Every now and then, when I was very young, I could sense this shape coalescing within my thoughts. I would find myself…not so much visualizing it, as feeling it.
It was free of content, just a blueprint-like series of lines…but it burned with significance. It felt like a fever dream, the intensity of that shape. I would get curious about it, think of nothing else.
(I say it was made up of “lines”, but the truth is that I don’t have any real words for these moments. “Shape” and “lines” just help convey some sense of the experience.)
One consequence of these moments: I took to arranging stuffed animals so that they matched the shape.
I was unable to fully hold the structure in my mind…it was there, very strong, but hard to make out all at once. So it took some time to get the plush toys exactly the way I wanted them. I would place the animals a certain way, group them according to the shape…and if it felt off, I would move them around, continuously making small adjustments until it felt complete.
Then I would stare at it for awhile. Then I would scatter the stuffed animals and start over, working on the display…until my parents would intervene and pull me away from it.
While engaged in this process, my breathing picked up speed; I felt a mild agitation. Once complete: moment of peace; mental quiet; then a growing agitation that I could only dispel with more tinkering.
When I was a little older, moving into adolescence, I found the social world to be baffling…yet I knew there was some sort of hidden order to it all. As people interacted, I could sense structure and patterns to their behaviors, but I couldn’t reach a point of true comprehension.
I was missing the concept of “unwritten rules”. That wouldn’t be explained to me until much later. But some part of me grasped it, even at the age of 12. I walked repeatedly into the buzz-saw of teasing and bullying and rejection and it was painfully obvious that something as going on.
I was fascinated by this confusion. As I transitioned into junior high, I thought a lot about people…about how they acted, about what I needed to do to connect with them.
What happened was that the hidden structure of the social world took the place of the inscrutable shape that had so entranced my thinking as a younger child. Once again, I sensed a form of great importance (i.e., all of the unspoken nuances and rules of non-verbal communication).
The difference with this shape: it had content. It contained an entire world full of people.
I thought and thought about it all. I observed kids my age, approached them, tried to mesh. But I was too awkward and clumsy-headed. I just lacked the natural ability to make those personal connections happen.
Early teens, I watched a Marx Brothers film for the first time. That fever-dream sensation kicked in immediately. I watched one, then several more. These films were about the very thing I’d spent my young life obsessing over: the social world.
Each film presented a generic, well-defined social context. A college. A dinner party. A staff meeting. Stock, stereotyped scenarios. But that generic quality made it very easy for my social-hungry mind to understand the stories. Because the settings were so structured and formulaic, I had no trouble identifying the various characters and their place in the social hierarchy.
Watching people interact in ways that I fully understood: it was intensely pleasurable. But that was only a small fraction of what I responded to in these movies. What I really liked was the Marx Brothers themselves. Because they destroyed those social contexts. They arrived in every scene with the intention of tearing it all down.
They were chaos, but in a targeted way. Their personalities were deeply antithetical to the peacock normalcy of others. I liked that.
As much as I wanted to connect with people in my life…I also felt a great deal of anger and resentment about how difficult these connections were to create. And to see characters so thoroughly tear down the social world around them…I couldn’t help but feel drawn to that.
I liked those movies in a big way. I launched into an obsession that lasted many years. Watching Marx Brothers films repeatedly, sometimes the same film 3, 4 times in a day; then doing it all over again the next day; reading biographies, histories, film analysis.
I particularly liked that the brothers attacked the social realm in different ways.
Groucho functioned like a virus: he tore it down from the inside. That is to say, he actually put some effort into resembling others. He wore clothes that fit the context. He had respectable titles (doctor, professor, captain, etc.). He borrowed the structure of the social world…infiltrated it…then tore it to pieces with wild outbursts, destructive behaviors and long, rambling monologues about nothing. He was a mutineer, but only after he’d reached a position of authority.
Harpo, on the other hand, was a mutineer from start to finish. He attacked the social world from the outside. His mere presence was enough to shatter all of the unspoken rules and delicate hierarchies that normally hold a setting together.
He never spoke in these films. Harpo was as silent as Groucho was garrulous. He would casually stroll into scenes, then suddenly wreak havoc with random gestures, gleeful violence, out-of-context smiling. I particularly liked those random gestures…people are supposed to move in ways that make sense. Yet his non-verbal communication willfully lacked meaning. Even his movements served as a refutation of others.
To me, these strange, playful attacks on the social world felt uncomfortable, yet extremely right. They felt necessary. Dinner parties ended in disaster. Concerts were ruined. Entire countries were thrown into disorder.
All of the cacophony I felt internally around other people, the Marx brothers seemed to feel as well…only they gathered it up and projected it into the world around them.
I was profoundly moved by that.
Other fixations followed over the years (Tati’s Playtime…don’t get me started). I’d see or hear something new, feel a fever dream sensation.
Sometimes I would understand the underlying reason for the preoccupation. I could map out what, in the interest, matched up with my own subjective patterns. Other times- most of the time- the interest resembled that initial fascination with a vague shape: it seemed to arise from a place beyond logic or language; some sort of dream hybrid made of form and aether.
In either case, my reaction would be the same.
Magnetic need to immerse. Complete focus. Dwelling for hours at a time, over the course of weeks and months that often turned to years.
Gradually, an emptying out. Mind pushing off, pausing.
Moment of peace.
Then: breathing picks up speed. Magnetic need to immerse. Growing agitation that I can only dispel with the next interest.