THE (1915)


Unlike ideal experimental science, the art of writing history and criticism allows--even encourages--opinions. In popular opinion, a creative artist can be identified, self-evidently, by the signature on the work of art. Many pieces in the annals of art history, whether unsigned, or despite signatures, provoke raging controversy about questions of attribution. With the work of Marcel Duchamp--and particularly with his concept of the Readymade--these issues acquire an altogether new twist. The generosity of his aesthetic stance allowed Duchamp to display uncommon grace in acknowledging the contributions of others, and to share the credit with creative collaborators. One of the famous explicit examples occurs in the "last" paintings--really a multi-media assemblage, called by the cryptic title, Tu m'--which Duchamp executed at the request of his friend and patron, Miss Katherine Drier. He subcontracted for the services of a professional sign-painter to paint a little hand with a pointing index finger namely, a Mr. A. Klang, who duly signed it, in pencil.

A more problematical issue is raised by other examples of Readymade art. Who was the artist--there must have been one--who designed the original winter landscape for the commercial print that eventually became the first of Duchamp's "proto-Readymades," titled Pharmacy (1913)? Or, what was the name of the manufacturer, even--let alone the actual industrial designer--of the Bicycle Wheel or of the Bottlerack? It's not as though these people didn't exist; assuredly there were human beings, craftsmen, technicians, machinists--in some real roles--who participated in the real making of what became Duchamp's works of fine art. Part of the power of the Readymade is that it forces us to reflect upon the tangled questions of personality and originality, high art and low, Art and Life. In this light, it seems like a relatively easy matter to agree that Walter Arensberg performed an integral part of the creative act by inserting the secret object which gave Duchamp's "semi Ready-made" With Hidden Noise both the operative instrumentality of its magic, and its title.

[ Arturo Schwarz, "Contributions to a Poetic of the Ready-made," in Walter Hopps, Arturo Schwarz and Ulf Linde, Marcel Duchamp: Ready-mades, etc. (1913-1964), Galleria Schwarz, Milano (1964), p. 28. Duchamp described With Hidden Noise as a "semi Ready-made" in his note from The Green Box on "Piggy Bank (or canned goods)," Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 32. Schwarz specified "Semi" because the artist elaborated the assemblage of "more or less modified Ready-made" components. ]

Moreover, following Duchamp's own ideas on the completion of the creative act by regardeurs "spectators," and by posterity, the on-going perfection or continuing "performance" of the original Readymade may be extended further by our present bruiting of the secret, the imminent spilling of beans we have promised. In that way our text also aspires to embody the spirit of the Tarot Archetype V, the Hierophant. Reading the French title as an injunction: A bruit secret might be extended to mean something like "Reveal the secret (truths)!" or "Go ahead! Spill the beans!" Even so, Pythagoras--the father of number theory for ancient Greeks--enjoined his followers not to eat beans. The word A in French--the first word of the title--can be read in more than one way: it can mean "with," or serve idiomatically as an alternative preposition. It was a crucial word in the "cryptogrammic" composition of Raymond Roussel who so influenced Duchamp.

[Jean-Pierre] Brisset and Roussel were the two men in those years whom I admired for the delirium of their imagination....Brisset's work was a philological analysis of language--an analysis worked out by an incredible network of puns. He was a sort of Douanier Rousseau of philology....Roussel was another great enthusiasm of mine in the early days. The reason I admired him was because he produced something I had never seen. That is the only thing that brings admiration from my innermost being--something completely independent--nothing to do with the great names or influences. Apollinaire first showed Roussel's work to me. It was poetry. Roussel thought he was a philologist. But he remains a great poet.

It was fundamentally Roussel who was responsible for my glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. From his Impressions d'Afrique I got the general approach. This play of his which I saw with Apollinaire helped me greatly on one side of my expression. I saw at once I could use Roussel as an influence. I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter. And Roussel showed me the way.

[ Duchamp's essay is titled "The Great Trouble with Art in This Century," Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 126. ]

Roussel himself explains his use of the word in composing Impressions d'Afrique:

I chose a word and then linked it to another by the preposition ; and these two words, each capable of more than one meaning, supplied me with a further creation....I should point out that the initial stages of this work were difficult and already required a great deal of time.

