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Marjorie Perloff

Talking Duchamp and Wittgenstein with the acclaimed poetry critic

Jeremy Sigler
April 04, 2022
Courtesy Marjorie Perloff
Courtesy Marjorie Perloff
Courtesy Marjorie Perloff
Courtesy Marjorie Perloff

Since I interviewed her for Tablet a few years ago, the literary critic Marjorie Perloff and I have gotten to be much better friends. This time, when I went to her home in LA for another interview, I felt less like a nervous college kid with a tape recorder and more like one of her regular poet-chess opponents or intellectual sparring partners. I’m happy to say I now feel perfectly at home asking her the most idiotic questions and stating my most crackpot theories. The following interview has moments of playful banter and gossip, but aims to capture and encapsulate Perloff’s latest double-header of scholarship, in her simultaneously released translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks 1914-16, and collection of essays Infrathin, which examines the nature of micropoetics. In our talk, Perloff and I did a little mischievous matchmaking, trying to set up Marcel Duchamp and Gertrude Stein on a hypothetical blind date.

Jeremy: I was looking up Lord Alfred Tennyson yesterday thinking, here’s a poet I’ve never taken the time to read.

Marjorie: And?

Jeremy: It didn’t go so well. All I could think about was Queen Victoria and the English Empire and stuffy British accents describing Tennyson’s “Life in Letters.” I just got this bad taste in my mouth.

Marjorie: That’s not surprising. Like our own moment, the Victorian age is one where prose writing succeeded over lyric poetry. Think of the wonderful novelists like Dickens and Hardy.

Jeremy: And then my personal favorite, Jane Austen.

Marjorie: But there’s nothing so terrible about that shift. I recently did a review for the Los Angeles Review of Books on Yury Tynyanov, who was a member of Roman Jakobson’s Russian formalist circle. His slant was that literature must be understood as a coherent system, whose parts fit together and whose genres come in and go out of fashion depending on particular historical/cultural events. So a leading genre in one century will often become a minor genre in the next and then reappear in a new guise. Tynyanov points out that back in the 18th century, charades, for example, were regarded as an important art form in Russia, whereas today we think of charades as just a game.

Jeremy: But there remain unforeseen outlets for certain marginalized genres, like lyric poetry, even if they are way out of fashion. My curiosity about Lord Tennyson came from watching this hilarious series on HBO called White Lotus where a character, out of nowhere, reads a stanza from the poem “The Lotus-eaters.”

Marjorie: Yes! During COVID, I became deeply devoted to the French Netflix series Le Bureau. It’s absolutely brilliant.

Jeremy: Maybe you should write on it.

Marjorie: Right now I’ve just turned 90 so technically I can write on whatever I want. And I don’t at the moment want to go on analyzing the particulars of contemporary poetry.

Jeremy: I’ve been thinking the exact opposite—that maybe it’s time I stop writing on pop culture and start writing exclusively on new poetry. Not the old stuff. Even in your new collection, Infrathin, I simply couldn’t bring myself to read the chapter on T.S. Eliot. All I could think about was his neatly combed hair with that perfect part running across his scalp. And I felt nauseated.

Marjorie: That’s a silly prejudice! Oh, Eliot is so wonderful. People really want to read Eliot these days. He’s incredibly popular again. You wouldn’t believe it. Just listen to those great lines:

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

Jeremy: Wow. That is good! So Eliot is “trending,” as my daughter says. In Infrathin you refer to Eliot’s second line above as “enacting” both sonically and visually. I love how thoroughly you devour the line. You tune in to the micropoetics:

“via end rhyme, with the second line, this time eleven syllables long and carrying at least six strong stresses … the line dragging along in a catatonic torpor (note that internal rhyme of ‘then,’ ‘when,’ ‘against’) that extends into line 3, which is even longer (twelve syllables) and markedly in its third foot and its sputtering voiced and voiceless stops—k, p, t, d, p, t: ‘Líke a pátientétherized un a ble’”

I can see that I really should get over my prejudice. Your writing about the line is every bit as poetic as the poem.

