The Substantial Ghost: |
Towards a General Exegesis of Duchamp's Artful Wordplays
|by Gould, Stephen Jay|
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I. Introduction: The Depth of Trifles and the Status of Puns
The Duchampian pun that covered each piece of candy at the opening of Bill Copley's 1953 Parisian show might, in its richness and ambiguity of meaning, suggest Churchill's famous description of Soviet Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." (1) Duchamp designed the square tinfoil wrappers, and inscribed each little gift to the invitees with a simple and original phrase that may well be regarded as his deepest and richest play on words: A Guest + A Host = A Ghost.
At face value, adding only the most obvious and minimal interpretation, the pun seems gentle and harmless enough at a few evident levels that might catch anyone's interest and mild appreciation:
1. The single resultant (ghost) arises as an amalgamation of the two inputs - the initial consonants of each word in sequence (g of guest followed by h of host), the final two consonants shared by both words (st), and the vowel of one (the retained o of host) used instead of the vowels of the other (the eliminated ue of guest).
2. At a first level of meaning (definitional) behind the amalgamation of letters, the joining of these paired and opposite words (the host who provides hospitality and the guest who receives it) leads to their annihilation (ghost). This curiosity merits at least a smile, and must have intrigued Duchamp.
3. At a second level of meaning (contextual), the phrase seems even more humorous when inscribed on a candy wrapper - for after one eats the candy, the wrapper remains as a shroud or ghost, the former and now empty covering of an annihilated substance.
4. At a third level (functional), the people were guests at a host's exhibition - and they left with a ghost generated by the gift of a host followed by receipt and intended usage of a guest.
These levels of meaning might be deemed sufficient to warrant notice and minimal commentary, but scarcely complex or interesting enough to inspire any scholarly exegesis or artistic appreciation. I would like to argue, on the contrary, that Duchamp's extensive and pervasive wordplays in general (appearing throughout his career, in all formats from offhand remarks, to the titles of most of his works, to explicit publications spanning a full spectrum from single items to extensive lists, and also to large chunks of his posthumous notes) - and the 1953 ghost pun in particular (as perhaps the most complex and revealing example of all) - occupy a vital and central place in the totality of his life's work. Moreover, with the conspicuous exception of André Gervais's book, very little commentary or explication has ever been devoted to Duchamp's verbal creations, while most of his visual creations have been analyzed to a level of detail and argument usually reserved for sacred writ. (Gervais's own book uses a pun for its title, for La raie alitée d'effets speaks both of the homophonic "reality' and the literal "line confined to its bed' (raie alitée).)
Any analysis of puns and wordplays must begin by acknowledging the discouraging fact that the entire genre has been relegated to a particularly low status by self proclaimed intellectuals. Many classic deprecations could be cited, but James Boswell's famous damning with faint praise (from his celebrated life of Dr. Johnson, first published in 1791) will suffice as an example:
How, then, can this lowest form of humor, representing the most neglected (and presumably most minor) aspect of Duchamp's oeuvre, possibly merit any extensive analysis or be regarded as potentially replete with insight?