I would like to cite some examples: Taking the word palmier I decided to consider it in two senses: as a PASTRY and as a TREE. Considering it as a PASTRY, I searched for another word, itself having two meanings which could be linked to it by the preposition ; thus I obtained (and it was, I repeat, a long and an arduous task) palmier (a kind of pastry) restauration (restaurant which serves pastries); the other part gave me palmier (palmtree) restauration (restoration of a dynasty). Which yielded the palmtree in Trophies Square commemorating the restoration of the Talou dynasty.

[ Raymond Roussel, How I wrote Certain of My Books, translated by Trevor Winkfield, Sun Books, New York (1977), pp. 4 ff. ]

Roussel supplies copious examples, pages and pages of them that read very much like Rrose Sélavy's literary gems, including some that (not solely by coincidence) can be related to our present attempts at enigma-resolution. To show the pattern of Roussel's plays, consider:

1st. Phalange (finger joint) à dé (thimble); 2nd, phalange (phalanx) à dé(dice); which gave the troupe of Talou's sons and their dice game....As the method developed I was led to take a random phrase from which I drew images by distorting it, a little as though it were a case of deriving them from the drawings of a rebus.

So much here for Roussel and the word . We have noted the derivation of the word bruit from bruire = to roar. The word secret is also most engaging with, however, the basic meaning of the word lending a self-referentially dissimulating quality to any exposition. That may reasonably explain why historical or objective studies of secrets always contain some element of irony: the point is, if the contents of some tradition were meant to be secret, we cannot expect to find the same order of documentation as that more frequently encountered evidence confirming ordinary events and relationships.

When the veils of secrecy do seem to part, it may indicate the collapse or degeneration of the very institution sponsoring the secret in the first place, by which time the essential and relevant truths, hence the historical data, may already be corrupt. Just this process appears to have happened with several lineages of Alchemy in the West, and similarly with perversions of the Secret (Tantric) Teachings in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Even so, it may be that some tradition or another has been able to preserve the essence of the Teachings: whether of Alchemy, of the Tantra, of Sufi baraka(t), or of the real message of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ. One of the terms used to represent the idea of the Essence of the Teachings, is Perfect Truth (called dharma in Sanskrit, cos in Tibetan): that which transcends all dualities in the world of name and form. So, we arrive at one opinionated interpretation of the title, which--with a close regard for language like that shown by Roussel--might very well be heard as the injunction: "Proclaim the dharma with a Lion's Roar!" This roar, so believe many Buddhists, promises to awaken many to the presence of the Supremely Enlightened One, called Maitreya, "He whose name means kindness," and (as we anticipate explicitly in later sections of the present text) "the Buddha of the Future."


One of the best-kept secrets about With Hidden Noise--for what-ever strange reason--involves the signature and date. The inscription is on the underside of what is called the "upper" brass plaque. As the piece is displayed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this positioning makes the information difficult to see from above, although it can be read directly by looking up from beneath...and it is also visible as a reflection in the mirror-topped pedestal upon which the sculpture presently stands. The inscription, in Duchamp's cursive hand, reads:

Sophie Marcel

Pâques 1916 31 Décembre 1916

In the extensive writing about Duchamp, where With Hidden Noise is often discussed and frequently illustrated, there is scant mention of this signature and date. We enthusiastically acknowledge that there is more, much more, to historical studies than names and dates; but then, in any historical discipline, neither can they be forsaken, nor ignored altogether. If this is a fair estimate of the situation, we feel moved by respect for the spirit of "true science" to press this question in hope of adding a token of "serious" substance to our study of Duchamp's piece as a contribution to the discipline of art history.

Right away, we confront a vast bafflement about questions of process and method. OK, here we have the great Marcel Duchamp: thought of as certainly among the most brilliant of artists, probably one of the greatest of his time, of our time, or (in the eyes of many who indulge such assessments) one of the greatest of all time; and here we have this piece, With Hidden Noise: one of those very important Readymades, deserving to be counted among the most intellectually provocative, aesthetically successful, and revolutionary works in the history of modern sculpture. Well, one might have expected that sooner or later, someone would actually TAKE A GOOD LOOK at the work of art.

