Buster Keaton Norman Silverstein - Essay

Norman Silverstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The year 1922 has been celebrated for the appearance of [Eliot's] The Waste Land and [Joyce's] Ulysses. It was also the year The Reader's Digest began publication. Buster Keaton's "Cops" (1922), I would maintain, is a great work of art, belonging with Eliot's poem and Joyce's novel rather than with the trivial works with which it has been associated because its discourse has depended on gags. (p. 269)

Keaton's gags are more philosophical than slapstick in that they test the nature of reality. In "Cops," objects prove to have a side so hidden as to allow indeterminacy to reign in our perception of the received world….

If things have a hidden side, people also are capable of conscious and unconscious duplicities; they too are "indeterminate." (p. 271)

For Keaton's hero in "Cops," the resistance of phenomena to certainty, the duplicity of people and things, and the failure of epistemological systems to establish roads to knowledge—all these compel him to abandon the world.

In "Cops," Keaton tries to remove man from objects, whether natural or contrived, so that man will be isolated from deep meanings and, though locked into his separateness from people and things, be free. His method involves using gags for an assault on the logic that sustains our world. His discovery of the indeterminacy of the things of the world is no less remarkable than Eliot's or Joyce's…. (p. 272)

Obviously Keaton operates against the sentimental pattern—the normative realistic discourse—of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches myth which has usually been conveyed in melodramatic or comic form…. Keaton differs from ordinary practitioners by using the gag, which is neither dramatic nor comic, to interrupt continually the story of a poor protagonist's progress in search of material success and love. (p. 274)

Norman Silverstein, in his introduction to "Buster Keaton's Gags," by Sylvain du Pasquier, edited and translated by Norman Silverstein, in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1973), Vol. 3, No. 2, April, 1973, pp. 269-75.