Duchamp himself, however, seemed to rank his verbal punning as important, at least as a source for his own inspiration and an embodiment of his general procedures - so perhaps we should take him at his (admittedly always cryptic) word and explore the issue further. Interestingly, Duchamp himself quoted one of the standard indictments of puns ("a low form of wit") in his most forthright statement on their importance in his work (as cited by Gervais from a 1961 interview with Katharine Kuh):
II. Duchamp's Verbal Creativity: Big Oaks and Little Acorns
I shall not, in this article, try to explicate all of Duchamp's verbal creations, or to present a synthetic account of the intrigue or utility of wordplays in general. But this topic surely transcends nitpicking or particularism because most, and perhaps nearly all, of Duchamp's verbal constructions - again, with the ghost pun as the best and richest example I know - embody a guiding principle that also illuminates his lifetime of visual work, and underlies his general concept of the nature of creativity itself. I shall present four Duchampian categories of wordplay, each explored across a full range of potential meanings as illustrated by three modes in four categories. But all these usages proceed from the single principle that tiny variations - whether of sound or of orthography, and often so small as to pass beneath our discernment in the usual human style of lazy or passive reading - can generate enormous, and wonderfully interesting, differences in meaning. This central principle corresponds with the basic definition of "pun," as given in the Oxford English Dictionary:
As an opening example, and to show the long pedigree and pervasive importance of punning in Duchamp's own conception of his work, a rarely explicit comment in one of his interviews with Pierre Cabanne seems especially revealing. (I thank Charles Stuckey of the Kimbell Art Museum for pointing out this passage to me.) Here, Duchamp discusses the title that he gave to one of his most important early works, the predecessor (in a sense) to his Nude Descending a Staircase - Sad Young Man on a Train, or, in the relevant French original, Jeune homme triste dans un train.
Duchamp said to Cabanne: "The 'Sad Young Man on a Train' already showed my intention of introducing humor into painting, or, in any case, the humor of word play: triste, train . . . "Tr" is very important." But why should the simple alliteration of "tr" for both the man (in his adjectival designation as sad, or "triste") and the vehicle ("train") represent anything more than a tiny bit of elegant care introduced to make a title just a bit more melodious, salient, or agreeable to the ear?
In the immediately preceding comment to Cabanne, Duchamp spoke of his attempts to depict "the successive images of the body in movement" in both the Sad Young Man, and in Nude Descending. He particularly emphasized how he wished to display the parallel movement of the train and the man walking down the train's corridor. He spoke of the Sad Young Man, completed in December 1911: "First, there's the idea of the movement of the train, and then that of the sad young man who is in the corridor and who is moving about; thus there are two parallel movements corresponding to each other."
At an evidently basic level, Duchamp's verbal alliteration emphasizes the parallel movement of both train and man in the same constrained direction - the train on its track, and the man along the same path, now represented by the corridor of the elongated car. We need no more depth of meaning to understand Duchamp's alliteration of the triste man on the long train as a small and careful integrative touch, the kind of "God (or devil) in the details" (different sources for this common quotation cite either the Lord or Lucifer) that permeates the work of nearly all creative people (however much they may deny the concept and speak only of spontaneity, or even of randomness).
But I suspect that here, as with nearly all Duchamp's punning, several additional, and probably conscious, levels of meaning can also be specified (after all, Duchamp himself spoke of four or five levels of meaning in the quotation cited previously). First, why is the young man "sad" at all; I see nothing in the painting that intrinsically suggests any particular emotional state for the gentleman involved. Perhaps he became "sad" primarily to create the integrative alliteration of triste and train.
We may then continue this line of thought, both situationally and etymologically: Perhaps he is sad because his options are so restricted, for he must walk (within the corridor) the same line - that is, the same one-dimensional route of truly minimal flexibility for directional motion - that the train on the track must also follow. Such phrases as "one-track mind" and "straight and narrow" (in the pejorative rather than the original theological sense) indicate the frequent metaphorical linkage of limitation and one-dimensional movement. Moreover, the man cannot, by his walking (or even his running), add more than a small increment to the sum total of man plus train in the same direction.
Finally, as I learned from Le Robert (the French equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary), several current usages of "train" - and, even more relevant, the original meaning as well - reinforce an equation with sadness and limitation. We tend to think of trains as rapid facilitators of our motion (at least where they work well in Europe or Japan). But the word long antedates our modern era of fast transport, and most of the original meanings suggest forced motion in a line. In fact, the etymology harkens back to the Latin trahere, to draw - that is, with the implication of entrained, or being pulled along (against one's preferences), rather than a primary meaning of voluntary enhancement or acceleration! Robert begins its entry by stating (my translation): "In the earliest texts . . . it means 'to force to go somewhere' or 'to pull someone along.'"
