La Machine Célibataire

In a short paragraph spanning pages 56 and 57, our French critic is considering a text sent to him by a Serbian Archimboldi hunter, and he drops the phrase “machine célibataire,” which translates to “bachelor machine.” Taken on its own within Pelletier’s reflections on the probable life of an old bachelor, and coming from a Frenchman, it’s easy enough to pass the phrase by. But the oddness of his brief rumination along with the detail with which Bolaño provides an account of the Serb’s case for having tracked down the elusive Archimboldi prompted me to take a closer look.

Marcel Duchamp, probably best known for displaying a urinal as part of an art exhibit and for drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa and naming it L.H.O.O.Q. (which pronounced in French translates to something basically like “she’s got a hot ass”), worked for some time on a piece entitled La Mariée Mise à Nu par ses Célibataires, Même, or The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. See the wikipedia entry for some background and a small image of the large piece. In a nutshell, the work consists of two panels of mixed media framed behind glass. The top panel represents the bride, and the bottom panel represents nine bachelors and the bachelor machine to which Pelletier obliquely refers. This machine is something of a joke, really, for what would a bachelor machine be for a bachelor cut off from his would-be bride but a masturbatory device? The two panels are separated from one another by an intervening frame, and this circumstance is typically (so I read) interpreted to suggest isolation of the two parties and the unfulfilled desire of the bride for the suitors and vice versa (hence the necessity for a masturbation machine). According to this source, The Large Glass (as it is also called) “constitutes a diagram of an ironic love-making machine of extraordinary complexity in which the male and female machines communicate only by means of two circulatory systems, and without any point of contact.” The relevance of such a device (with its implications of disconnectedness and with the work’s suggestion of polyamory) to our love triangle seems pretty clear.

The piece has a set of companion documents called The Green Box, sort of a binder of notes and drawings that Duchamp accumulated while assembling the work. Further, in 1934, Duchamp announced the publication of 320 painstakingly-made reproductions of the companion piece. Stephen Jay Gould, of all people, contributed to a 1999 article investigating the background story of the production of these replicas, about which (the replicas) Duchamp released the following statement:

I wanted to reproduce them as accurately as possible. So I had all of these thoughts lithographed in the same ink which had been used for the originals. To find paper that was exactly the same, I had to ransack the most unlikely nooks and crannies of Paris. Then we cut out three hundred copies of each lithograph with the help of zinc patterns that I had cut out on the outlines of the original papers.

Gould, et al, discovered many differences among the replicated documents, some of them clearly intentional (as evidenced by, e.g., notes to the printer to enlarge a section here or there and by very obviously different types of paper and ink used on different copies) and counter to methods that Duchamp would have known would have produced better facsimiles. The authors go on to suggest that Duchamp sought to “create enough small, perceivable differences between each copy (and its original document) to force us to ask whether we encounter here a new category and strategy of reproduction — not a true ‘facsimile’ (‘to make similar’) but now a ‘facvarious’ (‘to make different’).” That scholars took Duchamp’s statement of purpose and method at face value and even paraphrased it in their own assessments of the work turns out to be another of the piece’s jokes; Duchamp may, the authors of the paper assert, have been taking a little jab at the scholars who didn’t even bother to check the claims of an artist known for bucking convention and for, well, silliness.

Wikipedia’s entry on The Large Glass points to modern criticism of the piece positing that it is “a critique of the very criticism it inspires, mocking the solemnity of the explicator who is determined to find the key.” This, taken with the older criticism that reads the work as an exploration of sexual desire, plays very nicely into the themes Bolaño is exploring in this first part of 2666. It can’t be coincidental that Pelletier and his comrades begin to see the efforts of the Serb (and those putting forth similar “critical” efforts) as examples of single-minded fanaticism (p. 55) while their own lofty efforts are well worth a lifetime of world travel and obsession. A critique of criticism indeed.