Marjorie: Yes, you should give Eliot a chance. Your prejudice is based on the deserved mistrust of Eliot’s politics and his position on Anglicanism as the right religion. But if one looks at the subtext, the very real anxiety and brilliance of the poetry shine through.

Jeremy: But Marjorie, thanks to you, I now have these two extraordinary characters Duchamp and Wittgenstein waltzing around in an imaginary dancehall in my brain. I see them as the 20th century’s two human masterpieces. They were both vexing elegant creatures who were both full of contradictions.

Marjorie: They did have a lot in common. They were almost exact contemporaries, you know—only two years apart. Duchamp was born in 1887, and Wittgenstein was born in 1889. And they both had training in engineering and mathematics. They made equations. There’s Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages. That is the key work. I really do think so.

Jeremy: Duchamp decides to drop a string three times and trace its contour onto three wooden rulers and put them in a neat carrying case as if they are a common set of engineering or architectural instruments. It’s less like artwork and more like a tool for the pataphysician.

Marjorie: I think that Wittgenstein could have made that same experiment, although he would have probably considered most of Duchamp’s work, in his own words, “almost too ridiculous for words.”

Jeremy: I see the Three Standard Stoppages as Duchamp’s deadpan response to the “sensuous lines” of Matisse and Picasso, which were the epitome of great art in the 20th century. He also seems to be questioning if there really is such a thing as a “standard!” Right? Or is it a complete fallacy to believe in standardization—any kind of standardization? I mean there could have been 6 million standard stoppages had he dropped the string 6 million times.

Marjorie: That’s so interesting, Jeremy. I like the contrast to Matisse’s “sensuous lines.” For Wittgenstein, the central element in writing is not imagery but grammar. Grammar, not in any prescriptive sense, but referring to the way words in a given phrase or sentence are actually put together. Syntax. And he concludes “all that is not gas is grammar.” It relates to his remark: “the limits of my language, means the limits of my world.”

Jeremy: We breathe gas, and gas I suppose is silent. Both lines together create an abstract image for me of the outermost limit of communication—like the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, where there is no more oxygen. But what does he really mean?

Marjorie: Well, Bertrand Russell, who was Wittgenstein’s mentor at Cambridge, was trying to figure out how logic actually works, so far as language goes. He wanted to determine which statements are always truth statements. Wittgenstein came gradually to see that the only truth statements are mathematical equations or tautologies (which are like formulas): “It is either raining or it is not raining” is true. But for most of our language, such truth does not obtain.

Jeremy: Can you give an example?

Marjorie: Words are very slippery. Wittgenstein has more than 30 pages, for example, on the word “pain.” What is pain? Can I tell what kind of pain you’re in? You can tell me, “I really am in extreme pain.” But is that necessarily “true”? Maybe you’re just trying to impress me.

Jeremy: I’m picturing the pain chart I once saw in a doctor’s office when I had a herniated disc. Pain was presented as a spectrum of cartoon faces: a smiling face, a blank face, a frowning face, a face with one teardrop, and a face gushing with tears and anguish lines across his brow—that was the one that meant Oxycontin! That’s the one I chose anyway. Of course, we can surmise now how that chart led to the opioid epidemic.

Marjorie: Wittgenstein concentrated on ordinary words like “hope.” He noted that you can’t define the word hope—the meaning can only be understood in context. He analyzed the way children learn language—a child hears people use the word in various contexts, and by around age 2, will say, “I hope it won’t rain tomorrow so we can go on our picnic.” But if asked for a standard definition of the word “hope,” the child couldn’t give one. So he concluded that the meaning of a word is its use in a given sentence. Unlike an early thinker like Augustine, who thought the meaning of a word is learned by pointing to the thing it designates—apple, pencil, Mommy.

