BECKETT, DUCHAMP and Chess in the 1930s


So many people have requested a copy of this unpublished article that I have decided to make it generally available via the web. It was first written in 1982 and slightly revised ten years later. The reader should be aware of two facts: first, the article was rejected for publication by the ‘Journal of Beckett Studies’, on the grounds that the hypothesis it contains is by no means proven; and second, Mme Teeny Duchamp, the artist’s widow, emphatically denied that Marcel had ever played chess with Samuel Beckett.

Mme Duchamp’s denial took place during a conference on ‘Art and Chess’ at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1991. It contradicted the received wisdom and was something of a surprise. Beckett himself acknowledged the influence of Duchamp and Halberstadt's book upon Fin de Partie, and it is accepted that he knew Duchamp in the 1930s, through Mary Reynolds. Duchamp contributed a regular chess column to the Paris daily newspaper Ce Soir at this time and, given the role of chess in his work, it seems likely that Beckett (who followed the column) would at least have discussed chess with his friend. James Knowlson has no doubts on the subject and has them playing chess regularly in the mid-1930s.

The rejection by the Journal of Beckett Studies was more understandable. There are three sections to the article. The first sets out to summarise and explore the chess concepts in Duchamp and Halbertsadt’s book. This may be taken as fact and, since the book is very difficult to find these days, is useful as a point of reference. The second section is interpretative, attempting to uncover something of the underlying structure of Fin de Partie seen purely from the perspective of the preceding chess analysis. Needless to say, this is a partial reading. The third section is pure speculation, based upon nothing more than a strong personal intuition that Mr Endon is a kind of character study of Marcel Duchamp, and the ending of Murphy is derived from the scenario of the Large Glass. I have no corroborating evidence to support this idea, but since Murphy went to press during the period when Beckett and Duchamp were reputedly close, I believe it is sufficiently plausible to merit consideration.

One further influence upon both artists whose significance has grown, at least in my mind, since I mentioned him in passing in 1982, is Alfred Jarry. I’m not sure if I am alone in believing that Jarry’s novel Les Jours et les Nuits (Days and Nights) of 1897 is a more important work than his Ubu Roi, but its influence upon Beckett and Duchamp seems clear. Perhaps it also provided an underlying model for the alternations of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. At any rate, Joyce wove direct homages to Jarry into a page of the Wake, Beckett translated Jarry’s verse, and Duchamp designed book covers for Ubu Roi, as well as becoming a leading member of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique.

Andrew Hugill, 2000

* * *

L'Opposition et Cases Conjugees sont Reconciliées (Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled) by Duchamp and Halberstadt contains several terms and characteristic features which call to mind various aspects of Duchamp's artistic activities. In particular it suggests the Large Glass (La Mariée Mise A Nu Par Ses Célibataires, Même, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even), which had been "finally unfinished" in 1923, exhibited in 1926-27, and broken soon afterwards - a fact not discovered until 1931. The most immediately obvious of these is the chess position known as "trebuchet", which gave its title to the Readymade of 1917: a coat rack with four hooks, which is nailed to the floor, hooks uppermost.



In Fig.1, if Black is to play, he wins the opposing pawn by

  1. … f4-e3
  2. b5-c5 e3-e4.

It would be wrong to play

  1. … f4-e4, because of
  2. 2. b5-c5! and White wins the pawn.

    The notion of sister squares and the possible incestuous implications have already been explored by Arturo Schwarz. "Opposition" does not figure much as a term in Duchamp's work and notes, but the two panels of the Glass may be said to be in opposition, as well as related - in other words they are "reconciled". The term "domain" occurs particularly in the Green Box with reference to the two panels of the Glass. The "passage" of the White King from secondary to principal domain echoes the passage of the Virgin to the Bride (as depicted in the canvas of that title of 1912). Finally, we see the fruition of the instruction from the Green Box of 1934: "develop the principle of the hinge". All the chess positions in the book are characterised by a hinge line through which they may be folded so that the two principal domains correspond exactly. Duchamp included eight transparencies that may be folded to illustrate this principle, echoing the Large Glass.

    The following sections of this article summarize the unique endgame position described in Duchamp and Halberstadt's book, in order to trace its influence upon the structural, iconographic and textual construction of Fin de Partie. The speculative discussion of Murphy which follows attempts to identify a sympathetic resonance with Duchamp's Large Glass. The suggestion that Mr Endon is Duchamp is no more capable of proof than that Sam and Marcel may have indulged in a sneaky game with a travelling set, but it may at least describe some similarity of approach between the two artists at this time. Chess is habit-forming and played to the exclusion of all activity: a kind of custom and excision. In this it parallels the work of these two masters of the art of silence.

