James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp

by William Anastasi


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.
—André Breton [6]

Alfred Jarry: There is great wisdom in modeling one’s soul on that of one’s janitor. 1902

James Joyce: I have a grocer’s assistant’s mind. 1925

Marcel Duchamp: I live the life of a waiter. 1968

A snow shovel? A bottle rack? A bicycle wheel? A focus on the ordinary was a significant feature of Duchamp’s contribution to the visual arts. With his Readymades he sought to elevate mass-produced objects into art’s realm. And he made clear that he considered the idea behind this gesture the most important of any that had come to him.

There is a parallel in Joyce’s transparent insistence that the ordinary is extraordinary. This interest was apparent to other writers: Richard Ellmann, his biographer, tells us that “to [William Butler] Yeats, Joyce was too concerned with the commonplace.” [7] Ellmann himself states, “The initial and determining act of judgment in [Joyce’s] work is the justification of the commonplace.” [8] This tendency can be seen in Joyce’s day-to-day proceedings as well as in his writing. To his friend the bookstore proprietor Sylvia Beach, for example, he said, “I never met a bore.” [9] (Nicely parallel is Duchamp saying that he never saw a painting from which he was unable to get something of interest.) Like Duchamp, too, Joyce was capable of de-emphasizing the inventive genius of the originating author in favor of some more generic principle of creativity: speaking of Finnegans Wake to Eugene Jolas, founder of the literary review transition, he said, “This book is being written by the people I have met or known.” [10] To a substantial degree this statement could apply even to Joyce’s early novel Stephen Hero and the collection of stories Dubliners, but it rings ever truer as we travel through Ulysses and then Finnegans Wake, with its “hero” H. C. Earwicker, also referred to as “Here Comes Everybody.”

In harmony with this, we find that Ulysses, notwithstanding its structural debt to the Homeric epic, lays out a single day in the life of middle-class citizens of Dublin. And Finnegans Wake, for all its complex structure and portmanteau words, tells of a tavern keeper, his wife and his three children, yet again in Dublin, Joyce’s native town.

One of Duchamp’s many contributions to modern art, of course, was the willful use of the principle of chance, seen most vividly in the early Three Standard Stoppages, 1913-14. A few years later he ordered the title of the magazine he launched in 1917 to be Wrongwrong, but a printing mistake transformed it into Rongwrong. The error appealed to him and he accepted the title. [11] Joyce too, according to Ellmann, “was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator.” [12]

Once or twice he dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to Beckett . . . in the middle of one such session there was a knock on the door which Beckett did not hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards, he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in’?” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.” [13]

Authors and critics have found tonal similarities in the work of Duchamp and of Joyce. Ellmann, for example, remarks of Finnegans Wake that its “mixture of childish nonsense and ancient wisdom had been prepared for by the Dadaists and Surrealists.” [14] This complements Michel Sanouillet’s statement that “perhaps no one was . . . more spiritually dada than Marcel Duchamp. In [him] are joined the essential elements of the dada revolt.” [15]

Duchamp, who said that his notes for The Large Glass were part of the piece, often repeated that all of his work was based on literature. In the 1910s he said, “I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter.” [16] In 1922, meanwhile, the year after the publication of Ulysses and a year before he began Finnegans Wake, Joyce said that his writing owed much to painting. [17] He can actually be seen as striving toward an end result more typical of painting than of writing: after suggesting to a friend that he could compare much of his work in Ulysses to a page of intricate illuminations in the Irish monastic volume The Book of Kells, he continued, “I would like it to be possible to pick up any page of my book and know at once what book it was.” [18] And he wrote to Lucia, his daughter, “Lord knows what my prose means. In a word, it’s pleasing to the ear. And your drawings are pleasing to the eye. That is enough, it seems to me.” [19]

Both Duchamp and Joyce would have been at a loss without female patronage. In Duchamp’s case, Katherine Dreier was sufficiently devoted to have sometimes followed the artist in his travels—whether invited or not—and named him the executor of her will; she bought the Large Glass from Duchamp’s early supporter Walter Arensberg, and held on to it. In Joyce’s case we find Beach and Harriet Weaver, among others. Both men, however, were known to treat women unfeelingly, and Joyce at times could sound sexist: granting that some women “have attained eminence in the field of scientific research,” he could add, “But you have never heard of a woman who was the author of a complete philosophical system, and I don’t think you ever will.” Yet he admitted in a letter: “throughout my life women have been my most active helpers.” [20]

The Readymades and The Large Glass have been lauded or vilified as the end of art as we used to know it, and critics made similar comments on the publication of Finnegans Wake. Joyce himself remarked of his book, “I’m at the end of English.” [21] Yet, despite these and a slew of other connections and parallels, no essay to my knowledge has appeared discussing the possibility of a significant personal connection between these two uniquely influential geniuses. My explorations tell me that a single essay can only serve as introduction to the subject.

