Thursday, April 18, 2024

'And Here the Nothingness Shows Through'

I watched an old favorite, Laurel and Hardy’s 1933 short Me and My Pal. It’s Oliver’s wedding day and his best man, Stanley, gives him a jigsaw puzzle as a wedding gift. Oliver dismisses it at first as “childish balderdash” and promptly gets hooked putting it together along with, eventually, a taxi driver, Ollie’s butler, a telegram delivery boy and, of course, Stanley. Oliver’s father-in-law-to-be, Peter Cucumber, played by the great Jimmy Finlayson, shows up, as do the cops. Mayhem ensues. 

Jigsaw puzzles encourage that sort of obsessiveness. I remember this with our sons. We always gave them a puzzle for Christmas (two-thousand pieces in the later days), and there went the rest of the holiday. At the risk of pushing it too far, puzzles are convenient metaphors for life itself. We’re always looking for the missing piece, blah, blah, blah. Stanley finds it in the end but it’s too late. The wedding’s off, the visitors are on their way to jail and Oliver throws Stanley out the door.   


Samuel Beckett loved Laurel and Hardy. In them we can see Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, also in bowlers and baggy pants. They make cameo appearances in Watt and Mercier and Camier. In Hugh Kenner’s words: “one of them marvelously incompetent, the other an ineffective man of the world devoted (some of the time) to his friend’s care” (A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, 1973). Kenner goes on:


“They journeyed, they undertook quests, they had adventures; their friendship, tested by bouts of exasperation, was never really vulnerable; they seemed not to become older, nor wiser; and in perpetual nervous agitation. Laurel’s nerves occasionally protesting like a baby’s, Hardy soliciting a philosophic calm he could never find leisure to settle into, they coped. Neither was especially competent, but Hardy made a big man’s show of competence. Laurel was defeated by the most trifling requirement.”


In “Jigsaw Puzzle” (Olives, 2012), A.E. Stallings basically recounts the plot of Me and My Pal and turns puzzle-making into philosophy:   


“First, the four corners,

Then the flat edges.

Assemble the lost borders,

Walk the dizzy ledges,


“Hoard one color—try

To make it all connected—

The water and the deep sky

And the sky reflected.


“Absences align

And lock shapes into place,

And random forms combine

To make a tree, a face.


“Slowly you restore

The fractured world and start

To recreate an afternoon before

It fell apart:


“Here is summer, here is blue,

Here two lovers kissing,

And here the nothingness shows through

Where one piece is missing.”


Richard Zuelch said...

Hardy once said, in a piece I read long ago, that his character thought he was smarter than Stanley, but was actually at least as dumb, if not dumber, than him.

Richard Zuelch said...

Also: just watched "Me and My Pal." I love it that the butler's name is Hives. Charles Rogers is the credited director, but Laurel was probably actually in charge, "helping" Rogers in major ways during production.

Thomas Parker said...

One of my greatest pleasures as a fourth grade teacher is introducing my students to Stan and Ollie; when we finish our science unit on simple machines, I show them The Music Box (as an educational pretext, I tell them to look for simple machines - they're all there, except, I think, the screw). When I hear the kids' wild laughter, I feel that I'm doing God's work.