The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

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OCT 2022 Issue
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Nothing Literary in the Accepted Sense

We are at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Letters where I am studying for my Bachelor’s degree in the 1969–1970 semesters.

Fall semester: Bernard Teyssèdre, the French essayist, is teaching a course entitled “Esthetic Problems,” with informal extracurricular seminars enhanced by a carousel of slides about modern art. Winter semester: Paul Chamberland, the Québécois poet, gives a course entitled “Breton and the Surrealist Esthetics.” Every fifteen days throughout the two semesters Dominique Noguez, the French essayist, teaches a course entitled “Humorous Language.” A half-century later, it is easy to imagine that the name Marcel Duchamp was pronounced at least once by each of those professors. I can see myself writing his name down along with that of many others, intent on doing more research in order to know more about them, in order to see more of their work.

One of the topics that Noguez proposes for the major assignment is the play on words. Although I have given no thought to this subject in either my personal or my student life, I nevertheless choose it and embark on further research at the university library, the municipal library, and at what is known as the National Library. The work introduces me to Marchand du sel, écrits de Marcel Duchamp, and Anthologie de l’humour noir by André Breton (both of which include many of the aphorisms published by Duchamp under his pseudonym, Rrose Sélavy) and would result in my first academic article: “Le jeu de mots” (Études françaises, Montréal, vol. 7, no. 1, February 1971).

This “artist” could also be a “writer”: THE PASSAGE from Artist to Writer, to adapt the title of one of his paintings (1912). Because I am referring to Duchamp, I intentionally put the terms “artist” and “writer” in quotation marks.

As of the 1971–1972 semesters, while writing my first poetry collections, I continue to devote most of my spare time to various components of the work, up until the 1974–1976 semesters when, as a student in Paris, I meet Michel Sanouillet, Alexina Duchamp and, above all, Jean Clair, who was then in the process of preparing the first major Duchamp exhibition in France. He invites me to contribute to the catalogue, which I am unable to do, and then repeats the invitation for the conference on Duchamp in Cerisy-la-Salle that he is also preparing, an invitation that I accept with pleasure. That paper, my first, is published in 1979.

From 1976 to 1979, while teaching full-time, I write a thesis on Duchamp’s pictorial and literary works, a doctorate which, following the publication of a sizeable collection of unpublished notes is, in 1980–1981, complemented by about one hundred additional pages. This doctorate in progress is published in 1984.

And so it would continue, with essays, and with editions of his work.

I am unable to say how I—someone with no academic background in art history—became “interested” in Duchamp’s work or explain how I persevered with this interest once I realized the undeniable complexity of the Duchampian notes, aphorisms, and objects. Certainly, the fact that I am a Québécois—that is to say neither French nor American—played a role: my exteriority, indeed my “ex-centricity” at the heart of Duchamp’s “trans-Atlanticity.” Also certain is the fact that my work in Québécois (and French) literature as a poet and then as an essayist paved the way for me once I decided to “go further” with Marcel Duchamp, and that this major treatment of his multi-media works enabled me to “gain ground” with Émile Nelligan, Georges Perec and Gérald Godin, among others.

It must also be said that my original decision to focus on the signatures, pseudonyms, aphorisms, and readymades was confirmed when I began reviewing previous studies of his work. That which had caught my interest right away and which was already the subject of some of my lectures seems to have been of little interest to the “specialists.”

Finally, I know that, not having met the man, I am under no illusions that I could have had a better grasp of the work if I had. Indeed, Marcel Duchamp was for me for a long while printed texts and illustrations published in various books and catalogs before being a being, a voice and a body of work. Only later, when one is equipped with the theoretical means to analyse the correspondence, the spoken words [parlés] and the various testimonies, is one able, in the disparate scope of his opera aperta, to assess and assert their value.

Approaching his work as literature—bringing it in from the cold, like the spy in the famous novel—is, more than forty years later, still uncommon. The artistic gatekeepers are always on guard.


Andre Gervais

André Gervais is the author of two books on Duchamp (1984, 2000) and the editor of two books by Duchamp (1994, 2006). He taught at the University of Quebec at Rimouski (UQAR) for over twenty years.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

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