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Beckett, Duchamp and Chess: A Crossroads at Arcachon in the Summer of 1940

Harry Vandervlist
p. 173-182

Abstract

L’artiste Marcel Duchamp et le poète Samuel Beckett ont passé l’été 1940 à Arcachon, à jouer aux échecs. L’Histoire n’a pas laissé de trace de leurs conversations. Les témoignages font seulement état de leur intérêt commun pour un jeu qui a par ailleurs déterminé l'orientation de leurs carrières respectives. Cependant, lorsqu’ils sont retournés à Paris en septembre 1940, leur attitude diamétralement opposée quant à l’occupation allemande porte à croire que certains paradoxes présocratiques n’avaient pas été totalement absents de leurs échanges.

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1The summer of 1940 saw a strange shared hiatus in the lives of Marcel Duchamp and Samuel Beckett. From mid-June to September of that year, they passed several weeks in Arcachon, near Bordeaux, with their companions Mary Reynolds and Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. Both men were chess maniacs, and they met regularly to play. By September both couples had returned to occupied Paris, closing the parenthesis on this period of waiting. How far is it possible to speculate about the impact of chess, and of this specific meeting, on the two artists? It is tempting to say that such a strange crossroads in the lives of two such singular figures ought to have had dramatic results. Although it is impossible to document any such direct consequences, a consideration of those weeks prompts reflection upon obsessions shared by two artists, which include but also extend beyond the game of chess.

2Mary Reynolds was the most direct pragmatic and social link between Duchamp, who was 53 years old in 1940, and the 34 year-old Beckett. Reynolds has been described as an “American bookbinder and art patron” (Anastasi, n.p.), and by Duchamp himself as an “an eye-witness of the Dadaist manifestations and of the birth of Surrealism in 1924” (Godlewski 1). Born in Minneapolis, Reynolds moved to Paris after the death of her husband in the First World War. There, supported by a family trust-fund and by her war-widow’s pension (Godlewski 1), she joined an international circle of artists and art-lovers including Peggy Guggenheim and Laurence Vail. Reynolds’ thirty-year relationship with Duchamp began in the late 1920s. According to Duchamp biographer Calvin Tomkins their relationship was “thought by their friends to be happier than most marriages” (Tomkins 1968).

3Reynolds seemingly met everyone in Montparnasse with any interest in the arts, since she “held an open house almost nightly at her home at 14, rue Hallé, with her quiet garden the favored spot after dinner for the likes of Duchamp, Brancusi, Man Ray, Breton, Barnes, Guggenheim, Éluard, Mina Loy, James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, and others” (Godlewski 3). Beckett connected with this group soon after his move to Paris in 1938, when he settled in an apartment on the rue des Favourites. James Knowlson writes that Beckett “saw and played chess occasionally with Marcel Duchamp, for Beckett knew Duchamp’s companion, Mary Reynolds, well through Peggy Guggenheim” (266).

4According to Susan Godlewski, as the Occupation became imminent, it seems to have been Duchamp who (like Salvador Dali) chose Arcachon as a refuge. Reynolds wanted to remain in Paris, but agreed to follow Duchamp south. Meanwhile Beckett’s trajectory could not have contrasted more starkly with Duchamp’s. He and Suzanne fled Paris at the last moment, struggling from Vichy, where they met the Joyces for the last time, to Toulouse and then to Cahors by foot and by train. Finally they arrived at Arcachon, where the Joyces had told them Mary Reynolds was already staying. Reynolds helped them locate a room, then added to the funds Beckett had borrowed from Valéry Larbaud, which allowed the couple to rent a house at 135 bis Boulevard de La Plage. They dined regularly with Reynolds, Duchamp, and Duchamp’s brother-in-law Jean Crotti, a painter and fellow chess fanatic:

Beckett . . . was delighted to find that in one move, he had acquired two chess partners. So lengthy games of chess in a seafront café helped to while away the long, dreary days. Once when Duchamp and Beckett were playing chess together, Duchamp pointed out, to Beckett’s great excitement, that the world chess champion, Alexander Alekhin (a chess genius, according to Beckett) had just walked in. (Knowlson 299-301)

