- Uncritical Pleasure and Critical Jouissance
In 1914, Marcel Duchamp took a sheet of music paper, and drew a cyclist pedaling on his bike up a slope, then added some yellow color to it. He mysteriously titled the drawing “Avoir l’apprenti dans le soleil,” a legend that strictly speaking means nothing; literally, it states “To have the apprentice in the sun.”
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The title calls up the common enough expression “avoir le soleil dans l’œil” (to be blinded by the sun). Indeed, his character looks down to the ground, as if to avoid being blinded by the rays of the sun. Like his mentor Alfred Jarry, Duchamp was fascinated by bicycles, modern instruments of locomotion in whose double wheels he saw allegories of the lemniscate representing either infinity or a perpetuum mobile. Here, the title puns on “à voir: l’empreinte dans le sol,” which suggests a musical analogy (“sol” being both the ground and the note F) and “avoir la pente dans le soleil” (“to have the slope in the sun,” which could suggest a fight against hardship imposed by the sun). This speeding “apprentice,” a learner sublimely fighting against a sun blinding him, would be Duchamp’s homage to Jarry’s Marcueil, the hero of the novel The Supermale (1902), a notoriously fierce and hypersexualized cyclist. Like Marcueil, we learn thanks to a certain “apprentissage” — the usual French rendering of the German Bildungsroman is “roman d’apprentissage” — that is by toiling upward and fighting against a paternal and domineering sun.
I had reached this point in my meditations about the frustrating caption five years ago when, as I was staying in a Paris hotel in the middle of the Latin quarter (I was in charge of a group of twelve American students to whom we showed the antiquity and modernity of my home town, and shared the task of organizing visits with my friend and colleague Ken Lum, also a gifted artist), I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night. It was four am, and there was absolutely no sound coming from the rue du Sommerard or the nearby Place Paul Painlevé (my university had put up the whole group in the Hotel Mercure-Paris-Notre-Dame-Saint-Germain-des-Prés.) I saw letters dancing in the dark, shifting, recomposing themselves. Avoir l’apprenti dans le soleil had miraculously recomposed itself to form another sentence. I saw its shining letters fluttering against the window curtains. It was an unfinished sentence ending with a question mark:
“Le soleil apprend-il à voir dans…?”
Was this Duchamp’s meaning: “Does the sun teach us to see in…?” In — what, then…? I kept wondering. Soon after, the answer came: in me! Rather, one had to reformulate the query with a sort of half-stutter in saying the last word:“Le soleil apprend-il à voir d(e)dans?” Or again: “Le soleil apprend-il à voir d’dans?” Then all made sense. Duchamp’s falsely naïve sentence is calculated to question the reduction of art to its retinal domination. I grasped why I had been able to “see” this as mobile letters playing in the darkness of my hotel room. By this question that goes beyond the Oedipal overcoming of a fatherly sun, which had been the main topic of the famous opera that Malevitch and his friends had put together one year earlier in Victory Over the Sun: The World’s First Futurist Opera. Was Duchamp responding to the ambitious Pobeda nad Solntsem (Victory over the Sun), this Futurist opera that premiered in Saint Petersburg in 1913? Malevitch and his friends had invented a plot with an airplane going up to the sun, [End Page 9] in a neat premonition of the main Soviet victory over the US, the sputnik 1 launched in 1957, before any other nation could perform such a technological feat. With his more homely bicycle, Duchamp goes in a direction that Malevitch was to follow himself: the non-retinal, pure monochrome, whether red as in “Red Square” or black as in “Black Square.” Thus in 1913 Duchamp opens art itself to the new dimension of...