January 08, 2007

Marxist quotation

Ok, you can stop sending me messages about the Marx Bothers.  There was an allusion I just didn't get.  This was back in what I thought of as a trivial piece on who(m) referring to decidedly non-human entities, in Slavoj Zizek's imagined attitude of former Iraqi minister Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf:

There was something refreshingly liberating about his interventions, which displayed a striving to be liberated from the hold of facts and thus of the need to spin away their unpleasant aspects: his stance was, "Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?"

This was, surely intentionally, a Marxist quotation.

Mae Sander, Zev Handel, and Dave McDougall got the Marx connection, and Seth Finkelstein cited a Richard Pryor version of it.

The primary ancestor is the line from the Marx Brothers' movie Duck Soup, usually reported as:

Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

This is widely attributed to Groucho Marx, which is close but not quite right: as the wikiquote page for Groucho tells us, the line was actually spoken by Chico Marx -- though at the time he was dressed up as Groucho, so any confusion would be entirely understandable.  In any case, John Baker has now directed me to Fred Shapiro's excellent Yale Book of Quotations, where on p. 497 you can find what Chico actually said, without the auxiliary are and with gonna instead of going to:

Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

I have seen Duck Soup many times, but this line seems not to have stuck in my memory, so I didn't hear any resonance of it in Zizek's imagined quote.

At some point, the Chico quote has been "improved" by making explicit the claim that the addressee's perceptions are deceived:

Who are you going to / gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?

It's often quoted in this version.

The Zizek version deviates from the original in several other directions. First, there's the accusative whom, which strikes me as just wrong.  My correspondents have suggested several sources for the accusative: that Zizek wrote who but an editor "corrected" it to whom; that Zizek himself wrote whom as the "correct" form; or that Zizek chose whom because it was the sort of thing that Said al-Sahhaf might have said.

Next, my words instead of me.  This really doesn't work for me, as I said in my previous posting.

Then, your own eyes simplified to your eyes, probably for parallelism with my words.

Finally, reversing the 1st and 2nd person expressions.  Where Chico had 1st before 2nd (me or your own eyes), Zizek's version of Said al-Sahhaf has the reverse (your eyes or my words).  Chico put the reference to himself first, and he put the shorter, lighter expression (me) before the longer, heavier one (your own eyes) -- both good moves.  Merely reversing these (your (own) eyes or me) isn't nearly as good, though my words for me improves the prosody (but see above).

In any case, the result is inept, and fairly far from the original.  Now Zizek -- whose name is properly Žižek, with two hačeks -- is certainly well acquainted with popular culture (check out his website and the Wikipedia page), so my guess would be that he intended this version to be a reflection on Said al-Sahhaf, using an allusion supplied by Zizek himself.

I'll send him e-mail.

[Further complexity: Dave McDougall notes that Zizek has used this exact quote on other occasions (and seems to be the only person to use this version), attributing it to Groucho Marx in a Marx Brothers film (not identified).  But at least once, in a discussion of opera, he refers to "the well-known joke from the 18th century comedy, when a wife caught by her husband in bed with a lover denies the obvious and adds: 'Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?' "]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 8, 2007 03:02 PM