Words and Windows
Few Commonplace Ideas displeased Duchamp as much as the old French saying bête comme un peintre , “stupid as a painter.” He denounced it in several interviews, speaking up instead for a view that made thinking, even metaphysical speculation, central to what artists did. The kinship he felt between art and intellect fed his hostility to what he called “retinal” painting, with its appeal to visuality as sensual experience; almost from the start his work had a verbal side, beginning with captions and dialogues in the cartoons he published while a student and continuing by way of the titles and literary references that gave an extra dimension to pictures like Paradise, Baptism, Dulcinea , and Once More to This Star . His fascination with puns helped to expand this literary bent toward a general preoccupation with the nature of language itself, and the notes for the Large Glass include proposals for constructing new languages appropriate to the mental world of relations between the bride and her bachelors; to these projects he added a series of works that used words rather than visual images as basic components.
Duchamp’s desire to remake language tied him to numerous other modernist and avant-garde figures. Mallarmé developed a highly original and idiosyncratic style and syntax, employing veiled allusions, al-
tered meanings, prepositions exchanged for one another, suppressed verbs (especially the verb to be, which he regarded as without concrete content), subjects displaced to the end of sentences, circumlocutions, and archaic or invented words. These experiments were inspired by the conviction that a language cleansed of the confusions of ordinary experience, and restored to the purity of its own internal relations, could liberate the ideal forms of things. Although not a private language—its elements were still those of ordinary French, and readers willing to put in the necessary effort could penetrate most of its mysteries—Mallarmé’s speech was puzzling enough to be one source of Rémy de Gourmont’s equation of personal art with incomprehensibility; it was a language of interiority whose virtues inhered in the purity of its own structure, unblemished by the compromises imposed when words take on obligations to the objects of ordinary, shared experience.
Duchamp admired Mallarmé, but he seems to have been still more drawn to Jules Laforgue. Laforgue shared Mallarmé’s conviction that existing language was corrupted by its interchanges with everyday reality, but he felt the effects more personally, as a wound to his own selfhood. To his mind, the individual who seeks to express what is unique about his or her own person necessarily finds the way blocked by linguistic conventions, caught up in verbal commonplaces that turn the search for authenticity into a helpless repetition of hollow and inappropriate gestures. The moments when one seeks to express the deepest and most personal feelings—love above all—are precisely the ones that call forth the most banal, used-up, impersonal phrases, those that fill popular songs and cheap novels. The person who becomes aware of his dependence on such expressions despairs of ever escaping the trite verbal leftovers of other lives and finding any authentic core of existence; the self that seeks its own wholeness finds itself divided among the various characters that the available modes of speech allow it to assume, much in the way that the energy of Duchamp’s bachelors must be stuffed into one or another of the malic molds. Feeling that even the words of his own heart belonged to others, Laforgue came to look upon his attempts at self-expression with the same cold detachment with which one regards the mechanical speaking of some automaton; at times he seemed to regard silence as the only path to
authenticity. These ideas and feelings made him part of the tendency in literary modernism that turned writing inward on itself, away both from the romantic belief that creative activity expressed an essential and personal way of being and from the realist project of mirroring the external world.
Because Duchamp—along with other vanguard figures—clearly shared many of these views, we need to look for a moment at some of the assumptions that lay behind them. Given that our language comes to us from others, that our most passionate sentiments have been expressed before, and that we often take on roles for which prior models exist, does it follow that persons can never achieve a selfhood that is properly and authentically their own? Not only does answering yes to this question deny genuine self-existence to all the great originals who have illuminated—and often disrupted—human history, it amounts to equating individuality with a pure, unalloyed independence that only a being alone in the world could acquire. In art and literature, the realms Laforgue cared most about, creative figures have always attained authentic individuality by starting off from cultural elements taken over from those around them; originality does not require starting from nothing, but giving new shape to what one finds in place in the present and inherits from the past.
In some moods, at least, Laforgue understood this perfectly well. Although genuinely drawn to the kind of narcissistic purity much of his work invokes, he saw that the notion of such an existence was itself dependent on preexisting models and that to desire it was to choose one of the many alternative character types put on offer by the culture into which—as a man and as a writer—he had been born. He was fascinated by the stage figures of Pierrot and Hamlet, both of whom cultivate an unobtainable ideal of personal purity while self-consciously moving back and forth between the various roles that situations require them to assume. These were Laforgue’s models, both in the strength of their inner conflicts and in the power of their ironic detachment. When he portrayed every admixture of otherness as a wound to personal authenticity, therefore, he knew that he was setting up an impossible ideal, deserving of the same skeptical treatment he meted out to those who thought they could express pure love and devotion in the
stock phrases of popular lyrics. Thus he undermined his critique of ordinary selfhood and returned his literary activity to the very world from which much of his writing seeks escape, the world where individuals share elements of their identity with others. All the same, the critique remained a central theme in his work, keeping alive a fantasy vision of narcissistic purity that his awareness of its unreality could never still.
In an interview with the art historian and curator William Seitz in 1963, Duchamp described his own philosophical—he preferred the term “metaphysical”—point of view as one that doubted everything. Truth and being itself were the main targets of this skepticism, and the reason people believed in ideas that correspond to nothing real was that language deceived them. Speaking about language seemed to ruffle Duchamp’s usually calm demeanor, leading the interviewer to italicize some of what he said. “Words such as truth, art, veracity, or anything are stupid in themselves. Of course, it’s difficult to formulate, so I insist that every word I am telling you now is stupid and wrong .” Puzzled, perhaps, Seitz asked: “Could it be otherwise? Can you conceive of finding words which would be appropriate?” To which Duchamp:
No. Because words are the tools of “to be”—of expression. They are completely built on the fact that you “are,” and in order to express it you have built a little alphabet and you make your words from it. So it’s a vicious circle. I mean it’s completely idiotic. I mean the language is a great enemy, in the first place. The language and thinking in words are the great enemies of man, if man exists. And even if he doesn’t exist….
The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp
Desire, Liberation, and the Self in Modern Culture
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