Appreciating the elusivesness of perfection, in the process of preparing this text we easily may have overlooked some specific reference to those dates. And somewhere in the voluminous, agglomerating pile of Duchamp-related literature there may be an identification of Sophie, or an analysis of the curious dating. For a long time, the identity of "Sophie" has remained a mystery; at first we speculated about Marie Sophie Eugénie Gallet, Duchamp's maternal grandmother, who was born in Havre in 1830. If still alive in 1916, she would have been 86 years old, but we have been unable to confirm the circumstances of her death, although la grand mère Duchamp died on December 21, 1908 at Massiac. It appears more likely to us that the inscribed name "Sophie" referred to Katherine S. Drier (1877-1952), whose middle name was Sophie, and who was probably at the Arensbergs that Spring holiday in 1916. The name Sophie itself comes from the Greek sophia meaning wisdom, as Byzantium's great church, Hagia Sophia is dedicated to the Holy Wisdom, and not (as the naive might assume) to some female saint named "Sophie." But there is scant mention of ANY Sophie as such in the scholarly literature on Duchamp; so, since the significance of the inscription is still a matter of some mystery, we may hold the question in mind while posing the following riddle:


The foregoing riddle-paragraph constitutes what the Master Philologist in James Branch Cabell's uproarious novel, Jurgen (1921), might have called a "77-word cantrap." In a series of words like knots in a skein of yarn, this cantrip extends between Sophie and Marcel (each name with six letters) suggesting a transmutation of consciousness: Sophie, an alter-ego, personifying the emblematic female, the Divine Mind, the Muse, peut-être a prefiguration of Rrose Sélavy. Is this mere silliness? Well, to put it another way, how could there have been a Sophie for all those years without anyone presuming to hazard the wildest guess about her identity--unless, astonishing as it might seem, the inscription had not even been noticed by anyone with time and purpose enough to write about it? How can it be that art history has been so tripped up or trapped by its quest for wisdom?

A cantrap, or cantrip, is a Scottish word, a noun, meaning:

a magical spell,

a witches trick,

a mischievous trick

or a prank


The word "cantrip," according to the American Heritage Dictionary --one of the most useful reference works available to any scholar who employs the American English language--is of "obscure" origin. It may be obscure in part because the origin of the idea of magical spells must have been carried by the shared consciousness of humanity in its Hermetic crane-skin bag: so to say, in the "Fool's" satchel, the sack on the end of the Wanderer's stick, the magical wallet of Perseus, or more simply carried in the "cranium," that is, carried by our human memory (a long, long time before these or any words at all were written down), orally transmitted and collectively remembered, from the dawn of the earliest Paleolithic age, when consequences of upright hominid posture allowed the evolution of the hyoid bone and the larynx, which then inaugurated a new "metalevel" of communication between people using what we now recognize as words in sentences.

The archaic history of magical incantations is both shadowy and of the shadows, as are the three witches in the opening scene from Macbeth in the Scottish lineage; or the Weird Sisters in Norse folklore: the Disr who weave the "woof of war," and the Norns of the Sagas who spin and bind. In ancient Greece these personifications were of the deepest psychological and cosmological orders; they were known as the Moirai or the three Fates, born of Anangkhe, Necessity, out of Chaos, the yawning, gaping chasm in which, as the Void, yet formless and without definition whatsoever, lie all possibilities.

In Greece, destiny was known as moira or moros from the Greek verb meiromai, "to measure, to allot." A moros was a measure: one degree of 360 degrees of the Aion = 72 years, which is roughly the span of a man's life. [72 x 360 = 25,920 the number of years in one aion, or eon, called a Great or Platonic Year, and in India a Kalpa]. We each are allotted approximately one degree of an Aion. In Greek myth the Moirai were goddesses of apportionment: Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter), and Atropos (unturnable, inflexible). The Moirai were the guardians of the way things were, i.e., of the Dike (Justice) of the Universe, which is unalterable, impersonal, and implacable.

[ Jene A. LaRue, The Meanings of Mythology, State University College at Buffalo, New York (n.d.); Dr. La Rue inspired many ideas herein. ]

The Three Fates' own chosen medium is the art of textiles; their mythological hold on the human psyche is a function of time. Queens of the Fourth Dimension, as when Velàzquez painted the Three Ladies in Las Hilanderas (1656) illustrate literary descriptions, but in Goya's frescoes from the Quinta del Sordo (now in the Prado, directly beneath the Velàzquez), they seem more the product of a genuine vision. Even conventional literary references descend ultimately from tales of some oral tradition primordial, from the time when Sinanthropus pekinensis (or should it now be beijingensis?), we surmise, first sat around the cavefire after enjoying la cuisine imaginaire (slurping fresh, warm brains out of skulls deftly opened up with that special bone tool designed for such a particular function) at the earliest hypothetical Chinese restaurant, in the upper cave at Choukoutien, 37 miles from Beijing, some half a million years ago.

