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How to Isolate the Infrathin: Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Roussel, and the Pun

In Uncategorized on December 8, 2013 at 3:52 pm

In his 1957 talk, “The Creative Act,” Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) described art as a gap that represents the difference between intention and realization. “What art is in reality,” he later commented, “is this missing link, not the links which exist. It’s not what you see that is art, art is the gap. I like this idea and even if it’s not true I accept it for the truth.”[1]  The gap, the in-between, the liminal, the non-retinal, stretch the limits of articulation.  When the definitive properties of known words fail, there is always the possibility of invention.  Duchamp provided a key to the door that is both open and closed in the form of a neologism, the infrathin.  As demonstrated in his posthumously published notes, the infrathin rejects definition— “one can only give examples of it.” [2]  Accepting Duchamp’s challenge of definition, I argue that “sensitivity to difference” is central to the infrathin.[3]  The role of the artist, as implied in Duchamp’s notes, is to be attentive to difference.  Duchamp’s use of the pun is one of the principle ways that he demonstrates the value of this attention.

Of the forty-six entries that comprise the “Infrathin” section of Duchamp’s posthumously published notes, two read: [4]

The possible is an infrathin (1)


Isolation of the infra thin!

How to isolate — (29)

Within a structure such as chess, there are almost an incalculable number of moves.  Nevertheless, the amount is finite.  If you distend or destabilize the structure, the moves become infinite.  An infinite number of moves are possible on an infinitely defined chessboard.  Duchamp found humor and pleasure in distending the rules.  Possibility checkmates truth.  The declaration, “it is possible to” is an infinitive and in the Duchampian sense, the possible suggests the infinite.  Given that the possible is an infrathin, one of the moves of this paper will be to isolate the infrathin from an infinite number of possible examples.  This is a game that could be played and replayed.  Another move is this: declaring that the infrathin is a form of difference, one that simultaneously destabilizes and generates. Although Duchamp invented the infrathin game, I argue that he was not the only one playing.  Others, such as the playwright, poet, and novelist Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), made moves in the infrathin game of difference before and after Duchamp.

Returning to the notes, Duchamp declared, “the passage from one to the other takes place in the infrathin” (1).  I suggest, despite the anachronism, that we think of the passage from Marcel Duchamp to Raymond Roussel as a movement from one player of the infrathin to another.  This suggestion privileges ideas over influence, affinity over chronology.  Both Duchamp and Roussel played the game of difference using the strategy of the pun, a tool that exemplifies the infrathin.  Difference for Duchamp creates a gap that destabilizes language, meaning, and identity.  For Roussel, the gap caused by the pun is a widening of imaginative possibilities, his “domain of conception” as described by Roussel scholar Mark Ford.[5]  Both players made their own rules to suit their own ends.  Yet, these were really never ends at all but playful experiments on infinite chessboards of their own creation.

Establishing a particular method with which to assess Marcel Duchamp’s practice, may be, as Francis Naumann has noted, “an entirely futile endeavor.”[6]  Yet, if we construct the notion of futility as a process rather than a finality we move closer to an understanding of a method that articulates some of the most salient features of Duchamp’s body of work.  In “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites,” Naumann asks the reader to consider Duchamp’s oeuvre a demonstration of “collective consciousness” in which Duchamp was “simply echoing a basic human concern: to unify or in other ways reconcile the conflicting dualities of life.”[7]  Naumann indicates that he is not attempting to establish another working method for Duchamp, but instead, through a softening of terms, is merely making “a casual observation.”[8]  Whereas Naumann provides some engaging evidence, the act of reconciliation contrasts with some of the most important concepts in Duchamp’s practice—namely motion and change.

Duchamp’s interest in motion extends from his early paintings, such as Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man on a Train) to the rotating disks of the electric motor in his final work, Étant Donnés.  “Change and life are synonymous, change is what makes life interesting,” he stated, “We are not dealing with absolutes, are we, in this life—we are dealing only with what is in motion.”[9]  The word reconciliation, besides its political and religious connotations, also intimates settlement, stasis and immobility.  Instead of a reconciliation of opposites, I propose that Duchamp sought displacements and destabilizations.  He pushed the limits of possibility, to seek distinctions, amplifications and differences.  Naumman argues that Duchamp’s reconciliation of differences can be “traced to his quiet, unaggressive, and comforting personality.”  He forgets that it is humor, “black humor and humor in all its hues,” as Arturo Schwarz argues, that “is of cardinal importance for Duchamp and constitutes the ‘invisible motor” of all his activities.”[10]  It is not through a reconciliation of opposites that Duchamp’s works defy and destabilize categorization, but through the creation and exposition of the infrathin.  What is futile is reconciliation, what is possible is the infrathin.

In a 1945 interview, Duchamp stated that, “One can hardly give examples [of the infrathin]. It’s something that escapes even scientific definition.”[11]  Faced with the impossibility of definition, Duchamp generated examples.  His forty-six posthumously published notes document this attempt.  Here are five additional examples, which are as elusive as they are illuminating:

Infrathin (adject.) / not noun — never / use as / a substantive
the stare infrathin / phenomenon (5)
Transparency of the infra-thin (11)
The difference / (dimensional) between / 2 mass produced objects / [from the / same mold] / is an infrathin / when the maximum (?) / precision is / obtained. (18)
Infrathin / caresses (28)
Reflections — on certain woods / light playing on / surfaces. Infra-thin brought
about / by the perspective. (42)


They are opaque and transparent.  The impossibility of definition causes a gap, which Duchamp scholars have filled with numerous interpretive arguments, such as the passage from three to four dimensions, state shifts, shifts in degree and the absence or presence of the body.[12]   In the desire to define the indefinable, scholars generated complementary descriptions of the infrathin as difference: a “plane of separation” (Gould), “the finest perceptual difference” (Roubaud), “a thickness, a separation, a difference, an interval between two things,” (Obalk), and “barely perceptible differences, or forms of separation” (Ades, Cox, Hopkins).  Nevertheless, the infrathin retains its complexity and defiance.  It is a coined word that does not pay up, or at least is not a logical form of payment.  The infrathin is not stationary, nor standardized.  The infrathin reflects, transforms, and plays.  In the play of difference everything is interrelated, but nothing is centralized.  Everything is in motion.  “In chess there are some extremely beautiful things in the domain of movement,” described Duchamp, “It’s the imagining of movement or of the gesture that makes the beauty…It’s completely in one’s gray matter.”[13]  Language, as with chess, also moves in the gray matter.  Some of this movement follows the rules; some of this movement distends the rules.

