PRINT September 1991


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

I live the life of a waiter.
—Marcel Duchamp, 1968

It will be of great interest some day to explain the full meaning of all these projects [of Duchamp’s], each so strictly unexpected. . . and to try to unravel the law whereby they progress.
—André Breton, 1945

MARCEL DUCHAMP WAS 15 when the novel Le Surmâle (The supermale) was published, 20 when its author, Alfred Jarry, died, in 1907. The influence of Jarry on the Theater of the Absurd, the Cubists, the Surrealists, and the Dadaists is acknowledged. It now seems that he was no less important to Duchamp, who said little on the record about Jarry but is known to have admired the writer’s work. (Once, explaining a word in one of his titles, he remarked, “It’s like Jarry’s ‘ha-ha.’”) Actually Duchamp may have used hints from Jarry in some of his most characteristic images and motifs. It may even be that something of Jarry’s spirit infuses most of Duchamp’s work.

Some of the apparent links between Jarry and Duchamp seem quite direct. In Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien (Exploits and opinions of Doctor Faustroll, pataphysician, published posthumously in 1911), for example, Jarry talks of “even layers of dust carefully preserved ... for many months.” Duchamp, of course, did just this for the Large Glass, 1915–23, as described in a note from his Green Box: “For the sieves in the glass — allow dust to fall on this part [for] 3 or 4 months.” If there are any precedents for Duchamp’s idea outside Jarry, they must be rare. Given other such correspondences between Jarry and Duchamp, this seems more than coincidence.

In Le Surmâle, Jarry has a character say, “I often. . . unscrewed. . . urinals,” and later, “What are you doing that’s new? Have you stopped wrecking urinals?” These phrases obviously suggest Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, in which a urinal is unscrewed from its plumbing—“wrecked” by loss of its usual function. Again, the idea of a urinal purposely detached from its wall is uncommon at best outside Duchamp’s work, which Jarry’s novel predates. In both these cases, certainly, Jarry’s remarks are small details, odd sentences in whole books; remade in visual form by Duchamp, they have a far different weight. Such correspondences may seem accidental until one tabulates their frequency. That done, it begins to seem that Duchamp may have made a practice of picking details out of their context in Jarry’s work for his own use.

Considering mainly the relatively small part of Jarry’s work available in English translation —the Ubu plays, Faustroll, and other writings, most of all Le Surmâle— I am constantly reminded of Duchamp’s art and notes. The painting Tu m’, 1918, seems to me an abstracted illustration of a pivotal scene in Le Surmâle. Strong reverberations from Jarry can also be perceived in the readymades, the Rrose Sélavy persona, the Large Glass, and Étant donnés. Jarry does appear in the vast literature on Duchamp, with writers occasionally finding parallels in the two men’s thinking. But these parallels are slight — glimpses of a continent mistaken for an island. The oversight is perhaps understandable, for I’ve come to believe that keeping the Jarry connection private became important to Duchamp, and that his behavior in this regard sheds light on the entire mysterious-hoaxer pose he cultivated, summed up so poetically in the 1959 piece With My Tongue in My Cheek. When Duchamp said, “Each word that I tell you is stupid and false,” he was not just amusing himself but was warning us of his taste for diversionary tactics.

There is a parallel here with Jarry’s Père Ubu, who carries his conscience around with him in. . . a valise. Ubu alone decides when to consult his conscience, and when he does it’s only to have a course of behavior neatly laid out to be ignored. I think immediately here of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (Box in a valise, 1936–41), a miniaturized compendium of the artist’s work, and thus of his thinking, packed carefully into a suitcase.


Jarry, as Pa Ubu: Ah, crap! Isn't Wrong worth the same as Right?

Duchamp: Good or bad is of no importance because it is always good for some people and bad for others.


The Duchamp-Jarry link can be traced to Duchamp’s earliest dated notes, made in 1912 and collected in the Green Box of 1934 and in the posthumous volume Marcel Duchamp, Notes. In the Green Box we find, “The machine with 5 hearts, the pure child of nickel and platinum must dominate the Jura-Paris road.” The machine with five hearts, I propose, is the fiveman-bicycle team that races a train in Le Surmâle. And the “Jura-Paris road” stands not for two places in France, but for juré, or juror (one who passes judgment), and Paris, hero of Greek antiquity and of a poem in Jarry’s novel:

Handsome Paris, destroyer of peace,
Goddesses’ judge, yet lover of women.

