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.

Seigel devotes an interesting chapter to the writings, especially the visual works that use words as their medium. Comparing them with the researches of Mallarmé and Laforgue, who faced the possibility that ordinary language can say nothing real, he shows that Duchamp’s linguistic experiments parallel his plastic innovations. Both undermine the idea of art as communication, for the reason that Duchamp liked ‘living better than working’. By dissolving stable meanings, his puns and nonsense freed his imagination and allowed it to ‘live’. Duchamp’s love life provides promising clues: his relationships with Beatrice Wood and Ettie Stettheimer, his first marriage, his long affair with Mary Reynolds, his second marriage to Alexina Suttler, all suggest non-consummation and separateness. The only conclusion drawn, however, is that the erotic themes in the work seem to reflect patterns of behaviour.

Duchamp’s abandonment of art after 1923 (a partial one, as it turned out) is attributed here to his conception of the self as an essence that is sullied by the process of creation. (Chess was a cleaner alternative – what was visible exactly mirrored the thought behind it, itself subject to preordained rules.) Seigel also invokes the bohemian tradition of declaring oneself an artist without actually producing art. Comparing Duchamp to Baudelaire and Rimbaud, he says that, whatever their differences, they shared a belief that personal salvation lay in attaining an imagined place ‘somewhere else’ where personal transformation could happen.

Throughout the book Seigel pursues one theme tenaciously: meaning must be looked for in the artist’s private obsession with detachment and incompletion, especially as it affects sexuality. Seigel traces the evolution of the individual sensibility in its relation to the post-industrial world, a relation compounded of physical immediacy and psychological estrangement. Although the notion that Duchamp’s works are autobiographical is not new – Octavio Paz, for one, said that ‘each one of his paintings is a symbolical self-portrait’ – Seigel authoritatively defines a tradition into which the artist’s self-portrayal naturally fits. He discusses an essential question: how, when an inherited language proves wanting, does one invent a language pure enough to register what is mentally real? As far as Duchamp’s answer is concerned, Seigel is right to underscore the inspiration provided by Roussel and Alfred Jarry: like them, Duchamp devised mechanisms of the imagination to create works that were ideally non-referential. His shift from retinal to mental painting in 1912 seems almost inevitable.

The discussions of individual works are often most rewarding. The explanation of Why Not Sneeze, Rrose Sélavy? as an image of frustration illuminates an especially baffling work. Rrose Sélavy herself and the moustachioed (and later shaven) Mona Lisa are persuasively analysed as images of a desire that can never possess its object. Even better is the lengthy discussion of The Large Glass, and best of all, perhaps, the complementary interpretation of the posthumous Given, a peep-show view of a banal three-dimensional landscape with an all-too-accessed nude lying in the foreground. It has bemused Duchampians since its unveiling – the artist Baruchello declared himself ‘wounded’ by it. He was right in feeling so.

Everything in Given belongs to the world of données, of things already determined, data ... The Large Glass’s suspension of femininity in a space beyond experience has given way to a body whose heavy three-dimensionality is the counterpart of the unrelievedly material kind of sexuality it proclaims. Even the viewer has here become materialised, identified as a voyeur ...

  Given is precisely an account of what art becomes when erotic energies, preserved within the delay of The large Glass, turn from imagination to ordinary life ...

  If there was misogynistic aggression in Given, it was simultaneously something else. What has been mistreated here is the aspiration to live ‘beyond time and space’ that was Duchamp’s own in The Large Glass: the violence done here is done against Duchamp himself in female form, not by him against femininity.

Seeing Given as a demonstration by inversion of what Duchamp did in the Glass makes his career whole.

Seigel’s comments on the ready-mades are less satisfactory. They include a curious mistake. Quoting Duchamp’s statement that his notorious urinal would be ‘a potin of some value’, Seigel insists that potin means ‘scandal’, reprimanding his source for translating it as ‘gossip’ – when it has never meant anything else. I suspected a tendentious attempt to portray Duchamp as liking scandal for its own sake, a suspicion that, I’m glad to say, proved groundless. But I regret that Seigel did not use two observations of Thierry de Duve to supplement his own. First, that the manufactured tube of paint, ridding artists of the need to grind their own colours, was the first significant readymade and turned painting itself into an industrial product. Second, mat Duchamp admired Seurat for abandoning the brushwork (la patte) that was a painter’s second signature and said of him, significantly, that ‘he didn’t let his hand interfere with his mind.’ Seurat’s divisionism went beyond questions of ‘taste’ and demanded spectator participation, a process the ready-mades confirmed.

