Post-Retinal

Harry Mathews

  • The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: Desire, Liberation and the Self in Modern Culture by Jerrold Seigel
    California, 291 pp, £28.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 520 20038 1

Twenty-eight years after his death, Marcel Duchamp continues to generate new readings of his life and work. Jerrold Seigel has absorbed eighty years’ worth of commentary and come forward with a reinterpretation in terms of Duchamp’s personal history. Noting that Duchamp ‘has become a kind of mythic presence in modern culture, a hero whose story we tell and retell for the sake of its exemplary lessons’, Seigel remarks that he ‘is said not only to have undermined the goal of seeking meaning through artistic activity, but also to have dissolved his own subjectivity as an artist ... [But] far from being the product of a dissolved subjectivity, the objects and activities that defined Duchamp as a person and as an artist ... fit together like pieces of a puzzle ... to reproduce the pattern of his own peculiar ... relationship to the world.’

His starting-point is the New York Armory Show of 1913, where notoriety was first thrust on Duchamp by the response to his Nude Descending a Staircase. The event made him a celebrity, but a ‘depersonalised’ one: the individual disappeared behind his ‘explosion in a shingle factory’, as one critic described the Nude. It also confirmed him in his pursuit of a solitary artistic career, a few personal ideas and a new kind of selfhood. Seigel identifies his central theme of connectedness and separation in the early paintings. In support of it, he offers a persuasive reading of a short text by Duchamp, in which a person stands on the sidewalk and looks into a display window. Duchamp speaks of ‘the coitus through the glass pane with ... the objects’ beyond it and ends: ‘The penalty consists in cutting the pane and then kicking oneself as soon as possession is consummated.’ Seigel interprets this to mean that desire as imagination and possibility satisfies, whereas desire that leads to possession disappoints. Apply this to the desire for communication and we at once have a clue to the enigmatically withheld content of the artist’s works. If communication consummated is a failure, consummation should be avoided. Seigel points to parallels to this aesthetic choice in the young artist’s behaviour.

The critical period in Duchamp’s career culminated in Munich in 1912, when, fully aware of the currents of the time, he nevertheless shifted from participation in shared activities to artistic independence: from seeing motion no longer as an external phenomenon but as an internal one; from (in his terms) ‘retinal’ to ‘mental’ art. With Cubist paintings like the Nude behind him, he conceived the project of The Large Glass, on which he worked until he abandoned it in 1923. Seigel sees the Glass as a story, intellectual in nature and told through purely private symbols, where the theme of separation is taken to its conceptual limit. In the Glass – its proper title is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even – nudity becomes an imaginary manifestation of desire. Consummation is denied: the artist even defined the work as ‘a delay’. Bachelors and bride can only connect in a utopian fourth dimension. It is logical that The Large Glass was left ‘definitively unfinished’. ‘Consummating’ it would have been a contradiction in its own terms. (But a demonstration of consummation and its discontents was revealed posthumously by Duchamp: the kitsch-realist Given, now in Philadelphia.)

The ready-mades, too, are gathered into Duchamp’s private world. They may have signalled a radical displacement of art from the domain of making to mental distancing, but before they became public they existed already as shorthand emblems of frustration or subverted purpose in the artist’s personal vocabulary. They augmented Duchamp’s notoriety, as did his female persona, Rrose Sélavy (herself an ‘assisted ready-made’). His fame flourished apart from him. From a position of detachment he let his visible work perform its iconoclastic role in an aura of mystery, humour and irony. His lack of stridency as a rebel only added to the mystery.

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