    * * *


    Opposition et Cases Conjugées sont Reconciliées par Duchamp et Halberstadt

    (Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled by Duchamp and Halberstadt)


    This work describes a unique and extremely rare position that can arise in the endgame (or third and final phase) of a game of chess. It was published in Paris and Brussels (Editions de l'Echiquier, 1932). Duchamp also produced the Box of 1932, which contains the manuscript, proofs and notes, and bears an "Old England" cover: a label from a Paris department store. What follows is a summary of one of the positions used by the authors to illustrate their thesis, namely: Lasker-Reichelm from the Chicago Tribune, 1901. I have used the English, algebraic, square-naming chess notation, as opposed to the piece-naming system used by the authors.


    In Fig.2, with White to play, Black has the opposition in both cases. a6 - a8 is direct opposition, g2- g8 is distant. This is due to the rule which prevents Kings from occupying adjoining squares, thereby forcing the King which has the move to give ground.



    Likewise, in Fig. 3, the two Kings are in virtual opposition, i.e. they occupy two diagonally opposed squares of the same colour which are at the corners of a rectangle.



    Now consider the position shown in Fig. 4. It is immediately clear that the pawns are unable to move. It also becomes clear that the White King can penetrate the Black position via two (and only two) squares: b5 and g5. Should he succeed in occupying either of these two squares (with or without the move) the White King will capture a black pawn (a5 or f5), thereby enabling him to promote his own pawn to a Queen on the eighth rank and so win the game. The two squares b5 and g5 therefore become known as the pole squares (X and O, respectively).

    To prevent White's King from occupying g5, Black's King must arrive at g6 on the move after White's reaches h4, forcing him to retreat. White, therefore, must reach h4 whilst Black is still at e8 or e7 (i.e. he is two files ahead of Black). Likewise, to prevent White from occupying b5, Black must occupy a6 or b6 on the move after White's to c4. However, if Black chooses a6, White will be two files ahead in a race to the other pole and so Black can only prevent penetration on b6.




    Fig. 5 shows that there is no one minimum route between the two threats for either King. One square of White's minimum route has a unique correspondent on Black's minimum route, namely d3 (to c7). Thus, if White moves c4-d3, Black replies ....b6-c7, and will arrive at g6 in time to prevent White from occupying O (g5). The name for the related squares d3 and c7 is sister squares. It is clear that the pairings b6 and c4, and g6 and h4 are also sister squares.




    Once these sister squares have been observed, corresponding blocks may be built up. In Fig. 6, the squares C only touch on A and B. Likewise D to A and C, and so on. The two rectangles formed by the squares B thru G are the principal domains of the White and Black Kings. The squares A are the decisive positions of the Kings at pole X, and are therefore not strictly part of the principal domains.

    The two domains have the property of ‘superposition by folding’ along the hinge a5-h5. For the coincidence to be perfect, one must move the Black domain one square to the right. This fact enables us to establish a law of heterodox opposition for this position: a7 and b3 (squares D) are in heterodox opposition because the two squares are equidistant from the hinge and on right hand neighbour files. Thus the general formula for heterodox opposition in the principal domains is as follows: without the move, the White King has the heterodox opposition when he occupies, on a right hand adjacent file to the file occupied by the Black King, a square of opposite colour to that occupied by the latter.

    Solution in the principal domain

    Let us suppose that the White King occupies b2 (i.e. square F in his principal domain) and he has the heterodox opposition to Black (who has the move) positioned on his own F (a8). The authors examine three possible replies for Black: 1) 1. … a8-a7; 2) 1. …a8-b7; 3) 1. …a8-b8. Of these, the second rapidly transmutes into the first.

    1st Variation, after 1. …a8-a7

  3. b2-b3 (White retains the heterodox opposition (het. opp.) and the threat of reaching A in one move)

2. …a7-b7 (forced to remain one square from A)

3. b3-c3 (still has het. opp. and threat on A)

3. …b7-c7 (forced. If he plays b7-a7, White will have the two file advantage to O)

4. c3-d3 (still has het. opp. and threat on A)

4. … any (Black is now forced to abandon his control of A, as any move to the left will give White a two file advantage to O. White now occupies A and wins).