Graphic depictions of the Fates reflect imaginings after stories told about shadows dancing on the walls of the cave, much as Plato also perceived, employing the archetypal power of such memories in his allegory. Tellingly, the last part of The Republic is still read in schools, as The Republic is the last of Plato, and Plato the last of the ancient Greeks to survive in today's educational system as the merest tattered token of a once entire classical curriculum, a paidea cut of holy cloth, as symbolized by the sacred peplos carried in the quadrennial Panathenaic Procession honoring Athena Parthenos--the Triple Goddess in her embodiment by virgin virgin born from the forehead of Zeus, personifying nobility of character, intelligence, and justice--the figures in this rite having evolved from the shadows of caves to be carved in once-hard marble (now crumbling from acid rain) on the frieze of her great temple, the Parthenon, conceived by Phidias to fit a design worked out by the architects Kallikrates and Iktinos, begun in 447 B.C., when Perikles was the first citizen in the Athenian democracy, and completed in 432 B.C.(!), profanely packed with explosives by the Venetians and shelled by the Turks, being thus reduced to a state of romantic semiruination, the prize metopes and choicest pieces of pedimental sculpture ripped off ("collected") by Lord Elgin and winding up in the British Museum, although the temple still dramatically commands the Acropolis high above Athens, the capital city that still bears the name of the goddess, and where her people still enjoy (as do the Chinese, although they write their language with ideographic characters) a more or less continuous, lineal, and living transmission of these archetypal cultural forms, only possible in Greece because

somehow they kept their ancient language and alphabet, which is more than one can say of any other Mediterranean people.

[ Robert Graves, "The Greek Tradition," in Difficult Questions, Easy Answers, Cassell, London (1972), p.124-5. "Even Israeli Hebrew," Graves adds, "is a literary revival, not the native tongue of Palestine since Biblical times." See also Richard Brilliant, Arts of the Ancient Greeks, McGraw-Hill, New York (1972), p. 192. ]

The cantrip of the Wicked Queen in Snow White begins "Mirror, mirror, on the wall." Even little children realize--without having to be told--that the magic resides as much in the spinning and weaving of the words as in the reflections of a glass. In Jurgen, Cabell's literary quasi-hero was able to obtain, on a bit of parchment:

"...thirty-two of the Master Philologist's own words that I begged of him. See, my dear, he made this cantrap for me with his own hand and ink." And Jurgen read from the parchment, impressively:


Said Anaitis, blankly: "And that is all?"

"Why, yes: and surely thirty-two whole words should be enough for the most exacting."

"But is it magic? Are you certain it is authentic magic?"

"I have learned that there is always magic in words....Yes, I repeat, there is always something to be done with words, and here are thirty-two authentic words from the Master Philologist himself, not to speak of three commas and a full-stop. Oh, I shall certainly go far with this."

"We women have firmer faith in the sword," replied Anaitis.

[ James Branch Cabell, Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, Dover, New York (1977, first published by The Bodley Head, London, 1921), p. 158. ]


In his book on The Cryptography of Dante, Walter Arensberg (Marcel Duchamp's friend and collaborator on With Hidden Noise) includes an important chapter on "The Universal Form." This title derives from a famous line in the last Canto of Paradiso referring to Dante's vision as a "knot." In support of his novel interpretation, Arensberg cites another cryptographic line elucidated from a related passage, Paradiso xviii. 82-93, specificially from lines 91 and 93:

Diligite iustitiam, primai

Fur verbo e nome di tutto il dipinto;

Qui iudicatis terram, fur sezzai.

The letters here italicized, as Dante himself tells us quite pointedly (in lines 88-89: "Mostrarsi dunque in cinque volte sette Vocali e consonanti"), form a sentence composed of vowels and consonnants "five times seven." The Latin letters spell out the first verse from the Book of Wisdom: "Love righteoueness, ye that be judges of the earth." It is a little disappointing that the principles of subtle precision required by traditional magic apparently did not lead Arensberg to count the two commas, the semicolon, and the full stop. However, the cryptanalyst does submit his alternate reading, which involves complicated manipulations with sub-ciphers and acrostics, to suggest that Dante's purpose was to add a secret signature.