Joyce and Duchamp, both international figures by the 1920s, moved in the same social circles, yet no biography of either man mentions a meeting of the two. This writer, who was on friendly terms with the artist’s late widow, Teeny Duchamp, once asked her whether she was aware of any meeting or contact between Joyce and Duchamp. She answered that she was not. The only evidence I’ve found that strongly suggests they may have met is in a short biography of  the American bookbinder and art patron Mary Reynolds, who “held an open house almost nightly at her home at 14 rue Halle [in Paris], with her quiet garden the favored spot after dinner for the likes of Duchamp, Brancusi, Man Ray, [André] Breton, [Djuna] Barnes, [Peggy] Guggenheim, [Paul] Eluard, Mina Loy, James Joyce, Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, and others.” [22] Since Duchamp was all but living with Reynolds at the time, the likelihood that he and Joyce did not meet diminishes as a possibility.

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Figure 6
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912
Figure 7
Marcel Duchamp, Photograph of Fountain by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917

Whether they met or not, however, I believe that Duchamp was the model for a character in Finnegans Wake, and by no means a sympathetic one. But this is consistent with Joyce’s world outlook; it is probably true of most of the hundreds of characters from past and current history with whom he filled his book. Duchamp’s fictional re-creation, I believe, had to do not only with his presence and reputation in Paris but with more particular considerations having to do with his personality and his relationships. In the years we are focusing on he enjoyed as wide a celebrity in the visual arts as Joyce did in the literary world. And their respective positions dovetailed extraordinarily: both known to the cognoscenti as possessing enormous abilities, both considered bad boys by the larger public. Largely responsible for Duchamp’s bad reputation was Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1913 (Fig. 6), and Fountain, 1917(Fig. 7), the notorious upended urinal exhibited as art; for Joyce it was the four-letter words in Ulysses, never before seen or permitted in legitimately published English novels. Duchamp’s “scandal” had been widely publicized in 1917 when New York’s protectors of public morals refused to exhibit the urinal on the grounds that it was “immoral” or “vulgar.” [23] In Joyce’s case the refusal to allow Ulysses entry into various countries on identical grounds was important news. Duchamp lived to see Fountain attain status as one of the most important artworks of the twentieth century; Joyce lived to see a similar destiny for Ulysses.

A few details about Duchamp’s relationship with American art patron Mary Reynolds and with the American collector John Quinn may help to explain why Joyce painted the character I find he based on Duchamp in such colors as he did. If this interpretation is correct, the surprise is compounded by the fact that neither Duchamp nor Reynolds is mentioned at all in Ellmann’s massive and highly detailed biography of the writer.

Duchamp and Joyce actually lived within blocks of each other at various times in Paris in the ’teens and 1920s. They were also close to many of the same people. Both Constantin Brancusi and Man Ray, for example, probably the two artists closest to Duchamp, made celebrated portraits of Joyce: Brancusi executed two true-to-life drawings of him followed by a totally abstract one that became famous and was eventually the frontispiece for Ellmann’s biography; Man Ray’s 1922 photograph of Joyce may be the most haunting portrait of a writer or artist ever made by Ray. Samuel Beckett, who met Joyce in 1928, was quite close to both the writer and the artist, as was Reynolds, although in a different way. [24] Yet although Joyce must have seen a great deal about Duchamp in the Paris press, and no doubt heard intimate stories about him from excellent personal sources, there is only sparse documented evidence that Joyce and Duchamp even knew of each other’s existence.

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Figure 8
Marcel Duchamp, Cover of transition, no. 26, 1936

One has to search to find them acknowledging each other. In 1937, when a reproduction of Duchamp’s 1916 Comb readymade was chosen as the cover of an issue of transition (no. 26) (Fig. 8) —the same issue that featured an installment of Joyce’s Work in Progress (the working title of Finnegans Wake)—Joyce intriguingly told Beach, “The comb with thick teeth shown on this cover was the one used to comb out Work in Progress.” [25] The comment, I would argue, suggests some kind of connection between Joyce and Duchamp that no biographer to my knowledge has yet explored. In Duchamp’s case I know of two references to the writer. Once, telling Dore Ashton in a 1966 interview how some authors were famous in the way of an expensive Swiss chocolate while others were famous more in the way of Pepsi-Cola, Duchamp remarked that Joyce was in the latter category. And in 1956, in a book introduction, he wrote of Reynolds’s “close friendship with André Breton, Raymond Queneau, Jean Cocteau, Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Alexander Calder, Miro, Jacques Villon, and many other important figures of the epoch.” [26]

