The number three had a special appeal for Marcel Duchamp; both his writings and art display recurrent manifestations of triplicity. Of course, whole systems of theology, theories of logic, and schools of philosophy have been constructed upon trinitarian foundations. Venerable symbolic traditions associated with the number three still embeded in sacred ritual, have also dispersed and filtered down into popular superstitions. Buck Mulligan in Martello tower at the beginning of James Joyce's Ulysses cooks up three eggs in a skillet in mocking mummery of the Christological mystery in the doctrine of Three Divine Essences in One Divine Substance. As the hero Stephen Daedalus earlier translated the formulaic aesthetics of St.Thomas Aquinas:

Three things are needed for beauty: wholeness, harmony and radiance.

[ James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 248. The original words of St. Thomas were ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur: integritas, consonantia, claritas. ]

Threes are redundant in children's nursery rhymes and fairy stories, as in the high art of religious triptychs or in the structure of Dante's poetry. The number three is very handy: three wishes, three little words, or three strikes and you're out at the old ball game. In his monograph on Marcel Duchamp, Arturo Schwarz indulges in several speculations on numerology and chance; although he refers to these comments as "digressions," he does acknowledge Duchamp himself as the principal source for numerological notions involving recurrent references to the number three:

Duchamp has drawn our attention to the fact that in the Large Glass the number 3 is taken "as a refrain in duration." We shall accordingly see that, like chance, this number has a complex role in the iconography of the Large Glass.

[ Schwarz, Complete Works, p. 130.]

Duchamp's intricate play on this theme of a trinity--as in his tripartite associations for the principal elements in the Large Glass--has caught the attention of other writers. Richard Hamilton also "established an interesting relationship" between elements of the Large Glass and the seminal work, Three Standard Stoppages (1913- 14):

Together with the Draught [Draft] Pistons and the "shots," the Standard Stoppages make up the triplet of chance-controlled deformations used in the Large Glass. The "shots" (nine holes drilled through the glass at positions determined by projecting a paint-dipped match from a toy cannon aimed at a target) are deviations from a point--the target. The Standard Stoppages (chance configurations of three pieces of thread one metre long) are modifications of a line. The shapes of the Draught Pistons were established by photographing a square piece of net moving in a draught--changes wrought in a plane.

[ Richard Hamilton, The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, Tate Gallery, Arts Council of Great Britain, London (1966), p. 48. ]

In this context we cannot help recalling the formalistic art theories of point, line and plane proposed by Heinrich Wölfflin. Such notions were widely discussed among European intellectuals, and also by artists, although perhaps the most relevant book by Wölfflin was published after Duchamp had already well begun his magnum opus.

[ Heinrich Wölfflin, Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe ("The Principles of Art History"), Munich (1915), in which he developed a five-part system of paired concepts for applied formal analysis of art works. See the excellent discussion of Wölfflin's influence in Paul Frankl, The Gothic, pp. 621 ff. ]

The tripartite model is at least as old as the Riddle of the Sphinx; indeed, Arturo Schwarz does go back to Greek tragedy for examples of 3-symbolism. He also seems fascinated by associations "even as far as China" relating ideas about chance elements in Duchamp's work to the ancient Chinese oracle book: Schwarz quotes one passage from C. G. Jung's "Foreword" to the I Ching, referring to an "acausal connecting principle" that Jung called "synchronicity." Further pursuing the psychological importance of number, Schwarz mentions that Freud saw the number three as related to the male genitalia, noting Freud's feeling that "chance numbers" do not exist:

He shows that when a number seems to have been chosen by chance, it has in fact been determined by the unconscious. For Jung, number is "an archetype of order which has become conscious.... Number helps more than anything else to bring order into the chaos of appearances. It is the predestined instrument for creating order, or for apprehending an already existing, but still unknown, regular arrangement or `orderedness'."

[ Schwarz, Complete Works, p. 131. ]

The most valuable of these commentaries by the great Duchamp scholar on numerology and the number three are contained in reports of personal conversations he had with the artist himself:

Both Lebel and the Janises have also noted the inclination of Duchamp's works to fall "into categories of three, intentionally or otherwise." Duchamp, however, was quite conscious of his use of this number in the Glass. "The number 3 interested me because I used it as a kind of architecture for the Glass," he was to tell me, adding that "it gave the Glass some sort of unitary organization, at least, as far as its technical elaboration was concerned." When I asked the reason for his predilection for this number, he commented, "For me it is a kind of magic number, but not magic in the ordinary sense. As I said once, number 1 is the unity, number 2 is the couple, and 3 is the crowd. In other words, twenty millions or three is the same for me."

