Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Duchamp’
“Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.” When I typed that blog description more than two years ago, I don’t think I gave it more than a few minutes of thought—I only knew I had to enter something in that blank space in the template. I’d been planning to start an official author site for a long time, but the actual look of the page was thrown together in an evening or so of work, and I can’t say I put a great deal of consideration into most of its components. Even the idea of concentrating on issues of writing and creativity was a fairly random choice: I only knew, as WordPress recommends, that it’s good to make the focus of your blog as specific as possible, and these sorts of issues were the only topics I could imagine myself writing about on a daily basis without getting bored. Over time, my sense of what this site could be has grown and evolved in many ways, but I’m also surprised by how much of it has remained the same. (I’m still pleased by the simplicity and elegance of its layout, which is due entirely to The Journalist theme by Lucian Marin, which I chose because of my preference for black text on plenty of white space. I still think it’s the best blog theme around.)
Yet the words I so casually typed on that first day still haunt me. Part of it is the kind of quiet confidence they try so hard to exude, which at the time was really something of a pose. When I created this blog, I’d just sold my first novel, which was almost a year and a half from publication, and my sense of what “the writing life” would be was rudimentary at best. True, at that point, I’d done nothing but write for more than four years, but the only visible results were a couple of magazine sales and a steadily diminishing bank account. For most of that time, the only kind of writing life I knew was one in which I was still essentially working for myself, while trying to get the attention of editors and agents, and although I often introduced myself as a novelist at parties, it was only with the additional caveat: “But only in the sense that I’m trying to write a novel.” It’s no accident that I waited until I finally had a book deal before putting my thoughts on writing online: I believed, right or wrong, that it would give my ideas some legitimacy, and also hoped that it might be useful to share my experiences, in real time, as I entered the next phase of my career.
Two years later, I’m still not sure what the writing life is. In its larger dimensions, it’s tantalizingly elusive: like every writer, I’m always greedy for higher sales, more glowing reviews, and other things that are entirely out of my control. It becomes slightly more clear in the smaller details. There are things about my career that I’d love to change, but ultimately, I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky to have spent much of the last decade doing exactly what I want. My routine can be challenging or aggravating, and there are mornings when I still wake up dreading the first draft of the unwritten chapter to come, but I ultimately spend each day doing all I’ve ever wanted since I was ten years old: telling stories, living other people’s lives, putting words down on paper. Like every life worth living, it comes with certain sacrifices, and I wouldn’t have been able to get even this far without giving up a great deal along the way. But I remain mindful of the words of my hero, Marcel Duchamp, which struck me so deeply that I used them as an epigraph to the epilogue of The Icon Thief: “Life is more a question of expenses than of profits. It’s a question of knowing what one wants to live with.”
Of course, the second you find a way of living that works for you, life has a way of yanking you out of it. With my first child due to arrive in just over a week, and possibly sooner, I’m on the verge of the greatest change I’ve experienced since I left home fourteen years ago to go to college. I don’t know exactly how my life will look after that point, but it’s safe to say that my carefully cultivated routine will be blown to pieces—an experience I look forward to sharing on this blog, assuming I can find time and energy between midnight feedings. And the change will be a fundamental one. Over the past eighteen months alone, I’ve written and sold two novels, along with many articles and short stories and well over a quarter of a million words of blog posts, a number that strikes me, right now, as totally insane. I’ve taken enormous pleasure in transforming myself into a kind of writing machine, but I can’t keep it up forever. That part of my life is ending now, or at least changing into something infinitely richer and more strange, and although it scares me a little, I can’t wait for what comes next. Because the more I think about it, the less I believe anything like “the writing life” really exists. In the end, it’s just life.
“Culture Shock 1913,” a special one-hour program on the birth of modernism, premiered last night on the Fishko Files on NPR. I pop up around the 10:45 mark to talk a bit about Duchamp. You can listen to it here.