Furthermore, if these two European place-names lose their geographic meaning—if “ura-P” (Europe) is dropped from “the Jura-Paris road” — what is left, given the French pronunciation of “Paris,” is “the Jarry road.” This is the kind of word game Duchamp loved.

In 1912 Duchamp had yet to produce his most innovative work—had yet to embark on the Jarry road. The first assisted readymade, the bicycle wheel—a reference, I think, to the bicycles in Le Surmâle, and to Jarry’s passion for bicycling—was put together the next year, in 1913. And Jarry’s books were to span Duchamp’s creative life. In the race in Le Surmâle, the train and the bicycle, both traveling at close to 200 miles an hour, reach “a great tower, open to the sky, shaped like a truncated cone, two hundred yards in diameter at the base and a hundred yards high. Massive stone and iron buttresses supported it.” The first unassisted readymade, the bottle rack of 1914, resembles a buttressed truncated cone open at the top. In notes for the Large Glass, Duchamp, speaks not of a “truncated cone” but of a “conical trunk”—a typical inversion. And his very last Cheminée anaglyphe (Anaglyphic chimney) drawing of 1968, finished a few days before his death, shows a truncated cone open at the top. It is roughly twice as wide as it is high.

In Le Surmâle, when Marcueil, the hero, is asked, “Have you stopped wrecking urinals?,” he replies, “You can’t call it wrecking a device, just demonstrating that it isn’t strong enough to withstand the use it is designed for!” In Fountain, Duchamp—or “R. Mutt”—tried to find out (“demonstrate ”) whether a “device” (the urinal) was “strong enough to withstand” a use other than that it was designed for—namely, could it be used as art? (Duchamp stated, “That Mr. Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not, is not important. He CHOSE it. He took a common object, placed it so that its functional significance disappeared under the new tile and the new point of view—he created for this object a new idea.” Did Duchamp at first attribute this work to the fictitious R. Mutt out of diffidence born of the knowledge that Jarry had helped him formulate the idea, and “chose” the device?) Furthermore, by putting this object in an exhibition, Duchamp was merging life and art. Roger Shattuck, in his book The Banquet Years, describes Jarry’s stance on this idea: “After his most outrageous escapades, he frequently commented... ‘Isn’t it lovely as literature?’”1 And André Breton said, “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.”2 Conceivably, then, Jarry’s works contributed to Duchamp’s development of the readymades.

Again in Le Surmâle, Jarry writes that “the two people whom we call Adam and Eve were tempted by the manufactured products of the merchants whose totem was the Serpent.” It follows that the artist who presents readymades (manufactured products) as art is similarly identified with the Serpent—with the Devil. (It is also worth noting Duchamp’s performance as Adam in 1924, and the surviving photograph of him with his Eve.) This is a spectacular inversion on Duchamp’s part. Traditionally artists had been considered God-like in their creativity; taking Jarry’s hint, Duchamp inverts the artist into the Devil, putting light-years between himself and the artists of the period. (This he does again, more literally, in Monte Carlo Bond, 1924, which includes a photograph of himself with horns.) By giving up “creativity” in its accepted form, Duchamp also gave up its stifling “God-like” connotations — a freeing move of astonishing audacity whose ramifications will continue to impact on the entire world of esthetics and philosophy as long as such subjects exist. On the same page of Jarry: “God is beyond all dimensions, but within. He is a point.” And “God is infinitely small.” If the divinity is within all things, then the most humble mass-produced product is in this respect equal to the rarest, most valued, and most universally revered masterpiece.

Looking at the sequence, we see something like an inversion followed by an inversion. The artist moves from God-like to Devil-like, but the object presented is elevated from a manufactured lure, proffered by merchants conversant with the Devil, into a curiosity to display on the same walls once reserved for icons of such elevated ambition that a portrait of God-in-the-flesh was by no means out of the running.

Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy, 1921, is a cage of marble cubes, a cuttlebone, and a thermometer. Since marble is the preferred medium of antique statuary, the artist, I believe, is taking the temperature of traditional art. The readymades have mortally injured it, and Duchamp is the clinician on the scene. The cubes, then, are cold, like ice cubes, and the idea of cold is implicit in the “sneeze” of the title. Yet when Duchamp discussed this piece, he usually described the cubes as sugar cubes, steering the talk away from cold and death. Perhaps this was because Jarry too, in the rout of European civility that the Ubu plays constitute, had often used cold as an image of ruin: Ubu, for example, remarks, “It’s freezing enough to crack your pebbles.” And in Le Surmâle, Marcueil “was so abnormal that he could only warm his heart on the ice of a corpse.”

As for Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp’s alter ego (just as Ubu was Jarry’s), the artist made up a card advertising her, through a series of French puns, as a specialist in “precision ass and glass work.” Duchamp’s art is full of sexual allusions like this one, but they are usually indirect, masked—as the cuttlefish masks itself in ink—within puns and double meanings. I believe that he relished Jarry’s open obscenity, the constant talk in the Ubu plays of asses and buggery. Ground-up cuttlebones, incidentally, are a polishing agent; is the shell in Why Not Sneeze a private pun on Poland, locale of the Ubu plays? As Ubu declaims as the curtain falls on Ubu Roi, “Without Poland, there would be no spit and Polish!”


Jarry: Why should anyone claim that the shape of a watch is round. . . since it appears in profile as a narrow rectangular construction, elliptic, on the sides?

Duchamp: The clock seen in profile so that time disappears, but which accepts the idea of time other than linear time.


Duchamp’s last painting as such, Tu m’, is in part a kind of resumé, as the artist said, of earlier pieces. The work features shadow- or smokelike images of the bicycle wheel, the hat rack of 1917, and an unmade readymade, a corkscrew. The 3 Standard Stoppages of 1913-14 also appear, as do a row of overlapping parallelograms, a zigzag trompe l’oeil rent pierced by a three-dimensional bottlebrush, a white rectangle, and other motifs, including numerous circles arranged along straight bars. These, perhaps, relate to the race scene in Le Surmâle—the flirtation with the fourth dimension by Marcueil as the Road hog and by the five-man-bicycle team that races the locomotive. The circles are abstractions of the bicycle’s narrow (15-millimeter) wheels, and the bars correspond to the “aluminum rods” that link the cyclists’ legs. To aid the team, Jarry writes, a “trumpet-shaped flying machine” precedes them, “revolving on its own axis, corkscrewing through the air just above the ground in front of us, while a furious wind was sucking us toward its funnel.” In the painting the elongated corkscrew’s shadow may represent a wind sucking everything from the right third of the painting toward it, while the earth-colored outlines of the 3 Standard Stoppages beneath it represent the ground.

At the apogee of their ride the team finds a large barrel fitted with “straps like ... shoulder straps.” These straps have made the barrel into a kind of backpack, and correspond, I suggest, to the lines that run out from each corner of the white rectangle. (The “conical trunk” in Duchamp’s notes is described as “barrel shaped.”) As for the rectangle itself, in Faustroll a white rectangle represents “another world”: “At one end of the Infinite, in the form of a rectangle, is the white cross. . . . Down the rectangle’s diagonal comes the angel, praying calm and white.” Indeed, the rectangle in Tu m’ is adjacent to both a pointing hand, like a parody of God’s hand in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, and the trompe l’oeil tear, which I believe stands for infinity and the fourth dimension. (Since it shows the dark space behind the canvas, the symbolism is quite strong: if you look at a painting as the world that the artist has created, the space behind it can be seen as another world, another dimension.) Time seems compressed here — though “God’s finger” has not yet collided with the bicyclists following the white rectangle, the tear their collision will cause is not only represented but already crudely repaired with three real safety pins. There is also, as Arturo Schwarz points out,3 a sexual content in this image of a penetrated hole, and the two readings may complement each other, since sex is the gateway between worlds, conception the summoning of a soul from elsewhere to here.

