Including a Review of The Last Feast of Harlequin by Thomas Ligotti
One of the most famous clowns was Joseph Grimaldi who lived just shy of 50 years and who died in 1837 destitute and alcoholic. It was a somber end to the life of a man who impressed Dickens. With arched eyebrows, triangles of red like jib sails on his pudgy cheeks, and hair brushed straight up, Grimaldi makes for a figure who looks surprised, at least in the George Cruikshank etching of 1820. On the first Sunday in February at the Holy Trinity Church in Hackney a memorial service for Grimaldi takes place in which attendees dress in clown costumes. Grimaldi seems to have tapped into the idea that clownishness was not simply humor but in the tradition of Punch and Judy, accompanied by mercurial emotions, trickiness, and slapstick. It would be fair to consider that Lon Chaney’s role of Paul Beaumont (HE) in the great silent movie He Who Gets Slapped (1924) might be considered in a similar manner. HE is humiliated, betrayed, and slapped for being wise. Undoubtedly, it would be worthwhile to read clown disparagement as the fate of truth tellers in our contemporary societal or corporate structure.
In the town of Mirocaw, state unknown, resides an insane clown posse, not the group and it’s Juggalo family members but people who self select, or something, to be clowns for the town’s annual three day December festival. I say or something because as with much in the story, there is a level of uncertainty. The story’s narrator, a social anthropologist who researches Saturnalias and other annual celebrations, decides to attend with his clown costume, for what is a festivity if one does not take part? He books a room and then heads to the crowded streets where he witnesses a clown being humiliated and physically abused. Why did they do it? A man on the street answers, “It’s their turn this year. Everyone takes their turn. Next year it might be mine. Or yours…” The next night the narrator decides to play a clown in order to gain more information about the festival. He sees clowns standing on street corners so he does too and after a while a pickup truck comes by to collect each of them. There’s something quite good in a a scene depicting a pickup truck with a bed full of clowns. They all head to a hole that leads to a tunnel that leads to a chamber where druid sorts merge in a wormlike orgy with clown sorts and who all feast on a sacrificial Winter Queen of the festival. The narrator flees, recalling how when he tripped while running nobody caught him but instead simply claimed, “He has always been one of us.” And the narrator realizes this — with regret? With relief?
Clowns often turn masochistic. It’s de rigueur for HE, and for the clowns in Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture, a video installation of 1987. (Ligotti’s story was published in 1990 but evidently on he worked on since 1979) (1). In Clown Torture, Nauman’s clown (played by Walter Stevens) undergoes repetitious pranks such as attempting to hold a goldfish bowl against a ceiling with a broom handle, walking through a door boobytrapped with a bucket of water, getting stuck in the loop of the Pete and Repeat riddle. Very recently, Ondine Viñao’s created a sort of homage to Nauman’s work in Holy Fools a video work in which women dress as clowns to reenact child trauma, from sexual abuse to pressures of femininity. (1) First, the whole idea of reenacting problematic childhood angst is getting a little stale, a problem not really solved by adding one’s group identification. Of course, this will be considered a contentious statement in this world of hyper-micro-identification. The problem here is that once we state that the work is about reenacting issue laden events, we want more than the topic title; there doesn’t appear to be more. The artist or especially those writing about the art apparently haven’t delved much beyond the descriptive tag, sadly. An article in the Observer called Viñao’s work a “Feminist Update” (2) and yet the same article says, “Still, Viñao did not purposely set out to make a body of work that is overtly feminist, though she is not opposed to that perception of the work.” In other words, the work was not intended to be Feminist, so the article’s reading into it as Feminist is off-base and apparently called as such only because the artist identifies as a woman, but the artist doesn’t care too much about the misreading, any press is good and people reading into work is considered interpretation, and thus wonderful. On all fronts this is unacceptable sloppiness.
If we call Viñao’s video a second version or remake, then there might be on that alone a point of discourse regarding the comparison. However remakes and discourse around it doesn’t guarantee equal value. The hideous Hollywood remake of Yves Robert and Francis Veber’s brilliant movie The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (1974) isn’t worth recalling in the least. As Roger Ebert wrote in his one star review of that Hollywood version, “The French have a name for this phenomenon: deja vu. So do we: ripoff.”
Karl Marx wrote, “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” We might reverse this when it comes to art.
Clowns direct us to laugh at the right moments. When clowns fail, we never quite know whether to feel empathy or not. The movie that drives home this particular space best of all I’ve seen is Thomas Vinterberg’s masterpiece Festen, which without the right understanding will seem disgusting, and with the right understanding will come off as a very dark farce that’s absolutely hilarious.
In The Last Feast of Harlequin, the strength of the story’s narrator is also the story’s weakness. The narrator evinces erudite reflection, he turns over ideas and people slowly. This sets up a nice introspective tone as all the events are filtered through his mind. By the second half of the story, events are related more from an authorial point of view so that when the narrator pauses to reflect, in the instance of a long journal entry, we are a bit annoyed. The shift is ok but the attempt to synthesize the two is a bit flat. Similarly, the precise slow pacing of the first half is contradicted by the rushed and somewhat vague whipping through the entire cave scene.