At other moments Seigel misconstrues his data. He emphasises Duchamp’s acceptance of the world but only to link it to his mother’s indifference and his own detachment; but surely acceptance opens the way to participation as much as to separateness. The early paintings are investigated for symptoms of hostility and sexual strangeness as if the artist had no idea of what he was revealing; Duchamp strikes me as too smart for that. His enigmatic titles are said to secure him ‘in some invisible, private space’. But Duchamp’s comment – that they created ‘the possibility to invent a theme for the paintings, afterwards’ – looks acceptable enough. An enigma need not only obscure: it can make us think inventively about what we are looking at, and arguably, the greater the gap between title and work, the harder we try to bridge it. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even of course identifies its mysterious subject. It concludes, Seigel writes, ‘with the nonsensical “even”, calculated to send the mind off on a path to nowhere’. This may be true, but doesn’t the dangling ending chiefly indicate that the title is incomplete, as eventually the work would be?

Seigel writes of Fresh Widow (a ‘French window’ with black leather panes): ‘An ordinary window is an object that establishes a permeable boundary through which people can experience the world ... Duchamp eliminated the transparency that allows this interchange to proceed, turning what had been a medium of interaction into a barrier that reminds us by its very obstruction of the communication it allowed before.’ Maybe so (except it’s funnier than that): however, when confronted with a window I cannot see through, what I do see, at last, is the window itself and not what it frames – a difference that Ortega y Gasset once used as a metaphor for artistic pleasure.

As for Duchamp’s history, there are two instances where Seigel (innocently enough, I think) has misread the facts. The first concerns his book on chess. Seigel quotes him as saying that ‘even the chess champions don’t read the book, since the problem it poses only comes up once in a lifetime.’ It may not come up even once. Duchamp was contributing to a perfectly respectable branch of chess literature in which only imaginary problems are examined. His involvement in this world cannot support the comment that it ensured his ‘remaining in an obscure place where no one would notice him’. The second instance concerns his long affair with Mary Reynolds. According to Seigel, Duchamp ‘seemed to want to keep the relationship from becoming stable’ and to this end maintained his own lodgings, even though the couple sometimes spent months on end together. Duchamp himself said that they were ‘never glued together in the “married” sense’. Seigel thinks this ‘might even mean ... that it was the physical side of their connection ... that was somehow uncertain or incomplete’. Hardly: such an arrangement corresponds to a common male fantasy and implies not incompletion but, at most, a certain diffidence; but then diffident males throng the streets and sheets of our cities. Living separately and preserving an illusion of independence is primarily meant to simulate the circumstances of fresh desire.

What first made me suspect this painstaking scholar of culling his evidence was his account of Roussel’s influence on the artist. He rightly spends much time on Roussel, who remained an inspiration to Duchamp throughout his life. (When I met him, his knowing that I was a dedicated Rousselian was, to my awestruck relief, sufficient recommendation, so that instead of a monument, I discovered a most open and unassuming man who delighted in chatting amiably about our shared enthusiasm.) Seigel emphasises the fact that both Roussel and Duchamp came from comfortable bourgeois families and defines their similarities thus:

The first is their shared attraction for an art that was mysterious and hermetic; both produced works that were ... attempts to fascinate an audience with the display of objects and images that promised new meaning while remaining secret and enclosed ...

  Roussel showed how the recourse to language games and mechanical imagery ... allowed his works to become the scene for developing and acting out a series of highly personal themes and preoccupations ... His ‘procedure’ served to disguise both what these obsessions were and how powerfully they moved him, casting them in a mould of seeming exteriority and objectivity.

Insofar as he is disputing the view that Roussel’s and Duchamp’s methods ‘signify the demise of personal subjectivity in art’, I can only agree with him. But his interpretation of Roussel’s work and influence are wide of the mark.