2nd Variation

Becomes 1st Variation, e.g.

1. …a8-b7

2. b2-c3 etc.

3rd Variation, after 1. …a8-b8

2. b2-c2 (takes het. opp.)

2. …b8-c8 (to keep White King as far as possible from A)

3. c2-d2 (retains het. opp.)

3. …c8-d8 (Black cannot turn back because White will gain the two file advance. The first variation showed that …c8-c7 would be a win for White)

4. d2-c3 (White breaks the opposition, threatening to reach A in one move)

4 …d8-c7 (forced to protect A)

5. c3-d3 (reverting to the first variation, and White wins).

It is clear, therefore, that White must enter his principal domain on a square which gives him the heterodox opposition, or which does not permit Black to take it.




In Fig.7 the dashed letters indicate the extent of the White King's secondary dornain. As we have seen, he must pass from this domain into his principal domain either by taking the heterodox opposition, or by moving onto a square which does not allow Black to take it. Thus, in Fig.7, White cannot play to b2 (F) on the first move, because Black would take the heterodox opposition by moving to a8 (F). Therefore, the best White can do is

1. al -bl (C '- B '), thereby taking the secondary heterodox opposition (on file adjacent to the right and square of opposite colour).

If Black replies 1. … a7-b7 (avoiding F and E which would allow White to enter his

principal domain with the heterodox opposition, at the corresponding sister square), then White must play 2. bl-cl (D'-C'), retaining the secondary heterodox opposition.

Now Black must avoid squares F, E, G, which would allow White to enter his principal domain as before, so he plays 2. … b7-c7 (C-B).

White, as before, can only retain the secondary heterodox opposition, and must play

3.cldl (C'-B').

Black cannot now play to C, E or A, because White will have the two file advantage to pole 0. If he goes to c8 (G), White will enter his principal domain at d2, with the heterodox opposition, and win as we have seen. Black must play to the d file (the solution is the same for 3. …c7-d7 as 3. … c7-d8).

Now the White King can breach the opposition, by entering his principal domain at c2 (E), thereby preventing Black from taking the het. opp. at his sister E, and simultaneously threatening to reach c4 (A) in two moves.

Black must remain on the d file, since a move to G or B would enable White to take the het. opp. in the principal domain.

White replies 5. c2-c3 (E-C), remaining in breach of the opposition and threatening to reach A in one move.

Because of this, Black is forced to play 5. … (d)-c7 (C-B).

We have already seen how White will win once he has taken the het. opp. in the principal domain (e.g. 6. c3-d3).

The authors conclude their investigation into this position by giving a drawing variation, in order to show how ignorant play by White can ruin his chances of a win. In such a variation, Black is satisfied to take and hold the heterodox opposition, preventing penetration of his position.

Returning to the position of Fig.7 (the original position), let us assume that White foolishly plays 1. al-b2 (C'-F).

As Black has the move, he takes the het. opp. in the principal domain by playing 1. …a7-a8 (D-F). If the White King moves about in the principal domain, Black will follow him, always keeping the principal heterodox opposition, and will accompany him, one file behind, if he attempts to reach pole O. That is a draw. If White returns to al (C'), Black can take the secondary heterodox opposition in reverse at b7 (C).

From this, it is clear that White must leave the a-file on his first move (in the original position) and never return to it. An opening move of 1. al-a2 would lead to a draw, since Black would take the secondary heterodox opposition in reverse with the reply 1. …a7-b8 (D-E), leading to a drawn game.

In conclusion, it will be observed that the most Black can hope for is a draw. Given accurate play by White, Black can only succeed in delaying the progress of events.

* * *


Fin de Partie



The unique horror of the position described above finds expression in Beckett's play, in which Black (Hamm) haphazardly delays and frustrates White (Clov). Identification of these two characters with their respective chess colours is made easy by the symbolic attributes of both: Hamm is blind, hence unaware; in a wheelchair, hence restricted; wearing sunglasses, hence "black"; Clov is knowing, mobile and frustrated.

Most commentators remark that the play, with its few characters, references to past struggles and sense of weariness, resembles a chess endgame. A few mention Duchamp and Halberstadt's book, others ignore chess altogether. The precise character of the position, in which Black cannot win but only delay, is never discussed, perhaps because of its rarity. Duchamp commented:

"The endgames in which it works would interest no chess player...even the chess champions don't read the book, since the problem it poses only comes up once in a lifetime. They're end-game problems of possible games but so rare as to be nearly Utopian."