Finally, and this curiosity must have caught Duchamp's fancy - for Duchamp loved and pored over dictionaries, so he probably encountered the example - an old French phrase, originally spelled tran-tran, arose as an onomatopoetic representation of a hunting horn, and acquired the meaning of a dull or enforced routine ("ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up in the morning" - as the common "translation" of an army bugler's reveille). Interestingly, the spelling then shifted to the homophonic train-train (beginning in the 1830's), probably, or so Robert speculates, by transference to a new image of enforced motion suggested by the invention of the railroad. How could Duchamp have resisted this verbal version of his favored double "tr" - especially as imposed by a quirky linguistic shift to a visual metaphor, based on public fascination with a newfangled invention, after the old aural context had faded from memory.
III. A Classification For the Richness and Extent of Duchamp's Word Games
The four categories that I shall discuss in a more systematic way - before treating the ghost pun as a summary of all the strategies for extracting large differences and striking conjunctions from small disparities (or from identities with alternate meanings) - include a wide range of bases for their common generation of humor. I claim no expertise in the extensive literature on the nature and sources of humor, but perhaps the most widely cited principle of "punch lines" invokes a sudden shift of expected context - as in the riddle: "What do you do to an elephant with three balls?" Answer: "Walk him and pitch to the rhino." This joke rests upon a visual and functional shift (enhanced, of course, by some old fashioned sexual ribaldry, which, as they say, never hurts) - from a pitiful and anomalous elephant with an extra item of anatomy, to a worthy batsman recast as a runner on first base with a less fearsome hitter at the plate. The usual verbal counterpart of this "sudden shift" principle works by disparity between the minimal difference of sounds or letters and the maximal consequence of a quirky outcome or an extensive change of meaning generated by such a tiny alteration of input - as in the answer (a lame joke in this case, but illustrative of the principle) to: "What's another name for a New York wine cellar?" "A Knickerbocker liquor locker."Each of Duchamp's four categories generates its humor by this principle of small difference cascading to large, quirky and unexpected effect. The categories span a wide range of linguistic possibilities - from visual rearrangement of letters, to aural likeness, to plays on differences between the names and sound values of letters, to the use of common verbal roots for generating an extensive range of meanings along numerous routes of minor change. I will illustrate the potential range of each category by presenting Duchampian examples in three widely varying modes: interesting conjunctions yielding more than the sum of parts; direct contradictions between the two tiny differences; and "annihilations" (a special intensification of the second mode), where one member of the contradiction annihilates the other, directly and causally.
Mode One: Interesting Conjunction. As an obvious example of a fruitful anagram that juxtaposes two arrangements of the same letters into an unexpected union and quirky context that Duchamp then exploited in a major work of his career - by turning the odd name into an actual product. Anemic Cinema may be reckoned as either puerile or powerful in execution, but the title is objectively anagrammatic.
Mode Two: Opposition. Silent et listen (P.N. number 208) (2). Just rearrange the letters, and we can only do the latter in vain when the condition of the former reigns.
Mode Three: Annihilation. I particularly like the following example as a resident in two categories: both a perfect anagram and a pun based on small aural differences between the two parts (category 2B to follow). Etrangler l'étranger (P.N., 237) - to strangle the stranger. Just move the "l" from the verb and make it the definite article for the noun. The action of the verb will then annihilate the noun. But the two parts of speech remain alike both visually (as a perfect anagram) and aurally (as a good pun).
2A. Puns as homonyms. If anagrams produce their large differences in meaning from spatial rearrangement of identical components (leading to a visual joke), then homonymic puns operate as a strict analog in the aural dimension - for the joke now arises from oddly disparate meanings generated by the same sounds (usually spelled differently or parsed into different words). The poor reputation of punning can largely be ascribed to childish efforts in this category, as in the American schoolboy's joke: "What's the difference between a place to drink and an elephant's fart?" "A place to drink is a bar room, and an elephant's fart is barroooooom!" Most "knock-knock" jokes also reside here, and their "ouch" records their status - as in "Who's there?" "Petunia." "Petunia who?" With the answer then given in song: "Petunia old grey bonnet . . ."