Now what can be the reason for his thus indicating the exact number of the letters? ..."Five times seven" is thirty-five, the age, as is well-known, which Dante ascribes to himself at the time of his "vision." His vision came to him, as he tells us [in the Inferno i, "at the mid-point along the road of life"], nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. In the Convivio he elaborates the Psalmist's idea of the length of the life of man as seventy years, the mezzo of which is thirty-five. This age, moreover, is really an approximation to the age of Christ, according to medieval computations, at the time of his crucifixion. Thus Christ and Dante may be considered to have descended into Hell at the same age, a coincidence which I believe Dante intended as a further indication of his identity with Christ.

[ Walter Arensberg, The Cryptography of Dante, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1921), p. 157. Other traditions figure 72 years and 36 as half.]

In 1921, when Arensberg's book was published, Duchamp was only thirty-three years old. Had the book appeared but two years later, in 1923, when Duchamp was thirty-five and is then supposed to have "quit" painting, we might have sought parallels with the descents into Hell and the subsequent celestial visions of both Christ and Dante. The change of professional stance attributed to Duchamp when he was at that "half-way" age provides an intriguing parallel for the magico-numerical speculations by several twentieth-century artists, such as by Robert Indiana on the Qabala, and otherwise by Charles Demuth.


Most standard publications on the oeuvre of Duchamp simply date With Hidden Noise as "Easter 1916." And while "Easter" is always mentioned for the Readymade, we have seen no mention--much less, an explanation--of that second date, which would have been New Year's Eve. How could it be that the inscription "31 Décembre 1916" (or, simply translated, "December 31, 1916") has NOT been mentioned...if, indeed, it has even been noticed? In 1916, Easter was celebrated (by the prevailing tradition of the Latin Christian West) on April 23rd.

Be that as it may, let us ask wherefore Easter? As the ancient festival of both the sun and the moon, Easter was celebrated on the occasion of the full moon nearest to the vernal equinox. But this relationship was fiddled with already under Judaism, when Passover was stipulated to be the first full moon AFTER the vernal equinox. This may be interpreted as an expression of patriarchal precedence of the solar male principle before that of the matriarchal lunar female.

A later (but crucial) phase of the debate about emblematic values is revealed by accounts of the Synod of Whitby, held in the year A.D. 663 to determine how to compute the date of Easter for Christians in the British Isles. The issue was whether to follow the native Celtic traditions based on both the sun AND the moon, or to use the imported Roman rules under which Easter always had to be celebrated on a SUNday, and AFTER the appearance of the full moon. The practices of Rome prevailed while the ways of the Celts were deprecated for being, as they said at the time, "too much like those of the Jews."

That Synod also marked the subjugation of sacred song in the glorious Celtic language, for thereafter Latin came to be prescribed in Church, the language of an earlier military and a later religious conquest, and NOT of the people. It had to be learned from priests who automatically monopolized the institutions of education, and so smothering the tradition responsible for the Book of Kells along with the principle of the equality of women before God (since women could serve the Mass in the Celtic rite, but not in the Roman), and much else besides. No more would there be those like the saintly Cuthbert who actually may have practiced the discipline of Uroboros breathing, generating psychic heat in the body, among his beloved sea otters.

For Cuthbert, the gentle Northumbrian seventh-century mystic saint, once was spotted by another monk while performing exercises that enabled him to wade into the frigid waters of the sea in the early morning, praying and playing with the sea otters, of whom he is the patron saint, and whose emblem appears with an ichthos, an Atlantic salmon in its mouth, surrounded by sumptuous, interlaced decoration, at the bottom of the famous "Chi-Rho" page of the Book of Kells.

It was on the occasion of his visit to St. AEbbe that Cuthbert went down to the sea to pray, standing in the water up to his neck. He was watched by a monk who had followed him furtively and was astonished to see two otters come out of the water and warm the saint's feet with their breath, drying them with their fur; thereupon the monk who spied upon him was so astounded that he was taken ill. He confessed his fault to Cuthbert, who promised him pardon and healing on condition that he told no one what he had seen until after his death.