After last Friday’s record Mega Millions lottery drawing, instead of dreaming about all the things I’d buy if I had $640 million—like the full edition of The Plan of St. Gall, for instance—I found myself fixating on the number 23. As the more paranoid among us have long understood, the number 23 recurs at particularly significant moments in history. This lottery, with the attention of so many millions focused on the outcome, seemed like a particularly appropriate time for the number to appear, and it didn’t disappoint. The winning numbers were 2, 4, 23, 38, 46, and Mega Ball 23. Numerologically inclined observers noted the two 23s at once, and a few even made reference to a certain Jim Carrey movie. But there’s even more here than meets the eye. 46 divided by 2 is 23. So is (38/2) plus 4. And I’m not going to even try to get into the significance of the fact that the drawing was held on 3/30/2012.
The 23 enigma was first publicized by one of my intellectual heroes, the author and skeptic Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson, in turn, had heard about the phenomenon from William S. Burroughs, and he wrote about it at length with Robert Shea in The Illuminatus Trilogy. Since then, the 23 enigma has become widely known, with countless discussion threads devoted to exposing its uncanny recurrence in all of our lives. And the secret of the number 23, of course, is that there is no secret: given sufficient cleverness, as Wilson puts it, you can find an arbitrary number anywhere, as long as you’re looking for it in the first place. As such, it’s a particularly evocative example of how we impose meaning on the world around us, which, as regular readers know, is my favorite subject as an author. (The enigma even makes an appearance in The Icon Thief, in the form of April 23, 1916, which was the date of one of Duchamp’s earliest readymades, the Easter Rising in Ireland, and the three hundredth anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. April 23 is also my brother’s birthday.)
Wilson is a fascinating character. A former associate editor for Playboy, a close friend of Timothy Leary, and later a fixture of the Berkeley region, he remains, along with Montaigne, one of my favorite exemplars of agnosticism as a way of life. I’ve written at length about why I think a kind of permanent agnosticism is the most pragmatic intellectual position for a working writer, and Wilson took this position to its extreme. He was a skeptic, or more accurately a zetetic, who took great delight in puncturing the claims of New Age fraudsters, pseudoscientists, and conspiracy theorists, but also took equal glee in pointing out the more dogmatic forms of scientific materialism, and he remained open to rather farfetched ideas, like the possibility that he might be receiving transmissions from an intelligent entity on Sirius. To my eyes, Wilson was the best sort of agnostic, which is what you often get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.
In fact, Wilson was a bit like another one of my skeptical heroes, Marcel Duchamp, in that it’s often hard to tell the difference between his serious work and his practical jokes—and that some of his most important and influential insights often began as a sort of prank. The difference between Wilson and Duchamp is that Wilson was genuinely funny. (Duchamp often claimed that he was trying to be funny, and referred to The Large Glass as a “hilarious” picture, but he’s more in the tradition of slightly frigid, labored French jokes that put the rest of us to sleep.) And it’s Wilson’s sense of humor that I find more inspiring as time goes on, if only because I can’t dream of matching it. The Icon Thief will never approach the humor of The Illuminatus Trilogy—although note the symmetry of their titles!—but I hope it captures some of the same sense of how we impose meaning on the world, and on our own lives. As I was writing this, I just got a call from my agent. And as I was hanging up, I couldn’t help but notice that the first three digits of his phone number were 223…
First, a bit of self-promotion: I’m going to be reading tonight at After-Words bookstore on 23 East Illinois Street in Chicago. If you’re in town, you should definitely drop by, if only because this is a truly beautiful bookshop, with a thoughtfully curated selection of new releases on the upper level and a large, brightly lit basement of gently used books. I’ll be there starting at 6:30 pm, talking a bit about Duchamp and the mystery of Étant Donnés before reading a selection from The Icon Thief, followed by questions and a wine reception. Beverly Dvorkin, the owner of After-Words, has been incredibly helpful since the book’s release, and I’m truly grateful for her support. Because among other things, this is my first reading as a novelist, and I’m genuinely curious to see how it goes.
I’ve always been amused by the fact that soon after completing a novel, a writer is suddenly compelled to develop a set of skills that are the exact opposite of those required to write a novel in the first place. Writing a novel requires long hours of daily, solitary work: it’s introspective, introverted, and rewards those who can shut out the rest of the world to focus on a highly personal project. Once a novel is published, however, an author is expected to become a completely different person overnight: extroverted, out in the world, and willing to promote himself and his work to anyone who cares to listen. Very occasionally, you find a writer in whom both aspects seem to comfortably coexist—Norman Mailer comes to mind, although the king of public performance was apparently Dickens—but it’s not surprising that many novelists regard the whole process with ambivalence, if not outright disdain.