Jeremy: So Wittgenstein believed that we learn words by how they are used in sentences. Pointing, I guess leads to confusion and ambiguity. Because the vagueness implies that we may seldom truly be talking about the same thing at the same time with any mechanical or mathematical precision. And a statement like “I love you” then becomes pretty arbitrary and pointless.

Marjorie: Wittgenstein is famous for his wonderful aphorisms. For example, he said that “Philosophy is not an abstract theory of truth (metaphysics) or knowledge (epistemology), but an activity. Philosophy is not something one knows but something one does.”

Jeremy: I like this one: “You have to take an expression out of language to send it for cleaning—and then you can put it back in circulation.” This implies that certain worn-out overused clichés could somehow be rehabilitated or refreshed.

Marjorie: Yes! And here’s another one: “The only way to do philosophy is to do everything twice.”

Jeremy: That reminds me of Wittgenstein the architect. Some would say that the very stark, geometric home he designed for his sister Margaret is his greatest achievement.

Marjorie: Perhaps, although the basic design was made by his friend Paul Engelmann. Wittgenstein did the austere modernist decor. Every tiny feature of that house is designed with immaculate precision, which goes back to Wittgenstein’s early days as a mechanical engineer. Every doorknob, every latch on every window—he was obsessed with detail. If something was off half an inch, he would redo the entire thing.

Jeremy: So it was the Bauhaus dictum “form follows function” extended to “words follow function.” I admire that he struggled so hard for clarity of expression in any case—maybe he wanted to rid the world of ornamentation in building facades as well as verbose platitudes. And he also “descended the staircase” (to quote the Duchamp painting) of his own ivory tower.

Marjorie: And at Cambridge, Wittgenstein practiced what he preached. He lived in a single room devoid of almost all furniture: He sat on a fold-out deck chair. This was after he had the audacity to give all his money away (he gave his vast inheritance, which would have allowed him to live in luxury his entire life, to his sisters). Keep in mind, he was born into one of the wealthiest families in all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—his father was a petroleum and steel magnate. The Jewish family had converted to Catholicism decades earlier.

Jeremy: In your intro, you state: “Wittgenstein was as mysterious and contradictory as a character in a Dostoevsky novel.” That really struck me (like an axe) because I myself am obsessed with Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. Although I prefer to see myself as a character in a Chekhov play, with a sense of humor. Ludwig, I’m afraid, took himself way too seriously.

Marjorie: Well he loved the Brothers Karamazov. The brother he loved was Alyosha, the saintly one. But he also expressed deep sympathy for the passionate and wild Dimitri. He cared less for the cerebral brother Ivan. Wittgenstein really loved the Gospels, with their profound ideas expressed in parables. Like the Sermon on the Mount: “It is harder for a rich man to go to heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”

Jeremy: That compression at the threshold reminds me of his other aphorism about “showing the fly the way out of the fly bottle”—both are expressions of his alienation and isolation. I think that may be an unfortunate side effect of his genius and drive to free himself from or circumnavigate so many societal and intellectual traps. His action-based philosophy was maybe like a basic training obstacle course, you know where they use a rope to climb over a tall wall or crawl under a really low wire. And it was surprising to everyone that he enlisted.

Marjorie: As a young man Wittgenstein was very privileged and imperious. And he did live extravagantly. For example, when he was in a hurry to get from A to B, he would rent an entire railroad car to get there. But after WWI, in which he actually fought bravely and received medals, he decided that having money was too much of a bother.

Jeremy: A distraction. Another obstacle. Maybe he was afraid of decadence. And became conscientious about excessive waste.

Marjorie: Right. And he didn’t want to waste his own life.

Jeremy: His struggle and disapproval with himself makes him all the more compelling. I actually see his life as something like a fable.

Marjorie: He wanted to transform himself into a better person, so he began to live very simply. He didn’t really mind it at all. He just wore whatever—the same thing every day.

Jeremy: I guess he became a minimalist. He’d wear a collegiate tweed blazer. And a neatly pressed white button-down shirt with an open collar (no vest or tie). I’ve seen many photographic portraits of him. Some look like they could have been taken yesterday. He looks like a man of the 21st century.

