CHAPTER ONE: CONTEXT
I. 2. THE YARN
I think that all yarns like this one ought to be spun in the first person, singular. I am a writer who reads, not only books but also signs and maps, who looks at graffiti on the wall, the way the clouds move or leaves shake, and how the birds fly...or the stars, as they seem to turn in the night sky. I find myself amused enough by the twists and spins fortune, fame and fate to cherish among my sometimes less-rewarding bents of mind, a broadly-grounded sense of humor and a keen appreciation for a good yarn.
After the Korean "conflict" and as a sop perhaps for facing Death, the Navy provided me with training to be a printer, lithographer and process photographer. Then, on the G. I Bill, and with a degree in Middle Eastern studies from the University of California at Berkeley, I went on to explore art history at the Universidad de Madrid. Daily visits to the Prado promoted the idea of a life style allowing ample opportunities to indulge my inclinations for reading and writing, looking around, having fun, and either spinning or unraveling yarns.
The present yarn provides a principal clue (or "clew," as the British would write) for our mystery. I picked up one end of it in Pasadena: the city football-famous for its Rrose Bowl, and the celebrated Rrose Parade. By the way, this event was actually the first spectacular to be televised in color nationally, from west coast to east, directionally reciprocating the Course of Empire in totally new, revolutionary, electronic terms.
In the mid-1960s I was granted a Princeton degree with academic cachet sufficient enough to ensure more or less steady gigs doing essentially stand-up comedy routines about Beauty. Having bid adieu to my instructor's position with that distinguished East Coast, Ivy League department of art, I went West to UCLA, then establishing its John Wooden/Lew Alcindor (pre-Kareem) dynasty. To sing for my supper, I instructed the noble sons and daughters of our citizenry about artistic things, the Sublime, both the vulgar and ethereal, and other multifarious wonderments. In the City of Angels I taught the history of modern art (which, if shown in a Justice Court, might convince twelve peers to have socially-redeeming importance beyond mere prurient interest or prima facie delight) and began to write about the fantastic phenomenality of the flowering cultural scene. Among my local, new-found fellow art professionals (and all the Tinseltown collectors, star-time hotshots and other zany creative spirits), Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Museum sparkled as one of the veritable rainbows of luminosity.
Earlier in the decade dubbed the "swingin' sixties," I had been out of the country, on an extended tour of lecturing and research in New Zealand and Australia. So I had missed the big exhibition Hopps staged in Pasadena, the first full retrospective dedicated to Marcel Duchamp. That show was received as a gesture of genius, and the catalogue itself had already become a collector's item. Everyone knew Walter Hopps was, by then, one of the leading experts on Duchamp: that most iconoclastic, ironic, and intellectually most interesting of artists. For years after the Pasadena show closed, the art world heard crypto-alchemical accounts of how Duchamp stayed in the (emblematically-color-coded) Green Hotel, or how he had charmed the pants off his West-coast afficionados.
When Duchamp was in Pasadena in 1963, supervising the monumental retrospective's installation, he recalled the death (several years before, in 1954) of Walter Arensberg, the collaborator who originally put the mystery object in the ball of twine. The artist--Duchamp himself--realized, therefore, no one was alive to serve as the holder of what had become in effect a lost secret. That is, there was not a single person who actually knew the explicit nature of the famous secret object that gave With Hidden Noise its title, and that could provide the ultimate solution to our riddle: what is the nature of the secret thing that makes the "hidden noise?" But if there IS to be a secret at all, then Temperance would seem to dictate that it were just as important for there to be someone who KNOWS it, as for there to be someone who knows it NOT.
This logic must have appeared patent both to the artist Duchamp and to Hopps, the museum director. Accordingly, Duchamp authorized Hopps to undo the bolts and to peek inside the ball of twine. With his typical, almost diabolical insouciance, Duchamp remained faithful to his original position of not ever wanting to know what the secret object might be. Besides, from whom--best of all--should the secret be kept, if not from the actual artist? Not that Walter Hopps--who carded the wool for this very yarn--not that he made such a big deal out of it. Hopps had assumed a respectful role as the holder of secret lore for the benefit of posterity; but he never reported having undertaken--as part of the deal--any precious vows to insinuate a kinky cult of information idolatry.