5After their return to Paris, Duchamp and Beckett would experience the Occupation in dramatically contrasting ways. With a letter from a cheese-merchant friend, plus a 1200-franc bribe, Duchamp obtained a permit to travel freely by posing as a cheese wholesaler (Tomkins 1996, 324). This ruse allowed him to shuttle between Paris and Marseille to arrange transport for his works to New York: he sailed there in 1942. Beckett, like Mary Reynolds, worked with the Resistance and was forced to flee Paris in 1942, just as Reynolds also had to do, after having helped the Becketts in the early stages of their flight. Beckett rarely discussed his Resistance work: but in a 1966 conversation with Alec Reid he said that even as an officially neutral Irishman, when confronted with the Occupation he found that “you couldn’t just stand there with your arms folded” (Knowlson 279). In a neat contrast, Duchamp is quoted as saying “I admire the attitude of combatting invasion with folded arms” (Tomkins 1976, 94). These phrases suggest just how different the two artists were, and perhaps also how different their positions were: Duchamp was a native Frenchman who had seen the Great War, also partly from the vantage of New York. Beckett was a much younger guest in a host country.

6The events of the Occupation were still to come, however, when for several weeks the two men found themselves away from home, in a state of uncertainty on the Atlantic coast of France, with nothing to do but await developments – and play chess. The game was a lifelong obsession for both Duchamp and Beckett. Duchamp’s older brother Jacques Villon taught him chess when he was eleven years old, in 1898 (Tomkins 1996, 35). This means that by the time he found himself in New York in 1916, playing chess in Washington Square and at downtown chess clubs, he had already been playing for eighteen years. According to Tomkins, it is at this time that Duchamp conceived the ambition to become a chess professional (Tomkins 1996, 252). He travelled to Brussels in 1923, for his first major tournament. In 1924 he joined the French national chess team, and became champion of Haute-Normandie. Duchamp’s playing seems to have peaked by around 1930, and Tomkins writes that “he gave up his championship ambitions in 1933, the year he played his last important tournament, at Folkstone, England” (289). However he redirected his energies into his 1932 book, co-authored with Vitaly Halberstadt, Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled, “a chess book that was entirely devoted to a very rare situation in the endgame, when all the pieces have been captured except for the opposing kings and one or two pawns on each side” (290). During his later life in New York, he played often with Alfred Barr, who became the Director of Museum Collections of the Museum of Modern Art (Tomkins 346). In 1963 Duchamp famously played a game of chess in the Pasadena Art Museum with art student Eve Babitz, who agreed to play chess nude, seated in the gallery with Duchamp in front of the “Large Glass” (424). In 1968, Duchamp played chess on stage with John Cage in Toronto for a theater piece which connected audio effects to the movements of the chessmen (445).

7Although Beckett never considered turning professional, chess playing also threads uninterruptedly through his life. He learned chess from his brother Frank and his uncle Howard, an excellent player who once defeated the world chess champion from 1921 to 1927, albeit “during an exhibition match in Dublin when he was, admittedly, playing against several opponents at the same time” (Knowlson 30). Beckett “quickly bec[a]me an addict, . . . [and] Many of his best moves were learned from Howard” (Knowlson 30). Chess figured largely throughout Beckett’s childhood, and at Trinity College, where “Beckett also took an active part in chess matches with the college 8, playing at number 7 for a couple of years” (Knowlson 76). During the 1930s when Beckett lived in London and was treated by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, he played against Geoffrey Thompson, one of the physicians at Royal Bethlehem Hospital. Murphy, the novel Beckett wrote during this period, employs chess as a central source of imagery, and “Beckett’s love of chess and his interest in Democritus and the pre-Socratic philosophers emerge here into a bizarre amalgam” (Knowlson 199). According to James Knowlson “He was deeply disappointed that his ‘cherished idea’ for the book’s cover, a photograph of two apes playing chess, had been set aside...” (209). Beckett’s important friendship with the Dutch painter Geer Van Velde involved regular games of chess (Knowlson 254), as did his friendship with Henri Hayden, which developed during his years in Rousillon (Vaucluse) during the latter part of the Occupation.

