7 SEPTEMBER 1951, Page 12


A CHANCE discovery a few days ago that the mother of the Marx Brothers was née Minnie Schonberg filled me with what I at first took to be a quite illogical satisfaction. Pondering more deeply, - however, on the nature of my emotion, I wondered whether I had not, after all, stumbled upon one of those " elective affinities " which are revealed more often than not in just such an apparent paradox or seemingly fantastic incongruity. Is there not a profound dramatic fitness, I asked myself, is there not a glimpse of deep psychological truth in this nominal bond uniting the ministers of our most hilariously illogical pleasure with the high-priest of the most sternly logical and strictly painful system of -musical creation yet devised by human ingenuity ?

In his last volume of essays the composer reminded us that any listener inclined to complain of the low pleasure-content of Zwolftonmusik should remember that such music is no more a pleasure to write than to hear ; so that, for a short time at least, even the most libido-ridden audience can enjoy the awful satisfaction of moving in a world situated unequivocally " beyond the pleasure- principle." Perhaps it is the Sch6nberg blood in the Marx Brothers that has led them to cultivate a territory almost equally far beyond the confines of everyday experience, situated not merely beyond the principle of pleasure but beyond any recognisable principle whatever. This romantic German preoccupation with the " beyond," this Sehnsucht .each dem Jenseits, reinforced by the forward-straining gaze of the messianically-minded Jewish race, may perhaps account for the characteristics shared by the music of Schonberg and the films of the Marx Brothers.

These reflections by no means exhaust the wealth of psychological suggestion contained in the Brothers' genealogy. They have indeed received a double portion of the messianic spirit ; for if their mother was a Schonberg, was not their father a Marx ? And if from the one they inherited the messianic gaze in its most spiritual and time- less form, is not the messianic principle in its most ruthlessly con- crete and contemporary guise embodied in the name of Marx ? Thus, in their inherited preoccupation with " the beyond," the Schonbergian tendency to scan with misty eye horizons as yet beyond the desires of all but the most libidinous is corrected by the Marxist eye, unwinkingly trained upon nothing more complicated or distant than the zigzags of the Party Line beyond the River Oder.

Let me not be misunderstood ; this is no covert accusation of un- American activities ; merely a fantasy of nominalist psychology. Indeed it is possible, and perhaps preferable, to choose another and less spectacular " nominal overtone " for the Brothers' patronymic and to explore the resonance of Joseph, rather than Karl Marx— an upper partial of the Marx fundamental, certainly, but an eminently safe and respectable one. For who could fail to respond or, responding, object to the charming twitterings of that late romantic lark, contemporary and fellow-countryman of the aquiline Schonberg ? He, perhaps, the Marx rather than the Schonberg in the wood-pile of the Brothers' inheritance, is responsible for the flood of music loosed by the harp of Harpo and for that night at the opira which neither Erwartung nor Die gliickliche