On November 8, 1994, Vassar professor Molly Nesbit gave a lecture at the Walker Art Center in which she discussed gender and language in Marcel Duchamp’s glass painting, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even—a work commonly referred to as The Large Glass (1915-1923). Nesbit’s talk was presented in conjunction with the Walker’s exhibition Duchamp’s Leg. Below is an excerpt from the transcript, published today in recognition of the 125th anniversary of Duchamp’s birth.
Now Her Words
The Large Glass is Duchamp’s first great work. It is a glass painting. It’s currently in Philadelphia. It was broken when it was being shipped in the 20s from an exhibition and repaired by Duchamp in the 30s, which is why the cracks are in it. It’s a piece Duchamp worked on from 1912 to 1923.
The glass is composed, you will remember, of two registers: the upper part of the window, and it’s an American-style window, not a French window because Duchamp was in America in 1915 when he put the window together.
The upper register is the home and the register of the bride who has an apparatus that rises in a kind of tubular way with shields and rods on the left, and then expands into a cloud. At the bottom is the bachelor apparatus. So it divides into two according to male and female. The bachelor apparatus begins at the left with the malic moulds and is attached to a whole range of little machines. The apparatus is meant to move like a physics experiment or a chemistry experiment set up from left to right, distilling bachelor splashes and flipping them through those discs at the right up into the upper register. Its connecting mechanism was never completed. All that you have in The Large Glass are the gunshots, which in one plan emerged from a kind of cannon aiming for the cloud. It was an intersection.
From the period when Duchamp broke with conventional painting, with art actually, which was in the summer of 1912, until 1923 when circumstances really forced him to finish the work on the glass because he was on to other things and he was going to live in Paris, the glass did provide the frame through which he thought a non-aesthetic frame. But the glass was in the end a step, not a premonition of a life or a life’s work. It was always a catalyst, always a problem, never man’s nap. For in the beginning there was very prominently a woman, the bride. She was different and she had a voice.
The glass has had its commentators, beginning in 1934 with André Breton, Duchamp’s friend, though not a best friend, who took the challenge of the notes for The Large Glass that Duchamp had written during this long period of work and then collected together as photographed scraps in what he called The Green Box. Breton stitched a narrative out of the scraps. It’s a narrative which is implicit from the notes. And Breton typically paid what I would say is insufficient attention to the independence of the bride. Duchamp had expressed her independence, which was also her difference, in two ways: there was a difference in her sexual machinery, which is a difference I think you can see, and a difference in her form of expression: less visual. In other words, her difference is to be seen in her drives and in her words. Funny that Breton, who was after all a writer, didn’t focus on her words. We shall, and my talk is actually entitled Now Her Words.
Her words contained first of all a difference from the bachelors. Initially in late 1912 and 1913, The Large Glass had taken the business of the sexes away from the nude altogether and imagined the figures as car engine parts. In 1914 the work developed out from the old motor narratives into the problem of the expression of desire in dimensions. Marcel by then was far from being a Cubist though he had been one before 1912. But like them he was most interested in dimensions numbering n or 4. And so the bride’s desire would be expressed not by tampering with her [inaudible], her cylinder breasts or other such genital equivalents, but by turning to what Duchamp came to call her épanoissement, her blossoming—
a Milky Way that was a dynamic cloud of her thoughts and commandments, a dimension maybe. Certainly a space. And it is that cloud at the top of the large glass.
It was a space voluntarily hers. Now that space might be figured by draught pistons. Still a motor, but they would be there outside of the bride, outside of herself, like a negative, a negative of desire, right? A photographic emulsion, a film of lace netting, a flutter over a radiator. An image of a cube gone feminine, backlit by his dormer window, strung nonretinally into a pearl of whitest sky. Her desire would be white. Duchamp knew that early on. But it would have a malicious tip. Not a malic to be confused with male. Oh no. Her desire contraption would not take up so much room. It would be but the string around the bouquet. That’s Duchamp’s term for it. The blossoming then would be in a space apart from her, but hers. And it was a space, this blossoming of her desire, that Duchamp imagined being cinematic as well as linguistic. It’s complicated.
Now it’s quite an idea or jump from the drive and its string, to the flowering space of language apart from her, but hers. It wasn’t exactly like a movie. It wasn’t a subtitled silence. It was more like Mallarmé, but that would be another talk. In any case, understand that the image of the Milky Way had been stripped from Apollinaire, another poet, with whom Marcel had gone in the spring of 1912 to see Roussel’s play The Impressions of Africa, Impressions d’Afrique, from which he got the general approach to the glass. And it was also with Apollinaire that he’d taken the car trip that October to the Jura [Mountains] that had provided the first storyline in which the machine had five parts, the machine being the car. Remember, I said it was a motor narrative. And it was filled with Apollinaire, Duchamp, Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire’s mistress, Picabia – that’s four – and then the figure of the hood ornament make five. They were on their way to the Jura to meet up with Picabia’s wife Gabrielle Buffet and they’re going to her family’s country house.
