James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp

by William Anastasi



You know he’s peculiar, that eggschicker, with the smell of old woman off him, to suck nothing of his switchedupes. M.D. made his ante mortem for him.

—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake [69]

The section of Finnegans Wake containing these two sentences was revised for publication in transition no. 11, issued in February 1928. “M.D.” may refer in part to Marcel Duchamp. (It may also refer to Jonathan Swift, a frequent presence in the Wake: “M.D.”—“My dear”—was Swift’s abbreviation in letters to Stella, a major love of his life.) “Eggschicker,” from “chicker, to chirp as a cricket” (OED), is a word consistent with my reading of various sections of the Wake in which Joyce seems to be poking fun at Duchamp’s writing efforts. The idea of stuttering recurs (a cricket repeats its chirp), being repeatedly associated with Vico and others; here it may refer to Duchamp’s magazine rongwrong, and to the numerous repetitions in his notes.

"The smell of old woman off him...": Here I recall Duchamp’s description of Rrose Sélavy as “an old whore.” ". . . to suck nothing of his switchedupes." Duchamp in drag as Rrose. M.D. made his ante mortem for him. “L. ante mortem: before death.” [70] This may be an inversion, a device beloved by Jarry, Joyce, and Duchamp. The “his” here may refer to Jarry, since the section contains many allusions to Jarry, according to my reading; if so, the inversion would translate “M.D. made Jarry’s ‘after death’ for him” into “M.D. made Jarry’s ‘afterlife’ for him,” a comment on Duchamp’s repeated trips to the well of Jarry-esque imagery—as if Duchamp had made Jarry immortal.

Admittedly, this is only one of numerous interpretations that come to mind. It brings to mind Joyce’s famous comment that his Finnegans Wake would keep the scholars busy for a thousand years.

There are sections of Finnegans Wake in which Duchamp does not seem on the scene as a character, yet in which multiple isolated allusions correspond to words and imagery from his works. Jarry imagery often lurks nearby. Between page 526, line 24, and page 527, line 25, for example, we find:

526.24: it was larking in the trefoll of the furry glans with two stripping baremaids, Stilla Underwood and Moth Mac Garry. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even is the formal title of Duchamp’s Large Glass; his Traveller’s Folding Item, 1916, is an Underwood typewriter cover. Regarding “Moth McGarry,” a famous, highly poetic section in Jarry’s book The Supermale offers a graphic symbolist version of sexual intercourse by picturing a large death’s head moth that took no notice of a lamp but “went seeking . . . its own shadow . . . , banging it again and again with all the battering rams of its hairy body: whack, whack, whack.” [71]

527.03: Listenest, meme mearest! The French version of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even is La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même.

527.07 even under the dark flush of night. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.

527.09: Strip Teasy up the stairs. The Bride Stripped Bare. . . . The best-known work of Duchamp’s early years as a painter is surely Nude Descending a Staircase, made in two versions of 1911 and 1912 respectively. "...upthe stairs." could be another simple inversion.

527.18: under nue charmeen. Nue, the French for “naked,” again recalls The Bride Stripped Bare . . . / La Mariée mise à nu. . . .

527.21: Blanchemain, idler. . . . Listen, meme sweety. MD See 160.3. The name “Professor Ciondolone,” we have seen, derived from the Italian for “idler,” according to our reading refers to Duchamp. “Meme” again refers to The Large Glass.

527.24: It’s meemly us two, meme idoll. The Large Glass.

527.25: meeting me disguised, Bortolo mio.  In Beaumarchais’s play The Marriage of Figaro, and in the related operas by Mozart, Paisiello, and Rossini, Dr. Bortolo is a bachelor who wants a bride.

Duchamp said, “Eroticism is a subject very dear to me. . . . In fact, I thought the only excuse for doing anything was to introduce eroticism into life. Eroticism is close to life, closer than philosophy or anything like it; it’s an animal thing that has many facets and is pleasing to use, as you would use a tube of paint.” [72]

Duchamp’s notes from 1912–14 for The Large Glass center on love play and sexual intercourse between humanlike machines, and reveal just how dear eroticism was to the artist. The artist writes, for example,

The Bride is basically a motor. . . . The motor with quite feeble cylinders is a superficial organ of the Bride; it is activated by the love gasoline, a secretion of the Bride’s sexual glands and by the electric sparks of the stripping. (to show that the Bride does not refuse this stripping by the bachelors, even accepts it since she furnishes the love gasoline and goes so far as to help toward complete nudity by developing in a sparkling fashion her intense desire for the orgasm. [73]

Published literature of the period did not talk this way, and unfettered pornography would have used an entirely different vocabulary. These notes were pioneering in more ways than one.

click to enlarge
Figure 14
Marcel Duchamp, Given: 1. The Waterfall / 2. The Illuminating Gas, 1946-66

