James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp

by William Anastasi

As to “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” itself, the name, according to McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, refers simultaneously to “Pearse & O’Rahilly,” figures in Dublin’s Easter Rising against the British in 1916, and to the French word perce-oreille, “earwig,” a small elongate insect with a pair of pincerlike appendages protruding from the rear of its abdomen. [56] Folklore has it that earwigs can enter the head through an ear and feed on the brain. I believe that Joyce may be connecting the earwig with Duchamp, and also with Alfred Jarry, a writer who meant a great deal to both of them. To some extent all geniuses “feed,” as it were, on the brains of earlier geniuses, but Jarry and to a lesser degree Duchamp made a point of mentioning their progenitors.

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Figure 11
Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919

A close reading of Finnegans Wake shows Joyce doing likewise: the pincerlike appendages protruding from the earwig’s rear may relate both to Jarry’s homosexual braggadocio and to Duchamp’s notorious phrase “Elle a chaud au cul” (She has a hot ass), the French pronunciation of L.H.O.O.Q. (Fig. 11), the title carefully lettered at the bottom of Duchamp’s mustachioed and goateed Mona Lisa of 1919. Like many works from this period in Duchamp’s work, L.H.O.O.Q. was credited to, and signed by, his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, a character who was, according to her creator, an old whore. A calling card that Duchamp designed for her advertised that she was an Expert in precision ass and glass work. For Joyce, of course, the earwig is also a reference to H. C. Earwicker, the “hero” of Finnegans Wake.(Still again on the subject of parallels, Duchamp used one of the world's most famous works of visual art as the point of departure with L.H.O.O.Q.; Joyce used one of the world's most famous works of literary art as the point of departure with Ulysses.)

The “Ballad” continues,

Have you heard of one Humpty Dumpty / How he fell with a roll and a rumble / And curled up


  The first draft has “lay low” instead of "curled up"

like old Lord OlofaCrumple / By the butt.


  The first draft has “back” instead of “butt.”

of the Magazine Wall, / (Chorus) Of the Magazine Wall, / Hump, helmet and all?


  "Hump, helmet and all? inserted in 1927.
He was one time our King of the Castle  

Duchamp was a chess fanatic, at one time considered the strongest player in France. He played constantly with Joyce’s friend Beckett.


/ Now he’s kicked about like a rotten old parsnip. / And from Green street he’ll be sent by order of His Worship /


  “He’ll be sent” is missing from the first draft.

To the penal


  "penal" was inserted in 1927.
jail of Mountjoy / (Chorus) To the jail of mountjoy!/Jail him and joy.  

In 1923 Duchamp made a “Wanted” poster picturing his own face, both in full and in profile.


He was fafafather of all schemes for to bother us  

In his first draft of this section, written in 1923, Joyce wrote here “He had schemes in his head for to bother us.” In making this change Joyce may have had in mind the many letters Duchamp sent between 1924 and 1927 (Joyce could have heard about them from Reynolds) trying to sell, at 500 francs each, copies of his Monte Carlo Bond (Fig. 12), “a standard financial document . . . so heavily doctored that it could hardly be called a readymade.” Thirty were issued, hand-signed by Duchamp and his fictional alter ego Rrose Sélavy; prospective purchasers were offered an annual dividend of 20 percent on their investment. Gestures like these made Breton and others worry about Duchamp’s mental condition: “How could a man so intelligent”—for Breton the most profoundly original mind of the century—“devote his time and energy to such trivialities?” [57]


Slow coaches and immaculate contraceptives  

Jarry, in The Virgin and the Mannekin-Pis; (references to the famous Mannekin-Pis statue in Brussels appear regularly in the Wake), speaks of Father Prout’s “magnificent canonical invention: the Suppository Virgin.” In the same section he describes “various hydraulic and intimate mechanisms guaranteeing to devout ladies the birth of male offspring, or if so desired their nonbirth." [58]


for the populace, / Mare’s milk for the sick,  

Jarry writes, “There are, furthermore, those who drink that [miraculous] water”—the pilgrims taken by “special trains” to “Lourdes water” for “poorer people.” [59]


seven dry Sundays a week, / Openair love and religious reform, / (Chorus) And religious reform, / Hideous in form.
Arrah, why, says you, couldn’t he manage it?/ I’ll go bail,


  Possibly a reference to Duchamp’s Wanted: $2,000 Reward poster.

my fine dairyman darling, / Like the bumping bull of the Cassidys / All your butter is in your horns.


  Burrus (butter), brother of Caseous.

/ (Chorus) His butter is in his horns. / Butter his horns!
(Repeat) Hurrah there, Hosty, frosty Hosty, change that shirt on ye, / Rhyme the rann, the king of all ranns!
Balbaccio, balbuccio!


