“What does a smiling face represent?”
In Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, an intriguing yet seemingly insignificant aside discusses the face of one of American cinema’s iconic figures.
Is there anything more present, pressing, absorbing, disruptive, nauseating, and calculated to thrust everything that takes place before us into the abyss or void than the smiling face of Harpo Marx, that terrible, dumb brother of the four Marx brothers, which is familiar to every one of you?
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Towards the end of Lacan’s discussion of das Ding, the staring eyes of Harpo Marx, which neither smile nor scowl but linger somewhere in between, convey as much about the fear and discomfort evoked by images of terror as our experiences when watching films like Hitchcock’s Psycho or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Lacan’s Analysis Of Harpo Marx’s Smiling Face
In his book on French thought, “Ethics – Politics – Subjectivity,” philosopher Simon Critchley references the passage above concerning the processes inherent in silent comedy. As a mute fool, Harpo ironically possesses the power of ultimate speech. Like a child oblivious to social norms, we pardon his indiscretions and chuckle at the discomfort he elicits with his inappropriate antics.
However, Lacan’s observation extends beyond this aspect, doesn’t it? He also underscores the horror inherent in Harpo’s face, evoking terror. What is it about the face of this silent cinema clown that stirs such profound emotions in Lacan? What qualities of this particular visage transform it and render it a void or, even worse, an abyss?
One can gain insight by translating Das Ding into its Hollywood counterpart, The Thing, to grasp the horrors that Lacan perceived in the speechless Marx Brother. Originally produced in 1951 and later remade in 1982, “The Thing” has had a recent prequel helmed by Marc Abraham, renowned for producing horror films like “Dawn of the Dead,” showcasing his expertise in eliciting fear.
The Unknowable Terror Of “The Thing”
One of the most striking features of these films is the tension evoked by encountering something beyond our comprehension, something that is, both literally and metaphorically, from another realm.
“The Thing” exists beyond the bounds of our rational understanding; it defies articulation, and its desires remain inscrutable. While we may witness its form and its effects, we can never fully grasp it, and therein lies the horror. The fear stems precisely from this encounter with the unknown, this confrontation with a void that defies reason and cannot be reasoned away.
The setting of “The Thing” in a remote Arctic base, where scientists diligently seek to comprehend their surroundings rationally and logically, is no mere coincidence. Against the pristine white backdrop of the snow, The Thing emerges as an enigmatic anomaly, a mysterious presence that defies understanding.
The Terror Of The Unknowable Face In Horror Films
In many horror films, the blank gaze of the psychopath often instills more terror than the menacing visage of the killer. Characters like Michael Myers, Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, and even the mechanized doll from “Saw” present us with this image of the emotionless face that eludes complete understanding, the pre-subjective entity that evades our comprehension.
In Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” the smile on Norman Bates’ face at the end heightens the horror precisely because its meaning remains elusive and cannot be neatly categorized within our frames of reference. Our fear stems from our inability to grasp its significance.
According to Lacan, the act of speaking diminishes some of this fear. Language helps to reduce the sense of the Other’s unknowability; it acts as an ethical intermediary. Consider how much less terrifying Frankenstein’s monster becomes after acquiring the ability to speak.
His initial inability to communicate renders him monstrous and, consequently, horrifying. Speech serves as a means to navigate our interactions with the unsettling aspects of others, providing insight into their thoughts and intentions.
The Fear Of The Hoodie: A Symbol Of Menace In British Culture
Perhaps this phenomenon elucidates the contemporary apprehension surrounding the hoodie, a seemingly ordinary article of clothing now imbued with profound psycho-social significance regarding British youth and the perceived menace of urban streets.
In a recent British horror film, “F,” a middle-class schoolteacher finds herself terrorized by a group of unruly teenagers clad in black and grey hoodies that obscure their faces entirely.
Their hooded anonymity denies us the opportunity to glimpse their ordinary, mundane features or to hear their voice typical concerns like homework or video game expenses, rendering them all the more menacing. By donning a hood, a simple sweatshirt complicates our ability to ascertain the subjective experiences of others.
This is likely what Lacan perceives in the face of Harpo Marx—a sort of blemish of psychotic autism that has the potential to disrupt the chain of meaning projected onto the cinema screen.
As mentioned earlier, it’s no coincidence that Lacan references Harpo Marx amidst his discussion of das Ding, as Harpo Marx’s face, much like Norman Bates’, represents the silence lurking beneath symbolization, evoking both terror and fascination, pleasure and pain. This duality can manifest in extreme comedy as well as unsettling horror.