicism and the endurance of pain substitute for onscreen orgasm, the action hero, a cypher, attempts to accumulate sexual partners in an empty calculus of coy heterosexist postures, as quantity substitutes for quality. This macho denial is itself a bourgeois fantasy, of course, and the action hero, though righteous and “exceptionalistic,” remains enslaved to an eternal pre-adolescence, knowing only the displaced orgasm of terroristic violence. The solitary man of action is thus historicized without being historical, a cog in a generic consciousness who lacks the procreative powers to reproduce as an ongoing historical (or even biological) subject.
Yet the stubborn, anachronistic fantasy of the rugged individualist is neither isolated nor indivisible, for his psychotic heroism also manifests itself in less militaristic forms – namely, in the anarchic heroism of the early twentieth century clown, whose unthinking feats both fulfill the audience’s desire for heroism and question the will that heroism seemingly requires in a mundane, conformist world.
The Clown Is an Ahistorical Actor Who Is Tempted by Heroic Convention
If the martial hero is something of a generically circumscribed puppet with only the pretense of a conscience, the desexed clown dispenses with the pretense altogether. If the compensatorily oversexed hero is enslaved to the unbending demands of his gender, the unthinking clown is emancipated from them, his unrugged individualism opposed to the pitfalls of power-seeking and glory. If the conventional outlaw or avenger preserves the sanctity of domestic spaces from which he is ultimately excluded, the sexless clown’s bargain licenses him to subvert the social contract, not prop it up. The action hero is paradoxically world-weary and sexually immature; the clown is childlike rather than childish, empowered rather than debilitated by inexperience and sexual lack. The clown forever lives in the horizontal present, much as Wile E. Coyote remains suspended magically above the canyon as long as he doesn’t glance down, still blissfully ignorant of vertical history (his fate). Not an existential hero, the clown acts without knowing his freedom opposes divine right, and though evincing aspects of the narcissism (and nihilism) Camus associates with the dandy, the clown isn’t the arch-romantic he appears to be. “If the romantic rebel extols evil and the individual, this does not mean that he sides with mankind, but merely with himself,”5 says Camus, a description nearly apt for the clown – “nearly” because the clown, in his special paradox, has no subjective identity with whom to side. His “self” is pure action, without history, exemplified by the Buster Keaton of Our Hospitality (1923), a film which perfectly demonstrates the unknowing predicament of the clown. Ignorant of his own patrilineal history, here Keaton (in his second feature film) unwittingly walks into the home of the family with which his ancestors have been feuding for generations. Eventually, Keaton realizes his historical error and becomes courageous – yet only at the point of death, when rival clansmen finally threaten him with violence, and only at a point that transforms his comic ignorance into heroic self-knowledge. Indeed, when Keaton, in one of his most breathtaking stunts, climactically rescues the damsel by swinging to her across a raging waterfall, he ceases being a clown, exchanging his license for nonconformity for conventional, masculine heroism.
Thus, the “pure” or permanently infantile clown – Groucho Marx, for instance – learns nothing by his journey’s end, resisting the humanizing tribulations of the feature-length narrative of transformation. This statement at first might seem debatable, for so many classics of cinematic clowning are, in fact, ensconced within humanistic, even trite narratives in which the clownish hero experiences an epiphany. Consider Harold Lloyd in the Civil War comedy Grandma’s Boy (1922), in whose climax the timid Lloyd discovers his golden “inner qualities” after realizing that the “magic charm” bestowing him with martial courage had been only a placebo. Yet the instant he becomes psychologized, he is swallowed up by humanistic ideology and ceases his metaphysical tenure as a clown. The tradition of clowning thus succumbs to and is absorbed by the overriding American tradition of rugged individualism; this film, like so much of Lloyd, becomes a kind of inadequate or counterfeit clowning, one not perverse enough to resist the psychologizing tendencies of narrative structure. A similar problem of transformation occurs in Lloyd’s earlier feature A Sailor-Made Man (1921). Here, Lloyd, playing a spoiled rich kid, fails to realize his signature is legally binding when, on a whim, he tells a local recruiter, “I’ve decided to join your Navy.” But once he is forced to confront the legality of his decision, and by extension his historical position in society, he is immediately humanized, and the film abruptly slips from a comedy of unconscious bumbling to a conventional, orientalist adventure in which the now-heroic Lloyd rescues his beloved from an evil Raja. We can therefore suggest that the bourgeois, democratized narrative of redemption (so typical of Lloyd) attempts to seduce the clown away from his proper status as an agent of subversion and transform him into a conventional hero.
The Clown Is Trapped between the Deviant Heroism of Polymorphous Perversity and the Conventional Heroism of Adolescence
These brief examples of Harold Lloyd usefully preface our discussion of clowning because his films – especially The Freshman (1925), in which socially awkward Lloyd becomes a football hero – teeter on the edge between asocial clowning and conventional heroism, between the icy logos of comedy and the mawkish pathos of narrative redemption. But before we continue, we should clarify our parameters, for so many words in English alone – pantaloon, fool, buffoon, harlequin, jester, dunce, trickster, etc. – have been used interchangeably, and the category “clown” has, at various points in history, referred to either madness or stupidity, divinity or defect, a conscious artistic performance or a biological anomaly. I will limit my analysis mainly to the clown most crucial to our democratic aspirations: the American clown of silent cinema, whose persona becomes crystallized after the Turner Thesis had run its course and the frontiersman’s violence had given way to the more civilized contests of capitalism and courtship.6 Cinematic clowns confront their potential social assimilations ambivalently, sometimes embracing humanistic, aspirational challenges and elsewhere spoofing heterosexist conventions of romance or rejecting marriage’s bourgeois ideology. In most cases, the clown’s victory in social contests hinges on physical stunts, as exemplified by Harold Lloyd’s “thrill” comedies, such as Safety Last (1923) and Speedy (1928). Just as the frontiersman’s sexual immaturity underpins his violent masculinity, the clown’s metaphysic becomes manifest through the pun of his acrobatic stunts, which signify his “stunted” sexual development and allow him to transgress the temporal and spatial bounds that normal – that is, neurotic – humans must obey. We’ll soon return to the clown’s ambivalent approach to marriage and other sexual contests, but first we’ll continue to analyze how the silent clown embodies the common man’s newfound heroism by paradoxically positing a persona more monstrous than human, more subversive than bourgeois.
Unlike the man of action, the true, unassimilated clown is never deluded of his uniqueness or exceptionalism. We laugh at Roman comedy’s matrona and miser because their rigidities are incongruous with the humanity we suspect lies beneath the skin; but because the clown is his own mask, because he knows nothing of his history, he stands apart from humanity. Unable to participate in the procreative act, the clown’s ahistorical nature becomes indistinguishable from his asexuality. If the word “intercourse” has both social and sexual contexts, the clown knows neither, for he has no desire to penetrate either the body politic or the physical bodies of his neighbors. While Maurice Charney suggests that the satiric hero is “self-consciously an actor,”7 the apolitical clown is not merely parentless but selfless, never pausing to question his own origins, just as, presumably, audiences fail to question the etiology of jokes at which they mechanistically laugh.