In emphasising Roussel’s importance to Duchamp, Seigel omits any mention of Jean-Pierre Brisset, whom the artist couples with Roussel as an exemplar, describing him as ‘the Douanier Rousseau of philology’. Brisset was no bourgeois but the son of illiterate country folk. He plied many trades and fortuitously acquired modest fame as fou littéraire. He invented an appealing, wacky theory that traces the French language to origins in the discourse of frogs, from which it evolved through a process of sound-alike etymologies (the Angevins were originally anges vains). Using puns to serious ends clearly appealed to Duchamp, as it did to Roussel.

Other traits common to these writers explain their attraction. They belonged to no recognisable tradition, classical or avant-garde, almost as obviously in Roussel’s case as in Brisset’s. Both respected only their own made-up rules; they were, in other words, ‘naive’, as Duchamp’s reference to the Douanier Rousseau suggests. Duchamp also says of Brisset that he is ‘one of the real people who has lived and will be forgotten’; eighty years later, he could have emended the statement to ‘will be remembered and forgotten’, since Brisset and Roussel are republished periodically, only to sink back into neglect. They are radically unassimilable, even by avant-gardes. Lastly, the two were addicts of invention.

The notion that Roussel could have encouraged Duchamp in ‘encoding a series of private meanings and motifs in his own work’ looks to me as far-fetched as Brisset’s etymologies. Duchamp could not possibly have guessed at Roussel’s ‘procedure’ (his language games), systematically concealed during his lifetime. Roussel’s statement that he had ‘put nothing into his work except what was imaginary’ may not mean that he left his obsessions behind him when he worked; it does mean he excluded them from its results. He did not banish subjectivity but displaced it into the realm of production. In the finished works obsessions have become something else, whose meaning neither reveals nor depends on them.

Eccentricity, naivety, unassimilability, and the displacement of personal concerns into the mechanics of outrageous invention are for me the grounds for Duchamp’s statement that Roussel ‘showed him the way’. It’s the way of the loner, and what I am asserting does not really invalidate Seigel’s thesis. I think his mistake is in claiming that Duchamp’s history determines the works themselves where it only determines their constituents.

In general Seigel equates communication with representation (an idea discussed at length in his last chapter). He uses expressions like ‘speaking to us directly’, ‘records a fantasy’, ‘looking on some inner landscape’, as if what the artist can communicate can only issue from his experience. Why not ‘invents’ instead of ‘records’? If we replace representation with invention as a criterion for Duchamp’s choices, private and encoded meanings become secondary. And if there is no denying that throughout his oeuvre meaning is withheld and mystery always present, doesn’t the experience of the passerby at the shop window apply here, too? An enigma’s power is its mystery; once the mystery is solved, once the solution is ‘possessed’ its power as a catalyst of renewable discovery vanishes. Unsolvability is built into the later works not to conceal meaning but to provoke us into inventing our own.

A few last, brief disagreements. First, the particularities of Duchamp’s private history strike me as excellent credentials for claiming charter membership in the human race (at least its Western branch). The experience of separation, incompleteness, and frustrated communication is so universal among us that, whatever their place in Duchamp’s work, they can scarcely be considered secrets. Second, there is a question of what ‘reality’ can mean. As a scholar, Seigel is properly concerned with what is verifiable: that is, with facts from which conclusions can be drawn and with ways of extending the territory they govern. Duchamp seems to imagine reality as a perpetual becoming, where a priori nothing is stable, facts quickly become distractions, and conclusions, since they never occur, should not be imposed. Finally, I question Seigel’s understanding of Duchamp’s ‘other (or pure) self’ when he identifies the artist’s ‘pursuit of euphoria’ with Baudelaire’s and Rimbaud’s dérèglement des sens, and with an imagined elsewhere as a utopian goal. Duchamp sounds to me like a here-and-now person: the place he wanted to escape to was the present. ‘Euphoria’ meant trusting whatever was going to happen and engaging in it. This requires no rejection of knowledge and personality, rather a readiness to abandon inherited mental habits that scotch our ability to perceive and respond.

I am probably doing less than justice to Seigel, who treats these issues with an intellectual thoroughness to which I do not pretend. If I differ from him, it is because the problems he has identified are pertinent to Duchamp and his contribution to the extraordinary movement we call Modernism; and for someone still inspired by Modernist aims, it is impossible not to react enthusiastically when those problems are reconsidered seriously.