It was a trip. From that same trip Apollinaire derived or made the poem Zone. The Milky Way, though, was not part of Zone. It was part of a short stanza that repeated periodically but not quite like a refrain. In the Chanson du Mal-aimé, or the Badly Loved One. And it’s a rather beautiful stanza in French. I’ll read it in French and then I’ll read an English translation. It goes like this:
Voie lactée ô sœur lumineuse
Des blancs ruisseaux de Chanaan
Et des corps blancs des amoureuses
Nageurs morts suivrons-nous d’ahan
Ton cours vers d’autres nébuleuses
*transcriber’s note: copied from Internet
That sister light, the Milky Way, whose whiteness
Flows from Canaan’s streams
And from the white of lovers’ flesh
Shall we at death not follow her
And swim toward further nebulae
It’s a small, squaring lyric, sung by a bachelor. Marcel took the Milky Way – everybody knows Milky Way – for his bride and let the stanza go.
Her space would be linguistic but wordless; if language, a blank. Unlike Apollinaire, nobody would cry in public. This would be cinema with the lights up. Now that was one idea for the blossoming of that space of her language, her words. It wasn’t really realized. In terms of Duchamp’s meditation on language, though, it led him to the dictionary. For Marcel was interested to pull the words away from physical reference—even words having desire as their business, and to work with words that were abstract about the physical. In other words, abstract.
So we have [dictionnaire] Larousse and another idea and more notes. For right away in Duchamp’s plans there would be supplementary text, a pamphlet for his glass, an idea that was a kind of a premonition for what would be The Green Box, the notes for The Large Glass that were published in 1934. Now in the pamphlet that language, as opposed to the bride’s, would be absolutely cryptic. Composed only of abstract words from Larousse which would then be redesigned as new signs, perhaps with the help of the stoppages and possibly using colors to differentiate the nouns from the verbs, from the cases. It was an idea. It was idea of a language that was going thick.
Now the inscription in the blossoming would be a different language, a tripled imprint of the drafty lace, a trace of something no longer there, indexical but thin, a veil that would permit all combinations of letters to be sent through it to join up with the gunshots and the splashes sent up from the boys below. Her space and their projections would combine in this transparency, this cloud. But hers was a language not going thick but rather thin. And the bachelors, they did not speak. They would only splash and splash and splash. Their drive led not to language but directly to splashing, and it never transcended the mechanics of their fluids.
Duchamp’s view of the bachelors was inspired by Cubism, or rather the vulgar response to Cubism, which saw the Cubist nude to be an obscenity or cul [derived from the Latin word for tail], which is the French word for the combination of all the lower orifices. It’s an extremely dirty word. We don’t have an English equivalent. It’s not ladylike, though I shall pronounce it, hoping not to offend. It’s a combination word basically that shifts to give it its English sense, between cunt and asshole. The cartoons that lampooned Cubism beginning in 1910, liked to put the geometry right there at the cul, seeing a kind of word play, clever on their part, that extracted the cul from cubisme. Now Duchamp took that idea not to the bride but to the bachelors.
Now the bachelor’s face had been mapped by making the stoppages lines fan into a perspective. The malic moulds were laced together at their tips, and they provide the channel through which the splashes would be channeled and begin the course rightward through this increasingly elaborate grinding apparatus.
But the space of the bachelors’ desire was actually set up by another set of lines connecting them together at the crotch. It was a line that made a polygon that Duchamp called the polygone du sexe in 1913. Later he called it the polygone imaginaire du sexe, the imaginary polygon of sex. It was not a triangle. It was not a cube. It was not the Milky Way. It was also not a language. It was his version of cul. Imagine male solids as void. It’s one of the nice perverse little places in Duchamp’s Glass. The bachelors would listen—said the notes Marcel kept writing and revising—to the litanies of the neighboring chariot, singing the refrain of every bachelor machine. But, one of the notes explained, they will never be able to pass beyond the mask. They would have been, as if enveloped alongside their regrets by a mirror reflecting back to them their own complexity, to the point of their being hallucinated rather onanistically in the cemetery of uniforms or liveries. That’s the end of the note. In other words, there’d be a song of the dog ringing in their ears, if they had ears. But their cul would be a burial ground, cemetery, but not exactly a death. The polygone imaginaire, the sexe, kept splashing. And it occupied the kind of space – so you remember the outside world – normally reserved for women.
Now the two different registers of the glass, the pistons and the polygone imaginaire, actually contain different kinds of libidinal regime, differently articulated. The bride would speak, kind of, but never appear in the conventional sexual way. The bachelors would not even have mouths, only their collective pants, a devilish collective hairless beaver all their own, an existence that risked becoming solipsistic, self-referential, narcissistic to a fault. Duchamp found all of this hilarious. He designed his glass to be funny. And if you take the time with it, it is.
Transcribed by Yvonne Bond.