In the realm of humor, puns are often maligned.  Their slight variations in homophones are viewed as sleights of hand and petty tricks.  In one of its earliest recorded uses, the term wordplay was used to signify, “When…blockheads pretend to wit.”[14]  Yet, puns were also the tool of Lucretius, Rebelais, and Shakespeare: “I am but as you would say, a cobbler.”[15]  Puns beget further puns: “Truly, sir, all that I live by is with the awl.”[16]  Puns beget a kind of laughter that forms in one’s gray matter.  Puns cause an explosion of meaning, destabilizing “whatever conventional stability the relation between sign and meaning may be thought to possess.”[17]  This is not a logical form of intelligence; it is a comic logic, the logic of the worthy fool.   Duchamp, “is not an irrationalist,” wrote Octavio Paz, “he applies rational criticism to reason; his crazy and carefully reasoned humor is the backfired shot of reason.” [18]

In “General notes. for a hilarious Picture” from the Green Box of  1934, Duchamp wrote: “Ironism of affirmation: differences from negative ironism dependent solely on laughter.”[19]   Instead of negative ironism in which a meaning opposite from a word’s literal meaning cancels out both meanings, Duchamp advanced an alternative.  He proposed an affirmative ironism, which allows both meanings to remain linked and significant.[20]  Laughter is caused by this incongruity.  Incongruity, argued Roussel scholar Michel Leiris, is a reflection of Duchamp’s specific method, in which, “Everything, or almost everything, will play itself out in the margin of uncertainty separating the sign from the signified, joined by a bond that is as precise but as tenuous as possible.”[21]  Duchamp found this “margin of uncertainty” humorous and generative, declaring, “Humor and laughter are my pet tools.”[22]

Previous to the rejection of his Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 (1912) from the Salon des Independants, there was the acceptance of his cartoons in the Salon des Artistes Humoristes.  Previous to the glass, the fountain, and the box, there was le rire, laughter, and Le Rire, the French humor magazine that published his caricatures in the early 1900s.  Four years before his alliterative play in Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man on a Train) (1911), there was his punning cartoon Flirt (Flirtation) from 1907.  Humor was not only central; it was germinal.

In Flirt, two lovers sit at a piano, exchanging witty banter as the woman prepares to entertain her partner with a song:

She: Would you like me to play ‘Over the Waves’? You’ll see how well this piano conveys the impression the title suggests.
He (wittily): Nothing odd about that, Mademoiselle, it’s a watery piano.
Marcel Duchamp, Flirt (Flirtation), 1907.

Marcel Duchamp, Flirt (Flirtation), 1907.

As Ades, Cox, and Hopkins note, the success of Flirt’s pun is the homophonic play of piano à queue (‘grand piano’) and piano aqueux (‘watery piano’).  In many of his works to follow, as in Flirt, Duchamp generates humor “by this principle of small difference, cascading to large…unexpected effect.”[23]  As Dalia Judovitz argues in Unpacking Duchamp, humor occupies a central position in Duchamp’s work, “not merely because it represents an individual temperament or disposition; instead, humor represents a strategy that generates displacements through decontextualization.”[24]  The pun is one of Duchamp’s most prized and successful methods of generating an “ironism of affirmation” – a multiplicity of meanings.

The pun is the star of the play of paronomasia, a form of wordplay based on words that sound alike.  Literally, paronomasia is “to name beside” or to “provide a near-relative to.” [25]  As Walter Redfern notes, “One near-relative to paronomasia…is the rare word paronomesis, which means illegality.”[26]  The pun is a maneuver through a seemingly illegal intersection.  The pun intermingles with metonymy and metaphor and contrasts with malapropisms, but at its core, the pun exploits multiple meanings through the play of similar sounding words: French and fresh, window and widow.  The incongruity caused by the puns jostling of words yields laughter: “The essence of the laughable is the incongruous, the disconnecting of one idea from another…”[27]  “The pun is the foundation of letters, in that the exploitation of formal resemblance to establish the connection of meaning seems the basic activity of literature,” writes Jonathan Culler, “Nowhere is the shakiness of the foundation clearer than in the shifty relation between letter and sound.” [28]  In this shifty relation, the pivoting from word to meaning(s) is infrathin.

Similar to the Chinese ideogram or Egyptian hieroglyph, Duchamp wanted to transform words into signs to create the plastic being of a word.  He described this as “a kind of pictorial Nominalism.”   As Thierry de Duve argues, Duchamp wanted to make literal the metaphor of the word reaching a “plastic being.”[29]    Expounding on nominalism in his posthumously published notes, Duchamp wrote:

     Nominalism [literal] = No more / generic / specific / numeric \ distinction
     between words (tables is / not the plural of table, ate has nothing in / common
     with eat). No more physical / adaptation of concrete words ; no more /
     conceptual value of abstract words. (185)

 For Duchamp, de Duve explains, “the plural form ought to ‘forget’ that it derives from the singular; the feminine, from the masculine; the past tense, from the infinitive,” and so on, forcing words “into the realm of non-language.”[30]  By creating conceptual experiments with language, Duchamp expressed his futile desire to construct a new language or non-language.  In both his Green Box and White Box notes, he attempted to distend the logic of the alphabet, words and the dictionary.  In the Green Box he describes a “blossoming” of the linear alphabet in which the letter A no longer follows B and so on, when “the group of alphabetic units should no longer have a strict order from left to right.”[31]  Linearity was another rule to be broken, as in 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14), in which Duchamp experimented with a new type of line.  In the White Box, he transformed the dictionary into a theoretical site of play and experimentation:

Look through the dictionary and scratch out all the ‘undesirable’ words. Perhaps add a few—Sometimes replace the scratched out words with  another.[32] 
Take a Larousse dict. and copy all the so called “abstract” words, i.e. those which have no concrete reference. Compose a schematic sign designating each of these words. (This sign can be composed with standard stops) These signs must be thought of as the letters of the new alphabet.[33]

Yet, Duchamp never succeeded in creating a new alphabet of abstract or “prime words,” (‘divisible’ only by themselves and unity).”[34]  His desire for “prime words” remained a search, another recognition of affirmative futility.  Duchamp endeavored to liberate words from commonplace association and definition. “The principle is that a word too much in view, like a landscape, loses its savor, wears itself out and becomes commonplace,” explained Duchamp translator, Michel Sanouillet.[35]  Like taste, which loses its freshness over time, words can become stale.  Like the dictionary, Duchamp wanted to reinvigorate the map or atlas by creating a “geographic landscapism” in which a map could take on different formations and colors, providing alternative kinds of information.  Instead of distances or well-known monuments, the map could notate, “the number of houses in each village, or then again the number of Louis XV chairs in each house.”[36]  Whereas geographic landscapism was a method for freshening up the map, Duchamp used the pun to freshen up language.

