Monday with Pessoa (and Duchamp)


Art is a mirage
—Marcel Duchamp

We manufacture realities [p 66]
Art lies because it is social [p 226]
—Fernando Pessoa

What do Bernardo Soares of The Book of Disquiet and Marcel Duchamp, the man often said to be the biggest influence on contemporary visual art, have in common? On the surface of it, not much. This is not to say we should instead be comparing Soares with Rrose Sélavy. Pessoa’s heteronyms are far removed from the puns that Duchamp enjoyed. I merely draw the net in a fortuitous act of conjunction the way walking along the beach I might come across two unique shells and lift them both to the sky, not in order to bring them into a single zone of perception but because contrasting and comparing them helps set off their unique beauties. One day I happened to watch the film Jeu d’échecs avec Marcel Duchamp (a 1963 interview) and the next read The Book of Disquiet. Here you’ll find no rigorous analysis, only the idiosyncratic ruminations of a poet, a mind pulling its way by the fingertips, as it were, from one day to the next.

It seemed to me that some of Duchamp’s statements had a flavor—acerbic yet disengaged—similar to those of Soares. For example, his, “I believe in every man for himself, like in a shipwreck” recalls something of Soares’, “Nothing irks me more than the vocabulary of social responsibility.” Duchamp would perhaps have agreed with his, “Freedom is the possibility of isolation” [243] although he would have qualified the word “isolation” as meaning life apart from all group activity. Both men seemed to carve out an individual existence strangely detached from society and yet, on very particular kinds of abstract levels, intimately engaged with it. Duchamp is said to have made his life a work of art and Soares was himself a work of art made by Pessoa. Neither believed in the perfectibility of the work of art. On the contrary, all art was a kind of lie, mirage or phantom.

Here is another passage, from pages 304-5, that I’d like to compare to Duchamp’s attitude:

 In this metallic age of barbarians, only a relentless cultivation of our ability to dream, to analyze and to captivate can prevent our personality from degenerating into nothing or else into a personality like all the rest.
Whatever is real in our sensations is precisely what they have that isn’t ours. The sensations common to us all are what constitute reality. Our sensations’ individuality, therefore, lies in whatever they have that’s erroneous.

As so often with Bernardo Soares, this passage is not easy to parse. We are familiar by now with his penchant for a life of the mind in terms of dreams, fantasies and poetic speculations. What we should be getting used to—although it’s more difficult—is his complex attitude toward this mode of life. For him, it’s the only way, as he explicitly says here. Sometimes he seems to set himself apart from humanity almost like a God. Other times, falling into a deeply melancholic mood, he displays a most humble, sometimes abject attitude: the life of the poet/dreamer will ensure his complete separation from society and establish his anonymity. The thing that saves his life and exalts him as a king of the imaginative life also exiles him from the community of men and women. And while he claims to choose this path as the only one to freedom, this reader is not wholly convinced by these claims. In any event, Soares admits being unhappy and one might be forgiven wariness toward a freedom that brings unhappiness. In the passage quoted above Soares is content to characterize his imaginings, his individuality, as “erroneous” compared to the sensations common to men.

While Duchamp also set a high value on individualism, seeming at times, like Soares, to almost posit an elite society of one, he had a different view of the individual, and hence of reality. If we continue with Soares’ term we might say that Duchamp believed that an individual’s errors can have an effect on the world, that everyone participates in an economy involving the exchange of both established concepts (of all types and degrees, including Soares’ common sensations that, for him, constitute reality) and individual errors, that these all crisscross and reality is made as a result. For both, art is a mirage, but this has a somewhat different meaning for each man.

There’s a moment in the film Jeu d’échecs avec Marcel Duchamp that I find peculiarly arresting. It takes place at the 49.40 minute mark when Duchamp is saying, “The verb to be seems highly questionable to me”, and as he’s saying it we hear a sound in the background of an object falling. It sounds to me like a bottle cap, perhaps from a bottle of beer or wine he was having with one of his innumerable cigars. It’s the shock of capturing the illusion of life, its impressions and vectors. The sound was no doubt captured by accident and totally coincident with Duchamp’s comment but that second of film says what language cannot, and reminds me of the reason Duchamp gave for loving the game of chess, a “Cartesian constant” in his life: it is constant motion. Clout those two “constants” together and you have one of the fundamentals of Duchamp’s mind: it had to keep moving. When he was doing art his mind was moving forward, or rather away from where it had been before, and when he was playing chess it was moving within the vast parameters of the game. It should go without saying that Fernando Pessoa (as well as his creation Bernardo Soares) lived completely in his mind.

The creative act in terms of art, according to Duchamp, had two aspects: one, the actions of artists and two, the reactions of the audience. Art is made in the interaction between the two and the laws of organic life determine that this conversation is always changing. Art is a “mirage” in the sense of a collection of timeless masterpieces that mean today what they meant when they were created, and will mean the same thing tomorrow. No, says Duchamp, new generations view these objects in new ways. Their perceptions create new conversations. Conversation is where the art resides, not in the objects themselves.

Soares did not believe in the perfectibility of art, in timeless masterpieces, either, simply because he did not think such things existed. “Everything we do,” he says, “in art or in life, is the imperfect copy of what we thought of doing” [p 150], and he says this in many different ways throughout The Book of Disquiet.

