CHAPTER SEVEN: ONES
1. BALLS OF TWINE
DUCHAMP'S OTHER LINES
THE GORDIAN KNOT
BALLS OF TWINE
The single most unusual element of With Hidden Noise--in terms of materials that usually constitute a piece of sculpture--is the ball of twine: a resilient organic entity bracketed by bolts and pressed between the two brass plaques. In the preceding sections of this text, we have explored by way of extended example some interpretations of Marcel Duchamp's Ready-made work of art related to ideas of freedom and slavery. The United States Senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley, has recently stressed the need for
...acknowledgement that slavery was America's original sin and race remains our unresolved dilemma.
[ Senator Bill Bradley, "The Real Lesson of L.A.," in "Readings," Harper's (July 1992), p. 10; adapted from a speech given on the Senate floor, March 26, 1992, one month before the Rodney King verdict. ]
The troubling theme of slavery received sublime treatment from the earlier sculpture of Michelangelo, whose "Slaves" for the Tomb of Pope Julius II serve as a profound expression of Neoplatonic philosophy. But we have little basis for assuming Marcel Duchamp had such lofty, metaphysical expressions in mind when, with Walter Arensberg, he assembled With Hidden Noise on Easter, 1916. The concepts of freedom and slavery we have chosen to tease out in their associations with the work of art, nevertheless help to articulate implications of the Industrial Revolution and the processes of mass production so essential to Duchamp's radical understanding--expressed especially in his Ready-mades--about the nature and function of art in modern life.
Above, we proposed a symbolic relationship between Duchamp's ball of twine and the idea of the living spirit: organic and flexible, physically constrained (the way the piece is composed) as if captured or imprisoned by the inorganic, rigid metal elements. We can sense this dichotomy, reverberating in metaphors and analogies through other ambivalences in Duchamp's art: repeated interaction between words and images, the words themselves as puns or double entendres, anagrams, palindromes, or spoonerisms, and plays between the sound or the sense and the written form. These manifestations are symptomatic of a deeper duality in Duchamp's work, between the particular material forms of the art objects themselves and the often ironic or paradoxical intellectual concepts of the artist hinted at by the titles, or divined by cross-referenced comments, as in the "Notes" of The Green Box, at once documentation and a self-referential work of art in its own right.
Modern art history, resting heavily on assumptions of nation-state political theory, still does not know how to classify Duchamp: is he a "French" artist who emigrated to America where he really made his fame, or is he an "American" artist, born in France where he is not yet fully appreciated? His own bilingual (French and English) writing reveals a sense of humor that is an original amalgam of the Old and the New World. With a genuinely international appeal, Duchamp has recently attracted great attention even in Japan. The theme of interpenetrating Art and Life is laced through Duchamp's career. He is known for showing at least two faces to the world--each of them ambivalent. As Chess Player he was on the borderline between amateur and professional; as Artist it was never very clear whether he was active or retired: a genius (who also played chess) or a joke.
In spite of these and other ambivalences (including an unusual earlier attempt in quest of matrimonial harmony-- only many years later to enjoy quite a successful marriage), Duchamp often proved himself to be a good doubles player in the great game of existence, at various times teaming up with Francis Picabia, Walter Arensberg, Man Ray, or the Surrealist André Breton. Several levels of symbolic duality in the domain of sexuality pervade Duchamp's art: in the very problematical incest theme seen by some in his young work, in the Bachelor dancing a perennial pavanne with the Bridal Muse, and in the sporting alter ego of Rrose Sélavy. While there is a potential risk of reading far too many implications into Duchamp's work, we may discover not only social and political issues, but also whole sets of things taken two-at-a-time, as the yin and yang of Chinese Taoist lore, the zero and one of Leibnitz and binary logics, or the Neoplatonic dialectic of matter and spirit that so tormented the body, mind and soul of Michelangelo. In a curious way, the symbolic values of Liberty and Freedom that we have assigned to the twine in a somewhat arbitrary manner could also be reversed. After all, one principal use of twine is for tying things up (or down). This was ironically expressed by Duchamp in the jacket for Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares (1947), with the gossipy allusion of André Breton's title to "securing" matrimonial bonds and Duchamp's "de-faced" image of the Franco-American Statue of Liberty.
[ Schwarz, Complete Works, No. 327. Both Schwarz and Lebel illustrate the jacket, with the hole cut out where Liberty's face ought to be, and Breton's face showing through from the cover; but no cherry tree.]