Only a partial realization of a much larger, unrealizable goal, puns allowed Duchamp to play with the abstraction of language within given linguistic structures. As Schwarz acknowledges, “in puns, he redeems the commonplace word and shows its beauty by a process of displacement that is more or less abstract…the word is removed from its ordinary logical context and unexpectedly related to something else.”[37]  In this process of displacement, Duchamp found an “infinite field of joy”:

I like words in a poetic sense. Puns for me are like rhymes…For me, words are not merely a means of communication. You know, puns have always been considered a low form of wit, but I find them a source of stimulation both because of their actual sound and because of the unexpected meanings attached to the interrelationships of disparate words. For me, this is an infinite field of joy – and it’s always right at hand. Sometimes four or five different levels of meaning come through.[38]

Although “always right at hand,” words alone did not provide Duchamp with an “infinite field of joy.”  It was the play of words that caused unexpected and manifold meanings.  Unlike a topographical map that quantifies the contours of land in relief, Duchamp wanted to add stratifications of meaning to the preexisting landscape of words.  In his readymades, Duchamp gets closest to reaching “the plastic existence of the word” through puns. As Schwarz argues, Duchamp’s most important puns “can, in a sense, be considered a form of the Readymade…it ought not be forgotten that many of Duchamp’s works are plastic realizations of puns.”[39]

While critics have maligned both the pun and the readymade for their triviality, Duchamp argued that, “On the contrary, they represent a much higher degree of intellectuality.”[40] The intellectual success of Duchamp’s readymades results from a process of displacement that is concurrently physical and linguistic.  For an object to achieve physical displacement, Duchamp altered the way in which the object is normally perceived and isolated it from its conventional surroundings.  What does a snow shovel shovel when hung from the ceiling?  To achieve, a linguistic displacement, Duchamp renamed objects with titles that have no conventional association to the object.  Molly Nesbit describes Duchamp’s readymade production as an attempt to, “master not only the commodity but also its means of communication, its language.”[41]  As Nesbit describes, Duchamp’s claim to copyright, plainly lettered on his 1920 readymade Fresh Widow was a bluff, a joke on both industrial and artistic commodification.  Duchamp’s attempted “mastery” of language in Fresh Widow is also a bluff.  His mastery is not an exposition of control or a plateau of power, but a desire for possibilities and movements.  Like a chess master moving the pieces on a board, Duchamp demonstrates in Fresh Widow that he understands the moves of language.

Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, detail, 1920.

Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, detail, 1920.

During the summer of 1915, Duchamp lived with his friends and patrons, Walter and Louise Arensberg in their apartment on West 67th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Only a few blocks from the Arensberg’s was The Ansonia, a Beaux-Arts style residential hotel completed in 1904.

Google Map directions of the Arensberg’s West 67th street apartment and the Ansonia Hotel.

Google Map directions of the Arensberg’s West 67th street apartment and the Ansonia Hotel.

The Ansonia Hotel, New York.

The Ansonia Hotel, New York.

At the turn of the century, this was one of the largest hotels in New York.  “Every day thousands of visitors passed through the arched entrance-ways of the hotel to gawk at the mahogany-paneled lobbies and watch the live seals barking in the lobby fountain,” described Manhattan real estate historian, Steven Gaines.[42]  It is hard to imagine that in the summer of 1915, Duchamp would not have walked by The Ansonia and looked up at the hundreds of French windows leading out to private balconies, each one identical yet distinct. Indeed, the Beaux-Arts influence on turn of the century American architecture was astounding. Duchamp would have been surrounded by an architectural landscape that defined itself as “French.”  Known in French as a Porte-fenêtre, the American French window assumes its “Frenchness” from its name. For the American upper class, the French style was aspirational, it provided, “a window onto something else.”[43]

Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, 1920.

Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, 1920.

With Fresh Widow, Duchamp enacts a readily discernible pun through a simple phonemic alteration, the deletion of “n” from “French” and “Window.”  Constructed by a carpenter in New York City, Fresh Widow functions as a model of a French window by representation alone.  Its form is similar to a French window, with double casement windows closing against each other without a frame in between them.  Yet, Fresh Widow is not typical of the class of “French windows” as visible at The Ansonia Hotel.  Freestanding at roughly two-feet tall, with black leather covering the glass panes, Fresh Widow does not serve a utilitarian purpose.  It is not a “window onto something else,” but the rejection of a view.  It is an opaque representation of a French window.  Whereas traditional painting styles aspired to represent objects in the real world, Fresh Widow is an object in the real world. Inscribed with its title, it demonstrates the non-articulable space between both an object and its representation and an object and its name.  Also, demonstrated by his other readymades, such as Apolinère Enameled (1916) and L.H.O.O.Q (1919), a punning title supports interpretative variability.  Is “Fresh Widow” a reference to World War I widows or to Duchamp’s physical displacement from France, or, as is likely, something else entirely?  As Duchamp noted in his 1946 interview with James Johnson Sweeney, “For me the title was very important.”[44]

It is through the concurrent process of linguistic and physical displacement that the pun, “Fresh Widow,” takes on plastic significance.  The displacement demonstrates an illogical-logic.  This notion is akin to Duchamp’s desire to represent a new reality in the Large Glass made possible by “slightly distending the laws of physics and chemistry.”[45]  This illogical-logic expresses itself in a number of ways that are most clearly described step by step.  This is not to say that this process is linear, but is an attempt to describe the key components of the movement towards the “plastic being of a word”: 1. Duchamp has a French window made which is a displacement of the style of the class of French window.  2. Duchamp alters the context of the class of the French window, by placing his French window outside of its utilitarian context.  It is decontextualized, displaced from its class.  Its objective nature is othered.  3. The title, the act of naming, further fractures the object.  The pun enacts a cognitive disconnect, a slippage between our perception of the object and the object itself.  The pun amplifies and furthers Duchamp’s destabilization of the object.  4. The readymade becomes a realization of the pun; the language of the pun gains plastic significance.  The object moves through language to realize its plasticity.  As Duchamp notes:

There is a tension between my titles and my pictures. The titles are not the pictures nor vice versa, but they work on each other. The titles add a new dimension; they are like new or added colors, or better yet, they may be compared to varnish through which the picture may be seen and amplified.[46]

The destabilization of language begets the further destabilization of both art and meaning.  This act, like varnish, is an amplification.  Instead of making art or anti-art, meaning or non-meaning, sense or non-sense, Duchamp produced both and neither.  By rejecting the fixity of definitions, he proposed an intellectual process that is more elastic.  “The word ‘intelligence’ is the most elastic one can invent,” stated Duchamp, “There is something like an explosion in the meaning of certain words: they have a greater value than their meaning in the dictionary.”[47]  This elasticity of intelligence, in addition to destabilizing language, art and meaning also destabilizes fixed notions of identity.  By becoming Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp displaces his identity.  He becomes both male and female and neither male nor female.  He becomes an alias, an assumed name, a pun.

In the theater, the window is often a liminal space largely occupied by women.  “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” declares Romeo upon Juliet’s appearance at the balcony window.  Yet, in Duchamp’s Fresh Widow, the leather-covered panes of glass prevent the meeting of male and female.  More important than crossing the windows threshold is the threshold itself, the space between inside and outside.  It is therefore not surprising that Fresh Widow was the first readymade signed by Rose Sélavy (not yet Rrose with the double “r”), one of Duchamp’s alter-egos who exists at the threshold of the male and female.

Man Ray, Rrose Sélavy, 1921.

Man Ray, Rrose Sélavy, 1921.