If the true clown is ahistorical, selfless, and without normative sexual desire, Clint Eastwood’s nomadic, parentless, and non-procreative Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” could come close to qualifying for clownishness. Yet Eastwood’s gunslinger is un-clownish in one vital way, for he remains greedily self-interested, not unselfconscious. Indeed, it is self-consciousness rather than violence that separates the two, for clowns can be even more brutal than men of action.8 In Hot Water (1924), for instance, an atypically devilish Harold Lloyd nearly murders his shrewish mother-in-law (who has “the disposition of a dyspeptic landlord”) with an overdose of chloroform. In The Frozen North (1922), Buster Keaton, parodying the poker-faced Western hero William S. Hart, walks into a log cabin to find a man snuggling with a woman we presume to be Keaton’s wife. Believing him a cuckold, we understand why Keaton, anguished, draws his pistol and cold-bloodedly guns them both down, even if the sadism startles. But after he inspects the corpses’ faces, we then get the joke: “I made a mistake! This isn’t my house or my wife!” an intertitle reads. The amorality would be unthinkable in anything but the most Sadean horror, yet the clown is here ahistorical rather than amoral – he misrecognizes not merely others but his own home and, ultimately, himself.
Keaton’s joke of misrecognition perfectly illustrates the clown’s unselfconsciousness and differentiates what I’d call the “pure” or ahistorical clown from attempts to psychologize the more monstrous aspects of clowning. For instance, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) exploits clowning’s asociality and grotesquerie, but Ledger’s role is a complex psychological-tragic portrait, not the ahistorical, anti-psychological caricature in which the pure clown trades. While I wouldn’t suggest the ahistorical clown is inherently a superior persona either aesthetically or ideologically – any formulaic Three Stooges short or early Jim Carrey film demonstrates certain limitations of the pure clown’s polymorphous perversity – his asocial nature does offer an important escape from the psychological cum psychoanalytical mandates of bourgeois humanism.
The groundwork for Keaton’s gag of self-misrecognition in The Frozen North was most famously established in Chaplin’s early short The Floorwalker (1916), in which Chaplin’s vagabonding Tramp and a store detective misrecognize one another as mirror images simply because they share the same mustache and bowler hat. In effect, the mirror gag recalls Plato’s definition of clownishness in the Philebus, in which Socrates tells Protarchus that those who fail to heed the Delphic oracle’s command – “know thyself” – inevitably become ridiculous and powerless. The clown’s special metaphysic, however, magically turns ignorance into a liberating advantage, much as the hero of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There paradoxically navigates the highest echelons of political power through otherworldly innocence rather than cunning.
In truth, Chaplin mis-performed the mirror gag in The Floorwalker, since it makes no sense for the store detective, an exemplar of logic and authority, to also fall prey to the clown’s act of misrecognition. Nevertheless, the joke’s endless repetition over the years – most famously by Max Linder in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), by Groucho Marx in Duck Soup (1932), and by Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy – demonstrates that even the popular consciousness understands that the clown has no selfhood because he has no sense of otherness. Linder’s version of the joke more correctly has clever servants attempting to fool an unselfconscious clown (after his mirror breaks), and Chaplin eventually gave us a more sophisticated rendition of the gag in The Circus (1928), in which the Tramp effortlessly navigates a hall of mirrors precisely because he has no sense of (reflective) self to distract him. His materialistic pursuers, naturally, are all too easily confused, and become pitifully lost in their rebounding mirror images – that is, lost in themselves.
For our purposes, the ahistorical clown of silent cinema, though lacking a human voice, at least assumes human shape as he straddles both the social and the asocial worlds, and his partial comprehensibility (we understand his actions but not his origins) poses a subversive threat that total comprehensibility or total incomprehensibility cannot. Yet the heroic clown cannot be wholly alien, like a monster or circus clown. As Walter Kerr says, “the more closely a silent film comedian resembled an actual circus clown … the more certain he was to be condemned to the second rank.”9 It is no accident that when he unwittingly enters the ring in The Circus, Chaplin’s tramp, a preternatural clown, proves far more amusing to the paying spectators than the hackneyed antics of the circus’ own painted, purposive clowns. (“He’s a sensation but he doesn’t know it,” says the circus owner.) Yet the heroic clown has his own complexity, for he can’t be totally infantile – rather, he is something like a permanent ten-year old (whereas the action hero is closer to twelve or thirteen), forever stuck in that brief window between polymorphous perversity and the oncoming of pubescence. Kerr’s analysis of the second-tier (though once popular) silent comedian Harry Langdon highlights this tension. For Kerr, Langdon failed as a clown because he would at times appear literally dressed as an infant in a crib – in His First Flame (1927), for instance – and in other films he would be “holding down some sort of job, marriageable, and very often married.”10 Rebounding between “a full-grown functioning male and a not-full grown functioning male,”11 Langdon miscalculates the clown’s essential fact: his polymorphous perversity is not a developmental stage open to vacillation but a state of being, a metaphysic that – and this is the vital part – miraculously renders him free rather than neurotic. Therefore, the clown’s so-called “surrealism,” so superficially beloved by the Bretonists, lies not in Harpo Marx shotgunning cocktail party guests like upper-class pheasant in Animal Crackers (1930), or in Buster Keaton acrobatically stretching the probabilities of time and space – these activities are only residual effects – but in cultivating a polymorphous perversity in the absence of the psychophysical development through which perversity is normally forged.
Having no hope of maturation, forever stuck between the heights of perverse pleasures and the frustrations of an adolescence that will never arrive, the clown is truly outcast from society and its attendant sexualization. The clown’s traditionally asocial status is revealed etymologically in the term “rustic,” which in the 16th century was interchangeable with “clown” or “peasant.” The linguistic connection between comedy and asociality is old indeed; as Erich Segal says, Aristotle was “among the many ancients who gave some credence to a Doric tradition which derived ‘comedy’ from kōmē, [the] country village … Kōmē is related to comedy because the country has always stood vividly in the human imagination as a place of greater freedom.”12 Yet this pastoral freedom and openness are sexually closed: the country bumpkin Segal recognizes as a comic archetype has no progeny or sexual validity, and is in fact inbred. While many non-comic heroes – such as the typical protagonist of the 18th-century opera seria – long for the pastoral life, the clown was condemned to it. A few simple lines of Touchstone from As You Like It aptly reiterate the paradox of the fool’s rusticity: “In respect that it [the fool’s life] is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well. But in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious” (III., ii).