Because the ball of twine is such a unique feature of Duchamp's sculpture, we shall not simply take it for granted, as is the common habit of many writers about art; instead we propose historical and mythical associations that may add new substance to our appreciation of the original felicitous choice. Duchamp's twine in With Hidden Noise is not, of course, a spherical ball at all, but a "ball" of twine wound in a then-standard, commercially available, toroidal form. We know that Duchamp in his studio would often suspend his Ready-mades and other objects from cords, so they would appear to be floating in space. With Hidden Noise was not such a piece, but was meant to be picked up and rotated in space; yet, it does feature a kind of "void" space contained within by the brass plaques. The "constrained" form of Duchamp's twine ball--in which the "donut hole" cannot be seen--contrasts, for example, with Roy Lichtenstein's 1963 painting Ball of Twine ("an anti-Cubist composition"), that shows the same common object as an iconic image, freely floating in an indeterminate space.
The idea is contrary to the major direction of art since the early Renaissance which has more and more symbolized the integration of "figure" with "ground."
[ Roy Lichtenstein, "An Interview," in John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, Pasadena Art Museum (1967), p. 15. ]
Another material issue to consider in Duchamp's sculpture is the very stuff from which the ball of twine is made. Without undertaking aspecific laboratory analysis, we are left to essay merely our best guess that the original 1916 ball of twine in fact consists of hemp, "Earth's premier, renewable natural resource." Nylon, invented in 1935, was introduced in 1938 as a controlled market replacement for cordage previously made from natural--but Russian!--hemp fibers. The DuPont de Nemours interests in supporting the repressive and hypo critical Marijuana Tax legislation of 1937 is particularly suspect.
Virtually every city and town (from time out of mind) in the world had an industry making hemp rope. Russia, however, was the world's largest producer and best-quality manufacturer, supplying 80% of the Western world's hemp from 1740 until 1940.
Thomas Paine outlined four essential natural resources for the new nation in Common Sense (1776): "cordage, iron, timber and tar." Chief among these was hemp for cordage. He wrote, "Hemp flourishes even to rankness, we do not want for cordage...."
From 70-90% of all rope, twine, and cordage was made from hemp until 1937. It was then replaced mostly by petrochemical fibers (owned principally by DuPont under license from Germany's I.G. [Farben] Corporation patents) and by Manila (Abaca) Hemp, with steel cables often intertwined for strength--brought in from our "new" far-Western Pacific Philippines possession, seized from Spain as reparations for the Spanish-American War in 1898.
[ Jack Herer, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, p. 2; and the section "Rope, Twine, and Cordage," p. 7. ]
DUCHAMP'S OTHER LINES
Marcel Duchamp also incorporated twine, string or cord in several other works of art, in addition to With Hidden Noise, some of which have been referred to above. We shall review briefly, in chronological sequence, the pieces in Duchamp's oeuvre that use line, twine, string, thread, or other cordage in some significant way, citing a few of the artist's comments and adding occasional brief observations of our own.
1. Chocolate Grinder No. 2 (1914)
The dry perspective geometry of the chocolate grinder was not painted, but--in an early example of collage technique--was achieved by gluing thread directly onto the surface of the canvas.
From 1913 on I concentrated all of my activities on the planning of the Large Glass and made a study of every detail, like this oil painting which is called Chocolate Grinder, 1914. It was actually suggested by a chocolate grinding machine I saw in the window of a confectionery shop in Rouen. Through the introduction of straight perspective and a very geometrical design of a definite grinding machine like this one, I felt definitely out of the cubist straightjacket. The lines of the three rollers are made of threads sewn into the canvas. The general effect is like an architectural, dry rendering of the chocolate grinding machine purified of all past influences. It was to be placed in the center of a large composition and was to be copied and transferred from this canvas onto the Large Glass.
[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, No. 100, p. 272. ]
2. Three Standard Stoppages (1913-1914)
The piece is described as an assemblage of three threads glued to three painted canvas strips, each mounted on a glass panel, with three wood slats shaped along one edge to match the shape of the threads, the whole fitted in a wooden box. Duchamp's sense of "imprisoning" thethread assists our above interpretation of With Hidden Noise.
