Voisins du Zero
Hermaphroditism and Velocity

(an interpretation of Marcel Duchamp's Obligation pour la Roulette de Monte Carlo, 1924.)

by Mauricio Cruz
(Translated by Patricia Zalamea)



In contrast to the horn theory, which focusses interpretative attempts on the nature of the monetary operation, the hairdo with wings might lead to a different interpretation, especially when we consider that the hermetic Mercury appears with his hair and beard covered in foam. An evanescent material indicative of some activity, foam is a composite of bubbles produced by an insistent battering movement where air is incorporated into a liquid of some density (in this case, soap). A substance fraught with multiple sexual and poetic evocations as revealed by its etymology: Foam, in Greek, is Aphros, the origin of Aphrodite (or Venus), the goddess born from the sea’s foam.(15) This element offers an important clue for deciphering the identity(16) of the unusual portrait, by setting out with the following equation: Hermes + Aphrodite = Hermaphrodite.(17)

click to enlarge
Figure 8
Figure 9
Marcel Duchamp,
disk, 1935
Figure 10
Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504.
Figure 11
Limbourg Brothers, Temptation and Fall, before 1414
Figure 12
Temoins Oculistes, detail (the right eye in the center) and roulette with green zero
This androgynous combination could be interpreted as some kind of mythological correction made by joining Mercury’s communicative capacity (exemplified in the movement of the roulette) (Fig. 8) with the perfection of potential success in the ‘figure’ of gambling(18) which is indirectly represented through Aphrodite’s attributes (love, beauty, sexual passion) of two human entities in conflict: Rrose Sélavy, the ‘widow’ whose signature appears beneath the black diamond(19) , and Marcel Duchamp, the confirmed ‘bachelor’ who signs as “administrator” under the ancestral red one(20) .

The structure of this Obligation reveals the duplicity involved in the names and colors corresponding to each one of the diamonds, as well as the eventual convergence in the central image of the hermaphrodite as third element. With each turn of the wheel, the red and black loose their identity through the increasing speed of the movement, and end by fusing their specific identities into what in Duchamp’s terms may be called a gris de verticalité… “as all axes disappear in the gris de verticalité, the front and back, the reverse and obverse adopt a circular significance...” (21)

In analogous manner, the roulette not only continues (in another format and on a different topological level) the inter-dimensional speculation attributed to his Bicycle Wheel of 1913(22) and the perceptual experimentation of optical devices related to the Témoines Oculistes (Oculist Witnesses) in the lower part of the Bride Stripped Bare, but also incorporates chance (a characteristic element of the game of roulette) as a necessary element. In this way, the legendary duality of the Bride Stripped Bare is subverted by a third element: the androgyne, an option for the incomplete couple of a fresh widow and an untamed bachelor.

Referring to the general principle of the illusory effect of his twirling spirals, Duchamp wrote: “I only have to use two –eccentric- circumferences and make them turn over a third center.” (Fig. 9)

To visualize the symbolic effect of this curious ‘dissolution’, one has only to imagine a displacement of the frontal point of view of an archetypal image, as for example Durer’s Adam and Eve (Fig. 10). If instead of looking at the image from a frontal position, we place ourselves over the image and look at it from a bird’s eye view, from a roulette type of perspective, we notice that the vertical axis (the natural hinge represented by the tree), as well as Adam and Eve (Marcel/Rrose; red/black) have been transformed into three points aligned on a plane. If we now imagine a circular Paradise, as in some early representations (Fig. 11), and we make our first parents (re-péres: references) circulate rapidly around the central point, there will be a moment where the traditional position (Adam at the left; Eve at the right) disappears. We can no longer speak of right and left, for these occur simultaneously –as in Pawloski’s La Diligence Innombrable (23) - in all locations at the same time. All differences are reconciled as long as the ubiquitous and instantaneous velocity lasts. Speed and motion, a strategic resource used by Duchamp throughout his life as a hypothetical solution to psychological emergencies.(24)

Duchamp’s obsession with the synthesis of opposites(25) also manifests itself in the arrangement of the head in relation to the roulette’s circular form which, deep down, is nothing other than a bull’s eye or target. (Fig. 12) The coincidence of the right eye with the center of the wheel nullifies, in principle, the distance between the observer and his objective, between the self and the world, for structurally the perspectival system consists of a reciprocal identity between the point of view and the horizon point.(26) By superposing the right eye with the center of the roulette, Duchamp conjures up not only his intention of succeeding in the prediction of the bet,(27) but also perfectly illustrates the unitary principle of conciliation.

Jarry, in relation to the unusual language of Bosse-de-Nage, his character in Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll who only said “HA HA”, refers to the formula of the principle of identity: “A Thing is Itself.” “Pronounced quickly enough, until the letters become confounded, it is the idea of unity. Pronounced slowly, it is the idea of duality, of echo, of distance, of symmetry, of greatness and duration, of the two principles of good and evil.”(28)

On the other hand, the difference (in relationship) between The Bride Stripped Bare and the Monte Carlo Bond lies in that in the former the separation is external (bachelors looking for their couple) while in the latter it is internal (the incorporation of Rrose Sélavy by hermaphrodite ‘infusion’) projecting the target, the objective, onto itself.

The strategy of the lathered image inscribes itself in the precise game of identities offered as a form of escape, or renovated compensation, for an artist who is clearly over burdened by his intense immersion during the past eight years in the complexities and contradictions of the drama underlying The Bride Stripped Bare: the Bride above(29) , the Bachelors below, and the difficulty of connecting these two dimensions through one of the last devices in process, that of the Témoines Oculistes, an optical apparatus whose purpose is to help overcome the threshold of an almost forsaken horizon standing between the Bride and the Bachelors.(30) Significantly, Duchamp left the work ‘definitely unfinished’…as is indicated in the final adverb of the complete name of the work: The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.