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Figure 9
Marcel Duchamp, Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled, 1932

Reynolds, one of Joyce’s inner circle, [27] was also a “lifelong friend” of Joyce’s perennial intimate Beckett; the two writers would sometimes meet at her house. [28] Joyce’s son Giorgio likewise stayed there at the same time as Beckett. [28A] It was in Reynolds’s house that Beckett started his relationship with Peggy Guggenheim, and they lived there for a short while after. [28B] Beckett and Reynolds were kindred spirits who would eventually both work bravely for the French Resistance. (Joyce, meanwhile, made a point of saying that he was not physically brave; Duchamp similarly once remarked that his response to an invasion would be to stand with folded arms.) Beckett’s Endgame,  was to an extent inspired by a chess book Duchamp had co-written, Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled (Fig. 9). [29]

This same Mary Reynolds loved Duchamp with an undying fervor. Their sexual relationship survived hell and high water, including Duchamp’s strange, short-lived marriage to a plump, not overly attractive, well-to-do woman. His liaison with Reynolds began in 1924, and “in spite of his refusal to let it impinge on his freedom, it lasted for the better part of two decades.” [30] Duchamp’s friend Henri-Pierre Roché who introduced them, would later write in his journal,

She suffers. Marcel is debauched. Has loved, perhaps still loves, very vulgar women. He holds her at arm’s length at the edge of his mind. He fears for his freedom. She wants to attach herself to him as he says. (Mary’s eyes moisten with offended sweet pride.) . . . He comes to see her every day. Hides their relationship from everybody. Doesn’t want her to speak to him at the Café du Dome when they see each other each evening. Hides her. Gets out of their taxi a hundred yards before arriving at the home of friends. She loves him, believes him incapable of loving. . . . Just as a butterfly goes for certain flowers, Marcel goes straight for beauty. He could not go for Mary, but he protects against her his life, his calm, his solitude, his chess game, his amorous fantasies. [31]

Yet “she was deeply in love with him” and accepted his callous behavior. [32]

If Joyce objected to Duchamp’s treatment of Reynolds, it was not due to middle-class prudishness: one of his closest intimates was the Irish tenor John Sullivan, whose “family life was deeply entangled between a wife and a mistress.” [33] Joyce himself may have remained with Nora Barnacle, the woman who loved him, until the end of his life, but a letter of 1904 to an aunt in Dublin suggests inner cravings for an independent existence; with his and Nora’s first child, Giorgio, not yet five months old, he wrote that as soon as he earned some money from his writing he intended to change his life: “I imagine the present relations between Nora and myself are about to suffer some alteration. . . . I am not a very domestic animal—after all, I suppose I am an artist—and sometimes when I think of the free and happy life which I have (or had) every talent to live I am in a fit of despair.” [34] He did stay with Nora, marrying her in 1931, when he was forty-nine, after twenty-seven years of cohabitation. Yet around that time he told Jolas, “When I hear the word ‘love’ I feel like puking.” [35] Nora for her part, after being cajoled by friends, not for the first time, into returning home to her penitent husband after she had fled his drunken behavior, said in 1936, “I wish I had never met anyone of the name James Joyce.” [36] Yet Joyce, when not under the influence, obviously felt a powerful attachment to Nora. In 1928–29, when she was sent into the hospital for operations twice within a four-month period, he refused to be separated from her, and “had a bed set up in her room so that he could stay there too.” [37]

As far as women were concerned, then, Duchamp seemed callous and acted accordingly; Joyce could speak callously and behave boorishly, but proceeded loyally. Oddly, each artist got into an inverse relationship with the same male associate, the American lawyer and collector John Quinn. In 1919, when an antiques dealer offered to sell the definitive version of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Quinn decided that $1,000 was “much too steep.” But in July of that year he and Duchamp met and apparently hit it off. Quinn, a fellow bachelor and, like Duchamp, a “well-known connoisseur of pretty women,” [38] would eventually buy Brancusi sculptures through Duchamp, find a job for the artist when he needed one, and take French lessons from him for a fee. Once, “deciding that Duchamp looked tired and thin, Quinn sent him a railroad ticket and a paid hotel reservation for a few days’ vacation . . . in an . . . ocean resort on the New Jersey shore. Duchamp showed his gratitude by dashing off a pen and ink sketch of the collector and presenting it to him ‘en souvenir d’un Bontemps a Spring Lake.’” [39]