Straddling the social and asocial world and belonging to neither, the clown nevertheless needs to “perform” the subversive truths he is licensed to speak; without an audience, his truthfulness is not only useless but “vile.” We cannot imagine what the solitary clown would be like if he were alone and offstage, as are the dialectic of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s imagination. Emerson ascribed the clown’s “in-between” or “half-social” status to joking in general: “The essence of all jokes, of all comedy, seems to be an honest or well-intentioned half-ness; a non-performance of what is pretended to be performed, at the same time that one is giving loud pledges of performance.”13 The non-performance of a pretense is, in a word, the clown’s ahistoricity, while his pledges are those of a counterfeit man striving for counterfeit humanization. If we invert the formula, we find the tragic replicants of Blade Runner (1982), man-made machines who dream of becoming “original” humans, not copies. And yet the clown’s conditions of public loneliness and private claustrophobia are also inevitably human, and this is the clown’s appeal, for we, too, feel surrounded by humanity yet are forever alienated from it, no matter how loud our pledges of protest.
The Clown’s Polymorphous Perversity Is Mechanistic, Nor Organic
The notion of the clown as semi-human recalls Henri Bergson’s familiar theory of comic mechanization (from his 1900 essay Laughter), in which the comic figure’s automated characteristics degrade human biology and parody the rules of Aristotelian fixity and mechanistic society. When life begins to imitate art – or the artistic mechanism – it becomes laughable because causality is inverted. With his robotic stone face and narratives that invariably involve tangling with locomotives, steamships, and, in Sherlock, Jr. (1924), the cinema itself, Buster Keaton tellingly links the clown’s mechanization to the mechanization of (industrial) society at large. Whether dining with an array of ingenious mechanical conveniences in The Scarecrow (1920), vanquishing villains through his manipulative mastery of a house’s numerous secret passageways and trapdoors in The High Sign (1921), taming the misbehaving, nearly anthropomorphic train of Our Hospitality, or ingeniously outwitting a professional electrical engineer – whose social experience is no match for Keaton’s innate cunning – in The Electric House (1920), Keaton puns on Bergson’s metaphor. While society, it turns out, is even more mechanistic than the poor clown, the clown’s “natural” mechanization grants him brief insight into social mechanisms and heroically compensates for his predictable romantic shortcomings.
Formalist film theorists such as Tom Gunning, David Bordwell, and, more recently, Lisa Trahair have emphasized the (rather obvious) point that it is not the clownish actor per se but generic comedy’s narrative structure that is mechanical. The clown, therefore, simply becomes entrapped with a master narrative whose mechanization he inherits, embodies, and might either reject or overcome (whether we want him to or not). As Trahair remarks generally of Buster Keaton’s films and of the train sequence in The General (1926) specifically,
The mechanical imitation of organic narrative that we see in Keaton’s work can doubtless be understood in terms of Henri Bergson’s conceptualization of the comic as the “mécanisation de la vie,” but I would rather argue, along with Gunning, that the comic lays bare the mechanics of narrative ordering. Narrative is thereby made into a subset of the machine, simply one machine among many, and narrative meaning is reduced to little more than an effect of basic operationality.14
On the surface, this is hardly a bold claim – narrative is obviously formulaic, as are the supposedly organic reactions that mechanistic narratives elicit from audiences. However, if the clown is merely a mindless function of narrativity, it might seem that we could no longer look to him as an agent of freedom, as Segal suggests. Yet Trahair uses “operationality” as such a broad term – whatever the clown does, whether conventional or not, becomes a narrative “operation” – that the clown’s mechanization hardly negates the potential for narrative subversion. Indeed, it is the mechanization itself that allows the clown, with variable success, to rebel against the tyranny of humanist narrative and heterosexist emplotment, much as we rebel against the ubiquity of Freud’s pleasure principle. In these cases, some of which we’ll examine below, the clown’s mechanization militates against rather than enables narrative closure, even if the narrative and the clown are both mechanical and pit their respective mechanizations against one another in a kind of tug-of-war.15 Admittedly, these rebellions diminish in the later features of Keaton and Lloyd, in which the manic freedoms typical of their two-reel comedies of the late 1910s and early 1920s are replaced with the feature film’s sentimental narratives of daredevil redemption (as in Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last , Kid Brother , and Speedy ) or obligatory marriage emplotments (as in Keaton’s The Navigator  and Seven Chances ). Yet we rarely want the clown to acquiesce to romantic convention and, as I suggested above, thereby surrender his clownish powers of subversion. The happy ending that sees the clown coupled with the girl never satisfies precisely because we know the clown’s appropriate place is one of “in-between-ness,” a position that stands in for our own private rebellions and our desires not to banally win the girl but to demolish the coercive (and boring) narrative mechanism altogether.
Regardless, we encounter the paradox that laughter, like the orgasm, is as mechanical a reflex as the comic behavior that incites it. Curiously, Bergson is himself ambiguous on the definition of laughter, on separating the joke (the social effect) from the laugh (the biological cause): “laughter is simply the result of a mechanism set up in us by nature, or what is almost the same thing, by our long acquaintance with social life.”16 Bergson’s rather disingenuous adverb “simply” does nothing to disguise laughter’s longstanding, confounding paradox: it is a spasmodic, reflexive, and apparently organic reaction to a phenomenon (comedy) that is apparently socially constructed. No philosopher has ever adequately accounted for this paradox, and I would not pretend to solve the enigma. (Indeed, the major philosophers seem to deliberately avoid comedy, and words such as “joke,” “comic,” and “clown” rarely figure in the indices of the canonical works of philosophers – Bergson, Schopenhauer, and Freud being notable exceptions.) Though Bergson’s offhanded equivocation between nature and socialization seems to excuse a false consciousness, it nevertheless recalls Emerson’s notion of half-ness and the idea that the clown is a spontaneous machine without a known, primally moving cause (save for the narrative mechanism in which he is trapped). This half-ness is also, not incidentally, what separates comedy from Aristotle’s notion of tragedy in The Poetics: the clown’s death-defying stunts inspire pathos without the tragic complements of fear and suffering, for we know beforehand that the inhuman clown is invulnerable to earthly pain. With an excess of pathos and a deficit of pain, the clown thus enacts his comic half-humanity.
