Clown Philosophy, Eccentric music

Grock, the king of clowns and the misfit logic

Grock’s Logic – the embodied know-how 

Grock and the chair. The embodied misfit logic.


One of the greatest and most iconic figures in modern clown history is Grock, the stage name for Charles Adrien Wettach, born in 1880 in Switzerland and one of the most acclaimed clowns of all time. Despite the limited amount of moving images of Grock’s practice (the most significant one being Carl Boeses’ film of 1932 Grock – La vie d’un grand artiste), there are references to the way the “King of Clowns” performed his act. Clown theorists such as Disher (1925), Rémy (1945), Towsen (1976), Diercksen (1999), and Davison (2013) have described Grock’s performances as an example of mastery of the craft. Grock was a multi-talented musician, an acrobat, a tightrope walker, a juggler and a contortionist – the knowledge of these skills was precisely practiced know-how or embodied knowing, meaning that it was Grock’s body that possessed them. Recalling Merleau-Ponty (2005) and H. Dreyfus (2014), embodiment is a matter of absorbing skilled coping into one’s body schema. This tacit embodied knowledge was at the base of Grock’s performance and the ‘logic’ that he applied to resolve problems in clown performance is entirely linked to this embodied knowledge. My claim is that misfit logic is the logic of doing by presenting an alternative way of being in the world through showing the what-else-for of the object, of one’s body – and perhaps one’s very ‘being in the world’. The body of the clown in action shows a transgressive and unpredictable way of performing a common mundane action, changing and challenging in this way the perspective of the audience. Grock is an iconic example of the kind of performative attitude that is induced by the clown’s logic. In one of his turns, Grock is sitting in front of a grand piano, getting ready to play a recital. But the clown realises that the piano stool is too far away from the piano. Rather than moving the stool closer to the piano, Grock decides to move the piano closer to the stool. Paul Bouissac (2015) suggests that the referential totality shown on stage (in this case the piano, the stool, the score, etc.) could be compared to a ‘syntactic whole’ where each element of the scene forms a ‘mutual dependence, like words in a sentence.’ And he adds: 

Grock disarticulated, so to speak, the syntax that was at the basis of the spectators’ expectations. In so doing, he displayed a logic that reflected the odd, anarchical nature of his mind. Despite such a blatant pragmatic abnormality, we have to acknowledge the limits of the rationality of our expectations when we witness this kind of behaviour. It would be an error of appreciation to interpret Grock’s gag as a proof of stupidity. It was the displaying of naked logic… a kind of logic unbounded from pragmatic constraints. (Bouissac 2015: 62) 

Bouissac suggests that the audience has an expectation based on the ‘syntactic order’, that is to say, a pattern of logical development of the performance that could be compared with language and discourse – where words and sentences make sense. In the quote above the referential totality is compared to the ‘syntactic whole’ we encounter in language; the clown pushes the limits of this sort of pragmatic rationality through his actions. I am suggesting that the referential context is based on the practice of everyday behaviour and way of coping with wordily situations. These pragmatic constraints would suggest that the stool should be moved closer to the piano and not the piano closer to the stool. The clown is being analysed in this dissertation as a pragmatic doer and yet at the same time the logic that is embedded in his actions should not be linked with pragmatic constraints. On the contrary, a misfit logic challenges the pragmatic constraints of everyday being- in-the-world, subverting them (and the standards of success associated with them) and proposing another way of understanding things that differs from the common sense of das Man

I will push the argument further and suggest that Grock shows us a sort of logic that is not only revealed by his action but also wholly embodied – his is ‘a logic of the body’. This anecdote exemplifies the clown’s embodied logic, when put into practice: 

Grock took a chair and sat on the back of it in order to play the violin. One day, as Grock records, the seat of the chair fell out: “And there I was in the middle of the chair, with both feet on the ground. The audience saw that this was not intentional [him falling in the hole left by the broken seat] and were all the more delighted, what was Grock going to do now? … All that I knew was that I wanted to be on the back of the chair to play the violin… the simplest thing would be to jump out. I collected myself, jumped, crossing my legs in the air, and landed on the back of the chair… No other artiste has ever done this. Many have tried, among them fully trained acrobats”. (Grock in Staveacre 1987: 87) 

What is important in this example is that Grock, in order to resolve a complicated problem (how to get out of the broken chair) used the embodied logic – manifested through his embodied know-how – and suggested a simple (for him) solution. This example refers to the specific dimension of how clown cognition works, is demonstrated, or even disrupts and inverts the traditional priority afforded to mental acts by logicians. It is also related to Merleau-Ponty’s (2005) concept of bodily motor-intentionality and prereflexive action. The way Grock’s body behaves is determined and intentionally directed, though not necessarily mediated by reflection, meaning thought does not precede action. Both Keaton and Grock also ignored danger, so clown logic does not take into consideration the possible future of broken limbs, but deals with the immediate issue of needing to sit down. Normative logic implies a sequentially (and consequential) line of thought that the clown does not have, so the misfit logic breaks the ‘syntax’ of everyday practices. All bodily comportments – the things we do in our everyday lives – are grounded in the ‘logic’ of practices that constitute our being-in-the-world; but in the case of the clown – and Grock in particular – that ‘ground’ is transformed through the use of a misfit logic – and at the heart of that logic is the idea that practical solutions to problems encountered by the clown are always subject to a contrariwise response: so rather than an easy solution for a given situation, the clown will take the most complicated route and vice versa. 

To understand the clown’s logic we have to think about the reverse of it. What would be the behaviour led by conventional logic if you were sitting on a broken chair? To jump out? To find another chair? To fix the chair? For an ordinary member of the audience ‘the simplest thing [to do] would be to jump out’ or to stand up, but Grock jumped in a summersault-like movement releasing his bottom from the hole of the broken seat and putting his body in an even more precarious situation, balancing on top of the back of the chair. His understanding of failure (failure of the chair or the possible failure of the act) results in acting contrariwise to normative practiced being-in-the-world. He executed with mastery a prereflexive action, or, in other words, he reached the clown maximum gestalt in a leap. He would not execute this risky movement if he did not have the skills for doing it. The first time Grock performed this action, as we have learnt through the anecdote above, was an act of improvisation. However, after doing it for the first time, the clown perfected his movements – through rehearsals and training, and repeated again and again the same risky movement. Grock might have been lucky or reckless when he did it for the first time. However, the fact that he was able to repeat this same action until the end of his career shows us that even a prereflexive action can be mastered. This is also an example of a gag that had its origin in an improvised reaction and became a ‘crystalized’ (in the sense that it was then later fixed and polished) – a fragment of narrative that could be used as part of Grock’s routines. I am arguing that misfit logic is manifested in this kind of clown bodily reaction to a given situation. Misfit logic has to do with a sort of understanding that is not rational: it is the understanding that clowns demonstrate in the way of responding prereflexively to the concrete situation. Once again, the clown maximum gestalt is highlighted here – and the paradoxical ambiguity of this gestalt – the (mis) understanding of the ‘clown’ character merges with the (mis) understanding of the clown performer and it is revealed in the body in action of the clown. The clown in question is the clown as he appears to the audience; it is the phenomenon of misfitness that comes to light. 


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