The best parts, for their unnerving quality, are found in the simple reflections. Streets are crowded only a few days before Christmas with people who are not normal. “This was not a crowd of bustling shoppers loaded with bright bags of presents. Their arms were empty, their hands shoved deep in their pockets against the cold, which nevertheless had not driven them to the solitude of their presumably warm houses. I watched them enter and exit store after store without buying anything.” This is the type of moment where the story both dances and becomes creepy.
With a large picture view, the story is sloppy as hell. It is a loose weaving of plot, ideas, and references. Fine. I don’t mind that. It wouldn’t be appropriate as a tight little Bradbury story. Strands are offered for the pulling, however the depth of the strands come from what we bring to the work, not particularly from the work itself, despite all the pseudo academic setup offered by the narrator. It’s not bad in itself for this structure, indeed when this work was published one could get away with nods to issues in a sort of Heavy Metal graphic spread gone a touch deeper, which we always wanted anyway for example in enjoying the panels of Moebius (Jean Giraud). Now about thirty years later, with an art world that has moved at the speed of light, we demand more, unless, as mentioned we are the sort of sloppy reviewer or artist who simply drops Wikipedia subject words as though they are meaningful.
On its surface, the story seems a result of blending, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Festival, a story of Ur-secrets renewed, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery in which annual victims have no appeal to the selection, and Hershell Gordon Lewis’ movie Two Thousand Maniacs! in which a Briagadoonian town magically appears every 100 years for some gruesome fun.
TLFOTH is not Henry James’ Turn of the Screw nor is it Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the first is embodied with an overwhelming unnamed presence and the second designed to raise questions about the sanity of Eleanor. And it’s a wholly a different beast than the ghost stories of M.R. James where action unspools toward an eerie conclusion. Perhaps then Ligotti’s story is closest thematically to Poe’s The Conquerer Worm in which life’s folly acted out by ourselves who are, “Mimes, in the form of God on high/Mutter and mumble low,/And hither and thither fly — .” (4) Our actions pale against the inevitability of death symbolized by the worm.
Maybe this is the source of our attraction to and repulsion of clowns, they remind us that life is a masquerade and the final curtain always hangs above us. We sit in the audience and laugh, or cry, aware in the recesses of our consciousness that our position in the audience does not remove us from playing the role too, as we always do. The clown show only a temporary ceding of the role to someone else.
Nauman in speaking about Clown Torture notes that clowns are abstract in some sense, an aspect of their disconcerting presence. He adds, “there is a lot of cruelty and meanness. You couldn’t get away with that without makeup….Then there’s the history of the unhappy clown: they’re anonymous, they lead secret lives.” Through this we sense that Nauman is after what Ligotti is after, what Poe is after, which is the sense that folly ends in a predictable manner. This is why, although Nauman doesn’t seem to recognize this aspect clearly in what I’ve read, he gravitates toward repetition. It’s a cycle of life and death. The interviewer asks, What’s the story the clowns tell? And Nauman answers, “It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting around a campfire. One of the men said, ‘Tell us a story, Jack.’ And Jack said, ‘It was a dark and stormy night,” etc. (5) Here’s another one. It was night of festivals when those born masqueraded and recognized their impending deaths. Fun turns foul. Repeat for each.
Ligotti also begins to tap into a subterranean river of the conflicted self, that was becoming obvious in the late 80’s into the late 90’s and which is all we see now. Each day, hoards of people rush to gigantic overpriced cosmetic stores at malls. Once in a blue moon, maybe, they pause to realize how pathetic they are for having the need to put on a clownish face for their significant other, for attraction, for approval, for conformity. Even the clownish fail and we’re happy to watch as they do. I recdall the old joke, I told my friend she drew her eyebrows on too high. She looked surprised. So yes, maybe derision is a part of the temporary reprieve. Perhaps we wish to, as in Ligotti’s story, kick the clown, when down, all around town. We act as though we can beat this thing, putting the fact of the play: in the long run it’s always a tragedy. Well here you go, the table is set. Pour yourself a cold Faygo and put ICP’s Hokus Pocus on a vid loop with Hot Codlins and give some clown love to The Last Feast of Harlequin.
(1) SchuylerH (July 27, 2016) Comments. Pillsworth, A. and Emrys, R., Please Don’t Send in the Clowns: Thomas Ligotti’s ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin. Tor. Retrived online at https://www.tor.com/2016/07/27/please-dont-send-in-the-clowns-thomas-ligottis-the-last-feast-of-harlequin/
(1) Graves, C.D. (February 4, 2019). Reclaiming the Trauma of ‘Clown Torture.’ Garage, Vice. Retrieved on line at https://garage.vice.com/en_us/article/yw8pwg/ondine-vinao-clown-torture
(2) Radin, S. (January 15, 2019). Bruce Nauman’s Iconic, Brutal ‘Clown Torture’ Video Gets a Timely Feminist Update. Observer. Retrieved online at https://observer.com/2019/01/artist-ondine-vinao-gives-bruce-naumans-clown-torture-a-feminist-update/
(3) Ebert, R. (July 16, 1985). The Man with One Red Shoe. Retrieved online at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-man-with-one-red-shoe-1985
(4) Poe. E., Quinn, A., et al. (1946). The Conquerer Worm. The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe. New York, NY: Knopf.
(5) Simon, J. (September 1, 1988). Breaking the Silence: An Interview with Bruce Nauman. Art in America. Retrived online at https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazines/breaking-silence-interview-bruce-nauman/