[ Schwarz, Complete Works, p. 130 f. ]

Certain peoples living in societies not based on formal writing systems with numerical notation share this attitude toward number.Among the nomadic tribes of southern Africa are perhaps the world's greatest abstract, speculative philsophers, people formerly known to Europeans as Hottentots or "Bushmen" (both now felt to be derogatory terms.) They are able to elaborate intricate survival strategies and subtle cosmologies without the conventional concept of number. This remarkable phenomenon inspired the physicist George Gamow with the title of his entertaining book, One, Two, Three...Infinity.

We have it...on the authority of African explorers that many Hottentot tribes do not have in their vocabulary the names for numbers larger than three. Ask a native down there how many sons he has or how many enemies he has slain, and if the number is more than three, he will answer "many."

[ George Gamow, One, Two, Three...Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science, New American Library, New York (Mentor Books 1953), p.15. ]

Robert Lebel's important early study of Duchamp also contains valuable numerical references. They appear prominently in the context of Lebel's comments on the verbal uniqueness of Duchamp's word plays produced by the "contamination" of the two languages, French and English. His observations may help us appreciate the spirit in which Duchamp produced the curious word-cypher painted in groups of three words on each of three lines, on both outside surfaces of the brass plaques of With Hidden Noise.

Proceeding as he did by the sudden flash of assonance, all he needed were ingenious substitutions of syllables in order to explode the logical framework of the phrase. He disclosed in the very depths of the most commonplace speech the lightning-like brilliance of "primary" words which conventional usage disfigures.

[ Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, Grove Press, New York (1959), p. 48.]

Lebel then discusses the remarkable 1922 collaboration between Duchamp in New York and the poet/medium Robert Desnos in Paris where he apparently received trance (oceanic) communications from Rrose Sélavy, that were later published by André Breton in the December issue of Litérature.

This frame of mind explains his reticence with respect to the plays on words produced during hypnotic sleep which Robert Desnos collected and published under the title Rrose Sélavy. Desnos could pretend to be in telepathic communication with him across the ocean....Along similar lines he also tried to extract the secret truth of numbers. In this field he has undertaken experiments of which he has said very little but which are not unrelated to the traditional theories of number symbolism.

[ Lebel Duchamp, p. 48. See also D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 18. ]

Another renowned passage from Lebel's monograph makes for intriguing reading even three decades after it was written, since from our present historical perspective we can appreciate all the better his remarkably accurate predictions concerning the dichotomy of critical approaches inspired by the Large Glass.

Certainly an exhaustive interpretation [of the Large Glass] is still needed, and we have seen, with our cursory look into the Green Box, that the professional grinds and other scholars will find there is no lack of materials for more than one lifetime of obscure research. Still, only sudden flashes of intuition can suggest a plausible decoding, as we shall see when we turn to the hypothesis of esoterism.

[ Lebel, Duchamp, p. 73. ]


Lebel's dive into "esoterism" and his attempts to divine mystical associations prompted him to publish a sensational but unsubstantiated speculation that Duchamp had actually quit painting and was engaged in the practice of some kind of alchemy.

Given a man who surrounds himself with secrecy, who obviously follows a rule, who sets himself exhausting tasks which he makes certain shall bring him neither glory nor profit and which he suddenly abandons for no apparent reason, would we not be justified in looking for some connection with alchemy? Signs are not lacking, from the incontestably initiatory character of his thought and works, based on the consistent use of a secret language, a symbolism of forms and a system of numbers. Need we mention, among other instances, the [Three] Standard Stoppages, the three rollers of the [Chocolate] Grinder, the labyrinth of the three directions...the three Draught [Draft] Pistons, etc...?

When we asked him Duchamp merely replied: "If I have practised alchemy, it was in the only way it can be done now, that is to say without knowing it." For some this is an insufficiently conclusive answer, since it does not exclude the possibility that he might have rediscovered alchemy. If we grant that this could be a forgotten technique, or one which had become inaccessible to those in search of it today because the serious-minded have discredited it, humor (in its most outrageous form) would then be the only means of attaining the sublime....

[Lebel, Duchamp, p. 73. ]

The suggestion that Duchamp was taught--or himself constructed-- a "language" may go too far, since even the complex set of interacting symbols, such as the documents in the Green Box, do not quite a language make. And if we pretend they do, then we must ask how such a language would differ from, say, Paul Klee's "secret language" with the Swiss artist's comparably refined and witty poetic sensibility, and his incredibly rich inventory of visual signs, theoretically integrated with astounding clarity and documented by extensive notebooks from Klee's Bauhaus courses. What about the secret languages used by Piet Mondrian? Vassily Kandinsky? Andy Warhol? Historically, Philo T. Farnsworth and David Sarnoff's innovations with television did actually lead to a secret language--at least in Britain--for television research there provided top secret data that lead directly to the development of ASDIC, as the British called their invention of radar. In this brief consideration of secret languages, we should also reflect upon the compelling example of James Joyce, after whose literary exploits neither the English language nor (in some measure) Great Britain itself, will ever quite be the same.