I fall somewhere between those two extremes. I have no trouble talking to the press, but given the choice, I’d prefer to write all day without worrying about other responsibilities, promotional or otherwise. Yet I also crave spending time with other people, both in person and online. This is a solitary life, by definition, and I’ll often go an entire day without talking to anyone but my wife. It’s a necessary state of affairs, but also dangerous. Despite a few recent attempts to speak up for introversion, it seems clear that creativity arises largely from collaboration and interaction with those who care about the same things (or care with equal passion about something else). For an author, readings are an essential way of connecting with those who matter most, which is why they’ve always been part of a writer’s life for reasons that have nothing to do with current trends in book promotion.
When I head over to the bookstore tonight, then, I’ll think back to some of the best readings I’ve attended, when both author and audience just seemed to be having a good time: I have fond memories of readings by writers like Audrey Niffenegger, Nick Hornby, Joshua Ferris, and even Mailer himself, whom I saw speak in New York a few years before his death, to my everlasting gratitude. I can’t hope to match masters like this, but I expect it will still be fun. And hopefully I’ll come away with some of the satisfaction that Thomas Mann describes of his own readings: “What has been carefully forged in the course of long mornings is poured out over the listeners in a rapid hour of reading; the illusion of improvisation, of polished extemporization, intensifies the impression; and when others are stirred to marvel, we for our part believe that everything is fine.”
In my opinion piece in today’s Los Angeles Times, I describe the uproar that greeted Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, where it resulted in a sort of mass hysteria. After the first hostile reviews began to appear, the galleries were mobbed, with attendees standing in line for forty minutes to catch a glimpse of the painting before being whisked away, “shrieking for help,” in the words of one contemporary observer. It’s tempting to compare this response to the mayhem Duchamp witnessed firsthand three months later in Paris, at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, but there was something almost affectionate in the furor over the painting, which inspired dozens of parodies and become a favorite of viewers disposed to be skeptical of modern art, as if they suspected that Duchamp himself was in on the joke.
All the same, it’s instructive to compare the American response with that of the Paris Cubists, who forced Duchamp to withdraw the painting from the Salon des Indépendants one hundred years ago today: both saw the joke there, but only the Americans were happy to play along. And the punchline is that if hadn’t been for its ludicrous title and the ensuing scandal, Nude Descending a Staircase would probably only be of interest to specialists. It’s innovative, but in a limited way: it uses parallel outlines to map the motion of the body through space, an effect familiar from comic strips, but the result isn’t really successful—the figure lurches along with little resemblance to an actual human being. (One critic called it “a descending machine,” and to modern eyes, it resembles nothing so much as a kind of zombie.)
If he had been so inclined, Duchamp might have gone on to refine his technique, but he seems never to have been tempted to follow up on the initial impulse. Instead, he went beyond painting altogether. During his trip to Munich the year before, he was already chafing at the limitations of what he called “retinal art,” becoming increasingly obsessed with process, notes, and titles. Indeed, the deliberately provocative title of Nude Descending a Staircase may be the most Duchampian thing about it: the reaction taught him that the tension between a work of art and its title could be more interesting than the work itself, leading to the frequently eye-glazing or sophomoric titles of his ensuing pieces, like The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, which seem to be trying to recapture the magic of that first, indignant response.
Duchamp, in short, would always be an outsider and provocateur, a role that he seems to have embraced wholeheartedly. For the rest of his life, he lived quietly and simply, playing chess and working on projects for his own amusement, to the point where it’s often hard to tell the difference between his art and his private jokes—although in Duchamp’s best work, the line between art and leg pull is fine indeed. (The posthumous installation Étant Donnés, which he worked on in secret for twenty years, is either his final masterpiece or the most elaborate prank of all time.) And it all began with the response to Nude Descending a Staircase, which, almost by accident, set the stage for the most influential career in modern art. Neither Duchamp nor the rest of us would ever be the same.