Are the overlapping parallelograms to suggest the moving windows of the train, and the dim baroque lines of the hat rack the smoke from its stack scattering at high speed? Could the shadow images of the readymades refer to Marcueil, who takes part in the race secretly, and at first is seen only in reflections and shadows? And finally, could the erratic trompe l’oeil tear represent “the amount of zigzagging he was doing” as he pedaled?


Jarry, describing God: _He is ...neither immaterial nor infinite. He is only indefinite.

Duchamp: _The term “indefinite” seems to me more accurate than infinite.


Jarry’s Doctor Faustroll has an almost obsessional fascination with standards of measure. He carries in his pocket a “centimeter, an authentic copy in brass of the traditional standard,” and also possesses a tuning fork, its period “carefully determined. . . in terms of mean solar seconds.” These habits are a parody of traditional Western science, which Jarry anarchically undermined. Discussing science, he remarked, “Universal assent is ... a quite miraculous and incomprehensible prejudice.” Duchamp shared this attitude. The 3 Standard Stoppages, for example, in which the artist believed he had “tapped the mainstream of [his] future,” reflects his mock-scientific intention “to create ‘a new image of the unit of length,’ and to obtain a specimen of ‘canned chance.’” The very method of their making—“a thread one meter long [falling] straight from a height of one meter on to a horizontal plane twisting as it pleases”—recalls a line in Jarry: “When a piece of copper is dropped. . . it will float down slowly as though a viscous liquid occupied the space.”

I suppose that when Duchamp first began to follow the Jarry road, he made no great effort to hide his sources. But with time this changed: his art had developed richly, held great latency, and he may have feared that if his privacy went the magic might go with it. Yet Jarry had become part of his modus operandi. The identification was so strong that Duchamp may not have distinguished much between his own “playful physics” or “hypophysics” and Jarry’s “pataphysics,” both alternate hypotheses for the workings of the universe. It may have become a part of his work, and almost a point of honor, to make no more choices regarding the basic sources of his material. For me, this view of Duchamp undoes none of his complexity, reverses none of the meanings that have spun out from the readymades, say—meanings vitally important in 20th-century art.


Jarry: Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one. . . . Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions.

Duchamp: The physical Possible? Yes but which physical Possible. rather hypophysics.


The theme of Le Surmâle is not only passionate love but also man’s capacity for superhuman achievement—for a kind of Nietzschean superman role. This evolution seems intimately related to the new machine age: “In these days when metal and machines are all-powerful,” one character says, “man, if he is to survive, must become stronger than the machines.” The race with the train is a contest of men and machinery—yet the men, to compete, are aided by a machine, a bicycle. In fact they fuse with the bicycle, for they are strapped into it inextricably, becoming, as in Duchamp’s note, a “machine with 5 hearts.” And what is the fusion between human and mechanical if not the central image of the Large Glass, with its bachelor machines and engine bride? Besides cycling, moreover, Marcueil mainly proves his more-than-maleness through sex, performed 82 times in 24 hours with Ellen Elson. The opening sentence of Le Surmâle, spoken by Marcueil, runs, “‘The act of love is of no importance, since it can be performed indefinitely.’” And the Large Glass, of course, is organized around the idea of sex between bachelors and bride, with the bride, according to Duchamp’s notes, “basically a motor” “in perpetual movement,” her “constant life” powered by “love gasoline” (perhaps something like the “Perpetual Motion Food” eaten by the bicycle team in Le Surmâle). Jarry’s line “They had to have virgins, virgins, lots of virgins,” furthermore, seems to foretell Duchamp’s instruction in the Green Box, “This Bride. . . must appear as an apotheosis of virginity.”

