Some Noise About Hidden Noise


All yarns (like this one) ought to be spun in the first person. As someone who reads and writes and looks around a lot when traveling, I find myself amused enough by the twists and turns of fate and fortune to treasure, among possibly less-rewarding habits of mind, a sense of humor and apreciation for a good yarn. After spending a year at the University of Madrid on the G.I. Bill (following the Korean "Conflict"), and visiting the Prado almost daily, I thought about studying art history so as to lead a life that allowed opportunities for indulging all of these inclinations: reading and writing and looking around, having fun, and either spinning or unravelling yarns.

I picked up the end of this particular yarn in Pasadena! the city famous for its Rrose Bowl and the equally celebrated Rrose Parade, which was the subject of the first-ever event on color TV to have been nationally-televised from west-coast to east. That parade, on the first day of January, 1954--though unwittingly perhaps at the time-- marked the moment of a cultural triumph that was perhaps grander than any of those enjoyed by the Caesars of Rome, and surely affected more people: for at the same time as the soon-to-be-global medium of color TV appeared, there aRrose (from the musical syzygy of Tin Pan Alley with Rhythm 'n' Blues) the modern world's first fully-integrated art form: Rock 'n' Roll. But, as they say, that is another story.

In the mid 1960s I was granted an academic degree sufficient to secure steady gigs doing stand-up comedy routines about Beauty (of the kind that could be shown in a Court of Justice to have socially-redeeming importance), and other sources of delight. I said adieu to one position as an art history instructor in an Ivy League institution and headed west toward UCLA (then establishing its John Wooden-Lew Alcindor dynasty), to teach modern art history and to write about the phenomenal flowering of the LA scene. Among my new-found fellow art professionals (and all the Tinseltown collectors, star-time hotshots and other zany creative spirits), Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Museum of Art shone as one of the most authentic and accomplished.

Earlier in the decade I had been out of the country, on an extended tour of lecturing and research in New Zealand and Australia, and so had missed the momentous exhibition Hopps staged in Pasadena, the first full retrospective dedicated to Marcel Duchamp. The show was received as a gesture of genius, and the catalogue itself had already become a collector's item. Walter Hopps was, I knew, one of the leading experts on Duchamp, this most intensively intellectual, ironically iconoclastic, irrepressibly interesting of artists. For years after the show closed, everyone enjoyed stories about Duchamp staying in the Green (his emblematically color-coded) Hotel, and generally charming the pants off his West-coast afficionados.

When Duchamp was in Pasadena supervising the installation of the retrospective in 1963, he had occasion to recall the death (several years before, in 1954) of Walter Arensberg--the collaborator who had originally put the mystery object in the ball of twine. The artist realized that, therefore, no one was then alive to serve as the holder of a then-lost secret. That is, apparently, there was not a single person who actually knew the explicit nature of the famous secret object which gave With Hidden Noise its title, and which also provides the ultimate solution of our riddle. But, if there IS to be a secret in the first place, then it is just as important for there to be somebody who DOES know, as it is for there to be somebody who knows NOT.

This logic must have appeared patent both to the artist Duchamp and to Hopps, the museum director. Accordingly, Duchamp authorized Hopps to undo the bolts and peek inside the ball of twine. Marcel Duchamp, himself, maintained absolute consistency with his original position in not ever wanting to know what the secret object might be. Granted: from whom best of all, should the secret be kept, if not from the actual artist? Not that Walter Hopps--who carded the wool for this very yarn-spinning--not that he made such a big deal out of it. He had assumed a respectful role as the holder of secret lore for the benefit of posterity; but he never reported having undertaken--as part of the deal--any precious vows to perpetuate a cult of information idolatry.

One night in the later 1960s (after I had lived in Southern California for a while), following some opening or another at the museum in Pasadena, I joined the director with a group of friends for a repast and conversation. When the chance aRrose to talk with Hopps about Duchamp, and the topic turned to the mystery of With Hidden Noise, I forthrightly, if naively, asked him what the secret object was. In response, I remember him saying something like this: "If you really want to know, I suppose I could tell you. But that would just spoil the game for you. Or, at least, there's a much better game if you try to figure it out." He said that if one did try, or really thought about it, or WANTED it badly enough, then one could--and (no bull!) the quotation contains his very words--"figure it out."

