08 July 2010

Biblical marxism

I’ve been studying the Marx Brothers. I was prompted to this study by the story of Balaam and his donkey followed by the story of Balaam and Balak. And the Scherzo movement in my symphony. There is something very marxist about this Biblical story, and something quite Biblical about the Marx Brothers, and for the full version of the tale you might read the tale itself (Numbers 22:2-24:25) and for the complete counterpoints you have to wait for the eagerly anticipated (at least by me) publication of the full symphony.

But of Groucho and his brothers . . . well, with them I am falling again in love.

Balaam finally arrives at Balak’s place of encampment, and has to explain his lateness. I don’t imagine he told Balak about the talking donkey to account for his tardiness; after all, Balaam has his reputation to protect. Groucho too sometimes arrives late, and he, too, does not speak very honestly. You recall, perhaps, in A Night at the Opera, that Driftwood is an hour late to his dinner appointment with Mrs. Claypool. She confronts him: “Mr. Driftwood, you invited me to dine with you at seven o’clock. It is now eight o’clock, and no dinner.” He looks at her without much surprise but some affront: “What do you mean, no dinner? I just had one of the biggest meals I ever ate in my life, and no thanks to you either.” Of course, Driftwood has been at the time dining at the next table with a beautiful blonde, to whom he immediately gives the check for payment, (Nine dollars forty cents! This is an outrage. If I were you, I wouldn’t pay it!) and immediately turns to sit down with Mrs. Claypool. But when Mrs. Claypool complains that she has been waiting an hour for him, Driftwood says, “Yes, with your back to me. When I invite a woman to dinner, I expect her to look at my face. That’s the price she has to pay.” Driftwood knows his place, but that does not deter him.

Balaam has no such modesty. Taken out to view the Israelite people whom he is to curse, he tells Balak to build him seven altars on which he will sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams. And then he goes off to await some manifestation from God that he intends to share with Balak. And God speaks to Balaam and informs him that he can say nothing but what God commands. And so with Balak and his officers standing behind him, Balaam starts to curse the Israelites and ends up blessing them. Balak is incensed. I imagine him smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand: “What have you done to me? Here I have brought you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!” Balak moves his entourage to a new location, and once again Balaam commands him to build seven altars on which he will sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams. Again, Balaam goes off to seek a manifestation from God, and again the curse becomes a blessing. Exasperated, Balak tells Balaam to say nothing: “Don’t curse them and don’t bless them.” But it is too late; events once set in motion must work themselves out. Balaam tells Balak, “But I told you: Whatever the Lord says, that I must do!” Finally, he moves him to a third location, builds the seven altars and sacrifices the seven bulls and seven rams, and once again Balaam again blesses the Israelites. Balak smacks his hands together—a Biblical version of slapping his forehead—fires Balaam and sends him packing. “Then Balaam set out on his journey back home; and Balak also went his way.”

As I read, all I could remember was the auction scene in Coconuts when Groucho hires Chico to up the bidding: “Now, remember, when the auction starts, if anybody says one hundred dollars—” “I-a say-a hundred dollars”—“That’s grand. Now, if somebody says two hundred . . .” “I-a say three hundred.” All seems in place. But as soon as the auction starts the scheme goes awry—Groucho asks for starting bid and Chico bids two hundred dollars, but when Groucho asks for three hundred dollars, Chico bids it, and before he knows what is happening, Chico, who really has no money bids the land up to six hundred dollars. “Wrap up that lot and put some poison ivy on it. . .,” Groucho orders. With his hand on his cheek he says resignedly, “Well, I came out even on that one. That was a great success. Yeah, one more success like that and I’ll sell my body to a medical institute.” Not much improves in the sale of the next lot. Bidding himself up a hundred dollars at a time, Chico foils all of Groucho’s plans: “Well, the auction is practically over. Yes, it’s all over but the shooting. I’ll attend to that later.”
Hey, wait—wait!. What does this say here? This thing here?
Oh, that? Oh, that’s just the usual clause. That’s in every contract. That just says-uh, it says-uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract is shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“Its alright. That’s-that’s in every contract. That’s—that’s what they call a sanity clause.
“Oh, no. You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause.
The world is absurd. There ain’t no sanity clause. It’s in the Bible.


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