Rrose Sélavy, like Duchamp’s readymades, gained plastic significance through the pun.  Her name, a pun for the phrase Eros c’est la vie, acquired an extra “R” during the signing of Francis Picabia’s painting LOeil cacodylate in 1921.  Andre Breton described Duchamp’s “shifting of a letter within the word, the exchange of a syllable between two words,” as the “alchemy of words…a veritable chemistry…used to liberate words from the only quality specified in the dictionary of meaning.”[48]  Rrose Sélavy demonstrates both the “alchemy of words” and the alchemy of identity through the pun.  Alchemy is a gendered scientific-philosophical tradition, in which elements such as Sulfur and Mercury are symbolized as Male and Female. The Dictionnaire Mytho-Hermétique, an 18th-century compilation of alchemical symbols, defines female as the following:

FEMALE [Femelle]: The Alchemical Philosophers state that their Mercury is both malish and “female” [mâle et “femelle”], meaning that it is an Androgyne.[49]

Mercury is not exclusively female, but is both male and female.  The androgynous qualities of Mercury were indispensible for preparing the philosopher’s stone, the central symbol of alchemy.  Schwarz argues that the name Rose itself, or mystical rose, was an alternative name for the Philosopher’s Stone.  As Breton writes in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, “The Philosopher’s Stone is nothing more or less than that which was to enable man’s imagination to take a stunning revenge on all things.”[50]  Duchamp’s revenge was playful.  Through word-play and “playful physics” he transformed words into puns and puns into machines of desire in his Large Glass and he destabilized common objects through humor and puns in his readymades.

The personification of the pun, Rrose Sélavy is Duchamp’s transformation from male to female.  Yet, he/she is not just male or female.  He is both and neither.  He remains on the threshold, in a transitional, transformative, transsexual state.  As Duchamp noted:

Infrathin separation—better / than screen, because it indicates / interval (taken in one sense) and / screen (taken in another sense) —separation / has the 2 senses male and female (9)

The infrathin separation has the senses of both the male and the female but is not male or female; the separation is something else, perhaps akin to the androgyn or the hermaphrodite.  In Plato’s Symposium, comedic playwright, Aristophanes, whom Duchamp described as having a pre-Dada attitude, argues that the nature of eros (think RRose), the expressly sexual component of love, was caused by the separation of primordial humans into male and female:

…the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach.[51]

Duchamp’s playful androgyny, articulates this infrathin separation in which men and women, unable to return to their androgynous state, can only become whole through sexual intercourse.  The Large Glass exposes this failed intercourse between the bride and the bachelors who are separated into distinct realms, unable to physically consummate their sexual desires.

Like Léon Foucault’s pendulum from 1851, which oscillates between it’s own inertia and the earth’s gravitational pull, Duchamp’s puns oscillate between semantic poles, begetting further oscillations between meaning and non-meaning, art and anti-art, male and female. The pendulum is always in motion.  As David Antin describes, Duchamp’s body of work is comparable to a  “perpetual motion machine,” in which any reading of his work is too stable.[52]  What exists is activity, the motion between alternative readings.  This infrathin space rejects the notion of the “correct” in favor of indifference, from which one finds a multiplicity of meanings in difference.  Duchamp’s endgame is not in synthesis, but in difference. The infrathin exalts oppositions and engages in a freedom derived from uncertainty, inconsistency, motion, change, and humor.  “Seriousness is a very dangerous thing,” explained Duchamp, “To avoid it, one must call for the intervention of humor.”[53]  Through humor and incongruity, wordplay and destabilization, Duchamp keeps the pendulum of the infrathin in motion, like the Large Glass, in perpetual motion, definitively unfinished, always oscillating.

It was Roussel who gave Duchamp the idea that he “could try something [with word-play] in the sense of which we are speaking or rather antisense.”[54]   Yet, by “antisense,” Duchamp does not mean “without sense.”  When asked whether he considered himself anti-art, Duchamp responded, “No, no the word ‘anti’ annoys me a little, because whether you are anti or for, it’s two sides of the same thing.  And I would like to be completely—I don’t know how you say—nonexistent, instead of being for or against.”[55]  Instead of making art or anti-art, Duchamp made both and neither.  Similarly, as Judovitz clarifies, “Nonsense in this context no longer signifies ‘non-sense,’ but instead a gesture whose contextual character strategically stages and engages all different senses.”[56]  In destabilizing language through the pun, both Duchamp and Roussel disturb the conventional meanings of words, creating what some scholars have described as “non-meaning.”[57]  Yet, just as non-sense refers to the multiplicity of senses, aural, visual, intellectual, for example, Duchampian non-meaning is a rejection of fixed meaning, an embrace of meanings as opposed to meaning.  Duchamp’s use of the pun is a reflection of his humorous approach to difference, Roussel on the other hand, although not without humor, used puns as a tool of his special method of imagination.

The narrative catalyst of Raymond Roussel’s 1910 novel Impressions of Africa is a shipwreck.[58]  Bound from Europe to Argentina on the Ides of March, the characters’ boat is caught in a mid-Atlantic hurricane, leaving them deserted on the coast of the fictive African realm, Ponukele.  Captured by the Emperor Talou, the castaways are held captive until ransom can be paid in full from friends and family back home.  To stave off boredom, the unusually talented travelers entertain themselves and the people of Ponukele with fantastical performances of theater and invention.

Serialized publication of the novel Impressions d’Afrique in Le Gaulois du Dimanche, 1909.

Serialized publication of the novel Impressions d’Afrique in Le Gaulois du Dimanche, 1909.

The foundering ship Lynceus is perhaps an appropriate metaphor for Roussel’s later adaptation of Impressions of Africa for the stage. As Mark Ford describes, the adaptation “began Roussel’s ruinous affair with the stage.”[59]  “It was more than a fiasco, it was a veritable hue and cry,” Roussel wrote, describing the reception of the performances, “They described me as a madman, ‘barracked’ the actors, pelted the stage with coins and sent protesting letters to the manager.”[60]  Yet, it was a 1912 performance of Impressions of Africa at the Théâtre Antoine, attended by Francis Picabia, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Duchamp, which nearly thirty years later Duchamp recounted as “tremendous” and “striking,” stating that, “It was fundamentally Roussel who was responsible for my glass.”[61]  Roussel and Duchamp shared interests in extraordinary machines, playful inventions, and contemporary science, but perhaps more central to their methods, was the pun.

Impressions d’Afrique at the Théâtre Antoine in 1912.

Impressions d’Afrique at the Théâtre Antoine in 1912.

Impressions d’Afrique at the Théâtre Antoine in 1912.

Impressions d’Afrique at the Théâtre Antoine in 1912.

Asserting a philosophy of individuality, Duchamp stated, “We are always alone: everybody by himself, like in a shipwreck.”[62]  Yet, like the characters in Impressions of Africa shipwrecked on the shore of Ponukele, who walked from the flotsam separate but together, Duchamp did not develop his idea of the generative and destabilizing behavior of the pun in solitude.  Roussel’s radical use of language illustrated for Duchamp the “madness of the unexpected.”[63]  Roussel developed forms of theater, literature and language well beyond the limits of convention and tradition.

Roussel’s How I Wrote Certain of my Books (1935) is often referred to as his posthumous “literary testament.”[64]  Both the religious connotation of the term as a covenant and the legal association of a last “will and testament” are useful metaphors for the text.  Roussel described the book as “secret and posthumous.”[65]  Like a will, the text is a secret covenant with his readers, which was sealed by his death before it was published.  Is How I wrote Certain of My Books a revelation of a secret, or a furtherance of secret?  Michel Foucault contends in Death in the Labyrinth that it, “hides as much, if not more, than it promises to reveal.”[66]  The explanatory intent of the book is undercut by the two themes on which it pivots: imagination and language. These are the gears of Roussel’s procédé or method.   These gears are enmeshed, rotating simultaneously, yet I will approach the mechanics of each gear separately before returning to their conjoined transmission.  Roussel’s expansive domain of conception rotates towards his use of language, an equally expansive endeavor that originates from the smallest units of writing—the word, the phoneme, and letter.