This is certainly not to belittle the issue, for the subject of a "secret language" deserves careful examination. Duchamp developed a highly personal, poetic and aesthetic iconography in the Large Glass, and extended these cryptic considerations into other works of art over a period of many years. He was, indeed, extremely language-conscious, and some of his notes further attest to radical, creative, linguistic intentions. David Antin brilliantly explored (in his unorthodox form) the style and nature of Duchamp's mechanical manipulations of language, establishing for it a self-referential role in Duchamp's work:

language is a system of great coherence and elegance which he violates for its potential energy he "rips it off" tapping the energy of one system and feeding it into another it is not the only system he could use but it is his favorite system and it is the most profoundly human system he could have found in this sense the role of language in his work is profound not as profound as language but it is a profoundly human actuating principle that drives all his art

[davidantin (David Antin), "duchamp and language," in Marcel Duchamp, edited by Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, The Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, New York (1973), p. 114. The unorthodox format of this quotation is davidantin's own (or as close to it as we can approximate in HTML format).]

The appearance of the letters painted within the grids engraved on the plates of With Hidden Noise, or--more precisely, the composition of the words these letters can be made to form by following the indications of the clue sentence--can be understood as compelling evidence of Duchamp's concern ABOUT language, without pretending to prove that he has created language anew:

Let us repeat here, for emphasis, a note we cited above. It was appended by David Antin when this article was included with other choice bits of Duchampiana in the 1973 volume issued jointly by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That author reported, in the note, having reconsidered the relation of Duchamp's language speculations to his sculpture, adding:

i am now quite convinced what he was interested in was a complete underlying logical calculus of language or mind in spite of his own and everyone elses insufficient competence to carry it out

[ davidantin, "duchamp and language," p. 115. ]


All the same, Marcel Duchamp's competencies were formidable, including: highly developed, sensitive perceptions (both verbal and visual), the combination of an intense and immediate love of life with a profound capacity for conceptual abstraction, the marriage of exquisite technical and manual skills with a fecund imagination, some good luck, and a ribald sense of humor. Moreover, these impressive resources were marshaled by self-discipline worthy of a samurai and focused on the one truly deep theme underlying much of art: the integration of the psyche expressed--somehow--in the stuff of the material world. Such a realization of the Unity is precisely the program, modelled on the natural process of growth and change, that traditional alchemical practice has always said it seeks to expedite.

There appears to be no end of descriptive texts, explaining the intentions of alchemy and purporting to reveal its innermost meanings and secret methods. A stream of popular publications on the topic flows down to us from the time of the Renaissance--texts frequently composed of quaint illustrations with a recondite pastiche of vocabulary, prattling their garbled theses. Despite possessing a certain antiquarian interest, it is difficult to see how this mass of lits et rature could communicate any real knowledge.

Much of the content in alchemical tomes of the Western tradition are elaborately symbolic or cryptic rather than offering objective recipes or clear injunctions. Some of this is an understandable response to persecutions by the church or repression from other political and social institutions. But there are other problems that arise, perhaps inevitably, when trying to transmit fundamentally experiential teachings by means of the written word. Nevertheless, some uncommon publications do offer honest, carefully written, and useful texts. And, while it might strain the (generally justifiable) skepticism that develops among astute students who attempt to snow-shovel through the chaotic HEAP of alchemical literature, there are indeed some specific guides and manuals (analogous to those remarkably objective texts on meditation and visualization from medieval Tibet) capable of serving as practical adjuncts to the vital transmission from an authentic teacher. That much ought to be acknowledged. The following comments by Arturo Schwarz do not seem to be quite of this nature; but they may prove useful for a reasonably accurate summary of the alchemical process as commonly understood--such as might be gleaned from exoteric reading about or contemplation of the subject, in so far as it can be described from the outside at all.

The material liberation of philosophic gold from vulgar metal is a metaphor for the psychological processes concerned with the liberation of man from life's basic contradictions....Such an interpretation...requires the conciliation, on a higher, transcending plane, of the contradictions that man encounters on the way toward higher self-development: in alchemical terms, on the way toward achieving the status of the homo maior endowed with eternal youth.