Your translations of his war-time secret diary fills in the missing pixels—you really help bring him to life. Finally!—for me at least. It was fascinating to learn of his discreet homosexuality and the fact that he worked with such grit as a soldier to earn his stripes.

Marjorie: His disciples originally tried to suppress the diaries and keep them a secret …

Jeremy: As did some academics, I think, who may have wanted to portray a different man in the course of history.

Marjorie: But that didn’t work. But I’d say that the Notebooks are more accurately “private” than, as you say, “secret”—because the code Wittgenstein used was easy enough to crack; it was just the alphabet backward so that a = z, b = y, c = x, and so on. He used the same code with his siblings when he was a child. And certain passages have been widely cited by Ray Monk and other biographers.

Jeremy: But why did he use code at all?

Marjorie: The code functioned to keep people—for example, the soldiers on his ship during the war—from peeking over his shoulder as he wrote.

Jeremy: He couldn’t have had much privacy during those years, while he was confined to a WWI gunboat.

Marjorie: No privacy whatsoever. It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him, as he struggles to bond with the other men and to cling to his own individuality. One entry written on 15.8.14 reads:

“so much is happening that a day feels as long as a week. Yesterday I was assigned the post of searchlight orderly on one of the gunboats captured by us on the Vistula; my shipmates are a bunch of swine! No enthusiasm for anything, unbelievable crudity, stupidity & malice! so it turns out not to be true that a great common cause inevitably ennobles people. As it is, even the most trivial job becomes a chore. It is remarkable how people turn work itself into ugly hard-ship. Given all our external circumstances, working on this ship could be a wonderfully happy time and instead!—It will probably be impossible to have any sort of understanding with these men (except perhaps with the lieutenant, who seems to be quite a nice person). so, no choice but to carry out one’s work in all humility and for God’s sake not to lose oneself!!!! For the easiest way to lose oneself is to want to give oneself to conformity.”

Jeremy: In your introduction, you mention how reclusive the young Wittgenstein was, retreating to a tiny mountain cabin on a dramatic cliff overlooking a fjord in Norway. This, I have to admit, creates a romantic impression, almost like the Chinese nature poet, Cold Mountain.

Marjorie: Both before the war and then in the 1930s when he was a Cambridge don, he retreated to his cabin. It was always thought that he went there to be in complete solitude. But in fact, he often brought a friend along. Wittgenstein was homosexual but, in keeping with the time, quite closeted.

Jeremy: Certainly these are two very contradictory images: of a philosopher entirely alone in a tranquil setting where he can hear his own thoughts, and on the other hand, a man going off with a companion to have a very private affair. I guess we have to reconcile and find a way to blend both images in our minds if we want to know the true Wittgenstein.

Marjorie: Yes. There are ways that he could be hermetic. He pretty much rejected modern art. He would have found Picasso ridiculous, if he had known his work. He wouldn’t go to a concert where any composer more modern than Schubert was being played. Mahler, his Viennese contemporary? No!

Jeremy: And yet he brought such a new ethic and streamlined aesthetic to philosophy.

Marjorie: In my book I say: “Perhaps poets, artists, composers, and filmmakers have taken such a special interest in Wittgenstein because they recognize that he is himself a kind of conceptual poet.” He uses the German verb dichten, which refers to any kind of imaginative writing. He means that philosophy is not, as is conventionally thought, some kind of abstract theory.

Jeremy: Reading both your books at once, caused me to connect Wittgenstein and Duchamp in my mind for the first time. I feel like I was watching a Hollywood romance, the love affair of two geniuses: One genius (Wittgenstein) is this closeted gay man in a military uniform scribbling in code and chiding himself for occasionally masturbating, and the other genius (Duchamp) is crossing the Atlantic on a ship, (maybe even in drag), preparing to transform back into an elegant man smoking a pipe and holding court at a cocktail party at Walter Arensberg’s home in New York City. This is just my fantasy of course.