[ The Relics of Saint Cuthbert: Studies by Various Authors Collected and Edited with an Historical Introduction, by C. F. Battiscombe, Sometime Chapter Clerk and Keeper of Muniments, Durham Cathedral, Printed for the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral at the University of Oxford Press, (1956), p. 126. A note to this text reads "This practice was common amongst Celtic monks and Anglo-Saxons influenced by the Celtic practice," (with further references and illustrations).]

The page is part of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew illustrating the passage from Matthew 1:18 announcing the birth of Christ:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

The beginning of this passage, in the Latin that was already in use when the Book of Kells was created, reads Christi autem generatio; but following the Celtic scriptorial conventions still then practiced, the illustrator has incorporated abbreviations so that Christi is shortened to the monogram that looks like XRI , actually the first three letters of Christ's name in Greek, Christos: chi, rho and iota.

[ The Book of Kells: Reproduction from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin, with a study of the manuscript by Franoise Henry, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1977), folio 34 recto, pls. 29, 107. ]

The black sea otter appears at the bottom of the iota, just above where the regularly lettered text (what little of it there is on the page) continues: h is an abbreviation for autem, then generatio is spelled out in the beautiful manuscript hand. As one reads the text, it is virtually impossible to miss seeing the otter, situated as it is on the vertical line between the i and the h (incidentally, lower-case exemplars of the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton, the secret Holy Name, IHVH). The tails of both the otter and the salmon are thus crossed at right angles by the line that drops from the tail of the last letter in the monogram of Christ to the start of the regular text. Since Christ is symbolized by the fish (and the salmon is a particularly magical fish which mysteriously returns to its place of birth), the Saint is the otter, who has "caught" the Spirit of Christ, having divined the secret of rebirth, which is to say, the Mystery of the Resurrection, the essence of the Holy Ghost. This illustration is as explicit as we could hope or expect to see in alluding to the means employed by the saint (who himself insisted on its secrecy) to attain the state in which he received such grace.

[ Mme. Henry suggests only that the otter, and other animals on the page "are probably emblems of the faithful partaking of the Eucharist. Why this unexpected choice of symbolic animals? We cannot say...." (p. 199) The above interpretation of the otter detail is our own. ]

This is an old story. But there is one happy detail worth noting about the events surrounding the Whitby Synod in the seventh century when the liturgical use of native speech was finally, and formally forsworn by the official bards--now become all-male priests presuming to perform the sacred rites in a language unintelligible to the congregation at large. Celtic oral culture thrived, nevertheless, among the gleemen who preserved its rhythms and rhymes, and the names of places and things in the lyrics and music of secular song. Meanwhile, in the hills around Whitby and above the cliffs of Cleveland (on the east coast of England, yet--more than a millennium later--to be reprised by the city on the southern shores of Lake Erie), while the priests were practicing Gregorian chants alien to the ear Hibernian, there was a shepherd boy--or, some say cow-herd--gifted with a golden throat who (having stumbled across some secrets) sang in much the old way, yet newly. His name was Caedmon, and his poems are reckoned the first buds of the flowering, in its season, of the English language.

What Marcel Duchamp might have been doing in the intervening nine months of 1916, between Easter and New Year's Eve, is another issue. We know he executed this Readymade in an edition of three, but we do not know how long it took him. Although the other two examples have been lost, he records having prepared and assembled three Readymades, thus qualifying With Hidden Noise as having been "mass produced." Ironically, the original and sole survivor of this edition has come close to being transformed into a sacrosanct idol: insulated by a pompous aura of "fine art," scarcity-commodity "value," with security precautions (prompted by paranoid underwriters) to forestall the hazards of being picked up by a human hand (as the skin's natural oils might add to the piece's patina), that have inhibited its being read, turned over, rattled, contemplated, and finally figured out.


We are ceremonious and melancholy, we are ancient priests...the porcelain stars are falling down--eioéh eioéh--we are so ceremonious and serious in this hour.