In 1912, Marcel Duchamp, who would one day be acclaimed as the most influential artist of the twentieth century, was twenty-four and living in the shadow of his two older brothers, one a highly regarded painter and printmaker, the other a celebrated sculptor. Marcel, by contrast, was a somewhat indifferent artist who was seriously hoping to pursue a career as a humorous illustrator. (A few years earlier, several of his drawings had been prominently displayed at a local skating rink.) As a painter, his work was characterized by cautious imitations of Cézanne and the Cubists, and although he had been allowed into Parisian art circles, this seems to have been at least partially out of respect for his brothers.
All the same, it was an exciting time to be an artist in Paris, where a politically engaged circle of Cubists met frequently in the shared garden of a row of artists’ studios in Puteaux, arguing over matters of theory and inveighing against their rival Futurists. Duchamp was often there, although he seems to have been less interested in theoretical debates than in playing boules on the lawn. Yet he had also begun to paint more seriously, and like any ambitious young artist, he would have welcomed the chance to display a piece at the upcoming Salon des Indépendants. The year before, a group exhibition of Cubists had caused a nice little scandal, and the Puteaux circle saw the upcoming show as their chance to make a case for a reasonable Cubism.
Unfortunately, as I’ll describe more fully in an opinion piece in tomorrow’s Los Angeles Times, Duchamp’s entry, Nude Descending a Staircase, was anything but reasonable. In the end, it was rejected by the Cubist hanging committee, and on March 18, 1912, Duchamp was asked to withdraw it from the exhibition. This embarrassing incident, in which his brothers had played no small part, evidently contributed to one of the most mysterious episodes in his early career: his decision, a few months later, to visit Munich, a city where he had no close friends. Duchamp never explained the reasons for this trip, but it seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the fact that there were no Cubists in Germany.
During his two months in Munich, Duchamp worked alone, away from the influence of other artists. He produced several important canvases, but also began moving in a direction that would take him past painting entirely. In particular, he made a series of notes toward a more ambitious work, one that would appeal to the mind, not the eye, and that would ultimately culminate in his first true masterpiece, The Large Glass. And he was still working on this project in Paris the following year when he discovered, much to his surprise, that Nude Descending a Staircase, the painting that had been so ignominiously rejected the year before, had unexpectedly made him one of the most famous artists in America.
To be continued…
Well, it’s been an interesting week. The Icon Thief is out in stores—including the Harris Teeter supermarket in Arlington, Virginia, where the photo above was taken—and it seems to be doing fine. I recently got my first look at the cover art for City of Exiles, which looks fantastic, and I’m hoping to post it here as soon as my publisher signs off. Work on The Scythian continues at a reasonable pace. And if that weren’t enough, I had the best meal of my life, Community is back on the air, and I just received word that The Icon Thief will probably be picked up for publication in Italy. (This is especially exciting because it’s my first foreign rights sale and my first translation, and it means that the odds of Umberto Eco at least hearing about my novel just incrementally increased. More details to follow soon.)
Best of all, on Sunday, I have an opinion piece appearing in the Los Angeles Times to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of a singular event in art history. On March 18, 1912, under intense pressure from his family and the Parisian art establishment, Marcel Duchamp, then only twenty-six years old, took a taxi from his studio to an exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants, where he withdrew his controversial painting Nude Descending a Staircase. This decision, and its surprising consequences, would forever shape the career of the man who would later be hailed as the most influential artist of the twentieth century. Over the weekend, I’ll be talking a bit more about Duchamp’s decision and its larger significance, and for the full story, you can check out my essay in a couple of days. Hope you enjoy it!
Nobody knows what I lived on. This question, truly, does not have an exact answer…Life is more a question of expenses than of profits. It’s a question of knowing what one wants to live with.
Having just watched the fifty minutes of deleted scenes on the recent Blu-ray release of Blue Velvet, I’m more convinced than ever that the secret hero of my favorite American movie is editor Duwayne Dunham. Some of the rediscovered scenes are extraordinary—the scene with Jeffrey and Dorothy on the rooftop, in particular, is one I’ve been waiting to see my entire life—but including them in the theatrical cut of the film would have resulted in a movie like Inland Empire: fascinating, but shapeless and digressive, and of interest only to a small cadre of devoted fans. Dunham, who edited Return of the Jedi only a few years earlier and would later become a successful director in his own right, no doubt deserves much of the credit for paring the original cut down to its current, perfect two-hour form, a crucial step in the process that placed David Lynch, however briefly, at the center of our culture.