The structure and content of the play echo this delayed peculiarity. Beckett's response is poetic yet formal: the state of a player at the end of a long game. Hamm and Clov themselves represent both players and pieces (the Kings) and the whole play takes place at the next-to-end of the Aristotelian dramatic structure, which so strongly resembles the phases of a game of chess. The drama itself resembles Duchamp's Large Glass, with its exploration of physical and cerebral union.

Hamm, then, is desperate for the end of the game, yet unable to comprehend the Duchampian geomtry of the position:

"Enough, it's time it ended, in the refuge too. (Pause) And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to... to end."

His opening cri de coeur resembles Duchamp's dry note in the Green Box of 1934: "given that.... ;if I suppose I'm suffering a lot...":

"Can there be misery loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now? (Puse) My father? (Pause) My mother? (Pause) My ... dog? (Pause) Oh I am willing to believe they suffer as much as such creatures can suffer. But does that mean their sufferings equal mine?"

The opening description of the set and Clov's actions establish the Duchamp/Halbertadt position. Grey light is reflected from the surface of a chessboard. The two windows represent the two poles of the position. This is confirmed later in the play when Clov looks through both windows and describes the scene for Hamm's benefit:

"Light black. From pole to pole."

("Light black" presumably describes the alternation of white and black squares). The two ashbins, homes of Nagg and Nell, symbolize the immobile and redundant pawns. Some medieval chess-sets contain pawns that resemble modern ashbins.

A picture with its face turned to the wall would seem to echo Duchamp's abandonment of painting for chess. When Clov removes the picture and replaces it with an alarm clock, the echo rings louder, since, from the audience's point of view, the clock is seen from the side, a disposition which has a source in the Green Box:

"The Clock in profile

and the Inspector of Space

Note: When a clock is seen from the side it no longer tells the time."

This note, in turn, originates in Alfred Jarry's Gestures and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician:

"Why should anyone claim the shape of a watch is round - a manifestly false proposition -since it appears in profile as a narrow rectangular construction, elliptic on three sides; and why the devil should one only have noticed its shape at the moment of telling the time? - Perhaps under the pretext of utility. But a child who draws the watch as a circle will also draw a house as a square, as a facade, without any justification..."

Beckett extends this 'pataphysical examination of a clock's properties by having his characters listen to its alarm, as if it were a piece of music:

"(Enter Clov with alarrn-clock. He holds it against Hamm's ear And releases alarm.They listen to it ringing to the end. Pause.)

CLOV: Fit to wake the dead! Did you hear it?

HAMM: Vaguely.

CLOV: The end is terrific!

HAMM: I prefer the middle."

Notice that Hamm's ineptitude extends even to the simplest act of listening, whereas Clov is well able to appreciate the change from activity to inactivity - a change in Duchamp which Beckett would have enjoyed. Hamm prefers the cover and confusion of ceaseless activity, just as he would have preferred the multiplicity of choices in the middle-game which has ended.

Clov's opening movements and actions serve not only to map out the position, but also tell us that he understands it, since it is he who opens the curtains on the windows and looks through them. It is as though we are seeing enacted the thought-processes of the White player, as he analyses the position using Duchampian geometry. His opening speech makes clear the facts of his position, i.e. that he is waiting for Hamm/Black to move to a suitable square, enabling him (Clov) to enter his principal domain either with or in breach of the opposition.

"I'll go now to my kitchen, ten feet by ten feet - by ten feet, and wait for him to whistle me. (Pause) Nice dimensions, nice proportions, I'll lean on the table, and look at the wall, and wait for him to whistle me."

The kitchen, therefore, is White's secondary domain, as the squareness of its outline suggests, and Clov is watching the wall not through boredom, but in anticipation of the moment when he will be able to penetrate it (i.e. into his principal domain) and win. The whistle is Hamm's signal that he has "moved", although these moves occur beyond the physical realm and are not witnessed by the audience as physical actions. The whistles occur at several points throughout the play, and we must imagine a scenario of White constantly retaining the heterodox opposition, in response to the haphazard but successful delaying moves of Black. As we have seen in the third of the winning variations of the Lasker-Reichelm position, a point must come when White is able to enter his princip domain in breach of opposition. It is at the penultimate whistle that this finally occursand Clov is suddenly free to move - to "go" - and to win. Hamm's opening speech confirms this, and establishes him as a bad player who should have given up a long time ago. The act of wiping his glasses, pointless as it is for a blind man, suggests the absurdity of his optimism.