Mode One: Interesting Conjunction. Duchamp created many puns in this most widely exploited category within the entire genre of wordplays. I confess that I don't grasp the depth in some examples that must have pleased Duchamp because he repeated them so frequently, but I may be missing some interesting innuendoes that would be apparent to a native speaker of French. "Un mot de reine; des maux de reins" (P.N., 241) contrasts "a word of the queen" with, literally, "kidney diseases," but more generally and commonly, "backaches," under a virtually identical pronunciation. (Perhaps, as a sexist crack, the pun means to identify forceless pronouncements from the boss's subsidiary with "oh, my aching back." Or perhaps as Sarah Skinner Kilborne, Toutfait's Senior Editor, suggested to me, backaches correspond to the queen's word because pain speaks to us by giving us a word about body parts in trouble, while any statement from the queen also represents a word from the back -- either negatively from the king's annoying subsidiary, both literally and figuratively behind him, or more positively from his second in command, or backup.) Similarly, "my niece is cold because my Knees are cold" (P.N., 232) puzzles me as an apparently meaningless conjunction of different significations with nearly identical sounds, but perhaps our thoughts should turn to unconsummated incest (and perhaps they shouldn't on the sensible principle that cigars and bananas are often just cigars and bananas. But why does Duchamp often capitalize only the word "Knees" of the male body part?).
I regard "head tax thumb tacks" (P.N., 272) as more satisfying (or perhaps only more personally comprehensible) because the use of a different body part as an adjectival modifier to the exact same sound (albeit represented by two distinct words of different spelling) yields such an interesting contrast of meanings - a form of taxation (popular in many European countries) based on fixed amounts per person (also, called a "capitation" from the Latin caput, or head), versus a humble bit of hardware pushed in by the stated body part.
I only appreciated the depth of Duchamp's construction when I studied the etymology of cajoler in Robert. The probable origin of this verb, meaning to flatter or to wheedle, can be traced to the singing of birds in a cage. Moreover, the derived noun cajolerie specifically identifies the condescending tone that men often adopt in trying to influence women or children. Hence, both images of the rebus specify a historical source for the full phrase thus represented - the woman and child of the first part, followed by the caged animal of the second part.
Mode two: Opposition. I suspect that Duchamp called his late and evidently phallic structure "Objet dard" because the piece both looks like a dart (or just to mark the word's membership within the large set of nicknames for a penis), and also stands in opposition to the retinal style of conventional "fine art" that perpetually strives to fashion an "objet d'art" of the same pronunciation. However, for Duchamp's best products in this mode, I nominate, for first prize, "do shit again and douche it again" (P.N., 232) as truly identical soundings with opposite meanings (foul it again vs. wash it again); and, for second prize, the delicious bilingual homonym (P.N., 229) "coup de gueule / good girl" (a smack in the face and a well behaved lass - pronounced almost identically, with the first sounding like the second spoken with a French accent, despite the difference in meaning and orthography in the two languages).
2B. Puns as transpositions (near homonyms). This category encompasses the more subtle and systematic near homonyms (large differences in meaning generated by small alterations in sound) that generally win more respect than truly homonymic puns because they often originate by careful and thoughtful construction, rather than by the sheer accident of an unconsidered alternative meaning for a chosen statement (or a consciously forced and painful likeness in the "ouch" mode of knock-knock jokes). However, some puns in this category, while also systematic in their structure, do arise unintentionally, and even win their humor for the embarrassment thus created as a lapsus linguae (or slip of the tongue). The classics of this subgenre are called "spoonerisms" for their hapless eponym, The Reverend William Spooner (1844-1930), who apparently couldn't help himself. Some spoonerisms have been traced to the source himself - as when the good Reverend confidently responded to a parishoner's praise for his sermons: "many thinkle peep so." Others, one suspects, have been purposely devised by legions of "admirers" and then attributed to the poor man - as in "a half warmed fish" masquerading as an imperfectly conceptualized desire.
