My Watch Has Stopped

At this point, we may suspect that Groucho is only slightly better off than the supporting characters in his films. He seems conscious of the problematics of identity, but unable to work through them. He seems unable to perform his identity, and relies heavily on signs. Even in real life, his signs seem a part of him. Once on a celebrity tour, the crowd did not recognize him without the mustache. As soon as he stuck it on, they gave him big cheer.1 However, we mislead ourselves if we view Groucho in this light. Groucho, in fact, realizes the silliness of visual cues of identity. If he does not, we cannot account for his constantly changing uniforms during the war in Duck Soup. Furthermore, if identity largely depends of performance, then we can recognize that Groucho in truth has taken on the position of the fool.

Seeing Groucho as the traditional fool allows us to reconceive our conception of his identity. Willeford points out that the identity of a fool is very unstable and fluid.2 This fluidity provides the fool with a variety of advantages. First, he can engage in perceptive, but temporary, parody, such as Groucho's parody Strange Interlude in Animal Crackers. The flexibility of identity also allows him to point to society's foolishness by simultaneously engaging it and reflecting it. By concealing his own understanding of self, Groucho reveals the tenuous nature of the identity of others.

Groucho, however, does not represent a true archetype. The typical fool is a person of below average standing in the community who somehow makes deeper comments about society.3 The fool's primary function is to be a fool. Groucho, on the other hand, often starts in a superior position in his movies, such as a heroic explorer, a national leader, or a college president. Even when not situated highly in society, he always seems to be at an advantage. From these positions, he chooses to perform the role of the fool, idiosyncratically expressing his identity.

Finally, we get from these films a chance to reveal the nature of identity. The characters do not
from
A Day at the Races
Steinburg: May I say I've seen quicker examinations.

Hackenbush: Maybe, but you'll never see a slipperier one.
always resolve their problems of self-discovery, but they show us ways to do so. The Marxes point out the difficulties of using visual signs to create, maintain, and display identity. They point, instead, to the possibilities of self-actualization through performance. In their behavior, they point to problems in the larger society, and prod us towards self-reflection.


This website has been designed with the intent of physically representing this identity dynamic. The front page features seven signs that each reveal one aspect of this examination. The signs, and each page individually, do little to create a sense of intellectual identity. Only by removing the signs, and plunging through several layers, do we arrive at an understanding of how to create identity. The performance of reading and web-navigating create a sense of being for the page, and hopefully allow for discovery.

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1The Unknown Marx Brothers. Dir. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. DVD. Fox Lorber Associates Inc., 1993.

2Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience. Northwestern University Press, 1969, p. 140.

3Welsford, Enid. The Fool: His Social and Literary History. London: Faber and Faber, 1935, p. xi.