Because for all its strangeness and sexual violence, this is a remarkably accessible movie, an art film that takes the shape of a thriller and, rather than undermining the genre’s conventions, honors and extends them. For the only time in his career, with the exception of a few indelible moments on Twin Peaks, Lynch displays an almost childlike delight in the mechanisms of suspense for their own sake, and his great set pieces—bookended by the two scenes of Jeffrey peering through the closet door—deserve comparison to Hitchcock by way of Duchamp. (Some have detected the influence of Étant Donnés in Lynch’s vision here, which I can only imagine subconsciously influenced my decision to put Duchamp’s installation at the center of my first novel.) Like L.A. Confidential, this a total film, a work of art that evokes every emotion that we can feel at the movies, and for me, it’s even more: a vision, or a dream, that I’m grateful to revisit again and again.
Tomorrow: The best film ever made about the artistic process, and my favorite movie of all time.
Back in February, my editor emailed to say that my publisher was holding an art meeting soon to discuss the cover for The Icon Thief, which at that point was still known as Kamera. He invited me to put together my thoughts on possible designs, as well as some comparable covers, and, obsessive that I am, I obliged with a memo of nine long paragraphs, complete with illustrations. (I thought briefly about including a quick mockup I’d put together in Photoshop, but thankfully refrained from doing so.) The response to my ideas at NAL was very respectful, but I had no way of knowing what the result would be, or how much input I would ultimately have in the process.
In my memo, I noted that the novel has three major plot elements: Marcel Duchamp, Russia, and the Rosicrucians. (If I haven’t spoken much about these topics on this blog, it’s because I want to keep the plot a surprise, although I expect I’ll be posting more on these subjects as the publication date approaches.) Among the corresponding images I proposed were the exterior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Duchamp’s Étant Donnés is located; an overlay of some Russian text; and the rosy cross. I also included images of a few covers that I thought were comparable: An Instance of the Fingerpost, Foucault’s Pendulum, The English Assassin by Daniel Silva, and The Messiah Secret by James Becker (the latter two of which, like my own novel, are published by NAL’s Signet imprint).
After that, I didn’t hear anything about the cover for months, until last week, when I received the rather remarkable image that I posted yesterday. Looking at it now, I’m gratified by how much of my input was reflected in the final version, accidentally or otherwise, and how many of the novel’s themes are visible in one form or another. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is here, of course, as well as the red cross of the Rosicrucians, along with some Russian text—evidently a stock photo of an old manuscript, but still gorgeous—visible in the background. Above all, the title of the novel is beautifully rendered. (Incidentally, the meeting where the cover design was discussed was also where the subject of a possible title change was first raised, a fix I now wish I’d made years earlier.)
As for the other symbols, they were chosen more for their visual impact than anything else, although they contain subtle messages of their own. The cherub on the upper right looks ahead to House of Passages, the second installment in the series, in which cherubim of a very different kind play an important symbolic role. On the upper left, we have a view of Peles Castle in Romania, which doesn’t figure in the story yet, but may have a role to play in the future, as the action of the series moves ever eastward. As for the red cross…well, this is an extremely important symbol, and its true significance won’t become clear to readers of the novel until almost the very last page. For now, though, you’ll have to wait a bit longer.
One of the accidental themes of my recent posts has been the idea that, since a novel can take up a year or more of your life, you’d better choose your subject carefully. And at first glance, the stakes can seem dauntingly high. Choosing a subject for a novel is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the analogous process for a short story, since a novel takes considerably longer and is exponentially more complex. It’s possible to occasionally gamble on a doubtful premise for a shorter piece, or even a novelette, but for a novel, the potential cost in time and effort is far too high. And while I’ve previously outlined various ways of generating ideas, I haven’t addressed what might be the most important question of all: how do you know if an idea is worth it?