This is not a painting. The three narrow strips are called Three Standard Stoppages from the French 3 Stoppages-talon.. They should be seen horizontally instead of vertically because each strip shows a curved line made of sewing thread, one meter long, after it had been dropped from a height of 1 meter, without controlling the distortion of the thread during the fall. The shape thus obtained was fixed onto the canvas by drops of varnish ...Three rulers...reproduce the three different shapes obtained by the fall of the thread and can be used to trace those shapes with a pencil on paper. This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length: one meter was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight line as being the shortest route from one point to another.
[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, No. 101, pp. 273-274. ]
3. Recipe (1918)
This piece is a manuscript note in French, written by Duchamp in ink on photographic film; an early example of Concept Art.
An improbable recipe calling for three pounds of "plume" (feather or pen), five meters of string weighing ten grams, and twenty-five "candles of electric light." It appears to be written on a fragment of one of the photographs for the Draft Pistons.
[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, No. 123, p. 284. For the Draft Pistons (1914), see No. 105, pp. 274-275. Sanouillet translates this Recette in the section of his book, Salt Seller, titled "Texticles," p. 179. ]
4. Sculpture for Traveling (1918)
Composed of rubber and string, the dimensions of this piece, concocted by Duchamp in New York, are cited as ad lib:
A collapsible sculpture made from colored strips of rubber cut from bathing caps. It could be arranged in any configuration by tying the strings attached to it to various points in a room. Duchamp took it to Buenos Aires with him in 1918.
The original [which is shown in a photograph of the New York studio, 33 West 67th Street] disintegrated after a few years. A copy was made by Richard Hamilton in 1966 for the retrospective exhibition of Duchamp's work at the Tate Gallery, London.
[D'Harnoncourt and McShine, No. 125, p. 286. ]
5. Unhappy Ready-made (1919)
This Ready-made was composed of a geometry textbook suspended from a line; the original has been destroyed, apparently in keeping with the original intention for this early, radical piece of Concept Art. Learning of his sister's marriage to Jean Crotti in Paris, Duchamp sent instructions from Buenos Aires for the construction of a Ready-made, which was to be a wedding present. As he described this work in an interview with Pierre Cabanne:
It was a geometry book, which had to hang by strings on the balcony of his apartment in the rue Condamine; the wind had to go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and tear out the pages. Suzanne did a small painting of it, "Marcel's Unhappy Ready-made." That's all that's left, since the wind tore it up. It amused me to bring the idea of happy and unhappy into Ready-mades, and then the rain, the wind, the pages flying, it was an amusing idea....
[ Cabanne, Dialogues, p. 61. ]
We may also note here some anticipation by Duchamp of the flayed piano and other complex machinery in Jean Tinguely's Homage to New York (1960), programed to self-destruct on Saint Patrick's Day.
In addition to the battered piano...drums, bicycle wheels, Coke bottles, a typewriter, a drawing machine, and a weather balloon figured as performers. Fifteen rickety motors powered the shabbily constructed affair. The entire assembly was designed to make music, create drawings, issue reports, give birth to machine offspring, set itself on fire and finally destroy itself. The noise, the drawings, the typed reports, and the bursting activity in general were aimless in true Dada fashion. At the same time the suicidal machine constituted a junkyard parody of contemporary civilization. The short career of Homage was witnessed by a distinguished audience on March 17, 1960, in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. But, contrary to expectation, the machine did not destroy itself completely, and Tinguely's intervention was required to set it finally on the path to self-immolation. With the aid of its maker, the whole whirring, flapping spectacle began to smoke, and at last exploded into flame, its "useful" life ended with the assistance of a fire extinguisher.
[ Edmund Burke Feldman, Varieties of Visual Experience, Prentice-Hall, Abrams, New York (2nd edition, 1981), pp. 352, 365. ]
The piano is a technically a stringed instrument (although the modern "Hammerklavier" is a percussion instrument as well), and the combined ideas of destruction and pianos have generated their own subcategory in the history of modern artistic expression. Among the younger artists of the 1960s, Duchamp favored the work of Arman, whose piano collage Chopin's Waterloo (1962) was created in a vein similar to Tinguely's Homage, and possibly with even more humor.
Many citizens, it seems, harbor a secret desire to tear a piano apart. Arman has done it for them (as Jimmy Durante or the Marx Brothers used to do [or Laurel and Hardy in the famous piano-moving scene on the staircase]), and has given the dismemberment permanent form in a type of piano collage. The idea may be trivial, but the visual effect is one of splendid destruction--splinters, ivories, and piano wire in gorgeous disarray. Perhaps a piano sustains more visual interest when disintegrated than when healthy and whole. By tearing a piano open, the sculptor reveals it as a type of machine; and then, to gratify our desire to see machines break down, he kills it.
