Spring 2010

Harpo’s Bubbles

The empty, the transparent, the unresolvable, the stacked-up, and the lit

Wayne Koestenbaum

Art historian Michael Fried uses the term “absorption” to describe figures in eighteenth-century French painting who focus, unaware of the beholder, on tasks. A blind man, absorbed in his blindness. A reader, absorbed in her book. A watcher at a deathbed. A melancholiac. A philosopher, absorbed in contemplation. A weeper. A saint, absorbed in prayer. A listener, absorbed in a sermon. An infant, absorbed in sleep. A blower, absorbed in his soap bubble. In Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s work, for example, writes Fried, “absorption emerges as good in and of itself, without regard to its occasion.” The viewer concentrates on the painting, just as the blower concentrates on the soap bubble. Attentiveness itself matters more than the object attended to. Harpo loses himself in the practice of being Harpo, and I lose myself in contemplating Harpo.

Dream: I tried to explain the meaning of Heidegger’s “Da-sein” to my students. I said, “God didn’t create man. Man was there, and he felt invented; he needed to describe his sensation of being-called-into-existence.” A skeptical student, who planned to commit suicide tomorrow, scowled.

Accustomed to rebuff, Harpo with cigarette/lollipop in mouth gazes perplexedly into his intermediate sliver of respite.

How to describe this home-region? Harpo’s gaze always wants to deviate toward that neutral destination, a corner of truce, requiring no eye contact. The comic height difference between Harpo and antagonist (actor Basil Ruysdael) paradoxically favors the shortie: knowing his smallness, he can make use of it. Basil may be tall, but Harpo, undeterred by his own apparent insignificance, dominates with sombrero and cigarillo.

He inconspicuously inserts a bubble in his mouth (I notice only because I’m advancing frame-by-frame); he blows the bubble, which, more Bazooka than smoke ring, steers Harpo back to playland, away from nicotine adulthood.

Observe Harpo’s oral inconsequence: while Basil sings, out Harpo’s mouth the compensatory gum-globe protrudes, explanatory as a cartoon’s “thought bubble.” Harpo looks downward at the sphere—a mini-artwork—he happily blows. He looks like an entranced boy in a Chardin painting (Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles)—an image of suspended time, of art’s effort to deter movement by making material interventions (bubbles, paint-marks) that seem insubstantial but that convey, in their ephemerality, a buried power. A bubble is the extent of Harpo’s accomplishment, and it is, I believe, monumental.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.