Let us begin with a tableau vivant.[67]

This is a scene of subjective travel.[68]   The site is a dirt road in Egypt.  On the road is a camping van, la roulotte, a vehicle similar to a small house on wheels, roughly ten feet long and eight feet wide. [69]  The inside is fastidiously decorated with furnishings for a sitting room, bedroom, bathroom and study.  Inside is a smartly dressed man in his thirties.  He has dark brown hair, a brown mustache.  His hygiene impeccable, his bow tie, perfectly fixed.  Seated in his study, he has just finished writing a postcard.  “Went to see the Valley of the Kings—Cold lunch—sun—heat.”[70]

“La Maison roulante de M. Ramond Roussel” (M. Roussel’s motorized caravan), La Revue du Touring Club de France, no. 381, 1926.

“La Maison roulante de M. Ramond Roussel” (M. Roussel’s motorized caravan), La Revue du Touring Club de France, no. 381, 1926.

“I have travelled a great deal,” Roussel writes in How I Wrote Certain of My Books, boasting, “I have travelled around the world by way of India, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific archepiligi, China, Japan and America.”[71]  Yet, the curtain between his lived experiences and his writings was firmly drawn.  “Now, from all these travels I never took anything for my books,” he wrote,  “It seems to me that this is worth mentioning, since it clearly shows just how much imagination accounts for everything in my work.”[72]  Roussel preferred the domain of conception to reality, his imaginary Africa to his experienced Africa, 1001 Nights to Baghdad.  As Michel Leiris wrote in 1935, “Roussel never really travelled.”[73]

How do we characterize Roussel’s imagination?  Roussel scholars have attempted to codify his declaration that, “imagination accounts for everything in my work.”  The various discourses on Roussel’s imagination form nodes from which a constellation of imaginative activity appears.  Just as constellations include stars that are not visible to the naked eye, my account is far from exhaustive.  Scholars and writers have situated or classified Roussel’s imaginative capacities, in numerous fields, both internal and external to Roussel, namely, Psychology, Science, Surrealism, and the Theater.  Sublime, surreal, mad, unlimited, delirious, mechanical—all possible thresholds, but no single one is the key.  If we conflate Roussel’s works with his imagination, then perhaps Ashbery’s claim in “On Raymond Roussel” provides the most suitable analogy: “What he leaves us with is a work that is like the perfectly preserved temple of a cult which has disappeared without a trace, or a complicated set of tools whose use cannot be discovered.”[74]  Uncovering the sources of his domain of conception, is not the main focus of this study.  This work has been undertaken most adeptly by the recent exhibition and publication, Locus Solus: Impressions of Raymond Roussel, which adds greatly to Roussel scholarship.[75]  Instead, we will return to How I Wrote Certain of My Books to explore what Roussel called his special method.  Although Duchamp’s method should not be considered equivalent with Roussel’s, within the labyrinth of Roussel’s method, one finds the pun, the readymade, and perhaps even, a Rousselian conception of the infrathin.

“In the beginning was the pun,” wrote Samuel Beckett in his novel Murphy (1938).  Though we cannot say with certainty, it is likely that Beckett read translations of Roussel in the experimental Parisian literary journal, transitions.[76]   For Roussel, the pun was both the beginning and the end, a tool that “enabled him to fuse narrative and language into an indivisible whole.”[77]  The genesis of Roussel’s elaborate narrative in Impressions of Africa was his choice of two words: billard [billiard table] and pillard [plunderer].  From these homonyms, Roussel created two nearly identical phrases:

1. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard…
[The white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table]
2. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard…
[The white man’s letter on the hordes of the old plunder…]

The slight, nearly imperceptible difference between these two words resolved for Roussel the question that all novelists must ask: how do I write a story?  From two words, he developed both his short story, “Parmi les Noirs” and Impressions of Africa.  In How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Roussel summarized the narrative of “Parmi les Noirs” in unembellished prose:

At the beginning we see someone chalking letters on the cushions of an old billiard table. These letters, in the form of a cryptogram, composed the final sentence, “The white man’s letters on the hordes of the old plunderer,” and the story as a whole turned on the tale of a rebus based on the explorer’s epistolary narratives.[78]

Foucault characterized Roussel’s duality of language as a, “proliferation of distance, a void created in the wake of the double, a labyrinthine extension of corridors which seem similar and are yet different.”[79]  If we adopt Foucault’s metaphor, then the space of Impressions of Africa is also labyrinthian.[80]  Starting with the homophones billard and pillard, Roussel expanded his labyrinth, generating further words in a chain of seemingly endless association: “This queue [billiard cue] supplied me with Talou’s gown and train. A billiard cue sometimes carried the “chiffre” (monogram) of its owner; hence the “chiffre” (numeral) stitched on the aforementioned train.”[81]  The compounding of successive homophonic associations required both choice and linking, which as Roussel described, was “difficult and required a great deal of time.”[82]  Yet, he never explained how he arrived at his initial puns.  Why billard? Why pillard?  Roussel’s explication of his method, to this point, is only a half-telling.  Analogous to half-telling is half-hearing, the second component of Roussel’s method.

Continuing his analysis, Roussel wrote: “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 drawing of a rebus.”[83]  Amplifying the initial displacement of the b for the p, Roussel enlarged his phonetic inquiry to include whole sentences:

I take as an example that of The Poet and the Moorish Woman. In this I made use of the song, “J’ai du bon tabac.”  The first line “J’ai du bon tabac dans ma tabatière” gave me “jade tube onde aubade en mat (objet mat) a basse tierce [jade, tube, water, mat object].”…We recognize in this latter grouping all the elements form the beginning of the story. [84]

Whereas billard reconnects with pillard at the beginning and end of a text, the eponymous word or sentence is lost in this methodological expansion.  It is destroyed and then resurrected by phonic dislocation.   This dislocation generated new narratives as demonstrated in this passage from Impressions of Africa:

The diaphanous image evoked an oriental landscape. Beneath the clear sky stretched a magnificent garden filled with seductive flowers. In the middle of a marble basin a jet of water in the outline of a gracious curve sprang from a jade tube…Beneath the window near the marble basin stood a young man with curly hair…He lifted the face of an inspired poet toward the couple and he sang a few elegies in his own fashion, using a megaphone of mat silver metal.”

Yet, this is just one possible narrative.  “The forms of dispersion authorized by a sentence such as “J’ai du bon tabac” (I’ve got good tobacco),” Foucault argued, “are infinitely numerous.”[85]  The syllables within, “J’ai du bon tabac” could be dispersed to form: “geai (jackdaw), tue (kill), péan (paean), ta bacchante (your bacchante).”[86]  Every word and every syllable, moreover, provides a generative possibility, just as eros c’est la vie, generated Rose Sélavy.