Literally, the Monte Carlo Bond is then a unifying tie, the ‘bond’ between two ancient and opposite entities, represented by the traditional colors of the roulette. This duality is fragmented in an exemplary manner into 37 numbers disseminated in the oracle-like vertigo of the roulette(31) , optically nullifying (through the ‘indifference’ produced by speed) the abysmal separation into an androgynous instantaneous paradise.

In the fifties, speaking of the relationship between chess and the roulette, Duchamp tells Arturo Schwarz that both games involve “a struggle between two human beings”, which he tries to reconcile by “turning the roulette into a more cerebral game, and chess into a game of chance”. And in 1968, the last year of his life, in a conversation with Lanier Graham, he specifies: “The symbol is universal. The Androgyny stands over philosophy. If one has turned into the Androgyny then philosophy is no longer necessary.”(32) >>Next



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15. According to Hesiodus, Aphrodite was born when Uranus (father of gods) was castrated by Chronos, his son. When Uranus fell to the sea, his genitals produced foam. From aphros, or the sea’s foam, Aphrodite was born, and later drawn to Cyprus or Cythera, the paradisiacal isle of Watteau’s renowned painting.

16. More than a recreation of Duchamp’s conscious or unconscious intentions, this interpretation of the Monte Carlo Bond is an act of reconstruction in the interpreter. An analogical projection on a proposed riddle, where ‘the public, the interpreter, makes the work’.

17. Not as their son (as in the mythological account where Hermaphrodite is born from Hermes and Aphrodite, but is originally a masculine being who only later becomes androgynous after meeting the nymph Salmacis) but as a symbolic fusion of the two. For the story of Hermaphroditus, see Lemprière, p.277.

18. Duchamp writes to Picabia in a letter of 1924: “Le problème consiste d’ailleurs à trouver la figure rouge et noir à opposer à la roulette (...) Et je crois avoir trouvé une bonne figure. Vous voyez que je n’ai pas cessé d’être peintre, je dessine maintenant sur le hasard.” DDS p. 269.

19. As in 1920, in Fresh Widow: a French window painted of a ‘mint’ green color, whose glass panes have been supplanted with black leather. In accordance with Duchamp’s instructions, these had to be constantly shined ‘as if they were shoes’.

20. “Adam: to be red. Some writers (…) assign to the word adam the twofold signification of "red earth", thus adding to the notion of man's material origin a connotation of the color of the ground from which he was formed.” See

21. See Algebraic Comparison (of the Green Box of 1914). DDS, pg. 45. Third note pertaining to the Preface and to the Warning, seminal notes in the writings of Duchamp. 

22. In Ulf Linde, Cycle, La roue de bicyclette. Marcel Duchamp, Abécédaire. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1977. And also inscribed in the sequence of circular chronology: Coffee Mill, Chocolate Mill, Propeller (the declaration to Léger and Brancusi towards the end of 1912 in the 4th Salon de la Locomotion Aérienne: “Painting is over. Who could do it better than this propeller?”), Bicycle Wheel, Rotative Plaque Verre, Discs with Spirals, Monte Carlo Bond, Door of 11 of rue Larrey (somehow summarized in the door of the Gradiva Gallery of 1937), Rotoreliefs, etc.

23. See the chapter La Diligence Innombrable in Voyage to the Country of the Fourth Dimension, a scientific novel by Gastón de Pawlowski, published for the first time in 1910. According to some declarations by Duchamp, this novel was influential for certain speculative notions applied to the Bride Stripped Bare. Jean Clair develops this idea extensively in his book Marcel Duchamp ou le Grand Fictif. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1975.

24. The fastest and perhaps most significant period of Duchamp’s development (1912), beginning with Nude Descending a Staircase and King and Queen Traversed by Fast Nudes (and variants), to Airplane, where velocity is a fundamental factor for confronting the static petrification of certain ancient references.

25. In The Spirit Mercurius, Jung says: “Mercury truly consists of the most extreme opposites; on the one hand he is undoubtedly akin to the godhead, on the other he is found in sewers.” And in Psychologie et Alchimie, Hermes/Mercury “is the primordial hermaphrodite being that divides itself to form the classic couple brother-sister, unifying itself later in the conjunctio in order to finally reappear under the radiant form of the Lumen Novum, of the Lapis.” The hermaphrodite is also ‘the philosophical Adam, still with his rib...’

26. “Physiquement -L’œil est le sens de la perspective.” DDS, p.123.

27. “Le jeu du tonneau est une très belle sculpture d’adresse.” DDS, p.37. A popular game where the objective is to insert metal rings over metallic frogs -or toads- placed on a box with numbered holes.

28. Alfred Jarry, Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, edited by Roger Shattuck & Simon Watson Taylor, London: Jonathan Cape, 1965, p. 228-229.

29. This position makes one think of the Bride as a transformed Aphrodite, originally an ancient Asiatic goddess similar to the Mesopotamic Ishtar and the Syrian goddess Astarté, in addition to the Virgin. Or in Duchamp’s own words: “the apotheosis of Virginity”.

30. This was fulfilled only later in a casual manner, when the Bride and the Bachelors –in the clamoring style of Jarry- literally broke the glass in the midst of an accidental copulation while they were transferred (after the work’s first and last exhibition in intact form at the Brooklyn Museum, to Connecticut), one panel on top of the other, in a truck.

31. 18 black and 18 red, plus a green zero in the European roulette; the American version uses a double zero.

32. See Lanier Graham, “Duchamp and Androgyny: The Concept and its Context,” Tout-Fait, vol.2, Issue 4 (January 2002) Articles <>.



Fig. 8-9 , 12
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.