[ Feldman, Varieties, pp. 350, 352. ]
Dramatic realizations of this unlikely and violent combination were the dark, dynamic theater pieces of Raphael Montañez Ortiz, performed in the Destruction In Art Symposium held in London (1966). In Piano Destruction (1968), from the "Years of the Warrior," Doctor Ortiz--later become a distinguished educator at Rutgers University--vented an especially uncompromising expression of native New York Puerto Rican wrath on center stage, savagely attacking a piano with a fire axe before the guests at one of the "exhibition openings."
Destruction theater is the symbolic realization of those subtle and extreme destructions which play such a dominant role in our everyday lives, from our headaches and ulcers to our murders and suicides. To realize our destructions within the framework of art is finally to rescue ourselves and civilization from the havoc [wreaked] by our depersonalized war psychologies.
[ Rafael Montañez Ortiz, Destruction Theater Manifesto, quoted by the present author, "Violence, Art, and the American Way," Arts Canada (April, 1968), p. 19 ff. See also, Years of the Warrior, 1960--Years of the Psyche, 1988, El Museo Del Barrio, New York (1988). ]
6. Sixteen Miles of String (1942)
Layout for the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism, organized by Andr Breton and "his twine" Marcel Duchamp [in French, ficelle means both "twine" and "chum" or "buddy"] on the Premises of the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, 451 Madison Avenue, New York, October 14 to November 7, 1942.
Schiaparelli asked Duchamp to prepare a layout as economical as possible since the exhibition was organized for the benefit of the French Relief Societies. String was among the cheapest materials available, and Duchamp bought 16 miles of it, of which only about one mile was used, to prepare an entanglement in which the visitor experienced difficulties in finding his way to the paintings, a metaphor for the difficulties which the layman often encounters in the attempt to understand modern painting....During installation the string caught fire through spontaneous combustion and had to be replaced by another mile of string. [Duchamp comments in one of his interviews with Pierre Cabanne, "Imagine that these strings were really guncotton--they always are when they're attached to a light bulb, and I don't know how, but at a given moment they burned. Since guncotton burns without a flame, it was rather terrifying. But it worked out all right. It was rather funny."] That left fourteen miles unused. "I gave it away," Duchamp recalls. "It made someone very happy--a kind of insurance, string enough to last him the rest of his life." The preview evening was invitational, distingué, and dressy. First the arriving guests were confronted by the string jungle. Then their ears were assailed by the happy shouts of children at play. The whole ballroom, in fact, looked like a public playground. A day before, and unknown to anyone, Duchamp had said to Sidney Janis's eleven-year-old son Carroll: "Get some friends together and I'll send taxis for you." Then he outlined his plans, concluding: "And pay no attention to anyone. Just play all evening." The guests had no choice but to pick their perilous way through this juvenile Olympiad. A half-dozen boys were vigorously and lightheartedly playing a sort of combination game with various types of balls. They wore football helmets, baseball pants, basketball sneakers, and gym shirts. A like number of girls were in little groups, skipping rope, playing jacks and hopscotch. Some foolhardy guests tried admonishing the children: "Why don't you, litle dears, go out in the street and play, where you belong?" "Mr. Duchamp told us we could play here," was the invariable answer. Mr. Duchamp, of course, could not be found. Having arranged the show, his final Dada gesture was not to attend.
[ Schwarz, Complete Works, No. 314, p. 515. The account is from Rudi Blesh, Modern Art USA: Men, Rebellion, Conquest, 1900-1956, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1956), pp. 200-201. See also, Cabanne, p. 86. ]
7. The Green Box (1934)
As throughout Duchamp's writing, there are many references to line in an abstract sense, or to material string, twine or thread. For example, in his note on The Bride (No. 8), he says that her
desire-gears will occupy less space than in the bachelor machine. --They are only the string that binds the bouquet.
[ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 42. ]
And in the literature on Duchamp there are, inevitably, citations and allusions to lines and to cordage. For example,
With Secret Noise borrows its material of tight strings and unmeasurable chords from the "presse raquette." The Green Box describes this object as a "Tirelire ou (conserves)...": another lyre, a tirelire, a pull-lyre or pull-read. Did it also come from the conservatory?