[ Richard Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, p. v. ]

When pressed for his opinion about some supposed secrets or other portentious mysteries of art, Marcel Duchamp characteristically offered what would be a jaundiced assessment from the point of view of an art enthusiast, preferring simply to view the products of mankind's creativity more or less on a par with the other ordinary consequences of his sublunar activities. Not that the matter of Duchamp's acceptance as a bona fide artist by the public, en retard, came as a surprise or a matter of any momentous concern to Duchamp. He often sidestepped issues of taste and judgment, regally disregarding the opinions of contemporaries and the manipulated vagaries of fad and fashion. This iconoclastic spirit goes to the core of the aesthetic question for Duchamp; when asked about artistic evolution, he replied:

I don't see it, because I doubt its value deep down. Man invented art. It wouldn't exist without him. All of man's creations aren't valuable. Art has no biological source. It's addressed to a taste....People who talk about art have turned it into something functional by saying, "Man needs art, in order to refresh himself." There isn't any society without art [only] because those who look at it say so....It is we who have given the name "art" to religious things; the word itself doesn't exist among primitives. We have created it in thinking about ourselves, about our own satisfaction. We created it for our sole and unique use; it's a little like masturbation. I don't believe in the essential aspect of art.

[ Cabanne Dialogues, p. 100. ]

Duchamp's persistent contrariness stood on its head the basic sentimental view of art and artists cherished by the populace. One cannot help sympathizing with those who fail to follow his finely logical distinctions about a sovreign retirement from art to play chess, resigning from painting by disdaining to play the predictable Art game according to the polite protocols of museums or the crasserconventions of the marketplace. As an example of this attitude, Calvin Tomkins quotes the following nonconformist declaration by Duchamp:

I'm not so interested in art per se....It's only one occupation, and it hasn't been my whole life, far from it. You see, I've decided that art is a habit-forming drug. That's all it is, for the artist, for the collector, for anybody connected with it. Art has absolutely no existence as veracity, as truth. People always speak of it with this great, religious reverence, but why should it be so revered. It's a drug, that's all. The more I go on, the more I'm convinced of it. The onlooker is as important as the artist....I'm afraid I'm an agnostic in art. I just don't believe in it with all the mystical trimmings. As a drug it's probably very useful for a number of people, very sedative, but as religion, it's not even as good as God.

[ Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, p. 17-18. ]

Not that all the inventions of man were thought by him to be exactly worthless, since Duchamp delighted in the world with the curiosity and enthusiasm of a stellar student, and continuously busied himself in making or fixing things. He was particularly fascinated with optical devices, an interest often alluded to in his titles for works such as Oculist Witness (1920), Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) (1925), or To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918); and this interest was embodied in his revolutionary use of transparent glass to supplant traditional easel painting's opaque canvas.

Considering the intensity of his interest in optics and all of his concomitant obsession with precision, one of the anomalies in Duchamp's career is that he apparently had little concern for enhancing ordinary vision as turned toward the small-scale world, through use of the microscope; neither does he seem to have used a telescope, nor to have taken an interest in astronomy, so as to turn his fascination with optics literally to the stars. And yet, stars did sometimes figure behind Duchamp's vision. Man Ray's 1921 photograph of Duchamp in Paris displayed the back of the artist's head, whose hair had been shave-cut by George de Zayas with an exotic tonsure in the shape of a five-pointed star. This must have been meant to represent a "shooting star," for in the photo we can notice a comet-like tail streaking up the sagital crest of Duchamp's skull from the occipital asterism toward his forehead. Arturo Schwarz supposed the gesture had some psychological significance, citing Erich Neumann on this theme:

The sacerdotal sacrifice is an ancient mark of priesthood, from the baldness of Egyptian hierophants to the tonsure of Catholic priests and Buddhist monks. Notwithstanding the great disparity of religious views, hairlessness is always associated with sexual abstinence and celibacy, i.e., with symbolic self-castration.

[ The photograph is reproduced in D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 18, and in Schwarz, Complete Works, p.484; the quotation is from Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, translated from the German by R.F.C. Hull, (Bollingen Series XLII), Princeton University Press (1954; first paperback printing 1971), p. 59. ]

Associations with Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and Bride series may be heightened for us by citing the continuation of this passage, in which Neumann states that shaving of the head was related to the cult of the Great Mother, and that "The equivalent in woman is the sacrifice of her chastity."