When Duchamp offered the urinal, anonymously, for display as an artwork, he did so, he said, “as a test”: the committee had stated that any work outside the pornographic would be accepted. Remember the two poles of artistic activity for Duchamp—one, the act of the artist, two, its reception. He sat back amused when his bottle rack was extolled far and wide as “sculpture”. Duchamp tested the waters in different ways, and lived to see his tests have real world effects. Bernardo Soares (and it’s no stretch to include his creator in this) had no hopes of his writing impacting the world. If he touched one reader, provided a moment’s distraction or pleasure for one person, that was fine, and that was all.

Now here’s where the comparison gets really interesting to me. Today we see in Duchamp a particularly pungent example of the cult of personality. The man himself has become an icon; his individual art acts have become iconic. His most important idea—that art is a conversation and the conversation is always changing—has been all but eclipsed by his image and his acts. And his legacy has become little more than a license for charlatanism and big money schemes. What “Duchamp” means today is very nearly the polar opposite of what Duchamp meant when the man was alive.

And here we have Pessoa, having lived his life in near obscurity, writing constantly and apparently never believing that his work would ever mean more than a few moments of pleasure for a few readers, a man who believed that none of his writings were as real as the mind that created them, and yet as his readership continues to grow and inquiring minds want to know who the “real” Pessoa was, we can’t seem to find him, however hard we search. Pessoa himself seems to be the mirage. But then again, we’ve lost Duchamp too, haven’t we?

 We almost always live outside ourselves, and life itself is a continual dispersion. But it’s towards ourselves that we tend, as towards a centre around which, like planets, we trace absurd and distant ellipses.
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, p 190

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6 Responses to Monday with Pessoa (and Duchamp)

  1. ManicDdaily says:

    Hey mark– I am not familiar with Pessoa though yes DuChamps. I like his sense of humor but I always feel something particularly male in the sensibility. Not because of the urinal! But hard to think of him as dealing with family life and hard to think of a woman, without huge struggle, excepting herself from family life. So it’s an artistic point of view which itself seems rather self-involved. I often think of a dichotomy of someone like Tolstoy and Rimbaud– i understand the importance of pushing the artistic envelope but tend to fall on the Tolstoy (levin) side. Thanks for super interesting post. K.

    • That’s one of the paradoxes of Duchamp — he was a champion of individualism and there’s something of the private joke in some of his acts yet he believed art was made in the interaction of these acts and the public. As for his male sensibility, I would say — using his own words — that there’s a lot about Duchamp that’s “old, of the past.” Chalk that up as one of the ironies about him.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: Your final conclusions are striking, particularly this, about Duchamp: “His most important idea—that art is a conversation and the conversation is always changing—has been all but eclipsed,” I suppose because I wasn’t aware of this as Duchamp’s idea–thus providing evidence that the more thoughtful Duchamp had certainly been eclipsed by the time I got to know of him. I had thought him a charlatan, actually–the first, perhaps, in a long line, but as I read what you’ve written here, I get a glimpse that there may have been something more substantial at work. “Conversation is where the art resides, not in the objects themselves.” That’s a perceptive observation, but then I think, mustn’t the art be worthy of conversation first? The urinal always seemed to me an object lesson of some sort, not art, and only elevated to such because it has been housed in an art museum. As I think more on it, Duchamp begins to remind me of John Cage and his role in cultural discussion. I think, in both cases, that I may object to the idea that I must be shocked into thinking.

    • I don’t know if Duchamp was the first to express this idea, but he certainly put it on the drawing board for everybody in modern times. Duchamp was the first conceptual artist. He wanted to use the object or act as a vehicle to get directly to the conversation (he called his act of offering the urinal for exhibition a “test”). But his legacy has degraded to: “This hunk of crap is art because I say it is” (or even, “gosh, hunks of crap do actually have aesthetic qualities”). I hate the Duchamp legacy and it annoys me to see Duchamp compared to Leonardo da Vinci, as he so often is. The comparison runs that both men produced relatively little works but had a tremendous impact on culture. Yes, but the differences are more significant. Da Vinci was a master draftsman and painter; Duchamp was not. Da Vinci also had a scientific mind. Duchamp did not. I don’t think Duchamp was a charlatan, but I do think he was a dilettante in the original, positive sense of the term: he pursued art on his own terms and at his own pace for personal amusement. He was an interesting guy, but his influence, in my opinion, has been mostly negative.

      Duchamp and Cage are similar figures, I think, in that the only thing more ridiculous than seeing the urinal on display in a museum is a youtube “performance” of 4’33. As you know, I feel the same way about being “shocked into thinking” (looking or listening). But I’m fine with Duchamp, Cage and everything they did. They should be historically situated. I think their importance is extremely limited and belongs to history, and we should be moving on. I think we will, too. I think they’ll both eventually be remembered as interesting cases and their most intriguing aspect will be the influence they exerted for so long. Studying Cage and Duchamp will be social studies as much as art history.

  3. hedgewitch says:

    Learned as much from the comments as the article, Mark. This quote really resonated, at the ‘blowing me away’ level: ““Everything we do, in art or in life, is the imperfect copy of what we thought of doing” I don’t know how many times I’ve felt that one hit home. Your remarks directly above about Duchamp seem to me to say that his art or influence says much more about our bankrupt, desensitized age than about him or his talents, which perhaps is true of anyone who becomes more in vogue than s/he ever was in earnest.

    • Pessoa has blown my mind so many times it’s like a swiss cheese.

      I detest the Duchamp legacy so much that I find myself channeling that hatred onto Duchamp. It’s so easy to do, but it’s wrong. Even if one thinks the worst of him and decides he was just trying to have a joke on everybody, so what? It was just one guy trying to have a laugh. The legacy is something else entirely. I’m saying one way to combat it is to go back and look at Duchamp again, historically situate him and let him take his place in the history books.

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