[ Carol P. James, "Duchamp's Silent Noise/Music for the Deaf," in Kuenzli and Naumann, eds., Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, MIT Press, Cambridge (1989), p. 106. James translates Duchamp's original phrase: "Long live clothes and the racket press!" p. 124, note 44. ]
In the collection of notes published as The Green Box, Duchamp also includes this baffling line: "Ordinary brick satiates the knot." We find perhaps equally inscrutable, a note on knots in the later selection of his writings known both as The White Box and A l'Infinitif (1967): "Buy a book about `knots.' (Sailor's knot and others)."
[ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, pp. 31, 76. ]
The date of this latter reference is uncertain, since it could have been--and probably was--written long before appearing in The White Box. The mention of "sailor's knot" is also somewhat mysterious: did Duchamp have a specific knot in mind--or a particular sailor for that matter? Did he mean just "sailors' knots" in general, or the term "knot" in that other nautical sense? Whether or not Duchamp in fact followed his inclination to buy is unconfirmed; if he had, then a worthy volume might have been the remarkably clear and simple, illustrated, instructive volume on knots written by George Russell Shaw.
[George Russell Shaw, Knots: Useful and Ornamental, (1924 and 1933); reprint (without date), issued by Bonanza Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc., by arrangement with Houghton Mifflin Company.]
In a quite different tome, regarded by some as a sailor's bible, The American Practical Navigator of Nathaniel Bowditch (which contains most of the other information one needs to know for sailing a boat), there is--sad to say--not much on marlinspike seamanship: the craft of working lines and tying knots. However, Bowditch does suggest an explanation for that other sense of the word "knot," as the measure of nautical speed, in relationship to knots in a line.
The oldest speed measuring device is the Dutchman's log. Originally, any object which would float was thrown overboard on the lee side, from a point well forward, and the time required for it to pass between two points on the deck was noted. The time, as determined by sand glass, was compared with the known distance along the deck between the two points to determine the speed. Near the end of the 16th century a line was attached to the log, and as the line was paid out a sailor recited certain sentences. The length of line which was paid out during this recitation was used to determine the speed. There is record of this method being used as recently as the early 17th century. In its final form this chip log, ship log, or common log consisted of the log chip, (or log ship), log line, log reel, and log glass. The chip was a quadrant-shaped piece of wood weighted along its circumference to keep it upright in the water. The log line was made fast to the log chip by means of a bridle, in such a manner that a sharp pull on the log line disloged a wooden peg and permitted the log chip to be towed horizontally through the water and hauled aboard. Sometimes a stray line was attached to the log to veer it clear of the ship's wake. In determining speed, the observer counted the knots in the log line which was paid out during a certain time. The length of the line between knots and the number of seconds required for the sand to run out were changed from time to time as the accepted length of the mile was altered.
The chip log has been supereseded by patent logs that register on dials. However, the common log has left its mark on modern navigation, as the use of the term knot to indicate a speed of one nautical mile per hour dates from this device. There is evidence to support the opinion that the expression "dead reckoning" had its origin in this same device, or perhaps in the earlier Dutchman's log. There is logic in attributing "dead" reckoning to a reckoning relative to any object "dead" in the water.
[ The American Practical Navigator: An Epitome of Navigation Originally by Nathaniel Bowditch, LL. D. (1773- 1838), U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington (Corrected Print 1966), pp. 24-25. "...(I)t was not until 1878 that a log was developed in which the rotator could be used in conjunction with a dial secured to the after rail of the ship, and although refinements and improvements have been made, the patent log used today is essentially the same as that developed in 1878." ]
For the delight of Duchamp's ghost, which may, like the artist himself, adore the very notion of far-fetched associations, we must mention Nickelodeon's off-beat cartoon Ren and Stimpy, created by John Kricfalusi. As featured on Sunday morning cable television Ren (an "Asthma-hound Chihuahua" with a voice between that of Jose Jimenez and Peter Lorre) and Stimpy (blue-nosed Stimpson J. Cat), with half-hour programming beginning at 11:00 a.m., electronically mark time at pre-cisely 11:11, with either the "LOG" song, or "HAPPY HAPPY, JOY JOY."
8. Suspended objects.
Many objects were suspended on strings by Duchamp as shown, for example, in the photograph titled "Shadows of Ready-mades," taken in Duchamp's studio, 33 West 67th Street, New York (1918). Several of the Readymades, such as the Hat Rack (1917) or 50 c.c. of Paris Air (1919) also apparently were conceived to be suspended by a string.