  This entire verse was an addition of 1927. McHugh: “It balbo: stuttering / It –accio: pejorative suffix / It –uccio: diminutive suffix.” [60] Joyce is obviously calling someone a no-good little stutterer, a possible reference to Duchamp’s notes and puns.
We had chaw chaw chops,  

McHugh: “chow chow chop: last lighter containing the sundry small packages to fill up a ship.” [61] This may refer to the sundry items that Duchamp by 1927 had dubbed his Readymade works of art, which he was continually trying to sell; or to Duchamp’s and Lydie’s wedding gifts, “a daunting assortment of lamps, vases, and tableware” that filled several long tables. [62] Joyce could have heard about this elaborate and very public church wedding from more than one source: his friend Reynolds was still in love with Duchamp, and Man Ray, who had photographed Joyce in 1922, was in attendance with his movie camera to film the happy couple, and was with them socially on a regular basis in the period after their marriage.


chairs, chewing gum, the chickenpox and china chambers  

Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, was a urinal made of china—large cousin to a chamberpot?


Universally provided by this soffsoaping salesman.  

Duchamp was trying to sell copies of his Monte Carlo Bond, with its Man Ray portrait of him with shaving-soap horns and beard.


Small wonder He’ll Cheat E’erawan   This is first of all a reference to HCE—H. C. Earwicker, father of Annalivia and of Shem and Shaun, who are also known as Burrus and Caseous, in Finnegans Wake. If this interpretation is correct, “He’ll cheat everyone” would fit Duchamp and his Monte Carlo Bond scheme.
our local lads nicknamed him / When Chimpden first took the floor / (Chorus) With his bucketshop store  

/ McHugh: “U.S. Sl[ang] bucketshop: unauthorized stockbroker’s office. [63] The text on Duchamp’s 1923 Wanted/$2,000 Reward (Fig. 13) poster reads: “For information leading to the arrest of George W. Welch, alias Bull, alias Pickens etcetry, etcetry. Operated Bucket Shop in New York under name HOOKE, LYON and CINQUER. Height about 5 feet 9 inches. Weight about 180 pounds. Complexion medium, eyes same. Known also under name RROSE SELAVY.”


Down Bargainweg, Lower.

So snug he was in his hotel premises sumptuous

  / This entire verse was an addition of 1927. Within weeks of his marriage, Duchamp rented a hotel room to work in. “He began spending more and more time in his hotel room. At home he was often lost in silent meditation, looking out the window and smoking his pipe.” [64]
But soon we’ll bonfire all this trash, tricks and trumpery  

/ McHugh: “Sl[ang] trash & trumpery: rubbish.” [65] This may again be a reference to Duchamp’s Readymades, or to the gifts he received at his wedding.


And ‘tis short till sheriff Clancy’ll be winding up his unlimited company  

/ A description of Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bond, published in The Little Review in the winter of 1924–25, begins, “Marcel Duchamp has formed a stock company of which he is the administrator, etc. Shares are being sold at 500 francs. The money will be used to play a system in Monte Carlo. Stockholders to receive 20 per cent interest, etc.” Duchamp scholar Arturo Schwarz writes, “Actually, the system did not work out. In fact, [Duchamp] admitted to James Johnson Sweeney, “I never won anything.” [66]


With the bailiff’s bom at the door, / (Chorus) Bimbam at the door. / Then he’ll bum no more.  

“Bum” perfectly fits Joyce’s view of Duchamp, and perhaps of himself as well: both men had to do plenty of hustling, and both were reliant on wealthy women.


. . . Lift it, Hosty, lift it, ye devil ye! Up with the rann, the rhyming rann!   Perhaps a reference to Duchamp with two horns and a pointy beard in the photograph on Monte Carlo Bond.

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Figure 12
Figure 13
Marcel Duchamp, Monte Carlo Bond, 1924
Marcel Duchamp, Wanted/$2,000 Reward, 1923


Both Duchamp and Joyce are indebted to the eccentric turn-of-the-century poet and playwright Jarry. As mentioned, Breton summed up that writer’s contribution with this remark: “We maintain that beginning with Jarry . . . the differentiation long considered necessary between art and life has been challenged, to wind up annihilated as a principle.” [67] The references to Duchamp in the Wake repeatedly seem intermingled with references to Jarry, who, like Duchamp in his Rrose Sélavy persona, was known to wear women’s clothes. He also boasted of both homosexual and heterosexual prowess.

Further phrases in “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” that may refer to Rrose, with her calling card boasting “Specialist in precision ass and glass work,” and to Jarry, include “Our rotorious [Duchamp’s “rotoreliefs”?] hippopopotamuns [“G[erman] Popo: buttocks” [68] ] / When some bugger let down the backdrop of the omnibus / And he caught his death of fusiliers, / (Chorus) With his rent in his rears. / Give him six years.” >> Next


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[56] Roland McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, p. 44.

[57] Breton, quoted in Tomkins, Duchamp, p. 261.

[58] Alfred Jarry, “The Virgin and the Mannekin-Pis,” in: Selected Works of Alfred Jarry (New York: Grove Press, 1965), p. 127.

[59] Ibid.

[60] McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, p. 45.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Tomkins, Duchamp, p. 280.

[63] McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, p. 46.

[64] Tomkins, Duchamp, p. 281.

[65] McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, p. 46.

[66] Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, pp. 703–4.

[67] Breton, quoted in Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, p. 217.

[68] McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, p. 47.


Figs. 11-13
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.