Marjorie: Well they were both geniuses, but it wouldn’t quite be a romance! Duchamp was also quite reclusive. In his early days in New York, his circumstances were spartan although, unlike Wittgenstein who withdrew, he could switch gears and become very social.

Jeremy: True. He seemed to live happily, almost magically, on nothing, and with no income or security. He hardly ever sold his art. His snow shovel and bicycle wheel were like his roommates. And most of the time, I assume, he was at the chess table. My guess is that he tended to sleep out a lot, ha. I once read that he carried a toothbrush with him everywhere he went, just in case.

Marjorie: He and Wittgenstein both had fun the way mathematicians have fun, by solving equations. Don’t forget, Duchamp studied Renaissance books on science while working at the Bibliothèque Geneviève in 1912—books about geometry and mechanics.

Jeremy: One of my favorite pieces is the one he made for his sister Suzanne. It’s known as the “Unhappy Readymade” (1919), and it no longer exists. I guess I shouldn’t speak about the rumor that he was in an incestuous relationship with her.

Marjorie: That rumor has been disproven. The Duchamp scholar Arturo Swartz, its perpetrator, got carried away. A little bit the way you are getting carried away, Jeremy.

Jeremy: Anyway, he attached a textbook of Euclidian geometry to her windowsill (for maybe a year, I think). And he waited for gusts of wind to come along and blow open the book and tear away the pages one by one. Very poetic. I guess that could even be considered infrathin.

Marjorie: I think so. Here are some of Duchamp’s examples of the infrathin. I include his list in my book. He says:

“The warmth of a seat (which has just been left) is infrathin.
Sliding doors of the Metro—the people who pass through at the very last moment/infrathin.
Velvet trousers—their whistling sound (in walking) by brushing of the two legs – is an infrathin separation signaled by sound.
When the tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it, the two orders marry by infrathin.
The infrathin separation between the detonation noise of a gun (very close) and the apparition of the bullet hole in the target.”

And there are many more. Duchamp insisted the word “infrathin” could not be defined, it could only be exemplified.

Jeremy: Leave it to Marcel to start the list with the erotic implications of a warm seat. Haha. It reminds me of L.H.O.O.Q—his poster of Mona Lisa with the mustache and goatee. According to historians: the letters at the bottom of the poster pronounced in French sound like "Elle a chaud au cul” which translates to “She is hot in the arse.” In an interview with Schwarz, Duchamp once translated it as “there is fire down below.”

One thing you do beautifully in Infrathin is allow us to see Duchamp through the admiring gaze of Gertrude Stein. I love this.

Marjorie: Stein did write a portrait-poem of Duchamp: it contains the lines:

“I was looking to see if I could make Marcel out of it but I can’t.
Not a doctor to me not a debtor to me not a d to me but a c to me a credit to me. To interlace a story with glass and with rope with color and roam.
How many people roam.
Dark people roam.
Can dark people come from the north. Are they dark then. Do they begin to be dark when they have come from there.
Any question leads away from me. Grave a boy grave.”

It ends like this:

“The lucky strike works well and difficultly. It rounds, it sounds round. I cannot conceal attrition. Let me think. I repeat the fullness of bread. In a way not bread. Delight me. I delight a lamb in birth.”

Jeremy: God that’s good. I’m reminded of my favorite bar in Soho, Lucky Strike, that closed this past year due to COVID I guess.

Anyway, it’s funny how she refers to him as a “boy grave” (as in cold or serious or sad) and as a “lamb in birth.” Which reminds me of the word “mutton” which can be shortened to mutt, leading back to the pseudonym R. Mutt, that Duchamp wrote on the side of his readymade “Fountain” (the urinal). I’ve always wondered if the initial “R” is actually a pun for the word “Our”? Is he thus Our Mutt? Our mongrel, or black sheep, roaming the city at night?