[D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 285; No. 122, p. 284; No. 133, p. 291.]
THE GORDIAN KNOT
Marcel Duchamp includes an obscure reference to the Gordian Knot in one of his notes on the Bride, as published by Paul Matisse:
[ Marcel Duchamp, Notes, arranged and translated by Paul Matisse, (The Documents of Twentieth Century Art), G.K. Hall, Boston (1983), # 102.]
The cutting of the Gordian Knot was an arrogant and brutish act of disrespect for ancient religious traditions by Alexander, whom moderns through unwitting habit persist in labelling "the Great." His father Philip, King of Macedon (then a semi-barbarous state) was a brilliant military strategist who intended to unify Greece. But Alexander perverted this cause, autocratically undermining the ancient traditions of diversity and freedom among the various Greek city states; then he megalomaniacally sought to conquer Asia touting himself as a reincarnation of the god Dionysos. However, he left his mark by ravaging Persepolis, once a glorious city, and destroying its library, one of the richest in antiquity. He may have derived his Dionysiac delusion from misinterpreting the genuinely great play of Euripides, the Bacchae, written only some eighty years earlier, in which the Great God returns to Greece after an extended excursion in lands to the East. The poet Robert Graves provides a critical reading of Alexander's preposterously insolent action in the context of ancient Greek history and culture:
As Greece grew more commercial, and political power fell into the hands of men either unqualified or unwilling to undergo the ordeal of the Mysteries, religious feeling dulled. By the late fifth century B.C. mercantilism, philosophic theory, and the mechanical sciences had invaded the territory of religion. Buildings became architecturally formalized; statues, no longer archaically carved by craftsmen in a state of divine possession, were turned out in realistic neo-Persian style by matter-of-fact journeymen sculptors; coins became ingenious playthings, not holy objects. Pottery soon also degenerated into trade-ware mass-produced by slave labor for export to barbarians.
A single event marked the final irrevocable decline of ancient Greek tradition. Alexander, after his unpardonably irreligious destruction of Thebes, one of the holiest and most ancient Greek cities, invaded Asia Minor. Having reached Gordium and there been challenged to unpick the complicated Gordian leather knot--a religious task that should be accomplished only by divine inspiration--he sneeringly cut it through with his sword. Then he marched for India, in an attempt to outdo the God Dionysus, who had got no further than Bactria, and on returning to Persia died as a result of trying to out-drink his divine rival.
[ Robert Graves, Difficult Questions, Easy Answers, Cassell, London (1972), p. 127. Alexander's allusion to Euripides was suggested in an unpublished paper by Michael Aldrich, "Soma Dionysos," prepared under the guidance of Professor Jene La Rue at SUNY Buffalo (1965). ]
The Search for Alexander organized by J. Carter Brown in the early 1980s, was one of the "blockbuster" exhibitions, a concept first developed by Thomas Hoving of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. These exhibitions, replete with the banners and trappings of royalist arrogance, as critic Brian Wallis notes, favor "treasures,"
popular themes, dramatic lighting, gift shops and, of course, anything gold--the banners signaled the beginning of a new era for museums: the age of corporate sponsorship. They also marked a more general alliance of the museum with mass spectacle, entertainment and consumerism.
[ Brian Wallis, "The Art of Big Business," Art in America (June 1986). A critique, "Museum Blockbusters," large-scale, temporary exhibitions, is featured in a special section, with articles by Michael Conforti, Albert Elsen, Brian Wallis and Lynne Tillman. ]
Indeed, Time Incorporated and the Mobil Corporation grasped the occasion to promote their own public relations image of aesthetics as-if-divorced from politics, implying a liberal humanism undermined by profound moral and ethical contradictions. When Director Brown writes of "the search for our (sic!) heritage," he delivers the opinion:
It is fitting that the climax of this search should be a royal tomb....
[ J. Carter Brown, "Foreword," The Search for Alexander: An Exhibition, National Gallery of Art, Washington, published with the cooperation of the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sciences, New York Graphic Society, (Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1980), p. 6. ]
The exhibition included two Hellenistic diadems recovered from graves, which pieces were interpreted as forms of the royal crown. Both of the diadems--one of gold, the other of gold-plated silver--bear relief representations of the "Herakles" or square knot.