The Unselfconscious, Unnatural Clown Subverts Marriage and Normative Sexualities
We’ve sketched a broad summary of the clown’s semi-humanity and subsequent mechanization, and now it’s time to connect these themes to the clown’s concomitant asexuality. Because the clown is by definition polymorphously perverse, he is not asexual in the most literalistic sense (as is a eunuch or monk), but takes an infantile or prepubescent delight in all sensuous possibilities and improbabilities, rather than reducing pleasure to genital sexuality. There are certainly countless moments when the asocial clown engages in a kiss, entertains a date, or engages in rituals that we otherwise would see as preludes to genital conduct, but these are simply moments of play-acting, an outsider’s parody of conventional heterosexuality, prefiguring Judith Butler’s notion of gender as a parody of a chimerical ideal rather than of a reality. The clown’s lack of political correctness further makes his attempted sexuality into perverse spiel. In Max Takes a Picture (1913), for instance, the French clown Max Linder focuses his camera on an unshapely, waddling female bather as if she were a goddess – it would seem incongruous (within the scope of the clown’s own incongruity with society) for him to eye a conventional beauty. In Mr. Flip (1909), Ben Turpin’s lupine amorousness is rebuffed with cream pies to the face and scissors to the buttocks, yet we could imagine him equally happy playing at some other id-directed mischief. However, we could never imagine Groucho actually screwing Margaret Dumont’s humorless matrona in Duck Soup (1932), and when W.C. Fields places himself within wedlock in It’s a Gift (1934), the jokes are wildly masochistic, intentionally demonstrating the very improbability of the misanthropic Fields as bourgeois father and breadwinner.17
It will surely be observed that clowns – or at least actors we associate with clowning – are sometimes married at the beginning of the plot and can be centered as conventional comic heroes rather than as agents of subversion. In such scenarios, however, the clownish actor has surrendered his intertextual persona as a licensed clown for the sake of a given narrative. Furthermore, we stop accepting a clownish character’s sexual viability whenever a trace of the actor’s “known” clownishness surfaces. For instance, Fatty Arbuckle is flirtatious and tries to play the marriageable hero in A Reckless Romeo (1917) and His Wedding Night (1917), but we understand that his trademark winks and swoons are those of a curious ten-year old, not a grown man. Handsomer clowns such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton are often desirous of marriage and attempt to assimilate heroically into society, yet we wonder what kind of husbands they’d become should they fully shed the clown’s license for anarchy and assimilate social norms. Indeed, the typically abrupt endings of most comedies of assimilation in the silent era give no indication that the clown will remain permanently domesticated and heterosexualized. In Seven Chances (1925), for instance, a fairly foppish Keaton stands to inherit seven million dollars providing he marries within a day. The resulting comedy of desperation sees the institution of marriage lampooned rather than sanctified: “By the time [he] had reached the church,” an intertitle reads, “he had proposed to anything in skirts, including a Scotchman.” The celebrated climax sees Keaton pursued by a horde of would-be brides and then down a cliff by an avalanche of baneful boulders. Despite a perfunctory, unconvincing happy ending that reestablishes the institution of marriage, we mainly remember that matrimony summons forth ominous perils that threaten to crush the individual and are given to wonder how soon Keaton would seek a divorce.
I have suggested that the clown is necessarily “stuck” in his polymorphous phase not by any willful choice but by a particular aesthetic – or metaphysic – that denies him a humanistic psychology and therefore a will. In his discussion of Chaplin’s early shorts for Essanay, however, Walter Kerr had suggested a sort of “contingency theory” of clowning that grants the clown volition and opens him up to subjunctive possibilities – the clown could or should have behaved in a more conventional way, if he so willed it. Kerr’s theory is prompted by the moment in Police (1916) when Chaplin’s thieving Tramp successfully impersonates heroine Edna Purviance’s husband to elude capture:
It is at this point that a virtual miracle takes place. With no transition at all, Charlie becomes [co-star] Edna [Purviance’s]’s husband … . No one has ever been more completely the confident man of the house … This impersonation lasts only a moment or two, but … it is entirely clear that Charlie could have been this man at any time he chose to adopt this role. He is no born underdog, deprived of opportunity by an unfeeling society. He might have married Edna, might have run a house, might have had children … might have done anything he cared to put his mind to … He is no natural tramp.18
Despite Kerr’s exhaustive, perceptive account of clowning, his notion that Chaplin’s Tramp “might have done anything he cared to put his mind to” implies a purposiveness that the unselfconscious clown simply does not possess. If he is so adaptable, if he can instantly become, as Kerr suggests, a boxer in The Champion (1915), a husband in Police, or a homosexual in The Floorwalker, why doesn’t he? The answer can only be that the clown, though mechanistic, is also mercurial, forever shifting within the demands society imposes – here, Chaplin is adaptable without being acquiescent. Kerr’s use of the loaded word “natural” is also problematic (as it has been throughout the history of philosophy). Indeed, Kerr qualifies his own statement by admitting that “Chaplin, impersonating everyone, can have no person,” and it remains true that the clown’s behavior, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, is all impersonation and parody, without essentialized identity. In Police, Chaplin’s Tramp switches so quickly in and out of the “husband” role that his impersonation rests on merely a few rote gestures of propriety; his spontaneity renders his desires ephemeral and not strictly sexual, even when he is aping sexual norms.
True, Chaplin often problematizes the clown’s desire in his more conservative features, especially The Kid (1921), in which his lawless Tramp is a loving adoptive father, if not a feasible biological one. His longing for a family prompts Kerr to suppose that beneath the Tramp’s asocial exterior lies a “natural heterosexual”19 waiting to become unrepressed. However, this “naturalness” is undone in the film’s climactic “heaven” sequence – often seen as a terrible miscalculation on Chaplin’s part – wherein the film’s plotline is replayed allegorically, with the characters now adopting angelic alter egos. That this metaphysical fantasy serves as the film’s climax, paving the way for the Tramp’s final, abrupt entry into the domestic household, reminds us that the clown’s sexuality is hardly “natural” and in fact requires some sort of bizarre, supernatural prelude or explanation.
Numerous silent comedies also self-consciously ridicule the clown’s lack of marriageability and procreativity. Admittedly, in an era past postmodernism and queer theory, connubial spoofing hardly seems vanguard; nevertheless, within the conservatism of silent-era Hollywood, the marriage scenario was practically the only avenue for sexuality, and to reject it was to reject sexuality itself. Marriage is a coerced ordeal for Buster Keaton in My Wife’s Relations (1922), which sees the clown unwittingly married (by a judge who speaks only Polish) to an unpleasant immigrant whose family heaps abuse upon him. In the coda of Go West (1925), Keaton’s cowboy, aptly named “Friendless,” pines for his beloved cow and not for the rancher’s daughter, just as the shy Western gunslinger prefers his horse to women destined for eternal virginity or already despoiled. The image of domestic bliss at the end of Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life (1918) at first suggests the Tramp has assimilated into family life – until the camera reveals that the couple’s crib contains only newborn puppies (it would be embarrassingly unfunny to discover a pint-sized version of the Tramp with bib and pacifier).
Elsewhere, the clown’s ahistoricity directly informs his marriagaibility, or lack thereof. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton is a good-for-nothing heir to a fortune who, after seeing a happy couple, suddenly decides, “I think I’ll get married today,” as if both wedlock and time were idle playthings. Keaton most famously mocked marital – and cinematic – mythologies in the final scene of Sherlock, Jr. (1924). After emerging magically from the film-within-a-film storyline and settling back into his mundane life, Keaton’s film projectionist looks toward the corny film he unspools for romantic advice just as his girl walks into the projection booth. Parodying cinematic conventionality, the happy couple of the film-within-the-film kisses and, after a euphemistic fade-out, mysteriously reemerges a year later bearing newborn babies. Keaton, sexually inexperienced and mystified by this immaculate conception, can only scratch his head in incomprehension, leaving him an improbable romantic partner and the audience suspect of mainstream cinema’s heteronormative pleasantries.