Before its abrupt transformation into an art object, Duchamp’s upended urinal, Fountain, had been a gracefully curvy receptacle for male effusions. The title L.H.O.O.Q., we have seen, which he gave his Mona Lisa with added mustache and goatee, corresponds to the French for “She has a hot ass,” a loose translation of “There is fire down below.” The name of Duchamp’s famous female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, who made her debut in 1921, is based on the phrase Eros c’est la vie (Eros is life). Her pronouncements include, “Have you already put the hilt of the foil in the quilt of the goil” and “An incesticide must sleep with his mother before killing her.” The medium of Paysage fautif, 1946, is semen on Astralon. In the Untitled Original for Matta’s Box in a Valise, 1946, pubic hair is taped to paper. Female Fig Leaf, 1950, Wedge of Chastity, 1954, and the posthumously revealed Etant donnés . . . (Fig. 14) all feature casts supposedly made from a vagina, while Objet D’art, 1951, is decidedly phallic.

Joyce’s writing too was famously erotic, to the point where Ulysses was restricted in its distribution. Erotic and scatological passages can be found without too much effort on every page of Finnegans Wake. [74] Molly’s erotic soliloquy, the unpunctuated tour de force with which Ulysses ends, was on its own to a large extent responsible for his early fame among the general public; and in the “Bloom in Nighttown” section (Sirens) of Ulysses, creative abandon reaches an erotic pitch reminiscent of Jarry, Rabelais, and The Thousand and One Nights.

Other parallels: Ellmann writes: ‘Joyce had been preparing himself to write Ulysses since 1907.  It grew steadily more ambitious in scope and method, and represented a sudden outflinging of all he had learned as a writer up to 1914.’ [75] By way of coincidence, Alfred Jarry, who I argue was a strong unacknowledged source for Joyce, died in 1907 (at the age of 34). And in 1914, Duchamp wrote his famous ‘formula’ for Art: Arrhe est ‘a  art que merdre est a merde: 
arrhe = merdre .
art merde


An English translation might read: ‘Deposit is to art as shitte is to shit.’ Jarry’s ‘merdre’ is the only word not found in any dictionary. Given Duchamp’s extreme interest in the erotic, a likely interpretation would be, ‘My way of saying fucking corresponds to everyone else’s way of saying art as Jarry’s way of saying shit corresponds to everyone else’s way of saying shit’ – or more succinctly, ‘My fucking is to your art as Jarry’s shit is to your shit’.
We have seen in Joyce’s 1909 letters to Nora that Joyce was avidly coprophilic. Joyce scholar Clive Hart states, ‘There can be no denying that Joyce found everything associated with evacuation unusually pleasurable…’ [76] In Finnegans Wake Kate’s monologue ends with this passage: ‘And whowasit youwasit propped the pot in the yard and whatinthe nameofsen lukeareyou rubbinthe sideofthe flureofthe lobbywith. Shite! will you have a plateful? Tak.’ [77] Later in the same work we find Joyce’s verbal version of his own thumb-nosing drawing that we have reproduced at the top of this essay: ‘…kissists my exits’. [78]

Duchamp’s urinal-as-art, Fountain, 1917, recalls Joyce’s earlier distillations of the erotic and scatological scrawls found on ‘the oozing wall of a urinal’. [79] In Ulysses, there is this famous exchange: ‘-When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.’
‘-By Jove, it is tea, Haines said.’
‘Buck Mulligan went on hewing and wheedling’:
‘-So I do, Mrs. Cahill, says she. Begob, ma’am, says Mrs. Cahill, God send you don’t make them in the one pot. (Joyce’s italics.) [80]
And lastly, in Finnegans Wake, Earwicker and Shaun complete an act of communion with the transubstantiated urine of the goddess Anna – daughter of the former, sister of the latter --: ‘…when oft as the souffsouff blows her peaties up and a claypot wet for thee, my Sitys, and talkatalka tell Tibbs has eve…’ [81]


page 1 2 3 4 5


[69] Joyce, Finnegans Wake, p. 423.

[70] McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, p. 423.

[71] Jarry, The Supermale, trans. Ralph Gladstone and Barbara Wright (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 39.

[72] Duchamp, in an interview with George H. Hamilton and Richard Hamilton, in “Art and Anti-Art,” BBC radio broadcast, London 1959. Quoted in Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969), p. 80.

[73] Michel Sanouillet (ed.),  Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, p. 42.

[74] This observation is backed up by years of highly pleasurable research by the present writer and the resultant book on the subject, Up Erogenously, copyright January 2003 (unpublished).

[75] Richard Ellmann : James Joyce, new revised edition, 1982, Oxford University Press NY, Oxford, Toronto. p. 357

[76] Clive Hart, Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, 1962, Faber and Faber, London.

[77] Finnegans Wake, p.142

[78] Finnegans Wake, p.280

[79] Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, p. 113

[80] Ulysses, p.17

[81] Finnegans Wake, p. 117


Fig. 14
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.