THE (1915)

Another gestural "work of art" documenting Duchamp's interest in stars, and probably the first manuscript in English from the artist's hand, in ink, on a single sheet of paper, is known by the curious single-word title, The (1915). Written shortly after arriving in America, the text is composed of several disjunct phrases that read like some kind of proto-Dada sonata. This exercise, however, was very different from the later Surrealist compositions pieced together out of ordinary words and phrases written on slips of paper and drawn from a hat, because the sequence of words was NOT determined by chance. On the contrary, it was very painstakingly composed, deliberately crafted to transcend the conventional semantic functions of language. The's unique feature is that where one would expect to read the word "the," it was replaced by a heavily inked five-pointed star. Long the doyen of Duchamp studies, gallery director (and the artist's longtime friend), Arturo Schwarz, in the "Descriptive Bibliography of Duchamp's Writings..." section of his monumental monograph, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, cites the artist's own explanation:

"The meaning in these sentences was a thing I had to avoid...the construction was very painful in a way, because the minute I did think of a verb to add to the subject, I would very often see a meaning and immediately I saw a meaning I would cross out the verb and change it...until the text would finally read without any echo of the physical world." When Duchamp wrote this text he had just landed in America and was beginning to learn English, a task difficult enough by itself; however, always consistently contradictory, he took great pains to complicate the matter even further by reveling in abstract exercises. In the text he put an asterisk for "the" every time the article occurred. "That was only a kind of was not very good syntax, but nevertheless it was somethig without great meaning; in other words it was not a story. the only point was that the word "the," that comes along so often in any conversation or any writing, was replaced by an asterisk." One might point out that this wish to avoid telling a story seems to precede Robbe-Grillet and the plotlessness of nouveau roman by some fifty years.

[ Schwarz, Complete Works, p. 584. Although unsigned and undated, Schwarz states that The was written in New York in October, 1915, and was first published in the New York magazine, The Rogue, vol. II, No. 1 (October 1916), p. 2. ]

Of significant interest to us in our study of the slightly later With Hidden Noise is the injunctive sentence, written in French (apparently in pencil) across the lower part of the page of The, since it turns the piece into a similar simple substitution cypher:

Remplacer chaque * par le mot: the

(Replace each * by the word: the)

[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, No. 112, p. 278. ]

Altogether, The has thirteen five-pointed stars like those of the Betsy Ross adaptation of the flag of the British East India Co., Ltd. It appears that one of these was added in dark pencil along with certain other emendations, as Duchamp mentions. The differently-formed asterisk in the French sentence would make a total count on the page of fourteen stars in the constellation, although (so far as we have been able to determine) their disposition does not resemble any of the familiar asterisms in the night sky. It should be pointed out that the star in the injunctive French sentence is the only one with six (not five) points. The different respective symbolic meanings of the five- and the six-pointed star in the Great Seal of the United States of America, we shall consider presently. There, the form of a six-pointed star is made up from thirteen stars with five points. Without wishing to make of it too big a point, one may assume that Duchamp intended to draw some such distinctions, although it is difficult to imagine why. Editors Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, in the "Catalog" section for their rich Duchampiana volume, add to their discussion of the piece that when it was published in the magazine Rogue, The bore a title containing a wry reference to the painting that had made Duchamp notorious in the American media even before his arrival in New York:

"THE, Eye Test, Not a `Nude Descending a Staircase.'"

We can discover the commonality of Duchamp's interest in eye movements and illusory kinetics by documenting the sources--in a sense, the stellar origins--of that famous painting. When Duchamp said he began to seek inspiration from poets rather than from other artists (around 1911), he did a little pencil drawing illustrating a poem by Jules Laforgue, Encore à cet astre (Once more to this star). Even so, Duchamp said he was more attracted by the humor of Laforgue's prose poems in Moralités Légendaires than by the astral imagery that abounds in the poem, Encore.... The nude in Duchamp's drawing is actually ascending, but this sketch marked the start of his interest in showing the human figure in imaginary motion, leading directly to the painting Nude Descending a Staircase, which, he said, originated from a desire

to do a nude different from the classic standing or reclining nude, and to put it in motion. There was something funny there, but it wasn't at all funny when I did it. Movement appeared like an argument to make me decide to do it. In the Nude Descending a Staircase, I wanted to create a static image of movement: movement is an abstraction, a deduction articulated within the painting, without our knowing if a real person is or isn't descending an equally real staircase. Fundamentally, movement is in the eye of the spectator, who incorporates it into the painting.

[ Cabanne, Dialogues, p. 30. ]