The over-life-sized head of Alexander from Upper Egypt (catalogue No. 8) shows that Alexander the Great assumed just such a diadem [as that taken from the main chamber of Tomb II at Vergina, catalogue No. 162], after he was secure in his conquest of the Persian Empire.
The motif of the Herakles knot probably derives from Egypt and appears early in Greek art (for example in the headbands of kouroi); it had a symbolic and mystical significance associated with fertility, healing and so forth. The knot was frequently used in Greek jewelry in archaic times, and from the fourth century B.C. into the Roman period it often appears as the central ornament on bracelets, thigh bands, diadems, rings.
[ Brown, "Foreword," The Search for Alexander , color plate 29, and p. 148; see also color plate 12, and pp. 37, 183.]
This Herakles knot likely became one of those self-conscious royal symbols used to invoke associations with semi-divinity. For in that very conservative, northern part of Greece--with a tradition quite crushingly different from that of the fabled Attic democracy--the monarchy was never abolished, but survived until the end,
with a ruler-monarch who exercised real power, who was at the same time commander-in-chief of the army, religious leader, and chief justice, and who was never, as far as we can tell, challenged by the people.
[ Katerina Rhomiopoulou, "An Outline of Macedonian History and Art," The Search for Alexander , pp. 21, 23. ]
Professor Nicholas Yalouris informs us that the Greeks believed the Macedonians to be descended from Herakles (the strong-arm robber of mythic lore) and this idea seems to have caught on.
After the final conquest of Greece, and with it the mighty Macedonian state, the Roman emperors represented themselves as successors of Alexander the Great. They adopted his titles and promoted him as their model and exemplar, honoring him as a true descendant of Herakles and worshipping him as a true son of Zeus Ammon. Alexander's example was followed and as early as the reign of Augustus the emperors began to impose their own divinity on their subjects and were worshipped as sons of gods.
[ Nicholas Yalouris, "Alexander and his Heritage," in The Search for Alexander , p. 13.]
A ball of twine, wrapped into a torus--like the self-supporting shape of a raised donut or With Hidden Noise--may coil about itself so that its ends are often tucked away, secreted from view. But they cannot be lost, really, for we need only follow the line. It matters not in which direction, either, because in time we shall come to one of the length of twine's two ends. Presently, we consider the simple type of labyrinthine maze: the Labyrinth in its classical configuration (drawn either with straight or curved lines), so intimately associated with ancient Crete, the myth of King Minos, the Minotaur, the Moon-goddesses, and the exploits of the solar heroes Theseus and Daedalus. The two ways of traveling in time afforded us suggest searching for the origins--or at least for the early evidence--of the myths and traditions of twine, on the one hand, or on the other hand following their legacy or lines of subsequent historical influence.
Things are not always quite so simple as in the ideal case in which the Labyrinth offers no choices or options, no crossings, no bifurcating paths. But Labyrinth and Clew provide a wealth of allusions, references, alternative meanings and variant interpretations, serving to transform the neatly spun, toroidal ball of twine into a veritable ganglion of richly recursive interrelationships. The word GANGLION means a bundle of nerves, but tracking it etymologically (implicitly backward in time) we discover that it comes from that Indo- European root gel(1), meaning "to form into a ball or lump," also counting among its rich list of cognates the words CLUE and CLEW.
Another curiously related brace of verbs, suggest ways to resolve the issue. Both are written and pronounced the same way in modern English: namely, to CLEAVE, but have almost diametrically opposed meanings. One of these words, meaning "to adhere, cling, or stick fast" (and sometimes repeated in marital vows), derives from gel(1), the same root as CLUE and GLUE, CLEW and KLUTZ, CLAM and CLAW, CLIMB and CLAMP, CLAY and CLUMP, and of course GANGLION. The other word to CLEAVE, meaning "to split or separate as with an axe," derives from gleubh ("to cut or split") a quite different Indo-European root, which yields the cognates GLUME (a husk of grain), CLEFT, CLEVER, GLYPH (through the Greek verb gluphein "to carve"), and CLOVE (of garlic), but the spice from the nail-shaped flower bud of Eugenia aromatica comes from the root kleu, as do CLEF, CLAVIER, LOT and LOTTERY.
