James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp

by William Anastasi

click to enlarge
Figure 1A
Figure 1B
Figure 2A
Figure 2B
Man Ray, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1920
Marcel Duchamp, Cover of "The Blindman No. 1, " April 1917 (detail of the drawing by Alfred J. Frueh)
Man Ray, Portrait of James Joyce, 1922
Drawing by James Joyce for Finnegans Wake (1939), p. 308.

Is Marcel Duchamp the model for a character in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake? Yes.
Is this character attractive? No.
Does this character have an equally unattractive twin brother based on Joyce? Yes.

Finnegans Wake [1] is unique in our history: never has a work of literature been so widely known by name yet so rarely read cover to cover. Its fame rests in part on the fact that its author was already world famous from earlier works when it was first published. And the reason for its relative neglect by readers can be explained by even a cursory glance at any one of its 626 pages: Joyce, it would seem, had practically invented a new language, roughly based on English. Offsetting the neglect of the novel by the public at large is the humming worldwide industry of Joyce scholars who are busily earning Ph.D’s trying to decipher it.

There are many parallels between Marcel Duchamp (Fig. 1A)(who earned necessary money teaching French to Americans) and James Joyce (Fig. 2A)(who earned necessary money teaching English to Europeans). If Finnegans Wake was unprecedented in literary history, Duchamp’s Large Glass was no less so in the history of art. Like Joyce, Duchamp was already world famous from earlier work by the time the world saw the mold-shattering new work. In the case of both the artist and the writer, that earlier work was considered extremely difficult by the general public, and was embraced only by a very small number of sympathetic artists; with the Glass and the Wake, Duchamp and Joyce respectively reached a point in their odysseys where their sympathy for the ease of their audience was very close to nil. [2] (Fig. 1B and 2B)

Duchamp, though the younger by five years, was considerably earlier than Joyce in reaching this iconoclastic stage. For all its difficulties, Ulysses, written between 1914 and 1921, contains many passages that readers of the time could relatively easily accept as viable literature. Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, 1913–1914 (Fig. 3), and Bottle Dryer, 1914 (Fig. 4), on the other hand, were decidedly not considered viable by art lovers when they appeared on the scene.

click to enlarge
Figure 3
Figure 4
Marcel Duchamp, Three Standard Stoppages, 1913-14
Marcel Duchamp, Bottle Dryer, 1914/1964

click to enlarge
Figure 5
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23

Duchamp made his first drawings for parts of The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (a.k.a. The Large Glass) (Fig. 5) in 1912, began the piece itself in 1915, and stopped working on it in 1923. [3] He made his last additions to it in New York before mid-February of that year, when he left for Europe. [4] Joyce started Finnegans Wake on March 10, 1923. It seems a marvelous coincidence that Duchamp ended work on his unprecedented artwork only a few weeks before Joyce started work on his unprecedented book; a person of a metaphysical bent, believing in some sort of transmigrating artistic energy, might posit a scenario out of the coincidence. The writer Calvin Tomkins pointedly connects the most ambitious and notable work of the artist with that of the writer: “The Large Glass stands in relation to painting as Finnegans Wake does to literature, isolated and inimitable; it has been called everything from a masterpiece to a hoax, and to this day there are no standards by which it can be judged.” [5] “Masterpiece” and “hoax,” of course, are the two labels most often attached to Finnegans Wake as well. >> Next


page 1 2 3 4 5


[1] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, New York: Penguin, 1976 (1939).

[2] In this—but not solely in this—there is a common precedent in the eccentric turn-of-the-century French symbolist poet/playwright Alfred Jarry (1873–1907). Jarry’s strong effect on both James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp is the subject of six earlier essays by this writer, two for this journal: “Duchamp on the Jarry Road,” Artforum, September 1992; Jarry, Joyce, Duchamp and Cage, Catalogue for the Venice Biennale, 1993; William Anastasi with Michael Seidel, “Jarry in Joyce: A Conversation,” Joyce Studies Annual, 1995; “Jarry in Duchamp,” New Art Examiner, October 1997; “Jarry and l’Accident of Duchamp” in: Tout Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, vol. 1, nr. 1 (December 1999); and “Jarry, Joyce, Duchamp and Cage” (rev. ed., in English, of the Italian 1993 Venice Biennale essay, with additions), in: Tout Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, vol. 1, nr. 2 (May 2000).

[3] See Anne D’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973), p. 18.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors (New York: Penguin, 1965), p. 28.


Figs. 1B, 3, 4, 5
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.