The ensuing dialogue begins the cataloguing of the extraordinary relationship between the two characters, which finds its parallel in the minds of two chess-players. Each is dependent upon the other for his very existence, and some degree of union is achieved (via the chessboard), yet simultaneously they are engaged upon a struggle of mutual destruction. In this particular instance, the blind Hamm is aware of impending doom, but plays entirely by his feelings, whereas Clov, unable, due to his suppressed exasperation, to pity Hamm (supressed by necessity since this is, after all, a game of chess), plays logically ("I love order. It's my dream"), hampered, indeed crippled, by Hamm's lack of understanding. If Hamm understood, he would perceive that Clov also understood, and would resign forthwith. The relationship is summed up by the idée fixe:

"HAMM: (anguished). What's happening, what's happening?

CLOV: Something is taking its course."

Clov, of course, cannot afford to reveal his knowledge to Hamm, even if such a thing were possible.

A further curious exchange acquires significance in the light of Duchamp:

"HAMM: Why don't you kill me?

CLOV: I don't know the combination to the larder."

The larder would be set into the wall of the kitchen. If Clov could gain access to it, there might be a quick way through the wall (i.e. from his secondary to his principal domain), but, of course, it is Black/Hamm who is preventing this solution (and thereby his own rapid death). He seems to sense this fact later, when ingenuously he promises to give Clov the combination, a promise which he cannot fulfil except by accident, as Clov well knows.

This exchange is followed by references to bicycle wheels which yet again call Duchamp to mind, and reminiscences of the recent middle-game, with its knights and pawns, of whom Nagg and Nell (who "crashed on our tandem and lost our shanks") are two. During his conversation with them, Hamm reveals the depth of his feelings, confirming that he has "a heart in his head" (a serious handicap for a chess player) and almost succeeds in eliciting our pity. He spoils everything with his cry:

"My kingdom for a nightman."

"Nightman" is a portmanteau-word, in the manner of Humpty-Dumpty, containing the notion of a knight (i.e. a horse), black in colour (night) which will end the game in Black's favour. As Hamm follows this futile wish with a desperate move, our suspicions of his inadequacies are confirmed. So desperate is he, in fact, that he takes comfort simply from the change of square (accomplished in the realm of the imagination, with the stage invisibly becoming the new square), and has Clov push him around its boundaries and back to the centre, straightening up fussily as a distracted chess-player might do with his King.

Clov quickly realises that the new move has not presented the winning opportunity ("If I could kill him I'd die happy") and, exasperatedly, has to help Hamm by looking through the two windows once again, but this time with a telescope. Since they describe the telescope as a "glass", and they consider the view from two separate panes, one is once again unavoidably reminded of Duchamp. The blue sea and sky seen through one window, and the earth colours through the other, suggest the "Bride" and "Bachelor" panels of the Large Glass. The telescope itself seems to owe something to the iconography of the Large Glass. Clov observes the audience through it, with the comment:

"That's what I call a magnifier."

Duchamp intended to include a lens from a magnifying-glass in the Large Glass, in the position eventually occupied by the Mandala.

Clov's lack of pity for Hamm becomes more understandable as the play proceeds; indeed, we begin to share his frustration. In tones of whining, threatening bombast Hamm prevaricates, delays and digresses. In the end, he makes a complete fool of himself, wildly predicting that Clov will lie down, like a resigning King. Hamm is even hoping to Queen a pawn, that is to say, Mother Pegg, whose death he will not believe.

The culminating folly is his attempt to move with the aid of the gaff, an attempt which fails, and fails again towards the end of the play when he makes a last effort to understand the position. It is at this point that the spectre of Duchamp appears, in a form resembling Mr Endon:

"HAMM: I knew a madman once who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter - and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I'd take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness! (Pause) He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes. (Pause) He alone had been spared. (Pause) Forgotten. (Pause) It appears the case is... was not so...unusual."

In chess terms Hamm's long speech seems to be a description of the careless play in the preceding middle-game, which has led to his present predicament. It would appear that, at some point one of Black's Knights left a pawn unguarded. We have already heard that the place is full of corpses (i.e. taken pieces) and now Hamm moves once more, still aware of the hopelessness of his position, and still unable to understand it:

"I'll soon have fmished with this story. (Pause) Unless I bring in other characters. (Pause) But where would I find them? (Pause) Where would I look for them? (Pause). He whistles. (Enter Clov.) Let us pray to God."