I don't know any common English distinction between these two types of puns (homonymic and transpositional), but the French language, while using "jeu de mots" (word game) as the vernacular term for puns in general, does make a formal separation with two less common words that also attribute greater value to the transpositional category. Robert defines calembour as a "witticism based on words that have a double meaning, or an ambiguity of words [forming] phrases that are pronounced in an identical manner." But Robert then specifies the lower status of a calembour by recognizing an expansion of meaning that began in the early 19th century: "By extension, it means a poor pun (un mauvais jeu de mots)."
By contrast, Robert defined a contrepèterie as "an inversion of two sounds (vowels or consonants) between two words transforming the meaning of a phrase, generally in a scatological direction." From this original 15th century meaning, Robert then reports an extension of sense to the full category that I have called "transpositional" - with a clear implication of higher value: "The word designates a permutation of sounds, letters, or syllables in a phrase, in such a way as to obtain another phrase with a droll meaning." Interestingly, Robert gives two hypotheses for the derivation of contrepèterie: either from the verb péter (to make a blast, more specifically to fart - as in a common phrase that many English speakers use in ignorance of its etymology - to be hoist by one's own petard), thus meaning, literally, a backfire; or from pied (a foot) in reference to the "counter foot" or other meaning of the phrase. In any case, Duchamp uncorked a set of eminently worthy contrepèteries in all three modes:
If the first example links two entirely different phrases by a similarity in form (warm round objects), the second describes a functional union in the sexual mode favored by contrepèteries. Duchamp labels this pun as a "question of intimate hygiene": "Faut-il mettre la moelle de l'épée dans le poil de l'aimée" (from the 1939 pamphlet of Duchampian aphorisms, Rrose Sélavy, and in P.N., 231 in a slightly different version) - an interesting and partly metaphorical description of copulation from a male point of view: "is it necessary to put the pith of the sword into the fur of the (female) beloved." Again, the change of meaning arises from a single reciprocal transposition - m for p - between two words: "moelle de l'épée (pith of the sword) and "poil de l'aimée" (fur of the beloved).
Interestingly, Duchamp improved the pun (both in sound, objectively, and in meaning, in my opinion) when he changed poil (fur) to poêle (oven, and a better rhyme with moelle) in recycling this phrase on an anemic cinema disc (Schwarz, number 421).
In another case, number 254 of the Posthumous Notes, and labeled a "devinette" (riddle) by Duchamp, a more complex rearrangement of four syllables or combinations of syllables (rien, de, véné, and rable) highlights an opposition between something both honorable and persistent (venerable) and a mode of destruction in disgrace (râble de vénérien). André Gervais notes that we may also consider this form of wordplay as an anagram of syllables rather than letters:
"He has nothing venerable, but a back of a person with a venereal disease."
Mode Three: Annihilation. In a wonderfully complex transposition, involving both sounds and letters (P.N., 225, and as a slight variant, appearing in the form cited here, in the 1939 booklet, Rrose Selavy, that collected 43 Duchampian aphorisms, most published previously and singly), Duchamp inverts the cr-s of a word in the first phrase (crasse) into s-cr in the corresponding word of the second phrase (Sacre). He then inverts the t-m and p-n of a word in the first phrase (tympan) into p-n followed by t-m for a word in the second phrase (Printemps). The result becomes a mordant comment about a famous incident in the long history of public opposition to avant-garde works of art - the angry crowd reaction (including prolonged catcalling and even some throwing of chairs) that followed the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in 1913: "La crasse de tympan et non le Sacre de Printemps" - "The filth of the eardrum and not the Rite of Spring." The mocking crowd annihilates Stravinsky's piece by transposition to an ultimate affront upon their aural receptors; (an opponent might also nullify the composition by plugging up his ears so completely that no sound can get through). (4)####PAGES####