We’ve said earlier that the clown is ahistorically “horizontal” in his actions, and there is no example that better links the clown’s unthinking horizontality and his oblivious sexuality than Harold Lloyd’s one-reel short Ask Father (1919), which posits Lloyd as a modern Sisyphus who rolls wives instead of boulders. Here, Lloyd’s eager bachelor must run the gauntlet of a four-room set, with one room horizontally leading into the next, before he can ask the marital permission of his beloved’s businessman father, who secrets himself in the final, fourth chamber. Trying to sneak past burly guards in each room, Lloyd employs all the clown’s tricks, dressing in drag and even as a cowboy blasting six-shooters, but in each trial he is knocked on a conveyor belt back to the first room, to his starting point – Sisyphus reincarnated as petit bourgeois striving. Finally, Lloyd dons the armor of a medieval knight and comes to blows with the father upon penetrating his office, but Lloyd’s mock-bravery is for naught; oblivious to time, he learns far too late his beloved has already eloped with another. But because the clown will choose whomever comes across his linear path at the moment – because his heterosexuality is merely the parodic symptom of his emplotment – he easily settles for the businessman’s secretary, who conveniently obliges. Here, sexual desire is supplanted by the clown’s mechanical adaptability, which in turn makes a mockery of both heroic desire and the mechanical nature of festive comedy’s conjugal mandates.
Lloyd’s Why Worry? (1923), a superior reworking of his earlier feature A Sailor-Made Man, continues the clown’s mockery of the constrictive marriage plot. Here Lloyd plays a hypochondriac who finds himself in a colonial uprising in the island of “Paradiso.” Unlike Woody Allen’s witting Latin American revolutionary in Bananas (1971), Lloyd, assuming the clown’s proper posture, is unsuspecting of the historical revolution in which he becomes embroiled. When informed that “They’re having a revolution!”, he responds, “Well, tell them they’ll have to stop it immediately … I came down here for a rest!” Even when thrust existentially into the midst of violence, Lloyd remains unaware and ahistorical, and when taken off to jail, he nonchalantly signs in as if autographing a hotel registry. Lloyd’s clown also displays a remarkable lack of empathy, particularly when compared to the sentimental persona for which he’s usually known: wishing to cure his chronically “wet feet,” he coldly rips the boots from dead soldiers for his own use. Admittedly, Lloyd’s humanistic, “transformational” formula finally comes into play, and by the film’s end his hypochondriacal character realizes he no longer needs curative pills, just as he ultimately discards a courage-granting talisman in Grandma’s Boy and a love manual in Girl Shy (1924). Yet the film’s climactic intertitle perfectly demonstrates how the clown’s selflessness effectively renders him desexed. Finally paired with his girl, he mindlessly asks her, “Why didn’t you tell me that I love you?”, a rare moment in which Lloyd’s sentimental embrace of heroic self-confidence is mitigated by a final, stubborn denial of self-reflection and self-actualization.
In other cases, the clown begins married but also debilitated, having already surrendered his clownish powers by accepting the Faustian bargain of heterosexual domesticity. In the two-reel short One Week (1920), Buster Keaton and his wife purchase a prefabricated domicile whose complex mechanical parts the “mechanized” Keaton should normally be able to master. Yet here a domesticated and assimilated Keaton makes a mess of his own home and has no mastery over the onrushing train that eventually demolishes it – quite a departure from The Goat (1921), Our Hospitality, and The General, in which an unmarried Keaton repeatedly dominates the locomotive, the modern leviathan. The coda of Keaton’s The Blacksmith (1922), another two-reeler, reiterates the clown’s Faustian bargain. After a cliffhanging climax in which Keaton emerges unscathed from one of his typical locomotive stunts, the film cuts to a title card that reads, “Many a honeymoon express has ended thusly.” We then fade in to a housebroken Keaton, now clad in a bathrobe and brandishing a pipe, playing with a tiny model train in the bedroom of his newborn son, his wife by his side. Having acquiesced to the married life, Keaton has given up the impossibly clownish task of taming real-life trains, and must now settle for toying with domesticated imitations.
To be sure, the clown’s sexuality can become more complicated when he is forced into the conventions of a standard marriage narrative, as often happens in Keaton’s later features. In Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Keaton’s familiar theme of the sheltered outsider who navigates an alien, threatening, “adult” social world reaches its apotheosis. As in Our Hospitality, Keaton is agile but effete, and his over-refined mannerisms become the butt of jokes when he finally meets his estranged father, a manly skipper ashamed of his son’s dandyism. This is the normal situation for Keaton: he reaches a confrontational point where he can remain clumsily asocial no longer and must choose between retaining the ahistorical position of the clown and succumbing to a normalcy marked by social (and heterosexual) commitments. To win his father’s approval, Keaton must transform his image: a shave, new clothes, and a new hat in the famous hat-changing sequence, in which he refuses his trademark porkpie and its clownish identification. To further enact his heroic transformation, Keaton must also rescue his father from jail and win the girl, assuming the social roles of filial son and romantic partner. Yet we understand that he mustn’t assimilate completely, for then he would lack the mechanical and inhuman powers required to survive the impossible odds of the tornado climax, through which he defies all physical laws and incites fearless comic pathos. The film’s coda is deliberately ambiguous: as Keaton reunites with the girl after the tornado, he slyly twines a life preserver around himself and jumps into the water, as if preferring the treacherous torrents to a marital future. Yet he jumps only to rescue an old man waterlogged by the tornado and then slowly makes his way back to shore. The final joke not only reveals the clown’s hesitancy to become socialized but also confirms that the audience expects the clown to somehow balk at heterosexual entanglement.
If Keaton and Lloyd tend to find themselves within ambivalent marriage plots, it’s probably because they, as actors, can look the part. Uglier or older clowns, from the ursine, corpulent silent comedian John Bunny to the “ethnic” Groucho Marx, never have the narrative opportunities to plausibly exchange polymorphous perversity for the married life. It is also true that grouped clowns – such as Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges – trade in more perverse grotesqueries precisely because their impregnable homosocial bonds insulate them from the demands of heteronormative narrativity. The late Laurel and Hardy silent short Angora Love (1929), for instance, posits the pair as a quasi-homosexual couple who, adopting a goat rather than a child, prove themselves inept at animal husbandry. The plot is unremarkable: Laurel and Hardy must hide from their rigid landlord a stray goat that follows the pair to their meek apartment. The real comic idea, however, arises from the fact that the socially marginal pair are forever joined but unable to share, as if they were one ego – or even one id – dispersed into two bodies. Indeed, Laurel and Hardy, who here share a bed in the Edwardian manner, sometimes think they are each other, as Hardy mistakes Laurel’s body parts for his own, accidentally placing Laurel’s leg across his knee and undressing him (an old gag, admittedly). After a (rather tedious) second half concerning the pair’s ineffectual attempts to bathe the goat, the coda witnesses the unfortunate birth of kids, but unlike the Chaplin of A Dog’s Life, the homosocial pair are denied the heterosexual couplings that might allow even an inept transition into domestic life. As one id split into two bodies, they literalize the “half-ness” that Emerson attributes to the comic spirit, a half-ness that here remains unresolved and incomplete by the film’s predictably abrupt ending.
