Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tense Continuant

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) - Marcel Duchamp

"Then's now with now's then in tense continuant." 
- Finnegans Wake, pg. 598

Defending this painting against critics, Duchamp called it "an expression of time and space through the abstract presentation of motion." This all reminds me of Finnegans Wake, just like pretty much everything else I look at right now having been so immersed in the book for three months.

While still in his early 30s, Duchamp moved on from art to pursue an obsession with chess. I find this very intriguing. I've always enjoyed the part of Aleister Crowley's story about how he vigorously pursued becoming a grandmaster chessplayer until one day witnessing a room full of grandmasters and being so stunned at their quirkiness that he gave up that path for good. As he explains with humorous eloquence:
...I had hardly entered the room where the masters were playing when I was seized with what may justly be described as a mystical experience.  I seemed to be looking on at the tournament from outside myself.  I saw the masters --- one, shabby, snuffy and blear-eyed; another, in badly fitting would-be respectable shoddy; a third, a mere parody of humanity, and so on for the rest.  These were the people to whose ranks I was seeking admission.  "There, but for the grace of God, goes Aleister Crowley," I exclaimed to myself with disgust, and there and then I registered a vow never to play another serious game of chess.  I perceived with praeternatural lucidity that I had not alighted on this planet with the object of playing chess.
In the 1930s, while Joyce was finishing up Finnegans Wake, Marcel Duchamp reached what he believed to be the height of his chess ability and slowly stopped playing. Unlike Crowley though, he retained his reverence and passion for the game and became a chess journalist. He said some very insightful things about chess which I'd like to share here:
"I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art—and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position."

"The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. ... I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."
It was The Rza, Abbott of the Wu-Tang Clan who first taught me about the depth of chess, pointing out (among other things) the importance of the number 64, there being 64 squares on a chess board as well as 64 different possible combinations of pieces that make up DNA, 64 hexagrams in the I-Ching and a few other such examples. Robert Anton Wilson discusses all of this in connection with Finnegans Wake in his spectacular book Coincidance (he's also got a short essay on chess in The Illuminati Papers that will make your head explode; and in another piece discusses it all in regards to the Law of Octaves).

To finish off this wandering staircase of thought, there is actually a scene in Finnegans Wake filled with chess references. You'll notice it manages to tie back to Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. It's in the penultimate chapter, during the earliest morning hours, when Mom and Dad are awakened by their crying son and rush through the house to his bedroom. The mother pops up immediately and moves swiftly with groggy (naked) father trudging behind, Joyce describes their movements through the house as though they were pieces on a chess board:

"you should have seen how that smart sallowlass just hopped a nanny's gambit out of bunk like old mother Mesopotomac and in eight and eight sixtyfour she was off, door, knightlamp with her, billy's largelimbs prodgering after to queen's lead... Room to sink: stairs to sink behind room. Two pieces.
In the quicktime. The castle arkwright put in a chequered staircase certainly. It has only one square step, to be steady, yet notwithstumbling are they stalemating backgammoner supstairs by skips and trestles tiltop double corner. Whist while and game.
What scenic artist!"
- FW pg. 559-560
Make of that what you will.

While I don't think this is included therein, William Anastasi has written a thorough study of the possible links between Joyce and Marcel Duchamp and it is available online for free. Read it here.

You can read plenty of great stuff about time and modern physics in Finnegans Wake here.


  1. Duchamp's point seems so much more approachable after all this interlude of film. It's odd that I thought I had seen some image of this painting, but I think I only imagined that I had. And scrolling through the picture as you do on the computer, I really thought it was something more a long the lines of an angel.

    The chess stuff is very interesting. Nabokov has a chess novel too.

    I think it's probably a mistake to look too closely at the end results for the practitioners of one's craft. It's very easy to have misgivings about the writerly community, for example, when viewed too closely.