This move appears to mark a turning-point in the drama. Clov seems more confident. His feet have stopped hurting. He is beginning to put things in order. He is cool with Hamm who, in his turn, is still more desperate, as he perceives that at last he is losing. A pawn dies. Hamm parades his area, "sees" the pole points, senses his defeat, but still cannot understand the position. He contemplates resigning (by lying down), but cannot, clinging foolishly to some hope:

"Perhaps I could push myself out on the floor. (He pushes himself painfully off his seat, falls back again.) Dig my nails into the cracks and drag myself forward with my fingers. (Pause) There I'11 be, in the old refuge, alone against the silence and..(he hesitates).. the stillness. If I can hold my peace, and sit quiet, it will be all over with sound and motion, all over and done with."

Instead, he moves again - disastrously.

This penultimate move, then, is probably the one in which Whlte enters his principal domain in breach of opposition and, as we saw in the Lasker-Reichelm position, must win. The final exchanges between Hamm - and Clov serve to point up the absurdity of the position and, once again, the difference in play between Black and White:

"HAMM: Do you know what's happened?

CLOV: When? Where?

HAMM: (violently) When! what's happened? Use your head, can't you? What has happened?

CLOV: What for Christ's sake does it matter?

HAMM: Before you go...(Clov halts near door)... say something.

CLOV: There is nothing to say.

HAMM: A few my heart.

CLOV: Your heart!"





There are several passages in Murphy which contain similar themes and/or image to Duchamp's work. For example, Neary's avowal "To gain the affections of Miss Dwyer even for on short hour, would benefit me no end", is similar in both content and cadence to the title of Duchamp's small glass of 1918: To be looked at (from the other side of the glass) with one eye, close to. for almost an hour. Similarly, Chapter 6, which is devoted to a description of Murphy's mind and its Cartesian split from his body, calls to mind Duchamp's adoption of the Rousselian distinction between Conception and Reality as a way out of "retinal" painting and into conceptual art. Certain sentences in Murphy even seem to sum up Duchamp's entire life, for example:

"The freedom of indifference, the indifference of freedom, the will dust in the dust of its object the act a handful of sand let fall - these were some of the shapes he had sighted, sunset landfall after many days."

But the two most striking similarities to Duchamp both occur towards the end of the book. The first is the game of chess which Murphy plays with Mr Endon, one of his wards in the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. Murphy observes that chess was Mr Endon's "one frivolity". He plays with a supreme indifference which Duchamp would surely have found admirable. Franc,ois Le Lionnais recalled that in competition matches Duchamp was "very conformist", but there is no reason to suppose that he would have been averse to helping Beckett in his realisation of this extraordinary game.

The second similarity is the character of Mr Endon himself:

"Mr Endon was on parchment and Murphy had his tab: "Mr Endon. Apnoea, or any other available means."

Suicide by apnoca has often been tried, notably by the condemned to death. In vain. It is a physiological impossibility...

"Mr Endon was a schizophrenic of the most amiable variety, at least for the purposes of such a humble and envious outsider as Murphy. The languor in which he passed his days while deepening now and then to the extent of some charming suspension of gesture, was never so profound as to inhibit all movement. His inner voice did not harangue him, it was unobtrusive and melodious, a gentle continuo in the whole consort of his hallucinations. The bizarrerie of his attitudes never exceeded a stress laid on their grace."

This could pass for a character study of Duchamp. The threat of suicide by apnoea (i.e.simple cessation of breathing) calls to mind Duchamp's note:

"Establish a society in which the individual has to pay for the air he breathes (air meters; imprisonment and rarefied air, in case of nonpayment simple asphyxiation if necessary (cut off the air)."

Also, given the ease and rapidity of Duchamp's own death, one might suspect suicide by apnoea.

At the end of the chess game between Mr Endon and Murphy, which culminates in Murphv's resignation, he (Murphv) experiences a 'transcendental sense of disappointment', which leads eventually to the realisation that he is incapable of achieving Mr Endon's state of complete hermetic detachment. The image of a head amidst scattered chessmen conjures up Duchamp's various portraits of chess-players:

"Following Mr Endon's forty-third move Murphy gazed for a long time at the board before laying his Shah on his side, and again for a long time after that act of submission. But little by little his eyes were captured by the brilliant swallowtail of Mr Endon's arms and legs, purple, scarlet, black and glitter, till they saw nothing else, and that in a short time only as a vivid blur, Neary's big blooming buzzing confusion or ground, mercifully free of figure. Wearying soon of this he dropped his head on his arms in the midst of the chessmen, which scattered with a terrible noise. Mr Endon's finery persisted for a little in an after-image scarcely inferior to the original. Then this also faded and Murphy began to see nothing, that colourlessness which is such a rare postnatal treat, being the absence (to abuse a nice distinction) not of percipere but of percipi."