8Beckett also read avidly in chess literature. In the late 1960s, Beckett “studied the chess columns in Le Monde regularly and spent hours playing chess against himself, reenacting some of the famous games described in the ‘best games’ books” (Knowlson 485). It is possible that he read Duchamp’s chess column in the Paris daily Ce Soir during 1937; however for much of that year he was travelling in Germany.

9Their shared lifelong passion for chess makes it plausible to argue that since the game was such a significant part of the lives of both artists, it must inevitably have affected their thinking and thus their work. This argument has been made most often with relation to Duchamp. For instance, in their advertisement for Marcel Duchamp, The Art of Chess, authors Jennifer Shahade, Francis Naumann and Bradley Bailey claim that “Duchamp’s identity as a chess player is so thoroughly interfused with his work as an artist that the two activities are aesthetically and conceptually inseparable” (Shahade). Tomkins quotes Duchamp as saying “from my close contact with artists and chess players, I’ve come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” He goes on to characterize the game’s relation to Duchamp’s thinking as follows:

[F]or Duchamp, however, chess was much more than a retreat or a refuge; it was a near perfect expression of the Cartesian side of his nature, which, like every Frenchman of his class and education, he had acquired as a matter of course. Although he once said that he had “never read Descartes, to speak of”, Duchamp admitted to being “very much of a Cartesian”. Cartesian doubt lay behind his habit of questioning every previous definition of art, so that, as he put it, “doubting everything, I had to find something that gave me no doubt because it didn’t exist before. All along, I have searched for what I have not thought of before.” (211)

10The Cartesian qualities of chess might well have been part of Beckett’s attraction to the game as well. Descartes fascinated Beckett to such a degree that his first published poem “Whoroscope” dealt with obscure details of the philosopher’s biography. His novel Murphy can be read in part as a satire on the quizzical and opportunistic Cartesianism of its protagonist. This novel famously devotes a central scene to a futile game of chess. For both artists then, chess might, in differing ways, have offered a model of systematic thinking ─enlightenment rationalism and method distilled─ which they could admire, and enjoy in the artificial play-space of chess, while in their work they satirized this world-view’s limitations.

11More detailed efforts to forge direct ties between chess and the work of both artists have met with limited success. In an unpublished 1982 essay entitled “Beckett, Duchamp and Chess in the 1930s,” composer and cultural theorist Andrew Hugill argues, first, that Duchamp’s book Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled provides a key to Duchamp’s The Large Glass; second, that the portrayal of Mr Endon, with whom Murphy plays chess in Beckett’s novel, “could pass for a character study of Duchamp”; and finally, he aims to “trace [the book’s] influence upon the structural, iconographic and textual construction of Fin de Partie”. The first claim is plausible, in the sense that Duchamp appears to have been led by the same preoccupations in both the chess book and The Large Glass. For example, Hugill points out that Duchamp’s Green Box of 1934 contains the instruction: “develop the principle of the hinge”. This principle manifests itself in both the artwork and the design of the chess book, since “All the chess positions in the book are characterized 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”.

12The article’s second claim, about Beckett’s novel Murphy, strikes me as less persuasive and in fact less interesting ─ though not for the reason Hugill offers. He admits that “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”. During the Arcachon episode, however, there were many shared games, none of them “sneaky.” A more persuasive argument against Duchamp’s role as model for Endon is the simple fact that Beckett had so much other material on which to draw at the time he was writing Murphy: Irish literary figures whom he satirized, his own process of analysis, plus his developing critique of inadequate ideas of language, memory and self. These and many other sources for the novel have been detailed in Chris Ackerley’s Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy. In the 1930s Beckett would have been acquainted with Duchamp, but not deeply. To adopt the language of detective fiction, we might say that Beckett had some opportunity to draw upon Duchamp for this novel. Yet in my view, there was insufficient motive.