But, for the adept to achieve higher consciousness means, in the first place, acquiring "golden understanding" (aurea apprehensio) of his own microcosm and of the macrocosm in which it fits. It is in the course of his pursuit of the Philosopher's Stone that he acquires this new awareness. Thus the quest is more important than the reward; as a matter of fact, the quest is the reward. Alchemy is nothing other than an instrument of knowledge--of the total knowledge that aims to open the way to total liberation.

[ Arturo Schwarz, "The Alchemist Stripped Bare in the Bachelor, Even," in D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 82. ]

Well then, we must finally ask, was Marcel Duchamp actually a practitioner of alchemy: the Art, the Great Work for which the "secret language" was designed to be employed? Although convincing proof about such matters is exceedingly difficult to come by, frankly it does not appear very likely that either Duchamp or any of the other creative artists mentioned above ever practiced real exercises: as transmitted within a genuine, living alchemical tradition. Yet, with equal justice (without insolence and maintaining full respect for the Work itself), we might also ask whether or not Schwarz, who writes eloquently enough in describing the process, had ever in fact practiced the specific set of exercises intended to produce the state of aurea apprehensio.

Of course Schwarz, or anyone else, has a perfect right to insist upon the ultimate privacy of the internal process; but it does matter whether or not someone who talks or writes about what he calls alchemy has actually done the Work, practiced the Art, and through "Grace" or barakath, received and embodied some quantum of the Teachings.

In order for us to understand Duchamp's practical relationship to the alchemical tradition, it may be judicious to follow, as a working guide, the characterization offered by Professor Steefel:

his personal and untraditional alchemy of achieving "fool's gold" out of what would have been others' "dross"...that is why he converted the mechanism of nonsense into the alphabet of dreams.

[ Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr., "Marcel Duchamp and the Machine," in D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 78. ]

The associations with alchemy imagined by Schwarz, Lebel, and other writers highlight an important historical issue: the recurring rediscovery of the "secret language" of alchemy in the West. The Sufi master Idries Shah provides important clues as to the nature and function of such a secret language in his discussions of the Coalmen, the Builders, and the Philosopher's Stone. The legitimate transmission of alchemical knowledge and practice does appear to have weathered the ages in other centers of culture outside Europe and America, despite many persecutions and periods of adversity. However, Shah describes

an almost unbelievable confusion in the West, [observing that] the problem started in its literary form in the twelfth century, when the allegorical alchemies were translated....Robert of Chester, an Englishman who studied in Saracen Spain, introduced alchemy to Christendom of the middle ages in a book which he finished in 1144. This was a translation of an Arabic book, and in it...he states categorically that this science was not at that time known in the "Latin world."

[ Idries Shah, The Sufis, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, New York (1964), pp. 173, 192. ]

In the same year, 1144, Abbot Suger dedicated the Church of St. Denis, the burial place of French kings, and thereby--virtually at one stroke--inaugurated the Gothic as a coherent architectural style. The essential information enabling Gothic architects to achieve their audacious engineering feats was mathematical, involving especially the study of harmonic functions. The Knights Templar appear to have imported these crucial teachings from the Levant in the early 12th century. But following the vicious persecutions of the order by the French King most inappropriately known as Philip the Fair in 1307,

some of the Templars who managed to escape from France took refuge in Scotland and England. In the latter the Temple survived in London's Inns of Court [which palyed a critical role in the evolution of legal institutions for all later English-speaking countries] keeping alive, underground, the ancient wisdom of Egypt passed on by Cathar, Manichee, gnostic, Sufi, Albigensian, and Free Mason.

With the subsequent suppression of the guilds on the Continent, the secret wisdom was no longer able to be built into the stonework of the great cathedrals funded by the Templars. It was to survive instead in the veiled ritual of the lodge, and in the Hermetic language of the poet.

[ Peter Tompkins, The Magic of Obelisks, Harper and Row, New York (1981), p. 63. See also, Louis Charpentier, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, Robert Lafont, Paris (1966); translated by Sir Ronald Fraser, Research Into Lost Knowledge Organisation, London (1972). ]

Former President of the United States and ardent Freemason Harry S. Truman once quipped that the only secret about that association was that there is a secret. Knowledge that a tradition does exist, knowledge about it, or even the performance of certain parts of the Great Work, however, are not enough to make one an alchemist. Some say that C. G. Jung actually performed esoteric exercises using pranayama breathing techniques or a similar meditation with kundalini energy, a foundation practice upon which higher-level so- called alchemical work is traditionally based. Jung was said to have been fearful (no doubt with good cause) lest any of his professional colleagues learn of these activities. As it was, he had already survived some impassioned attempts by conservative physicians to drum him out of the exoteric practice of medicine because of his interest in psychiatry, at that time considered one of the esoteric arts of healing.