You also include Stein’s account of Marcel in Alice B. Toklas, which you call “unusually flattering and without her usual malice—quite unlike her references to Matisse or Pound or Hemingway.”

Marjorie: Yes, she calls this “charming” and “handsome” son of a notary, from the little town of Blainville, Normandy, a “young Norman crusader”—this was around 1917, when Carl Van Vechten described his scandalous urinal as either a Madonna or a Buddha.

Jeremy: Your Duchamp chapter gets even better when you focus on Duchamp’s female alter ego: Rrose Sélavy. You examine how nuanced this name is poetically, with all of its possible interpretations, and you radically postulate that his choice of the name “Rose” had to have been a nod to Gertrude Stein’s famous line of poetry, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” By then, I think Stein had that line printed, maybe even embossed, in a ring at the top of her stationery. It was her letterhead—her brand.

Marjorie: My feeling is that this connection has been generally overlooked by scholars. Duchamp himself said he wanted his alter ego to be a Jewish woman, Rrose Sélavy. I can’t help thinking he had Gertrude Stein in mind.

Jeremy: This strikes me as your brazen chess move. To slide Duchamp in next to Stein. But in order to make this move, you first have to bump Picasso off the table. It’s Perloff’s Gambit!

Marjorie: I don’t know if that was so intentional. But I certainly feel like Picasso was in the way. I was just reading the review today in The Wall Street Journal of Richardson’s last volume of the biography of Picasso. And I just cannot think Picasso really has much to do with Stein’s actual practice, however much she adored him in person and however much he liked to come to her salon (especially in his early days when he was quite poor).

Jeremy: Stein, as you point out, was totally dismissive of Picasso’s attempts in the 1930s to write poetry.

Marjorie: Yes. His surrealist-inspired poetry boasted of lines like “stark naked legs spread wide over the odor from a knife.”

Jeremy: Yikes.

Marjorie: He wasn’t a poet. And it made Stein angry that he thought he could be one. She was very territorial and said, “Poetry belongs to me and painting to you.”

Jeremy: You quote Stein saying that Picasso’s poetry is “more offensive than bad poetry.” She calls it “particularly repellent.” Repellent is a strong word.

Marjorie: Yes everyone thinks of Stein and Picasso as partners in cubism. Her two portraits of Picasso are very famous.

Jeremy: As is Picasso’s portrait of her.

Marjorie: I wrote about them myself years ago in The Poetics of Indeterminacy. But then I came to realize that Picasso could not read a word Stein wrote because he knew no English. Duchamp, on the other hand, took the time to translate one of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation into French for a Picabia publication, and was very sensitive to her English grammar, her use of pronouns.

So are you convinced? Do you agree that Gertrude Stein could have been a model for Rrose Sélavy?

Jeremy: Yes, absolutely. Especially after reading that passage you include from Duchamp’s interview with Calvin Tomkins. When Tomkins asks why he invented a new identity, Duchamp responds, that he first intended “to choose a Jewish name,” but then decided to change his gender instead. And that Rose was “the corniest name for a girl at that time.”

Marjorie: I am surprised that readers haven’t seen long ago that there is a special affinity between Gertrude and Marcel. I think it’s because Stein is always being pigeonholed as “a lesbian” or “an American” or “a Jew,” etc.

Jeremy: Stein and Duchamp do make a nice couple. I think those “pigeonholed” qualities are pretty significant. They were both actually trailblazers of gender fluidity and queer gender politics.

Marjorie: I don’t think there was anything very “fluid” about Stein. But she was certainly a lesbian. What drew me to Stein was never the above identity-based categories, but her unique writing style. The language is so rigorous and such a challenge. But, mind you, all of her work is not equally good. She can go on and on. But when it works—like in Tender Buttons—it really clicks.

Jeremy: There’s so much innuendo in her poems. When I read “Sacred Emily,” I read it backwards and forwards, and I try to let all of the phonetical possibilities float to the surface, and the puns … but it remains a very hard poem to grasp.