In light of the clown’s ambivalence in assuming the role of husband and viable sexual partner, we should recall that the rare ending of Keaton’s two-reeler Cops (1922) totally rebukes the expectations of heteronormative narrative and remains among the most subversive of all comedies. Here, the girl whom Keaton loves declares that she won’t marry him until he becomes a successful businessman and, by extension, a fully sexualized (that is, masculinized) adult. In Cops, Keaton is not the naïf of Our Hospitality – his first act is to offer assistance to a well-dressed businessman and then, after being rebuffed, to swipe his wallet. Leaving for the big city yet oblivious to the dangers modernity poses, he takes no notice of the bomb-hurling anarchist for whom he is soon mistaken (much as he is mistaken for a groom in My Wife’s Relations). After a lengthy chase involving the entire police force (i.e., legal society), he ingeniously manages to entrap all of them, whereupon he reunites with his girl. But believing him to be a terrorist, or just still unimpressed, she rejects him, whereupon he surrenders to the police in suicidal futility. The final shot shows Keaton’s grave, crowned by his trademark porkpie hat – for once, the clown does not evince invulnerability or a transcendent denial of death. The trials of social assimilation prove so daunting that the electric chair is preferable to feminine fickleness and a world of punitive madness masquerading as civility. The clown’s negativity here remains unassailable and unmitigated, for he neither succumbs to dandyism nor willingly tangles with Sisyphean trials. In Cops, Keaton doesn’t evade the clown’s mandate for subversion and authentically plays out his asociality to the deadly end, finding redemptive purity – indeed, freedom – not in acquiescence but in total negation.
Tati’s Mon Oncle and Playtime: The Inversion of the Clown
We’ve focused on the clown’s contests of masculine sexuality – and silent clowns were, after all, primarily male20 – because generally they are young enough to be potentially adaptable and marriageable. Because he is middle-aged, however, Jacques Tati’s exceptional “Mr. Hulot” has the luxury of bypassing such contests altogether. Practiced in pantomime and vaudeville before making his transition to cinema in the 1930s, Tati, despite his apparent humanism, well understood the alien and “inhuman” nature of the clown, and almost singlehandedly carried forth silent clowning traditions into the sound era, particularly after Chaplin finally succumbed to sound in The Great Dictator (1940). In his early features Jour de Fȇte (1949) and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Tati’s blithe, unassuming alter ego Mr. Hulot shows a polymorphous perversity stripped of the socio-sexual anxieties that plague Keaton and Lloyd. A middle-aged, oblivious wanderer with a pipe, hat, and trenchcoat, kind to children and animals but unable to fathom lasting adult relationships, he perpetually stumbles into social systems he can only destruct, not deconstruct.
Hulot is happily too old to engage the Lloydian narrative of mock-psychological transformation demanded of the youthful, entrepreneurial go-getter. His silent incomprehension of sexuality and domesticity becomes an incomprehension of technology – especially sound technology – within a futuristic world that turns everything, including sex, into a technological fetish. Tati’s two greatest films, Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967), deliberately overwhelm the quaint Hulot with a high-tech, Orwellian mise en scene, specifically a futuristic domicile in Oncle and an entire glass-and-steel, corporatized city in Playtime (using mammoth sets built specially for the film). Yet Tati uses the figure of the “mechanistic” clown to enact a commentary quite the opposite of Keaton’s: rather than quixotically tangling with great engines of industrial modernity, Hulot voicelessly observes technology’s absurd, cold-hearted chaos. The clown’s individual “mechanization” is not an opportunistic device, as it is in Keaton, but trivial and powerless compared to the dehumanizing mechanizations of postwar Europe. Thus Tati displaces comic effects to an inanimate – or banally evil – world that operates as mechanically as clowns once did. As the world becomes increasingly mechanistic, the clown is by contrast humanized.
The opening of Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) sees stray dogs dash through the streets as new buildings are erected – free, unencumbered nature is overtaken by modernity’s advance. One dog, however, turns out to be the domesticated pet of Hulot’s sister and brother-in-law, a grand-bourgeois couple obsessed with their state-of-the-art home’s garish, ecstatic modernity. Their garden’s centerpiece is a grotesque fish statue that mechanically spouts water as a greeting to visitors – nature becomes a sick parody of itself when socialized. Within this bourgeois modernity, a buzzing oven, an electric fence, the seminal fish, and other household mechanisms all pulse with life, while the human characters are empty ciphers, much as futuristic sexuality is displaced from automatous astronauts to waltzing, phallic-vaginal spacecrafts in Kubrick’s 2001 (1968). Visiting the house, Hulot naturally destroys all he touches, wrecking absurd objects of social prestige and the heterosexual-bourgeois family unit they represent. Not coincidentally, Hulot’s destruction reaches its pinnacle when his sister attempts match-making between him and her materialistic neighbor – when asked to assume the role of bourgeois suitor, the naïve, childlike Hulot responds with bumbling and utter helplessness, much as Chaplin’s poor Tramp becomes swallowed by the pitiless cogs of Modern Times (1936). Certainly, Kerr’s “contingency theory” of clowning (mentioned above) cannot apply to Hulot, who much prefers his asociality to playing the proper boyfriend.
The bulldozers of Oncle’s opening and coda ultimately construct the windowed megalopolis of Tati’s subsequent Playtime (1967), which sees his clown overwhelmed not by a bourgeois household but by a dehumanized, corporatized state. In Oncle’s most ingenious scene, Hulot, foregrounded, destroys the modern home’s great front gate, while in the background the synchronously moving heads of his sister and brother-in-law, observing from ocular-shaped windows, form the image of giant Orwellian eyeballs surveying their territory. This panoptical image becomes in Playtime something of an “omni-opticon,” as now everyone can view nearly everyone else in a city of glass buildings and citizens who no longer have any humanity to hide. Here, the mechanistic nature of clownishness has been displaced onto society itself, while Hulot retains a more intensified version of the clown’s asexuality and aloofness. If dialogue in Oncle was reduced to the trivial, in Playtime it is literally dehumanized. Discourse is enacted through mechanical or situational sounds: the methodical, impersonal squeaking of a bureaucrat’s shoes; the ritualistic grinding of a paper mill; the nauseous humming of a bus seemingly about to vomit; the automatic suction of an ultramodern sofa that smooths out prior sitters’ gluteal indentations. But communications between noisy machines and silent man are trumped by those among machines alone – discourse is displaced onto a purely mechanized plane, as machines’ complimentary groans and rattles create an arcane symphony. Whereas Keaton’s comic notion of mechanization posits an optimistic symbiosis between clownish agent and modern object (the machines only he can master), Tati stands forever alienated from an objective world ever-encroached by dehumanizing “progress.”