One intriguing chapter of the modern rediscovery of alchemy belongs to ninteenth century cultural history, at that time connected to art history through the activities of (Dante) Gabriel Rossetti, who was later to become a member of the English group of esthetes known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1834, Rossetti wrote a "strange" book on Dante's Inferno, interpreting it as

an anti-Catholic or at least anti-Roman allegory written in secret figurative language in the interest of some persisting underground Manichaean sect or doctrine. Hermetic and Gnostic elements in Dante need not be denied, but Rossetti's conception of a secret sect has not been substantiated.

[ Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume V,Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 5 "Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Physiological Alchemy," Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1983), p. 15. Rossetti's book was Disquitions on the Anti-Papal Spirit Which Produced the Reformation; Its Secret Influence on the Literature of Europe in General and of Italy in Particular, translated by C. Ward, 2 volumes, Smith and Elder, London, 1834. ]

The probable chain of transmission of this knowledge--we do not have conclusive evidence about actual practice-- is interesting because Rossetti's book, far from falling into Duchamp's hands, or even into those of a European researcher, apparently exerted its most effective influence upon one Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Major-General, United States Army. Hitchcock received some degree of political, social, and ethical enlightenment as an unexpected consequence of observing first-hand the atrocities and gross injustices committed during the early 19th century campaigns against the Seminoles and other Indians. General Hitchcock thereafter dedicated the considerable force of his office--and some major portion of the energy of his soul--to defending the interests of Native Americans against the predations of vicious bureaucrats in local, state and federal governments, and against the treacheries of rapacious traders or the murderous inclinations of a violent and racist citizenry.

Eventually, he rose to one of the highest ranks in the Union Army, and in the 1860s was offered, but declined because of his then advancing age, the high command that eventually went to Ulysses S. Grant. Earlier in the century, as Hitchcock moved from post to post, from Maryland, to Oregon, to California, he took with him everywhere trunkloads of books on alchemy, and

produced in 1855 and 1857 two memorable books on alchemy and the alchemists. He propounded the idea that the real subject of alchemy had been the improvement of man himself...and believed that the medieval alchemists had resorted to concealment because they feared persecution for heretical ideas. "The works of the alchemists...all brought into or developed from one central point, which is Man, as the image of God." Aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi, "our gold is not ordinary gold."

[ Needham, Science and Civilisation, Vol. V, part 5, p. 15. ]

This last point is the key to the rediscovery of alchemical practice, and also the basis for understanding at least its symbolic relationship to art, a point very firmly grasped by the mythographer and cultural historian, Joseph Campbell. He has likend the central idea of a Western alchemical scroll to the Buddhist mantram inscribed ubiquitously on the prayer wheels of Tibet:


These syllables, or bijas, are to be understood as harmonically or magically efficacious because of their intrinsic properties as pure sound. OM (or AUM) is considered to be the seed syllable of Sanskrit, a written token of the mother sound that gave birth to all the other sounds of Prakrit, the original spoken, orally- transmitted language. OM can also be translated as an expletive, oath or salutation, so that a rendering of the above mantic/mantric phrase into English might be translated as, "Hail to the Jewel of Buddha Consciousness in the Lotus of the world, HUM!" The last syllable, which corresponds to the heart center (or anahata chakra), serves as an emphatic "Amen!"

For like the sages of the Orient for whom this visible-audible world is not the creation of a god apart, but the sensually apprehended form of divinity the European medieval alchemists thought of the "gold," the "uncommon gold" (aurum non vulgi), of their psycho-metaphysical transmuting process as actually immanent in all things, simply released, i.e., revealed, through the various distillations and fermentations of their alchemical "work."

...Processes were initiated that were intended only to accelerate and fulfill, not to oppose, the travail of nature-- which was namely to render from the elements of its soil a "golden flowering" of the spirit. Hence the vas in which the work was accomplished can be likened to a second womb, and the inauguration of the process to a spiritual begetting, the product of which was to be a "child" conceived of art and brought by art to birth, a "virgin birth." All of which is to say that the gold of alchemy, as the old masters ever insisted, was not the same as that of the merchants, not the common gold, aurum vulgi, of the markets of the world, but the "gold of philosophy," aurum philosophicum, aurum mercurialis, aurum nostrum, aurum volatile; gold, in other words, such as only art bestows through its transfiguration of the world as commonly known.

[ Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image {Bollingen Series C}, Princeton University Press (1974) p. 254 f. ]

Duchamp's disdain for the gold of the market place shows him as kindred in spirit with Professor Campbell's alchemists. Both the veritable parthenogenesis of the Large Glass, and Duchamp's "transfigurations of the world as commonly known" by his Readymades tend to support the analogy between descriptions of alchemical processes and his activities in modern art. This is further detailed by references to the number three, which Campbell notes in citation of comments that Doctor Jung made about the ever-continuing process of the lapis philosophorum, the Philosopher's Stone as described in alchemical manuscripts:

As C. J. Jung has commented in elucidation of these curiously symbolic texts to which he devoted a very great part of the studies of his later years: "The alchemist thought in strictly medieval trichotomous terms: anything alive--and his lapis is undoubtedly alive--consists of corpus, anima, and spiritus."

[ Campbell, Mythic Image, p. 256. ]

The Wild West book-study, or perceptions and insights, of the remarkable General Hitchcock may have provided clues for the modern European rediscovery of alchemy's central, mystical purpose. But no grace of academic acknowledgement renders this suspected debtedness explicit. Just as Sigmund Freud was loathe to acknowledge his quite apparent intellectual debts to Eduard von Hartmann, Janet or Lipps,

Jung never mentions Hitchcock, but the latter's work was well known to [Dr. Herbert] Silberer, whose book on the symbols of mysticism, published at Vienna in 1914, was one of the seminal influences on Jung.

[ Needham, Science and Civilisation, Vol. V, part 5, p. 15. For Freud's lapses in the conventional courtesies, see the devastating account with a critical evaluation of psychiatry in McCulloch, "The Past of a Delusion," Embodiments of Mind, especially pp. 294 ff. ]


By 1914, Duchamp returned to Paris, having passed through Vienna on his return trip from Munich, where he had gone in 1912. During this period Duchamp faced a critical juncture in his artistic approach as he began to preserve those notes which eventually led to the Green Box and the Large Glass. We here relate, and emphasize, a detail in one of the stories analyzed by Silberer that -- as it were, synchronistically -- bears a striking resemblance to Duchamp's string-drop for Three Standard Stoppages, those experiments with chance he conducted during the summer of 1913 in England, at Herne Bay, Kent. The story features talking toads, a magic carpet, golden ring, one beautiful and two ugly maidens, and goes on and on, with a great deal of sibling rivalry. At the beginning of the tale is some aleatory business, reminiscent of Duchamp's art process--this time, however, with falling feathers:

There was once a king who had three sons, two of whom were clever and shrewd, but the third did not talk much, was simple and was merely called the Simpleton. When the king grew old and feeble and expected his end, he did not know which one of his sons should inherit the kingdom after him. So he said to them, "Go forth and whoever brings me the finest carpet shall be king after my death." And lest there be any disagreement among them, he led them before his castle, blew three feathers into the air, and said, "As they fly so shall you go." One flew to the east, the other towards the west, the third, however, flew straight ahead, but flying only a short distance soon fell to earth. Now one brother went to the right, the other went to the left, and they laughed at Simpleton, who had to stay with the third feather where it had fallen.

[ Herbert Silberer, Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism, translated by Smith Ely Jelliffe, Moffat, Yard & Co., New York (1917), reprinted as Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts, Dover Books, New York (1971), p. 219. Silberer presents the story of the three feathers in a section of his book headed "The Problem of Multiple Interpretation," concerned with the reading of "gold" as a central symbol of the alchemical tradition (pp. 209 ff.) ]

Simpleton's feather in the story, by great good fortune and not a little magic, happened to land near a trap door, from behind which came a voice singing magically, "Maiden green and small..." and so forth, leading Simpleton to the finest carpet in the land, the most beautiful maiden, and finally to what had once seemed an unlikely transfer of dominion. But despite the charm of this story, we do not suggest that it reveals any historical sources for Duchamp's creative processes whether internal, or aleatory, as for the Three Standard Stoppages. We merely cite the tale here as an intriguing parallel of the kind that frequently emerges when dealing with archetypal imagery.

In a different tradition, the feather is associated with the Archangel Shekinah, who is sometimes equated with that reference to the Divinity in the second verse of Genesis, when "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," and who, among the Names of God in Hebrew, is the only one female in gender. Also, the feather was anciently represented in Egypt, for example, in the Hunefer Papyrus (1317-1301 B.C.):

In the main scene the deceased is conducted by Anubis into the judgement hall of Osiris, where his heart is weighed against a feather of the goddess Truth, whose head appears atop the pole of the balance. Anubis tests the tongue of the balance, and before him stands a monster called Eater of the Dead, whose function it is to consume and thus annihilate all who fail the test.