When he awakes from his trance, Murphy finds that Mr Endon has wandered off and is pressing light-switches in the corridors of the lunatic asylum in a way that seems haphazard but is in fact determined by an a mental pattern as precise as any of those that governed his chess.

All this leads to Murphy's death. Soon after he has become a warden at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, he procures, with the help of the poet, Ticklepenny, the garret of his dreams, isolated from the rest of the house - an attic with a single skylight. Its only drawback is that it lacks fire, something which Murphy will not tolerate on any account. Whilst he is out, Ticklepenny rigs up a contraption whose Duchampian characteristics are uncanny:

"He had brought the radiator to the garret, set it down on the floor and stood back to imagine it lit. Rusty, dusty, derelict, the coils of asbestos falling to pieces, it seemed to defy ignition. He went dismally away to look for gas.

It had taken him another hour to find what might be made to serve, a disused jet in the WC, now lit by electricity, on the floor below.

The extremes having been thus established, nothing remains but to make them meet. This was a difficulty whose fascinations were familiar to him from the days when as a pot poet he had laboured so long and lovingly to join the ends of his pentameters. He solved it in less than an hour by means of a series of discarded feed tubes eked out with caesurae of glass, thanks to which gas was now being poured into the radiator.. .

He described how he had turned it on in the WC and raced back to the garret. He explained how the flow could only be regulated fron the WC, as there was no tap at the radiator's seat of entry."

The linking of water and gas occurs throughout Duchamp's work. The preface to the Green Box, for example, states:

"Given 1. the waterfall

2. the illuminating gas,"

The precise derivation of this is made clear with the "imitated readymade" of 1958: a facsimile of plaques attached to certain Parisian apartment blocks which read,

"Eau et Gaz a tous les etages" (Water and Gas on every floor)

The fact that Beckett would also have been familiar with these signs in Paris tends to support the supposition that Ticklepenny's construction is a mock-up of the Large Glass. The WC becomes the Bachelor Machine, powered by a waterfall, regulated by a bottle of Benedictine (i.e.the ballcock), which rises and falls by means of a hook arrangement (just as the jet is turned on by a double chain and ring). The connecting tube resembles the capillary tubes of the lower domain of the Glass and the caesurae of glass also indicate the unity of garret and WC. The radiator, with its apparent defiance of ignition, suggests the cool Bride whose desire magneto (coils) has to be excited before she becomes aroused/hot. The skylight suggests the Moving Inscription, allowing Murphy to look out at the stars (i.e. the Milky Way), and so the Love Gas, powered by the Waterfall, animates the whole and brings warmth to the garret.

But what of Murphy and his imminent doom? We are already aware of his status as confirmed bachelor. We are also aware of the intensity of his longing to achieve the Endon state. Murphy becomes one of the nine shots: a foreign body in the purity of the Endon/Bride, a hole in a pane of glass, a nothingness within a nothing. As he returns to the quarters of the male nurses (who, of necessity, all live below the garret) he strips bare. He leaves behind his malic mould (i.e. his uniform) and becomes undiluted, uncontained Love Gas. This loss of form and identity is shown by his inability to conjure up any images. He has become as transparent as the Glass which surrounds him. Seated in his rocking-chair (whose motion apparently resembles that of the Glider) he perceives the radiator (i.e. the Bride) before penetrating the Glass, shot through to...

"...the freedom of that light and dark that did not clash, nor fade nor lighten except to their communion."

The consequent fireball seems to be more orgasm than apotheosis, more petit mort than Big Bang. Murphy confirms the volatile nature of the gas of which he becomes a part in his Duchampian proposition that "Chaos" is the etymological origin of the word "Gas". Now, ironically, the WC is "lit by electricity", just like the Large Glass depicted in the drawing Cols Alités of 1959. The causalité that leads from Endon to the shattered skylight is the same that leads from opening move to checkmate.


© Andrew Hugill, 1992