There are actually two traditions by which Alexander of Macedon, for example, dealt with the Gordian knot: two ways of cleaving--so to speak--that which cleaves. In the less well-known version, the authors of Hamlet's Mill have read into Alexander's impudent gesture another instance of astronomical reorientation necessitated by the precession of the equinox and known variously as "unhinging the mill," "removing the plug," or "pulling the four pins" that hold together the frame of the cosmos--one of the great underlying, often ciphered themes of art and literature--as in Duchamp's etching Pulled at Four Pins (1964).
The military historian Arrianus is a late classical source for the general background information. Gordius, a poor Phrygian peasant, owned two yoke of oxen: with one he plowed and the other he had hitched to a wagon which became, in time, a "chariot." One day a miraculous eagle settled on the yoke as he was plowing, and following the advice of a young woman skilled in prophetic interpretations, he sacrificed to Zeus [or, to Dionysus], married the girl, and had a son, Midas. The Phrygians were involved in a civil war which, it was prophesied would end when their future king would arrive in a chariot; thus Midas, now grown, was duly recognized and offered the throne.
Over and above this there was a story about the wagon, that anyone who should untie the knot of the yoke should be lord of Asia. This knot was of cornel [cherry tree] bark, and you could see neither beginning nor end of it. Alexander, unable to find how to untie the knot, and not brooking to leave it tied, lest this might cause some disturbance in the vulgar, smote it with his sword, cut the knot and exclaimed, "I have loosed it!"--so at least say some, but Aristobulus puts it that he took out the pole pin, a dowel driven right through the pole, holding the knot together, and so removed the yoke from the pole. I do not attempt to be precise how Alexander actually dealt with this knot. Anyway, he and his suite left the wagon with the impression that the oracle about the loosed knot had been duly fulfilled. It is certain that there were that night thunderings and lightnings....
[De Santillana and von Dechend, Hamlet's Mill, p. 237 f. The account of Arrianus is from Anabasis of Alexander in the Robson translation of the Loeb Classical Library.]
In the best-known version of the story he rashly and profanely cleaves the knot, that is, he simply cuts it through with his sword.
The secret of the Gordian knot seems to have been a religious one, probably the ineffable name of Dionysus, a knot-cypher tied in the rawhide thong. Gordium was the key to Asia (Asia Minor) because its citadel commanded the only practable trade route from Troy to Antioch; and the local priest or priestess will have communicated the secret to the King of Phrygia alone, as the High-priest alone was entrusted with the ineffable name of Jehovah at Jerusalem [or Walter Hopps with the identity of the ineffable object making the Hidden Noise]. Alexander's brutal cutting of the knot, when he marshalled his army at Gordium for the invasion of Greater Asia, ended an ancient dispensation by placing the power of the sword above that of religious mystery.
Alexander, who had not the learning, patience or ingenuity to perform the task decently, used his sword....And the secret of the knot must have been a religious one, for another widepread early means of recording messages, besides notching sticks and scratching letters on clay, was to tie knots in string or strips of raw-hide. The Gordian knot, in fact, should have been "untied" by reading the message it contained, which was perhaps a divine name of Dionysus....By cutting the knot...since his act seemed to go unpunished...it became a precedent for rating military power above religion or learning; just as the sword of Brennus the Gaul, thrown into the scales that measured out the agreed tribute of Roman gold, provided a precedent for rating military power above justice or honour.
[ Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Volume I, Penguin Books (1960), p. 284,and The White Goddess, p. 461 f. ]
This same authority, the late Robert Graves, whose ghost still riles with poetic insights the company-men of most academic classics departments, further explains the depth and meaning of the story, used as a simile in his book on poetic myth, The White Goddess:
The only poet, as far as I know, who ever seriously tried to institute bardism in England was William Blake: he intended his Prophetic Books as a complete corpus of poetic reference, but for want of intelligent colleagues was obliged to become a whole bardic college in himself, without even an initiate to carry on the tradition after his death....The bond that united the poets of the British Isles in pre-Christian days was the oath of secrecy, sworn by all members of the endowed poetic colleges, to...conceal and never reveal the college secrets. But once [they] began to relax their vigilance and in the name of universal enlightenment permitted the secrets of the alphabet, the calendar and the abacus to be freely published, the learned age ended. Presently a sword like Alexander's severed the Gordian master-knot, the colleges were dissolved, ecclesiasts claimed the sole right to declare and interpret religious myth, gleeman literature began to supersede the literature of learning, and poets who thereafter refused to become Court lackeys or Church lackeys or lackeys of the mob were forced out into the wilderness.
[ Graves, The White Goddess, p. 461 f. ]