Marjorie: Exactly. That’s what I care about. I think one of the main reasons I’m fascinated by Stein is that her meanings are so complex and deeply buried. I really am annoyed when critics say, as did Janet Malcolm, that Stein’s central writings are just nonsense, that the only Stein works that are readable are The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and related works.

Jeremy: Yes, one could easily treat her poems as if they are pure sound poetry, like Hugo Ball’s dada poem “Karawane.” Or for that matter, like Jelly Roll Morton. She was, to a certain extent, an early pioneer of jazz.

Marjorie: To me, there’s no question that you can analyze her work, if you just stick with it. You can figure out what she’s saying. It’s not just clever wording and empty sound.

Jeremy: But it is musical. I wonder if it comes back to the deeper science of linguistics? Or to her study at Harvard with William James known as the Stream of Consciousness? I think one has to have the willingness to read between the lines and even between the words—between each letter.

It’s similar, as you demonstrate in Infrathin to Duchamp’s very clever title for his readymade of a miniature French window titled “Fresh Widow.”

Marjorie: Yes, with the Duchamp title, all you do is take out the two n’s, and “french window” becomes “fresh widow,” which is rife with meaning. A recent (fresh) widow? A lonely widow perhaps, whose husband never returned from the front. A flirtatious widow?

Jeremy: That widow has suddenly found herself in the Lost Generation (as Stein would have it). Or as you point out, she may be “‘fresh’ in the sense of bold, not easy to repress or squelch.” It’s ambiguous.

Marjorie: That’s a fascinating thing. Language has to be precise in order to be ambiguous. Standard discourse never really conceals or reveals much that is hidden. But if it’s precise enough, then of course the ambiguity in a poem emerges like a puzzle.

Jeremy: I find Duchamp’s work so enigmatic and so secretive that it drives me to take these wild guesses. Like Austen’s Emma says, to Mr. Knightly and her father: “And have you never known the pleasure and triumph of a lucky guess? … a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it.”

Marjorie: You feel Duchamp is hiding something?

Jeremy: Yes, and it leads to a deeper line of questioning in search of answers. Like being frustrated by a riddle I can’t ever solve. Like his interest in being Jewish. Did Duchamp really want to be Jewish? Or was being a Jewish woman like an irreverent joke, like drawing facial hair on the Mona Lisa, or ripping a urinal off the wall of a public men’s room and placing it on a pedestal in an art show? Or is it not a joke at all? In “Étant donnés” there is that beguiling disfigured, nude woman (molded in wax) on her back in the tall dry grass holding up a small gas lamp. I find it horrific, like witnessing the scene of a crime. I find the work very upsetting. I don’t see it as a joke.

Marjorie: Maybe sometime we can go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and look harder through the peepholes in that thick wooden door and examine it once again. But as for his adoption of the Sélavy name, I think that was a way for Duchamp to become as unlike his real self as possible. Bourgeois young man from a small town in Normandy becomes exotic “Eastern” Jewish woman. On the other hand, it’s only fair to say, Duchamp didn’t seem to care about the fate of the Jews in WWII at all. That indifference was his downside. Still, he wasn’t antisemitic like Picasso. In her terrific biography of Max Jacob, Rosanna Warren tells us that when Max Jacob was taken to the Drancy concentration camp—where he actually died—Picasso was told, “did you know your old friend Max is in Drancy? What can we do?” Picasso shrugged and replied, “Max is an angel. He’ll fly over the wall.” Horrible thing to say, don’t you think?

Jeremy: Well you’ve already checkmated Picasso, so for our purposes, he’s out of the match. It really no longer matters what he said or what he might have been trying to say. Even if it is a horrible thing to say, it doesn’t define him. We can’t “make him out of it,” can we?

Marjorie: Right. Back to Stein’s portrait. “I was looking to see if I could make Marcel out of it but I can’t.”

Jeremy: Maybe “you were looking to see if you could make Marjorie Perloff out of it. And you did!”

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.

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