One night in the late 1960s, following some opening or other at the Pasadena Museum of Art, I joined the esteemed director and a group of friends for a celebratory social repast and a bit of conversation. When the chance aRrose to talk with Hopps about Duchamp, and the topic turned to the mystery of With Hidden Noise, I forthrightly, if naively, asked him what the secret object was. In response, I remember him saying something like this: "If you really want to know, I suppose I could tell you. But that might just spoil the game for you. Or, at least, there's a much better game if you try to figure it out."
He said that if one did try, or if one really thought about it, or WANTED it badly enough, then one actually could (and this is no Bull! this quotation contains his very words) "figure it out." Hopps could not have made it more plain had he put up a poster on the wall. I WANTED it, and so I went for it Hooke, Lyon and Cinquer.
At the present writing, these events occurred about thirty years ago--as demographers reckon a generation. After a few initial years of resolute head-scratching, having by then crossed paths with some practitioners of Far Eastern yogas and the martial arts, I began to see the nature of the problem (or a promising approach to its solution) as reflecting techniques used by adepts in the Rinzai Zen tradition, among whom historically had been most of the great samurai warriors. In order to instill a respect for mindfulness, they were particularly fond of using the koan. Originally referring to the publication of a case at law, the koan in Japanese Buddhist practice was an enigma or puzzle, sometimes visual or situational, but often phrased verbally in terse, epigrammatic, or deeply-ciphered form. Eventually, it came to serve as a popular and successful means for developing continuity in meditation, like a psycho-cosmic mirror in a drop of dew.
[See Kazuaki Tanahashi, editor, Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, North Point Press, San Francisco (1985).]
They say Bodhidharma attained Enlightenment spending either nine or nineteen years contemplating a blank wall. The Hermetic conundrum continued to rattle around inside my skull for my full allotment--and then some--of this quasi-Samurai duration. With weaker discipline and more distractions, it took me about twenty years to figure out the far more modest issue. I began writing these notes in 1987, on the hundredth anniversary of Duchamp's birth (July 28, 1887 near Blainville, in Normandy), and almost two decades after the death of the artist (October 2, 1968 at Neuilly, near Paris). After I thought I had the answer to the secret of With Hidden Noise, the fun really began.
The towering irony of it all! Just blurting out the answer made no sense: without some frame of reference, not one person in a hundred thousand (or a million) would know or even care what the question was. When you really think you have the answer, just TRY to give it away! This was turning out to be a bowl of beans not so easily spilled. Many people in the art world knew about Duchamp, and his work was becoming increasingly familiar, not only to artists and intellectuals, but also to the general public. Still, a cloud of inscrutability surrounded the artist's persona and aesthetic ideas as thickly as if he were omnipresent and smoking one of his stinky cigars.
Following the arrows and indications of the master, I gave increasingly precise scrutiny to details, yet trying to keep fresh the spirit of child's play. The plan was to perform a calculated bean-spill: while writing ABOUT it, at the same time to DO it, or to BE it--not quite so easy as one might be inclined at first to believe. But the guiding star or recurrent key seemed to involve the idea of number, and that turned out to be a very powerful organizing principle indeed. Moreover, and luckily, the specific numbers associated with the piece of sculpture were few and of low values, hence easily represented but rich with associations. Methodologically, the mathematical domain of number theory embraced the notion of "imaginary numbers," expressing values formally related to recursive circuits in physics and to the idea of self-reference in logic. Here perhaps was a way (without having to delve too deeply into the densities of science or to mess about with meticulous machinations of calculi) I could still perform this exercise of exposition with clear models, in accord with the standards of pristine rigor and elegance.
I had an intuitive sense that if I were to "perform" most fully the work of writing, and the ensuing theater piece of publication, then necessarily and unavoidably, I would have to embody--in a way to become--the "work of art." As it happened, in the course of writing down these notes I would be following along one line of thought, then start composing a different, parallel text ABOUT the other account. It was not simply a matter of footnotes but an altogether different "voice": the sometimes muffled, sometimes clinking sound rattling around inside the wound-up continuity of awareness, as the filaments were being woven, loosely bound by threads of logic, wrapped and tied. As you might imagine, the problem of expressing this bounced against the dialectical plaques of knowledge and belief, and the noise enjoined revelation of the secret to serve the mind of some future audience. Just as Duchamp foresaw, it would involve the process by which all art is finally judged: Posterity spinning the Wheel of Fortune.