Hulot, never even thinking about sex, derives simple, polymorphous pleasures from strolling through the streets, greeting neighbors, and otherwise engaging the mundane, unselfconscious energies of life. When confronted with conventional enactments of pleasure, he literally stumbles. In the famous party sequence that climaxes Playtime, he is unaware of tall glass windows that frame the nightclub and walks right through them, in effect shattering the social frames that compartmentalize human conduct. Yet Tati’s exemption from sexual congress and conquest is only a “failure” from the perspectives of the other (i.e., judgmental) characters within the plot. Never does the audience see him as a failure; rather, we know that he feels pleasure differently, apart from the demands of genital encounters, and wish we could likewise blithely transcend the petty mechanics of biology.
Conclusion: The Relevance of the Clown in Everyday Life
While the clown’s asociality and asexuality are challenged, contested, and sometimes absorbed by various narratives, his true subversion, as we’ve said, lies not in his anarchism per se but in a polymorphous perversity that exists ahistorically, in the absence of the stages of psychological development that, according to Freud, neurotically create perversity. Though Freud himself argued that neurosis was humanity’s permanent state of being, the psychiatric industry continues to use the term “infantilism” as a catch-all phrase to vilify naturally occurring deviances and perversities. It is here that the clown’s persona enlightens, for his otherness is not a pathological “additive” but a truth integral to his being; were his otherness negated, he would not become purified but rather lost in meaningless bargains of marriage and assimilation. Rather than striving for the self-actualization variously posited by Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, and other humanist psychologists, the clown, apotheosized by Tati’s Hulot, remains satisfied with an untransformed state of being that does not require narrative redemptions, confessional catharses, or economic victories.
While many clownish narratives surely can be read as capitalist allegories of perilous upward mobility – embodied by Harold Lloyd’s famous dangle from the clock tower in Safety Last (1923) – they tend to be, as we’ve said, heroic narratives of transformation that seduce the clown into normative masculine roles. Indeed, it is the clown’s masculinity that ultimately is in question, for instead of a linear, capitalistic ambition, he has a multidirectional perversity that disperses his energies in ways that appear non-productive and wasteful. But while the clown is profligacy’s greatest exponent, he is certainly not its only one. The emphasis on industriousness and the condemnation of sloth have long been part of Christian dogma, and since at least the time of the Jacobeans, the failure to conform and produce has been institutionally pathologized and stigmatized.21 According to one account, the deluded and phrenitically afflicted inmates of old Bedlam included “a Jacobite who suffered from maniacal frenzy but whom a favorable change of government probably would have cured … a melancholic Whig bemoaning his want of office,” and “a political prisoner [who spoke] vehemently against the monarchy [and who] intelligently explained that only within Bedlam and by the mad folk could the truth be spoken with immunity.”22 Such Bedlamites may have been more misanthropic than mad; the clown, too, is misanthropic precisely because he is disappointed and confused by humanity, not because he has a literal hatred for it. By continually attempting to seduce the clown into normality, society pretends to unlock the doors of Bedlam for him and relieve him of his misanthropy. The offer, of course, is a cheat, for the asylum is his only refuge, and his authenticity lies precisely in remaining Pinocchio and refusing to become a boy who must shed his perversity and conform to a shared, single reality.
Even if we agree to abandon prejudicial diagnoses of infantilism, we’d need the courage to act perversely, a courage the clown, in his egolessness, takes for granted. On the surface, the clown’s perversity may seem irrelevant to our real lives – after all, we can’t be emancipated from our histories, abandon our economies, or turn back the clock to childhood. Nevertheless, the fact that our culture has long made the clown – even the desexed, unassimilated clown – into the common man’s hero reveals that we desire his nonchalant, asexual daring as much as we desire the heteronormative man of action’s overt, more conventional daring. It is admittedly true that recent comedies have replaced the asexual archetype of clowning with more assimilated models of comedy – for instance, narratives of awkward, nerdy adolescent losers who win the girl through charm or courage. The emphasis on this “assimilation model” may be the inevitable result of sound realism, for the silent clown’s asocial perversity is tethered to the very unreality of his muteness and pantomime. However, it may more simply signify the demands of increasing commercialism – a film in the manner of Keaton’s Cops would be difficult to imagine in the mainstream Hollywood of today.
Despite our disillusionment with Freud, the growth of Rogerian humanism, and numerous sociological attempts to destigmatize deviance (by Erving Goffman, David Matza, and Howard S. Becker, most notably), psychiatric diagnoses continue to assume a baseline of bourgeois normality. Despite his happiness, self-sufficiency, and ingenuity, Chaplin’s Tramp remains a psychopath because he fails to reproduce, either sexually or capitalistically, even though, as Chaplin himself argued in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), his aggressions are trivial compared to those of the militarized state. The pathologization of deviance – even pacifist deviance – has a long and disturbing history, as the psychiatric industry, colluding with state power, has at key moments diagnosed merely civilly disobedient citizens as schizophrenic. In his analysis of the attempted pathologization of social protest during the 1960s, Jonathan Metzl has pointed to the ways in which types of civil disobedience have been labeled as problems of both aggression and gender:
In 1968, in the midst of a political climate marked by profound protest and social unrest, psychiatry published the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. That text recast the paranoid subtype of schizophrenia as a disorder of masculinized belligerence. “The patient’s attitude is frequently hostile and aggressive,” DSM-II claimed, “and his behavior tends to be consistent with his delusions.” [T]his language – particularly terms such as “hostility” and “aggression” – was used to justify schizophrenia diagnoses in black men at Ionia in the 1960s and 1970s.23
Key in the DSMII’s attempted delegitimation of social justice protestors is the criterion of “masculinized belligerence” – without any irony or self-reflection, the psychiatric community pathologized the struggle for social justice while implicitly excusing the actual masculinized belligerence of America’s imperialist adventure in Vietnam. Despite gradual revisions to its diagnoses, the psychiatric industry continues to frame a number of mental illnesses as crises of masculinity, particularly in pediatric diagnoses of Gender Identity Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder, the latter two disproportionately afflicting young, lower-class males. Among the criteria for ODD is active defiance or refusal “to comply with adults’ requests or rules,” a diagnosis that authorizes the economic orders of the nuclear family unit and, as Thomas Szasz has argued in Ideology and Insanity, demonizes not only the subversive deviant but also the unproductive malingerer – the “clown” – who fails to reproduce capitalist norms.
The split nature of the clown, straddling the social and asocial, needn’t be rationalized as a Freudian distinction between conscious and unconscious, for the clown sees the asocial – the taboo – at least as consciously and really as the sociality that momentarily tempts him. His humor is not an infantile escape from reality but a way of fully engaging with the absurdities we call reality. In the narrow terms of psychiatry, he represents the sunnier side of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, preferring health perversity to a crippling adulthood that only pretends to rationalism and logically should be defied. We, still fearful, may balk at reclaiming phantasy as a positive and legitimate life force or at equating the clown’s license for subversion with our own potential license for polymorphous perversity. After all, we’d be seen as mad. Continuing the Szaszian critique of psychiatric authoritarianism, however, Richard P. Bentall has satirically assessed the ways in which the overzealous pathologizing of deviance might logically extend even to our own happiness:
Happiness meets all reasonable criteria for a psychiatric disorder. It is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, there is at least some evidence that it reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system, and it is associated with various cognitive abnormalities – in particular a lack of contact with reality … I humbly suggest that the ordinary language term “happiness” be replaced by the more formal description major affective disorder, pleasant type …24
If happiness is an increasingly rare commodity, the clown’s “affective disorder” of endless humor seems a welcome disease; if all behaviors ultimately can be constructed as pathologies, the disease becomes normalized. While the egoless clown may or may not (depending on his narrative) be seduced into assimilation, we, who are already assimilated, must hurry along the converse path, testing the waters of polymorphous perversity at least as long as the clown ambivalently entertains society and domesticity. Indeed, our test is the far easier one, for the clown is merely a pawn in his largely deterministic genre, while we are the ones who are, in fact, free.