Part of me is inclined to slightly misquote A.E. Housman here, and say that I can no more define a good idea than a terrier can define a rat. Looking for good ideas is simply what writers do, consciously or unconsciously, and the process of identifying an idea for a novel is undeniably a matter of intuition. And the best ideas often come to us with a forcefulness comparable only to love at first sight, or perhaps to Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. When I first saw Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, for instance, I knew that I had to write a book about it. But at that point, I’d also been researching a novel about the art world for months, with a crucial missing piece at its center, which allowed Étant Donnés to slide neatly into place.
This gives us one important clue: great ideas don’t exist in isolation. They’re simply one important step—and not necessarily the first—in a process that will inevitably outlast that initial burst of enthusiasm. Which also means that your instinctive level of interest or excitement is not necessarily the best measure of whether an idea is good or not. As I’ve mentioned before, you’re going to be approaching a novel in all kinds of moods, and there’s going to come a time, especially after you’ve spent months on research and outlining, when you find your own premise exhausting. This kind of burnout happens to every writer. The real test of an idea’s value, then, isn’t how much you love it at first glance, but whether it’s the kind of long-term, sustainable idea that can nourish the lengthy process of writing a novel.
This is the best advice I can give: since great ideas are only meaningful as part of a process that includes craft, hard work, and a lot of luck, the best way to ensure that you’ll recognize an idea when it comes is to get the process started, now, long before the idea shows itself. You begin by deciding, once and for all, to write a novel; you tentatively arrive at a genre, a tone, maybe even a setting or some characters, while knowing that all these things are likely to change. Then you go exploring, casting your net wide at first, then gradually zeroing in on your true subject. That way, you’ve prepared a place for great ideas to nest, and are less likely to be sidetracked by ones that are seductive but unproductive—although you should always write everything down. And when you finally stumble across that great idea, if you’ve laid the groundwork accordingly, you’ll recognize it at once.
I’ve only ever wanted two jobs. My first dream job, which occupied my imagination roughly from the ages of six to ten, was, of course, paleontologist. (Even today, I can still remember the approximate dates of the Mesozoic Era, a fact that came in handy at a recent trivia contest.) When I was ten, though, it suddenly occurred to me that it might be even more fun to be a novelist. I could still write about dinosaurs—although a certain novel released that same year beat me to the punch—and just about everything else. At the time, like most kids, I was curious about a lot of things, and the immediate appeal of being a writer was that it would give me an excuse to learn about whatever I wanted.
Twenty years later, that’s still a big part of why I want to write for a living. What didn’t come until more recently was a love for the writing process itself. Early on, writing was pretty much just a pretext for following my interests wherever they led me, and it’s only in the past ten years that I’ve begun to find the actual mechanics of writing deeply interesting. At some point, the writer’s tool kit of plot, language, character, and theme became as absorbing a subject as those external topics—Marcel Duchamp, Russia, the art world, the Rosicrucians, to name only those involved in The Icon Thief—that I used fiction as an opportunity to explore. And the realization that I also love writing for its own sake is one of the most significant discoveries of my life.
Writing fiction, as I see it, is the greatest game in the world. Other authors may approach it differently, but for me, it’s a chance to construct something beautiful and elegant that didn’t exist before. It’s the same impulse, I imagine, that leads people to build ships in bottles or construct crossword puzzles (something that I’ve also tried, with less success), but extended over a much longer period of time. Writing a novel still strikes me as just about the most challenging thing that an artist can do on his or her own. It requires both massive sustained organization and the ability to recognize fleeting moments of inspiration. It draws on all parts of the brain. And it has tested me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I began writing for a living.
This love of structure and artifice is the main reason why I’ve thrown my lot in with the novel, rather than nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction or journalism is, in some ways, a superior excuse to explore the world, but with it comes a certain responsibility to the facts that doesn’t quite fit with my conception of writing as a great game. I try to make my novels as accurate as possible, but there are times when I prefer a convincing impossibility, as long as it’s elegant and surprising and not too far removed from the truth. At some point, I may try my hand at nonfiction, but for now, I’m sticking with the novel. As any writer will tell you, being a novelist is quite hard enough.