Roussel transformed the banal forms of language such as advertisement copy and addresses into strands of his narratives.  James Fabion, in his introduction to Death and the Labyrinth, describes Roussel as having a “preoccupation with the prefabrication of language, with the “ready-made” and artificial quality of words and phrases and sentences.”[87]  In an interview with Michel Foucault, Charles Raus associates this “ready-made” quality of language with the development of “ready-mades” in the visual arts, an unstated, but obvious nod to Duchamp.  Foucault’s response to the ready-made suggestion, further suggests a comparison of Duchamp and Roussel:

What Roussel did was to take a completely banal sentence, heard every day, taken from songs, read on walls, and with it he constructed the most absurd things, the most improbably situations, without any possible relationship to reality.[88]

Duchamp’s readymades displaced everyday objects and destabilized the notion of art and non-art.  Roussel’s found language, displaced from context and placed in an imaginary realm, destabilized the distinction between reality and non-reality.  Although Roussel argued that he took nothing from the world for his works, his language, which is the French language, is of the world.  The already present nature of language at least partially determines what can be said in the future.  Roussel’s brilliance lies in his recognition of this fact.

Returning again to his method, Roussel stated:

As for the origin of Impressions d’Afrique, it consisted of reconciling the words billard and pillard. The “pillard” was Talou; the “bandes” his warlike hordes; the “blanc” Carmichael.

Roussel’s first pun generated new words.  He then assigned these words different meanings from their initial association, i.e. “blanc” becomes Carmichael.  Roussel described this dislocation of association as a reconciliation.  Nevertheless, an examination of the language in the context of his imagined narrative, reflects, as with Duchamp, difference and destabilization.  From billard, pillard and blanc, Roussel developed the story of cabaret singer Carmichael, teacher and captive of Emperor of Ponukele, Talou VII.  So impressed was Emperor Talou by Carmichael’s enchanting falsetto, blue silk gown, and golden-locked wig he demands to take singing lessons with Carmichael. Within a short period of time, “Using a falsetto voice, an imitation of a women’s pitch that matched his dress and wig, Talou executed Daricelli’s Aubade, a piece requiring the most hazardous feats of vocalizations.”[89]   The plot of Carmichael and Talou enacts numerous layers of difference.  As Mark Ford argues, Roussel’s method actualizes “polarities between black and white, male and female, imitation and uniqueness that structure the novel as a whole.”[90]  By choosing each word based on “a meaning other than the primary meaning,” Roussel imagined relationships between characters based on dualities.  As in Duchamp’s Fresh Widow, the incongruities in Roussel’s language hold multiple meanings simultaneously.  Starting with the pun, we again find that the displacement of language can produce doubling, imitation, and transvestitism.  We can only wonder if Rrose Sélavy had as beautiful a falsetto as Carmichael and Emperor Talou.

“The work must contain nothing real, no observations on the world or the mind, nothing but imaginary combinations,” emphasized Roussel to his psychologist Pierre Janet.[91]  Roussel allowed his imagination to wander and evolve in a circular path beginning with the pun, and moving out by rigorous discernment of associations.  Roussel, as recounted by Janet, believed he was predestined to have a glorious imagination. “Yes, I have felt that I too carry a star on my forehead,” stated Roussel, “and I will never forget it.”[92]  His genius of imagination, as represented by the metaphoric (or was it?) star on his forehead is reminiscent of another star, Duchamp’s Tonsure, a shaved star on the back of Duchamp’s head, documented by Man Ray in a 1919 photograph.   Roussel’s star burned with the ecstasy of imagination and imagined glory, like the exploding pyrotechnics of Luxo’s firework displays in Impressions of Africa, in which each burst projected a dazzling array of scenes into the night sky.  Reversing L’Etoile au Front, the title of a 1925 play by Roussel, Duchamp’s Tonsure, on the back of the head, is a cerebral gesture.  Duchamp admired Roussel for what he described as his “delirium of imagination” and the location of the star on the cranium echoes Duchamp’s desire to turn away from the retinal and embrace “intellectual expression.”[93]

Many Ray, Tonsure (Marcel Duchamp), 1919.

Many Ray, Tonsure (Marcel Duchamp), 1919.

Central to Roussel’s delirium of imagination and Duchamp’s intellectual expression was the small linguistic shifts of the pun. This difference, this infrathin possibility, yielded humorous incongruity, which developed generative destabilizations.  As Ford insightfully notes, Foucault’s summation of Roussel’s method of undermining certainties of language, art, and identity, is equally germane to Duchamp:

His work as a whole…systematically imposes a formless anxiety, diverging and yet centrifugal, directed not towards the most withheld secrets but towards the imitation and transmutation of the most visible forms: each word is at the same time energized and drained, filled and emptied by the possibility of there being yet another meaning, this one or that one, or neither one nor the other, but a third or none.[94]

Whereas formless anxiety might best describe Roussel’s method, formless humor better suits Duchamp. Nevertheless, Foucault’s description provides another possible definition of the infrathin:  “the possibility of there being yet another meaning, this one or that one, or neither one nor the other, but a third or none.”  Far from a reconciliation of opposites, the infrathin opens an alternative space of activity, a gap in which Roussel and Duchamp’s imaginative/intellectual expressions were invented and tested through play.  Avid chess players, both Roussel and Duchamp approached language as they could chess, acknowledging that the value and possible moves of chess pieces are derived from their relationship to other pieces.  Instead of favoring the metaphor that acknowledges that this pawn is like the another pawn, Duchamp and Roussel adopt a radical approach to difference.  This is an infrathin approach in which one finds similarities in difference and difference in similarities:

All “identicals” as / identical as they may be, (and / the more identical they are)/ all move towards this / infra thin separative / difference. (35)

[1] Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York, NY: Delano Greenidge Editions, 1997), 1: 258.

[2] Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to Readymade, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991), 160.

[3] Marjorie Perloff, “The Search for ‘Prime Words’: Ezra Pound as Nominalist,” Paideuma 32, nos. 1-3 (Fall 2003).

[4] Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp, Notes, ed. and trans. Paul Matisse (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980).

[5] Mark Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 51.

[6] Francis M. Naumann, “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites,” in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, ed. Francis M. Naumann and Rudolf Kuenzli (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 20.

[7] Naumann, “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation,” in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, 36.

[8] Naumann, “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation,” in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, 36.

[9] Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel, 1: 258.

[10] Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel, 1: 258

[11]  Hector Obalk, “The Unfindable Readymade,” Toutfait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, May 2000.

[12] Dawn Ades, Neil Cox, and David Hopkins, Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999).  See Chapter 8, “Replicas, Casts and the Infra-thin.”

[13] Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Da Capo Press, 1987), 19.

[14] “word, n. and int.,” in OED Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), accessed April 18, 2013,

[15] From the opening scene of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. William Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works (London: A&C Black, 2010), 2626.

[16] Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare Complete, 2627.

[17] Howard Felperin, Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 186.

[18]  Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp (New York: Grove Press, 1981).

[19] Marcel Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michael Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York: Da Capo Press, 1989), 30.

[20] Donald Kuspit, “A,” in A Critical History of 20th-Century Art (n.p.: Artnet Magazine, 2006), accessed March 19, 2013,

[21] Michel Leiris, “On Duchamp,” October 112 (Spring 2005): 46.