Joyce was a less comfortable beneficiary of Quinn’s patronage. In March 1917 Quinn sent Joyce money, but only in return for the manuscript of Exiles. He also wrote a laudatory review of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Vanity Fair, [40] and later he would buy the manuscript of Ulysses. But Joyce never agreed with Quinn on the value of his manuscripts, [41] and he told Ezra Pound that he did not consider Quinn generous. [42] When Quinn tried and failed to defend Ulysses against obscenity charges in an American court, Joyce was critical of his legal strategy, clearly believing that a different approach would have brought more chance of success. [43] And he cannot have been pleased to learn that Quinn had told the publisher whom he had unsuccessfully represented, “Don’t publish any more obscene literature.” The only friendly thing Ellmann reports Joyce saying about Quinn came after the collector’s death, in 1924.

All the evidence shows that Joyce expected help from everyone in reach. He firmly believed in his own greatness and was not shy of trading on it. Duchamp may have had as solid a core of self-confidence, but while he took help where he could get it, he did not behave as though it were his birthright. Much more adept at navigating life’s breakers than Joyce, he seems to have been widely admired and even loved. Despite his clear refusal to make a commitment to Reynolds, for example, she remained devoted to him until her death. I met Duchamp once, engaging in a twenty-minute conversation with him the year before his death; the strong impression I was left with of his personality could best be described as “natural Zen aplomb.” Others who were very close to him agree with this evaluation with hardly a qualification. The vivid contrast with Joyce is everywhere evident. A somewhat related illustration appears in Ellmann: “Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed toward each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.” [44] >> Next


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[6] André Breton, quoted in Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. 217.

[7] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (New York: Oxford UP, 1959), p. 608.

[8] Ibid., p. 3.

[9] Ibid., p. 5.

[10] Joyce, quoted in Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 5.

[11] Irene E. Hofmann. Mary Reynolds and the Spirit of Surrealism (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996), p. 139.

[12] Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 662.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. 559.

[15] Michel Sanouillet (ed.), introduction, in The Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Oxford UP, 1973), p. 6.

[16] Ibid., p. 19.

[17] Joyce, quoted in Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 559

[18] Ibid.

[19] Joyce, quoted in Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 702.

[20] Joyce, quoted in Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 648.

[21] Ibid., p. 559.

[22] Susan Glover Godlewski, “Warm Ashes: The Life and Career of Mary Reynolds,” in: Mary Reynolds and the Spirit of Surrealism (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996), p. 108.

[23] See Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Delano Greenidge, 2002), p. 467.

[24] For Samuel Beckett, Joyce was a revered father figure while Duchamp was a friend closer to his own age, as well as a constant chess partner. Beckett “enjoyed Marcel Duchamp, who lived near him. [Mel Gussow] commented on Duchamp’s found objects, such as the urinal he exhibited as a work of art. Beckett laughed: ‘A writer could not do that.’” Mel Gussow, Conversations with and about Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 1996), p. 47. In 1981 Beckett “spoke [to a new young friend, Arnold Bernold] of the days before . . . recognition had descended on him, of Joyce with undiminished reverence, of Marcel Duchamp, of his early days in Paris.” Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (New York: Da Capo, 1997), p. 573.

[25] Joyce, quoted in Ellmann, James Joyce., p. 744.

[26] Marcel Duchamp, in Surrealism and Its Affinities: The Mary Reynolds Collection, a bibliography compiled by Hugh Edwards, (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1956), p. 6.

[27] The only other female, as mentioned by Gussow as being in Joyce's "own circle," is Nancy Cunard; in Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, p. 573. Only one other close female friend of Joyce’s, Nancy Cunard, is described as “close” in this collection of conversations; see p. 47.

[28] Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett (London: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1978), p. 68.

[28A] Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett (New York, Da Capo, 1977), p. 311.

[28B] Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett, p. 276.

[29] Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett, pp. 465-467.

[30] Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), p. 257.

[31] Henri-Pierre Roché, quoted in ibid., p. 258.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 633.

[34] Joyce, quoted in Brenda Maddox, Nora (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), p. 66.

[35] Joyce, quoted in p. 631

[36] Nora Joyce, quoted in Ellmann, James Joyce (rev. ed., 1982), p. 700.

[37] Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 619.

[38] Tomkins, Duchamp, p. 148.

[39] Ibid, p. 149.

[40] Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 427.

[41] Ibid., p. 569.

[42] Ibid., p. 494.

[43] Ibid., p. 569.

[44] Ibid., p. 661.


Figs. 6-9
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.