Hopps could not have made it more plain had he put up a poster on the wall. I WANTED it, and so I went for it Hooke, Lyon and Cinquer.

At the present writing, these events occurred over twenty-five years ago. After a few initial years of resolute head-scratching, having by then crossed paths with some practitioners of Far-Eastern yogas and the martial arts, I began to see the nature of the problem as reflecting techniques used by certain adepts of the Rinzai Zen tradition, among whom historically had been most of the samurai. In order to instill a respect for mindfulness, they were particularly fond of using the koan. Originally refering to the publication of a case at law, the koan in Japanese Buddhist practice was an enigma or puzzle, sometimes visual or situational, but often phrased verbally in terse, epigrammatic, deeply-ciphered form. Eventually, it came to serve as a popular and successful means for developing continuity in meditation, like a psycho-cosmic mirror in a drop of dew. [ See Kazuaki Tanahashi, editor, Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, North Point Press, San Francisco (1985). ]

It took me about twenty years to figure it out. Not your full­time-and-nothing-but kind of figuring. Yet the Hermetic conundrum continued rattling inside my cranium for much of that whole semi-Samurai duration. I began writing up these notes in 1987, in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Duchamp's birth (near Blainville in Normandy, July 28, 1887), and almost a decade after the death of the artist (at Neuilly near Paris, October 2, 1968.)

AFTER I thought I had the answer to the secret of With Hidden Noise, the fun really began. The irony of it all! Just blurting out the answer made no sense whatever: without some frame of reference, not one person in a thousand--or in ten thousand?--would know or care what the whole thing was about. When you really think you have the answer, just TRY to give it away! This was turning out to be a bowl of beans not quite so easily spilled. For although many people in the art world by then knew about Duchamp, and while his work was becoming increasingly familiar--not only to artists and intellectuals, but also to the general public--a cloud of inscrutability surrounded the persona of Duchamp and the idea of his art as thickly as if he were omnipresent and smoking one of his stinky cigars.

Following certain indicative arrows drawn by the master, I began to pay increasingly precise attention to details, learning to practice scholarly scrutiny while indulging an almost silly sense of child's play. The plan was to perform a calculated bean-spill: while writing ABOUT it, somehow to DO it or BE it at the same time--not quite so easy as at first one might be inclined to believe. But the master key seemed to involve the idea of number, and that turned out to be a very powerful organizing principle. Moreover, the specific numbers associated with the piece of sculpture were few and of low values, hence both easily represented and rich with associations. And as a kind of methodological bonus there was, in the mathematical domain of number theory, an established notion of "imaginary numbers," which expressed values formally related to recursive circuits in physics and the idea of self-reference in logic. Here, perhaps, was a way (without having to go very technically into the domains of hard science and representational calculi) in which I could, nonetheless, perform this exercise of exposition with the aid of rigorous and elegant models.

In a certain way I had the feeling that if I were to fully "perform" the work of writing, and the theater piece of publication, then necessarily and unavoidably, I would have to embody--in a sense to become--the work of art itself. Now, it so happened that in the course of writing out these notes I would be following along in one text, and then start writing in a different parallel text ABOUT the other account. This wasn't simply a matter of composing footnotes or discussing sources, although that would frequently lead to a switch- over. It was an altogether different "voice": the sometimes muffled, sometimes clinking sound of something rattling around inside the carefully-wound continuity of my principal line of thought, surrounded by threads of logic, as the filaments were being woven, wrapped and tied. And, as you might imagine, the problem of expressing it clinked against the dialectical brass plates of knowledge and belief, enjoining revelation of the secret to benefit the awareness of some future audience. Just as Duchamp understood it, this was the process by which all art is finally judged: Posterity spinning the Wheel of Fortune.