[22] Katharine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks With Seventeen Modern Artists (New York: Da Capo, 2000), 90.

[23] Stephen Jay Gould, “The Substantial Ghost: Towards a General Exegesis of Duchamp’s Artful Wordplays,” Toutfait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, May 2000, 3.

[24] Dalia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1995), 118.

“paronomasia, n.,” in OED Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), [Page #], accessed April 18, 2013,

[26] Walter Redfern, Puns (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 22.

[27] John Allen Paulos, Mathematics and Humor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 3.

[28] Jonathan Culler, “The Call of the Phoneme,” introduction to On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 4.

[29] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 78.

[30] de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel, 127.

[31] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 38.

[32] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 78.

[33] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 31.

[34] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 31.

[35] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 6.

[36] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 78.

[37] Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel, 1: 31.

[38] Rudolf Kuenzli, “Introduction,” introduction to Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, ed. Francis M. Naumann and Rudolf Kuenzli (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 6.

[39] Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel, 1: 45.

[40] Francis Roberts, “Interview with Marcel Duchamp, ‘I Propose to Strain the Laws of Physics,'” Art News, December 1968, 62.

[41] Molly Nesbit, “Ready-Made Originals: The Duchamp Model,” October 37 (Summer 1986): 63.

[42] Steven Gaines, The Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006), 175.

[43] Reference to Paul Cabanne’s interview with Duchamp “A Window onto Something Else.”  See: Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Da Capo Press, 1987).

[44] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 125.

[45] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 71.

[46] Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel, 1: 83.

[47] Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 16.

[48] Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel, 1: 214.

[49] John F. Moffitt, Alchemist of the Avant-garde Marcel Duchamp (New York: State University of New York Press, 2003), 220-1.

[50] Andre Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1972), 174.

[51] See Janis interview for reference to Aristophanes and Dada: unpublished interview with Marcel Duchamp and Sidney and Harriet Janis, pp. 50.  For Plato reference, see: Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, illus. B. Jowett, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1892), 1:77.

[52] David Antin, “Duchamp and Language,” in Marcel Duchamp, ed. Anne D’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 114.

[53] Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel, 1: 258.

[54] Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 41.

[55] Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit, 110.

[56] Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit, 90.

[57] Naumann, “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation,” in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, 6.

[58] Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa, trans. Mark Polizzotti (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011).

[59] Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic, 115.

[60] Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, trans. Trevor Winkfield (New York, NY: Sun, 1977),16.

[61] Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 34.

[62] Hans Richter, “In Memory of Marcel Duchamp,” in Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, ed. Joseph Masheck (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 150.

[63] Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 33.

[64] Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic, 1.

[65] Roussel, How I Wrote Certain, 23.

[66] Michel Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel, trans. Charles Ruas (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986), 5.

[67] Impressions of Africa is rife with tableau vivants, such as this passage from chapter V: “All at once the curtains opened onto a tableau vivant imbued with picturesque cheer. In a rich timbre, Carmichael, designating the immobile apparition, pronounced this brief apostrophe: ‘The Feast of the Olympian Gods.”  Duchamp also employed the style of the tableau vivant in his final work, Étant donnés (1966).

[68] Stephen Werner writes: “…it was with an author virtually unknown in his time (and now only partially recognized) that travel in its modern or ‘absolute’ sense received its most radical expression.”  Stephen Werner, Absolute Travel: A Study of Baudelaire, Huysmans, Roussel and Proust (Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 2010), 50.

[69] For more on la roulotte, see: Werner, Absolute Travel: A Study, 51-52.

[70] Roussel, introduction to Impressions of Africa, x.

[71] Roussel, How I Wrote Certain, 14.

[72] Roussel, How I Wrote Certain, 14.

[73] Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic, 20.

[74] Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth, xxvi.

[75] See: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, comp., Locus Solus: Impressions of Raymond Roussel (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2011).

[76] See. Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), Ch. 5, note 59.

[77] Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic, 2.

[78] Roussel, How I Wrote Certain, 4.

[79] Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth, 14.

[80] Marcel Duchamp also had a special relationship to the labyrinth as described by T.J. Demos in “Duchamp’s Labyrinth: First Papers of Surrealism, 1942,”October, 97 (Summer 2001), 91-119.

[81] Roussel, How I Wrote Certain, 4.

[82] Roussel, How I Wrote Certain, 4.

[83] Roussel, How I Wrote Certain, 8.

[84] Roussel, How I Wrote Certain, 9.

[85] Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth, 43.

[86] Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth, 43.

[87] Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth, xiii.

[88] Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth, 178.

[89] Roussel, Impressions of Africa, 51.

[90] Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic, 104.

[91] Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic, 18.

[92] Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic, 16.

[93] Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel, 126.

[94] Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic, 219.

On Knowing & Not – Jean-Baptiste Bernadet and John D’Agata

In Uncategorized on December 8, 2013 at 3:18 pm
Jean-Baptiste Bernadet, On Knowing & Not
A text by John D’Agata excerpted from About a Mountain 12/16/2012 
Karma, New York, 2013
10.5 x 8.4 inches (26.67 x 21.33 cm)
128 Pages
Edition of 1,000

In his introduction to The Lost Origins of the Essay (2009), John D’Agata describes the fact-based writing of the burgeoning, now six thousand year old, Sumerian civilization as “the ceaseless shapeless clattering of the who-what-when-where-why.”  Arguing that the gods were displeased with the Sumerian’s noisy, commercially driven, fact-gathering behavior, D’Agata writes that the gods “dissolved everything back into mud” rendering this desert between two rivers “indistinguishable from the nothing it has emerged from.”

D’Agata proposes a different origin story for the Essay, one that begins in Sumer, but is “not propelled by information, but one compelled instead by individual expression—by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt.”  D’Agata’s 2010 book About a Mountain positions itself within this lineage, a lineage not of data and facts, but of the pursuit of ideas, with all its attendant attempts.

On Knowing & Not

In a different desert, thousands of miles and years from Sumer, these fundamental questions of who-what-when-where-why (with the addition of how) were again asked, but to ends quite different from trade, commerce, and accounting.  In 2011,  D’Agata and painter Jean-Bernadet Bernadet lived in the rural desert town of Marfa, Texas, each as participants in residencies related to their respective fields.  Upon hearing D’Agata read from his then recently published About A Mountain, Bernadet wrote that he “felt the themes of failure, of attempt, of knowledge, of understanding, of retaining the feelings and trying to understand their meanings which was exactly what I was looking for in painting.” In response, Bernadet, in collaboration with D’Agata, created a 2013 publication which includes the last section of About a Mountain, the section Bernadet heard D’Agata read a few years prior and a large selection of Bernadet’s paintings.

On Knowing & Not 2

D’Agata’s contribution to On Knowing & Not begins with a question of human survival.  Will the human race survive another century, let alone another 10,000 years, the period set by the Energy Policy Act of 1992 relating to the duration needed to protect a repository of nuclear waste? The second number is significant to About a Mountain because of the proposed storage of such waste in Yucca Mountain, the eponymous landform ninety miles north of downtown Las Vegas, the city where D’Agata’s mother chose to move shortly before he began writing his text.  The storage of such dangerous material raises the a number of obvious questions. Can the population of the future be protected from the nuclear waste storage facility of today?  What language, music or visual signifiers should we use to induce a millennia-spanning regard for the site? And more specifically, could a painting inspire the necessary emotion or communicate the danger?