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Note: This essay originally appeared, with minor amendments, in the anthology Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, eds. Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks, Routledge, 2014, 199-224. Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the DVDs.
- Certain pre-Christian and non-Western traditions obviously perceived the asexual ascetic according to different ethical criteria, as evidenced by the privileged figure of the divine eunuch in ancient cultures, from Sumeria through dynastic China. In the West, the operatic castrato offers one example of an asexual person afforded privilege and prestige, but the castrato (who supplied a soprano voice in churches that barred female singers) was mainly an aristocratic fetish devoid of political or spiritual power. [↩]
- Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Trans. G. Stanley Hall (New York: Horace Liveright, 1920). Electronic text downloaded at http://www.archive.org/stream/generalintroduct00freuiala/generalintroduct00freuiala_djvu.txt [↩]
- Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), 27. [↩]
- For the purposes of this essay, I limit my discussion to the “entrepreneurial” model of the American clown; obviously, the clowns of the Renaissance, Elizabethan comedy, commedia dell’arte, ringed circuses, and other traditions have divergent goals. [↩]
- Camus, Albert. “The Rejection of Salvation.” The Rebel. Trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 71. [↩]
- Obviously, I am here pursuing only one analysis of clowning, though it coincides with general theories of comic incongruity and displacement. Clowns following cinema’s silent era – after the clown had been given literal and figurative voice – have done much to rationalize the asocial clown’s confrontations with sex and marriage. Most notably, Woody Allen has toyed with clowning conventions to suit the genealogy of his overarching screen persona, redistributing to two auteurist periods his clown’s sexual immaturity and later sexual maturity (beginning with Annie Hall, 1977), rather than having the confrontation between perversity and normative sexuality occur within a unitary persona. In his earlier films, from Take the Money and Run (1969) through Love and Death (1975), he presents himself as a monstrously ugly buffoon (a la Groucho Marx) or as an amusingly unlikely hero, as in the killer-breast episode of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex … (1972). With Annie Hall (1977), Allen reinvented his clown as sexually confident, yet compensated with a greater set of social neuroses (e.g., Jewish paranoia) to maintain an outsider identity. In later films, such as Husbands and Wives (1992) and Deconstructing Harry (1997), Allen autobiographically historicizes the clown through his own celebrity discourse, which then involved a beautiful young woman (Allen’s own stepdaughter) in love with a monstrously ugly “clown.” Nevertheless, even in later films, vestiges of Allen’s original clown remain – Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters (1985) is in fact impotent, and the film’s happy ending sees Allen impregnating his wife as miraculously (and as heroically) as Buster Keaton rescues the damsel in distress at the climax of Our Hospitality (1923). [↩]
- Charney, Maurice. Comedy High and Low (New York: Peter Lang, 1988), 131. [↩]
- Prokofiev’s folktale ballet Chout (The Buffoon, 1921) provides an equally nasty example of clown violence – the story tells of a conniving clown who fools seven other clowns into whipping their wives to death. Exactly how the clowns came to be married at all is conspicuously left unexplained. [↩]
- Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns (New York: Da Capo Press, 1990), 155. [↩]
- Kerr, ibid., 268. Kerr’s point should not be minimized; indeed, theorizing the silent clown is problematic precisely because Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, etc. evince surprising variations within their overriding personae, especially when their anarchic shorts are compared to the more romantic-conventional feature films. [↩]
- Kerr, ibid., 268. [↩]
- Segal, Erich. The Death of Comedy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 3. [↩]
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Comic” from Letters and Social Aims. The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 8, 1909. Electronic version available at http://www.rwe.org/complete-works/viii—letters-and-social-aims/the-comic.html There are, obviously, many other philosophies that attest to this “split” nature of comedy, such as Schopenhauer’s theory of incongruity, Arthur Koestler’s notion of “bisociation,” and so on. [↩]
- Trahair, Lisa. “The Narrative-Machine: Buster Keaton’s Cinematic Comedy, Deleuze’s Recursion Function and the Operational Aesthetic.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 33, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2004/33/keaton_deleuze/ Downloaded January 12, 2012. [↩]
- Exactly why narrative must be mechanical is a philosophical question that goes well beyond the scope of this essay; the mechanistic aspect of narrative presumably mirrors repetitive human drives and desires that require sociological or biological explanation. [↩]
- Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York: Macmillan, 1921), 198. [↩]
- Even more unlikely is the pairing of Fields with Mae West in My Little Chickadee (1940): they spend precious little time together onscreen, and each is so wrapped up in his or her dream world that any romantic union is made impossible. [↩]
- Kerr, ibid., 84. [↩]
- Kerr, ibid., 176. [↩]
- One might say exclusively male – there were silent comediennes, of course, such as Carole Lombard, but rarely did they adopt the clown’s “outsider” roles of resistance or subversion, and often they were conventionally beautiful. As Walter Kerr says, “comediennes, from Mabel Normand all the way to Marion Davies, labored under an instant handicap: they had to be pretty.” For instance, in Run Girl Run (1928), athlete Carole Lombard pulchritudinously leaps over hurdles in primitive slow-motion and powders her face while running a mile, reinforcing rather than clowning with stereotypes. Mae West, meanwhile, plays not a clown but a self-conscious, autobiographical character whose sexual politics and Venusian appetites affront monogamous mores but in no way subvert heterosexual viability. A remarkable exception is Rowdy Ann (1919), in which Fay Tincher plays a masculinized, gunslinging cowgirl whom no man can tame. For a brief summary of Rowdy Ann, see Grossman, http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/the-female-actor/symposium3/#tincher [↩]
- The pathologization of nonconformity is hardly a relic of early modernity; only in 2011 did St. Elizabeth’s hospital of Washington, D.C., finalize a 37-year lawsuit (resulting from the Dixon v. Weinberger decision) claiming half its inmates were wrongfully committed. [↩]
- Reed, Robert Rentoul. Bedlam on the Jacobean Stage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), 27. [↩]
- From a Psychology Today interview with Metzl. See http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/side-effects/201005/how-schizophrenia-became-black-disease-interview-jonathan-metzl. Downloaded April 21, 2012. [↩]
- Richard P. Bentall. Journal of Medical Ethics, June. 1992. Reprinted in Mental Illness: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. William Barbour (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995), 26. [↩]