[ Campbell, Mythic Image, p. 30 f. ]

The poet and Sufi master Maulana (Mowlana) Jalaladin Rumi said: "Counterfeiters exist because there is such a thing as real gold." Writers about Duchamp's art, his interpreters, and his posterity of les régardeurs, have each been tempted to seek parallels for his work in esoteric lore: whether numerology, the Tarot, 'pataphysics, or--as in the present example--alchemy, despite Duchamp's clear disclaimer about consciously following an alchemical path. The truth of the matter is--just for the record--as far as we ordinary human beings are concerned, the practice of Alchemy, the Art, the Great Work (or however its name may be called) indeed does require both clarity of consciousness and a whole- hearted dedication of purpose, Duchamp's hypothetical innocence and real accomplishments, notwithstanding.


Marcel Duchamp painted three lines of letters on each of the brass plates of With Hidden Noise, but attempts to make ordinary sense out of the signs will quite probably prove to be in vain. These markings generate a strangely iconic formal appearance, like fragments of archaic writing or inscriptions in a secret cave. Duchamp himself passed them off with a curiously disarming, partial explanation:

The words inscribed were nothing but an exercise in comparative orthography....French and English are mixed and make no "sense." The three arrows indicate the continuity of the line from the lower plate to the other still without meaning.

[ Schwarz, Complete Works, p. 462. See above, READING INSCRIPTIONS. ]

Although this semantic quest may seem hopeless, we can lighten our hearts by recalling Schwarz's example of the "Modified Printed Ready-made," which he attributed to the poet Lautramont:

Dante's warning at the entrance to the Inferno becomes transformed into an invitation to hope: "Despair abandon, all ye who enter here."

[ Schwarz, Complete Works, p. 44 f. Part of this extensive note was published earlier in Arturo Schwarz, "Contributions to a Poetic of the Ready-made," Marcel Duchamp: Ready-mades, etc. (1913-1964), Galleria Schwarz, Milan (1964), p. 36. Lautramont's example is from Poesies. ]

The Modified Printed Ready-made can take various forms....The "modification" introduced by the poet can relate to a single word only: the "merde" of Cambronne will become "merdre" in Jarry (Cf. Ubu Roi, Act I, Scene I); or resolve itself into the anagram of a name: "Marcel Duchamp" becomes "Marchand du Sel." ...The poet works on a well known passage from a literary work, adding, subtracting or changing one or more words. (pp. 34-36) ]

Maybe we should feel encouraged here to proceed in a playful spirit. Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine include in their Duchamp chronology a thought-provoking--and for our immediate purposes, an inspiring--entry for the year 1922:

"Experiments with the secret truth of numbers, applied to games."

[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 18. ]

So, with a triple nod to "Thrice-Great Hermes," patron of mystic lore, let us apply a few of these experiments with secret truths to the game of Duchamp's substitution cipher. First, we observe that lineal presentations of the letters and dots really do seem to be meaningless. The painted letters and engraved matrix on each exterior face of the two brass plaques constitute an array; that is, they display a particular two-dimensional arrangement, in which the exact position and relationship of the respective letters and dots to each other. This is an important part of a apparent "blind," as Duchamp's cover game: a cipher that, although diversionary, at least informs students of the puzzle piece what kind of precision switcheroos apply.


Many published transcriptions have simply copied the marks and letters, blindly or naively perpetuating inaccuracies. Corrections can be made by referring to good photographs; however, for those who may not have access to the original piece, admittedly the ruled, engraved lines constituting the two grids or matrices, in some illustrations, are quite difficult to discern. Unfortunately, in several published photos of With Hidden Noise--not always of the highest quality--ambiguities about the presence or absence of dots or stress marks, compound the confusion and have probably contributed to misreadings.

For example, there is no dot before HEAP, and none between BAR and AIN. So, instead of the CHEAP, and SHARP BARGAIN we thought we could get, we wind up at the BAR with (Lady Jane?) HEAP. AIN means "eye" in both Hebrew and Arabic, but the arrow linking AIN to (blank) AS on the other plate leads to an anagram for ANAIS (as in Miss Nin's name); it also may yield a scatological reading of AINAS pronounced "anus." On the other side, DEBARRASSE might be read aloud to sound like "the bare ass," bringing to mind the similar phonemic innuendo of L.H.H.O.Q. (1919), and Duchamp's "very risqué joke on the Gioconda."