The United States’ Department of Energy, perhaps assuming that human emotions will remain constant during the next 10,000 years, proposed using Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893), a painting that is currently very well known, on all warning signage for the storage site at Yucca Mountain.  For D’Agata, Munch serves as an example, one in an unfathomable amount of possible examples, of the complexity of what it is to know or not know. As D’Agata writes, Munch couldn’t have known, for example, that his childhood friend would one day kill himself.  Nor could have known of his eventual hospitalization for a “nerve crisis,” nor the extraordinary number of paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures he would produce in his life. Neither could he have known that in May 2012, The Scream would sell for a record setting $119.9 million, the most expensive artwork ever sold at an open auction to that point. He certainly could not have know that seven decades after his death, some of the world’s brightest minds would consider the efficacy of using one of his paintings as a warning against the extraordinary dangers associated with nuclear waste.

On Knowing & Not 3

In the seconds before Levi’s jump, did the security officer say, “Hey” or “Hey Kid” or “Kid, no”?  Levi was sixteen years old when he drove to the Stratosphere that summer.  He had likes and dislikes. He liked going to In-N-Out.  He liked a girl named Mary.  D’Agata in attempting to understand Levi, his life and his suicide, had tries and pursuits.  “I tried to call his parents but their number wasn’t listed,” he wrote. “I tried to go to his funeral but his service wasn’t public.”  What was D’Agata’s pursuit?  Was it to indentify the facts of what actually happened the night of Levi’s suicide?  To make the facts firm and sturdy?  “Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information,” D’Agata writes. “Sometimes, our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what’s called knowledge.”  What can be learned from a painting or an essay?  Perhaps we will never know what happened the night of Levi’s death.  Or why The Scream became “the most recognizable painting in the world” or whether it will remain so.  Perhaps the firm and sturdy facts do not hold the weight of time and experience.  Perhaps there is only the entangled coexistence of knowing & not knowing.

In 1891, the French painter Paul Gauguin traveled to Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia.  Formed by volcanic activity, Tahiti was first settled around 200 BC.  Expecting a primitive Eden, Gauguin’s desire for a personal paradise was marred by his realization that Tahiti was already populated by European expatriates.   Returning to France in 1893, the same year as Munch’s Scream, Gauguin began work on Noa-Noa, an illustrated narrative recounting his two years on the island. He hoped his blending of the textual and visual would help acclimate the French art-world to new themes and techniques he had developed while in Tahiti.  “Whereas Munch presented his subconscious themes in terms of bold forms and daringly disturbing images, Gauguin surrounded his with a mysterious light,” wrote art historian Richard S. Field in 1964. “Whereas Munch’s figures overpowered their environment or projected their psychological contents onto it, Gauguin’s were more subtly united in their settings.  And where Munch’s personages were the victims of expressionistic distortions, those of Gauguin, deriving so often from traditional sources, were endowed with a certain ceremonial classicism.”  Noa Noa’s text and accompanying ten woodcuts share thematic concerns.  Both elements reflect Munch’s desire to allegorize Tahiti and the Tahitians, as well as the life cycle of birth and death. In the woodcut Te Faruru one sees a couple entangled in each other’s arms in a sensuous depiction of sexual maturation.  Although the woodcuts do not correspond directly to the text, Gauguin provides the reader with enough visual information to answer with general confidence who-what-when-where-why-how.  This narrative ease is what perhaps allowed for Noa-Noa, meaning “fragrant scent,” to easily be appropriated in the mid-1950s as the name of a perfume for a women seeking her own sensual “personal paradise.”

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To arrive at the core of an issue, 1st century BC rhetorician Hermagoras of Temnos proposed a system of seven circumstances: Quis, quid, quando, ubi, cur, quem ad modum, quibus adminiculis  (Who, what, when, where, why, in what way, by what means). D’Agata organized the chapters of About a Mountain by the abbreviated version of this system, who-what-when-where-why-how. Yet, the abstract and indefinite qualities of Bernadet’s paintings for On Knowing & Not eschew the desire for information gathering.  Unlike Gauguin, the allegories in Bernadet’s paintings, if they exist at all, are suggestive and pliant.  Unlike Gauguin, Bernadet’s paintings do not provide answers to the questions who-what-when-where-why-how, but instead destabilize the belief that by asking these questions one can arrive at a factual understanding of an experience. Unlike Gauguin, the paintings reject narrative ease, for perhaps any true narrative is never easily determined.  The questions who-what-when-where-why-how, as Bernadet suggests, are like his paintings, both abstract and indefinite. “They are not an answer,” Baptiste writes, “they do not represent a solution.”

Bernadet’s 12 x 16 paintings on paper, from which the illustrations for On Knowing & Not were reproduced, are present and diverse.  Their size and number intimate a consistent focus of attention without devolving into redundancy.  Wholly abstract, these non-narrative paintings exhibit a diversity of formal techniques, gestures, and color combinations. Viewed all together, they reflect an abundance of attempts. As a series, the paintings reject fixity.  Although unified by their size and material base, each is a separate endeavor, a word all its own.  As Bernadet writes, “I consider my paintings as words, creating sentences when I hang several paintings in a show, and I consider the whole body of works I made as a book in progress.”  In On Knowing & Not, Bernadet paints the essay.  “As a writer of essays,” D’Agata writes, “my interpretation of that charge is that I try—that I try—to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos.”

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Bernadet’s paintings are not chaotic, but reflective of temporal and physical fluxes.  They demonstrate shifts between stillness and fluidity and suggest changes in states of matter, vacillating between solidity and liquidity.  A number of the paintings display a gaseous quality, with areas resembling pockets of air surrounded by seemingly fluid expanses of paint on the surface of the paper.  At times appearing geologic, the paintings reflect the qualities of a bisected volcanic rock. Of the paintings, Bernadet writes, “These fragile, instant and almost unconscious paintings are adding a layer of meaning to the text instead of illustrating it in the most basic sense.” Like D’Agata’s text, the paintings are instantiations of tries. The layer or layers of meaning generated by these paintings are not direct, yet they do not obfuscate.  Instead they provoke questions about painterly abstraction and technique.  How were these strokes made? What meaning exists in their persistent abstraction? Perhaps more importantly, Bernadet’s paintings are gestures towards a larger goal: the attempt to understand the uncertain and abstract nature of existence.  In On Knowing & Not, D’Agata and Bernadet present thoughtful, sustained, and skilled interpretations of indeterminacy as a quality of existence.  This attempt is not a pursuit of the definite. This is a pursuit with no defined end.

Will the emotional power of Munch’s Scream span 10,000 years?  Will the allegories in Gauguin’s Noa-Noa be discernable in the next millennia?   Will humans continue to search for meaning or will the gods dissolve the world back into mud?   Will they punish us for our obsession with factuality, our mistrust of the complex?  How long will people associate attempt with failure?  When will we recognize the value of knowing and not knowing?

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