13The last of Hugill’s three main claims is the most effectively fulfilled. Hugill makes direct connections between the stage movements of Beckett’s characters and the chess moves outlined in Duchamp’s book: “The opening description of the set and Clov’s actions establish the Duchamp/Halberstadt position. Grey light is reflected from the surface of a chessboard. The two windows represent the two poles of the position”. These connections are persuasive and have in fact been noted by Acheson and Kumar. Hugill adds intriguing but also more debatable interpretations, such as when he says the “picture with its face turned to the wall would seem to echo Duchamp’s abandonment of painting for chess”. He also sees Beckett’s reference to bicycle wheels as an allusion to Duchamp’s ready-mades.

14Do these arguments support the view that the meeting in Arcachon in 1940 led directly to a Duchampian influence on one of Beckett’s most admired plays? Not really. Although it is certain that chess plays an enormous role in the play’s imagery, development and themes, we have already seen that Beckett was equipped with enough chess knowledge to have arrived at all of this without Duchamp. Yet Hugill’s contention that the play’s chess elements are filtered through Duchamp’s book deserves consideration, and could reflect one ongoing reverberation from the 1940 meeting.

15And what of reciprocal influence, of Beckett upon Duchamp? Of course Beckett was younger and closer to the start of a career than Duchamp, but perhaps he passed along some of his suspicion of language to the French artist. In 1955, just as Beckett was becoming widely known (it was the year of the English premiere of Waiting for Godot), Duchamp said “I am a great enemy of written criticism… all this twaddle – the existence of God, atheism determinism, free will, societies, death, etc., are the pieces of a chess game called language and they are only amusing if one does not preoccupy oneself with ‘winning or losing this game of chess’ (Tomkins 1996, 394). In very general terms his scepticism toward language might echo the famous phrases of Beckett’s 1937 letter to Axel Kaun in which he denounces language as something ”best used where it is most efficiently abused. As we cannot dismiss it all all at once, we do not want to leave anything undone which may contribute to its disrepute” (Beckett 1983, 171-172). But again, Duchamp hardly required Beckett to arrive at similar views. Octavio Paz, for example, remarks on Duchamp’s longstanding interest in the simultaneous power and fragility of linguistic meaning:

[I]n Paz’s opinion, Duchamp’s involvement with language was most clearly manifested by his early and enduring affection for the pun. The pun became for him a miraculous device which by setting opposites into the same phrase, simultaneously exalts the power of language to convey significance, while it abolishes its fixed meaning by detaching those meanings from the words. (Rousseau 122)

16Even the most passing knowledge of Duchamp makes plain his fascination with puns on one or more levels, from the punning title of his 1919 work L.H.O.O.Q.” to the name of his sometime pseudonym “Rose Sélavy”.

17Perhaps most tantalizing is the prospect that these 1940 chess games provided a crossroads at which the two artists exchanged, confirmed or developed their own versions of philosophical scepticism, in the sense associated with the presocratic philosophers. Jean-Michel Rabaté has traced Duchamp’s fascination with Pyrrho, a founder of the presocratic sceptical school, and himself a painter as well as a philosopher (222). According to Rabaté, “Pyrrho preached and practised ‘indifference’, a term that hesitates between ‘humility’ and ‘neutrality’”. In an essay on Duchamp’s art, Octavio Paz describes the development of his ready-mades as an apprenticeship in cultivating an attitude of neutrality and indifference toward the status of these objects as artworks (Rousseau 124).

18In Beckett’s books: a cultural history of the interwar notes Matthew Feldman traces Beckett’s lifelong fascination with the pre-Socratics, pointing out that his “Inter-war Notes” on Windelband’s History of Philosophy contain 150 pages on “classical Greek philosophy to Aristotle” (33). In his article “Returning to Beckett Returning to the Presocratics” he argues that:

Beckett was asking the same questions of art that the Presocratics were asking of the world. One thinks here of the famous opening line to the earlier-cited Unnamable, ‘Where now? Who now? When now?’, or the roughly contemporaneous interview with Georges Duthuit in transition – ‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, together with the obligation to express’. (Feldman, n.p.)