References throughout Le Surmâle that seem to telegraph various aspects of Duchamp’s last large-scale work, Étant donnés: 1° La Chute d’eau 2° Le Gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1° The waterfall 2° The illuminating gas, 1946–66), are literal and plentiful. I am almost impelled to the conclusion, in fact, that Duchamp arranged for it to debut posthumously because he believed its exhibition would provide posterity with the missing pieces of the puzzle certifying a connection with Jarry—“Wait for posterity,” Duchamp often said. The work comprises a pair of wooden doors with small, roughly round peepholes through which one sees a nude woman lying on dry branches beside a stream, her face out of view, a kinetic waterfall in the distance. The scene may be inspired by the Jarry character Ellen Elson, as well as by the narration in Le Surmâle of the discovery of a body near Marcueil’s house: “a little girl who. . . hadn’t been raped first and killed afterward, the way it usually happens, but. . . raped to death.” Though Duchamp’s woman is alive enough to hold up a lamp (or is it rigor mortis?), there is a definite hint of violence in Étant donnés. The work’s equally explicit address of voyeurism is also prefigured in Le Surmâle, where Marcueil’s 82 consummations are viewed by Dr. Bathybius through a small round “bull’s-eye window” covered by “two solid wooden shutters.” (Bathybius, Jarry writes, “turned the handle [of the shutters] with the professional precision he would have employed in turning the endless screw of a speculum.” Notes pertaining to the Large Glass also refer to “a construction based on. . . the concept of an endless screw. . . serving to unite this headlight child God, to his machine-mother.”) And as Bathybius watches, he cannot see the face of Marcueil’s partner, who wears a mask.

Other details of Étant donnés may also touch on Le Surmâle: at one point Ellen Elson lies unconscious, yet with one “horizontal” arm holding up a “projecting steel,” as Duchamp’s figure holds a lamp. Dr. Bathybius’ view of her, then, is virtually our view through the peepholes in Duchamp’s piece. And the waterfall may have been suggested by the running water in the moat of Marcueil’s house, or even by the train in the bicycle race: Jarry writes, “It had a cowcatcher whose bars. . . looked like. . . the grille on a water mill. . . . It was all rather like a peaceful scene by a river. . . the regular bubbling of the great beast [the steam engine] seeming like the sound of a waterfall.”


Jarry: “I once observed,” said Bathybius, “and idiot. . . [who] has given himself up almost uninterruptedly to sexual acts. But. . . in solitude, which explains a lot.”

Duchamp: The bachelor grinds his cholocate himself.


Perhaps intentionally, Duchamp created a body of work that is extraordinarily susceptible to creative reading. His delight in puns and wordplay, double or triple meanings, and, basically, in enigma has fostered an interpretation industry that has located his sources in the most far-flung locales—medieval alchemy, say, or the cabala, or classical Greece. These theories are finally unprovable, as I acknowledge, despite the convictions forced on me by the evidence.

Yet such interpretations cannot be ruled out. Duchamp once said, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” He knew, as Jarry wrote in Le Surmâle, that “there is certainly no reason for men to build enduring works if they do not vaguely imagine that these works must wait for some additional beauty. . . which the future holds in store. Great works are not created great; they become so.” In the end either Duchamp worked with Jarry, with alchemy, with the cabala, with Greek philosophy, or perhaps with all of these, or he did not. But the truth about this is extremely well hidden, and it is in any case in Duchamp’s nature to deny fixed truth. What is left to us is this: to play the game to which Duchamp invited us, to uncover in the work the many additional beauties that the future holds in store.


Jarry: Death is only for common people.

Duchamp, in the epitaph for his tombstone: In any case, it's always the others who die.


William Anastasi is an artist who lives in New York. He is working on a book on Alfred Jarry and Marcel Duchamp.


1. Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War One, New York: Vintage Books, 1968, p. 217.
2. André Breton, quoted in Shattuck, p. 217.
3. Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970, p. 471.

Quotations of Duchamp are from the Green Box, as translated in Richard Hamilton’s typographic version, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, trans. George Heard Hamilton, New York: Jaap Rietman, Inc., Art Books, 1976; from Duchamp, Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, eds., New York: Oxford University Press, 1973; and from Marcel Duchamp, Notes, ed. and trans. Paul Matisse, Boston: G.K. Hall & Company, 1983. The Jarry editions I used are these: Jarry, The Supermale, trans. Ralph Gladstone and Barbara Wright, New York: New Directions Books, 1977; Jarry, Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, eds. Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor, New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1965; and Jarry, Ubu Rex, trans. David Copelin, Vancouver: Pulp Press, 1973.