[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, Cat. 131, p. 289. ]

While the letters of that title may seem at first meaningless in themselves, they have been explained by many writers. Exemplary are Michel Sanouillet's comments on the Precision Oculism calling card of Rrose Sélavy, in Elmer Peterson's translation:

In addition to the serious side of the firm's business there is, as usual with Duchamp, a built-in alternate and less serious possibility. Oculiste sounds like au culiste and it contains the word cul, ass. Duchamp's doctored Mona Lisa was, of course, entitled L.H.O.O.Q., which when pronounced in French yields, elle a chaud au cul, or "she has a hot ass." So Sélavy advertises herself as a specialist in precision ass and glass work.

[ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 105. ]

".IR." becomes either FIRE, relating to primordial New Fire ceremonies kindled at Easter, or the Vernal Equinox, or TIRE, relating to Tire a quatre épingles, title of the 1964 etching of the lost Readymade ventilator given to Louise Varse in 1915.

"CAR.E" becomes CARRE and could self-referentially indicate the general cubic space occupied by the piece of sculpture, or it could be an explicit reference to the shape of the secret object inserted by Arensberg, who--since he was a great fan of cryptography--might have delighted in seeing such a bold clue displayed with cunning abandon, like Edgar Allan Poe's "Purloined Letter," in full view all the time. Again, it may allude to Carrie Settheimer, for whose dollhouse Duchamp made a miniature edition of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 4 (1918).

[ Schwarz, Complete Works, Cat. 255, p. 472. ]

LONGSEA could be a flipped and clipped form of "long time no see," the missing part of the phrase gives us "no time," the crucial preliminary psychic state attained in meditative contemplation. Or it might refer obliquely to a ship chandlery, a likely place for Duchamp to have acquired the brass and twine. But where do we go from here? The two grids are curiously different, with 20 rectangles to a line (on the side to be read initially) and 25 to a line on the other surface. Hence, columns from one side do not line up with those of the other, arguing against letter substitution from side to side. There is a total of 20 dots and 25 blanks, 88 letters (all the piano keys!) and 2 commas; this altogether accounts for 135 rectangular spaces within the ruled and engraved grid lines that form the matrices.

We also should add three painted arrows to our count of these spaces and letters, (a fourth arrow is inscribed halfway along the "clue" sentence). Even if the inscription were transcribed as a line, it could not begin with "P.G," but would have to start at ".IR." by the logic of the arrows. As the frontispiece of Schwarz's monograph, Eros, c'est la vie appears repeated three times, written in large script letters in Duchamp's hand. Rrose Sélavy, as Marcel Duchamp's alter-ego, came into being by parthenogenesis in 1920 (first when signing Francis Picabia's painting L'Oeil cacodylate), published her witticisms and catalog introductions, and received major credits for Anémic Cinéma (1926). In addition to the puns at "arrows," "eros," and Gertrude Stein's triple rose ("Thus is life: a rose!"), others suggest the phrase Arroser la vie could mean, "Drink it up, live life!" or even something like "To piss is to live," as noted duly, above. The play with puns and all the witty words notwithstanding, Duchamp apparently considered himself to be something of a champion doubter and metaphysical nominalist, with deep suspicions about any reality supposed to correspond with the world's grandest words, asserting that

...consciousness is a formulation, a very gratuitous formulation of something, but nothing else. And I go further by saying that words such as truth, art, veracity, or anything are stupid in themselves. Of course it is difficult to formulate, so I insist every word I am telling you now is stupid and wrong.

[ "What's Happened to Art?" interview with Marcel Duchamp by William Seitz, Vogue, Volume 141 (February 15, 1963), p. 113. Quoted by Kynaston McShine, "La Vie En Rrose," in d'Harnoncourt and McShine, pp. 132, 134 (note 18). ]

We could insistently try to torture out meanings and anagrams or puns and associations for each of the ciphered words, approximating reasonably sensible phrases, AS HOWEVER CORRESPONDS.... But this flies in the teeth of Duchamp's own demurrer. Besides, this process does not seem to produce results of much substance, nor does it appear to be particularly helpful in solving the main mystery at hand: divining the nature of the secretly inserted object which generates the Hidden Noise. So, one way to deal with the cipher is to simply take Duchamp's words at face value, without either straining for elusive meanings or toying with allusions. The ruled, lettered, engraved, signed and dated plates resound when rattled; and they are rattled when the clue sentence is read, obeying the dynamic injunctions of the arrows (or of Eros): "Roll me over!" The two brass plaques work like a brace of magical "blinds" for the conundrum--helping to announce it by sound, but sealing off the ends of the twine torus, while the mystery object hidden from view randomly tumbles in the free, dark space within.