19In his book Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde, Charles Juliet describes Beckett’s manifestation of a kind of double attitude which combined attentiveness and aloofness:

He is extremely attentive to concreteness, he grasps the smallest detail, and at the same time his eyes, fixed on Sirius, can embrace the whole.

“Yes,” he says, nodding... “You must be here,” he says, pointing towards the table, “and also,“pointing his index finger upward, “millions of light-years away. All at the same time...”

A long silence.

“The fall of the leaf and the fall of Satan: it’s all the same.“He laughs heartily; though face laughs: “wonderful, isn’t it? The same thing.” (38)

20This conversation took place in the 1960s, but reflects paradoxes already explored in Beckett’s 1938 novel Murphy.

21Of course Beckett and Duchamp might have arrived at the attitudes described here as “indifferent” or “neutral” or “aloof” in many ways. Yet their documented shared interest in the pre-Socratics offers the most plausible basis for their individual versions of skepticism toward knowledge, language, and expressive possibilities. It is also worth noting, as Feldman does, that:

[W]hat is lost on a number of philosophical commentators on the Presocratics, but what I suspect is not lost on Beckett the artist, is that a number of the Presocratics ─ especially Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, and to a lesser extent Heraclitus, Democritus and Zeno ─ were not so much philosophers as artists working in the tradition of Homer, Hesiod, and Ancient Greek literature generally. (Feldman, “Returning,” n.p.)

22The status of the pre-Socratics as artists may well have been an attraction for Duchamp as well.

23Back at Arcachon in 1940, did Beckett and Duchamp exchange views on the importance for their work of presocratic sceptical philosophy? Did they discover a shared pre-existing interest in these artist-thinkers, and perhaps see in their ideas a kind of solution to the ever-more pressing need to be at once engaged and neutral, a sense of both the impossibility of “standing with arms folded” and of the attractions of “welcoming invasion with folded arms”? Without access to any record of their conversations, one can only imagine the answers to these questions. What remains is the richly suggestive image of two of the twentieth century’s most relentlessly inquiring and inventive artists, playing chess on the seashore while they pursued unheard conversations which might have helped each to develop his own version of a playfully savage relation to rationality, conventions of expression, and the forms of their respective arts.

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Bibliography

Acheson, James, Chess with the Audience: Samuel Beckett’s Endgame”, Critical Quarterly (22. 2), 1980, 33-45.

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—, Murphy, New York, Grove, 1957.

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—, “Returning to Beckett Returning to the Presocratics, or, All their balls about being and existing’”, Genetic Joyce Studies, Issue 6, Spring 2006, <http://www.geneticjoycestudies.org/GJS6/ GJS6Feldman.html>.

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Kumar, K Jeevan, The Chess Metaphor in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame”, Modern Drama, 40. 4, Winter 1997, 540-552.

Rousseau, Claudia, “Mythic Transcendence: Octavio Paz, Mallarmé and Marcel Duchamp”, Mosaic, 20:3, Summer 1987, 113-127.

Shahade, Jennifer, Francis Naumann, and Bradley Baile, Marcel Duchamp, The Art of Chess, New York, Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, 2009.

Tomkins, Calvin, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant Garde, New York: Viking, 1968, 53.

—, “Duchamp and New York”, The New Yorker Magazine, November 25, 1996, 94.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Harry Vandervlist, « Beckett, Duchamp and Chess: A Crossroads at Arcachon in the Summer of 1940 », Caliban, 33 | 2013, 173-182.

Electronic reference

Harry Vandervlist, « Beckett, Duchamp and Chess: A Crossroads at Arcachon in the Summer of 1940 », Caliban [Online], 33 | 2013, Online since 09 December 2013, connection on 09 December 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/152 ; DOI : 10.4000/caliban.152

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About the author

Harry Vandervlist

Department of English, University of Calgary.

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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