And then there’s Pelletier’s lingering on the old bachelors, or machines célibataires, themselves (of which he imagines the Archimboldi of the Serb’s account to be one) jetting around the world looking for fulfillment. He views them with scorn but then catches himself wondering why he’s thinking about it (looking at his own hands, perhaps for the liver spots that have just come to his mind — this is on page 57). This sort of jetting about is, of course, more or less what he himself does, though we’re learning that his gusto for scholarly enterprise is waning. It’s not long after the publication of the Serb’s text that Pelletier and Espinoza begin serially patronizing prostitutes, presumably as stand-ins for the bride (in Norton) with whom neither bachelor can quite make a proper connection.

But wait, there’s more.

The phrase “machine célibataire” is tied to Duchamp’s work and to Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” by one Michel Carrouges, who noted a similarity in the designs of the bachelor machine and of a torture machine that appears in Kafka’s story. In the penal colony, the punishment machine is composed of a bed below (to which the punished is strapped) and a device above that tattoos the offender’s offense and his sentence onto his body, a long, painful process that culminates in death. From the link from which I learned of the tie:

For Carrouges, the similarities between these two machines resides first in the fact that they both operate as closed circuits and second as the action of one zone upon another. In both of these machines a message from the upper zone is inscribed upon the lower one. The fact that one is about sex while the other is about death underscores the importance of the modern myth of the bachelor machine, a sort of new technological version of the mirror of narcissus, in which is played out the interferences of machinism, of terror, of eroticism, and of religion or anti-religion.

As Bolaño ramps up to discuss the Serb’s article, he makes reference to the Marquis de Sade, suggesting (I think?) that there had been at some point doubt as to his bodily existence. Perhaps he’s merely pointing out that Archimboldi, as the marquis did, writes under what Pelletier and company assume is a pen name but that evidence of a real man’s existence was sought and found in the case of the marquis (and now, apparently, maybe, in the case of Archimboldi). In any case, the proximity of that reference to the marquis to the casual mention of a term that pairs Kafka’s sadistic story with the Duchamp work that can be taken as a comment on both sexuality and criticism — key themes in this part of Bolaño’s book — seems fortuitous at least. That the sexualization of violence (or the violencing of sexuality) plays a role in Bolaño’s description of the beating Pelletier and Espinoza administer to the Pakistani cab driver and that in fact the incidence of sexual and violent content in general rises in this week’s swath of pages makes this proximity seem all the more intentional. And that the book treats of often sexualized violence in the part about the crimes would seem to seal the deal.

What do you think? Am I making much ado about nothing (I’ve done it before) or has Bolaño, by casually dropping the phrase “machines célibataires,” unleashed a whole slew of associations designed to reinforce some of the themes prevalent in this section of the book in particular and throughout?

8 thoughts on “La Machine Célibataire

  1. brooks February 1, 2010 / 6:02 am

    I’m not entirely sure whether or not you went down a deep, dark rabbit hole or not – the theory is interesting. I’ve been wondering how intentional Bolano’s references to other writers, artists, art, etc. are – whether he’s using them as salt or as some absolutely necessary spice – the ingredient that holds the whole recipe together.

    But back to Marcel Duchamp. All I can say about that is this: I much prefer books to paintings.

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston February 1, 2010 / 2:02 pm

    Brooks, as you may know, there’s another Duchamp reference later in the book as well (I forget whether explicit or not) that involves a book.

  3. Jeff Anderson February 1, 2010 / 9:48 pm

    I’m impressed, Daryl. I particularly like the part about the false reproductions. I don’t know how anyone could read that bit about ransacking the most unlikely nooks and crannies of Paris without suspecting a joke, but the idea of painstakingly inexact reproductions sounds thematically appropriate to 2666 so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that Edwin Johns did something similar. (Also, it reminds me of Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land: not nearly as on-the-level as it purports to be.)

    I can’t get past that Duchamp title. I just am not able to understand how a bride (that is, a married woman) might have bachelors (that is, unmarried men). “Her bachelors,” it says, and I don’t know what sense that makes. Incidentally, Duchamp also composed something he called an “erratum musicale” with the same title; the liner notes explain the composition process, such as it is.

  4. terrywson February 3, 2010 / 4:58 pm

    Jeff, I keep running across the same sort of thing throughout the first section of 2666. This is my second read and I thought a group read would be fun. I haven’t commented about many of the specifics of what I discovered in researching the authors, artists, and locales mentioned in this first section for fear disclosing too much.

    One concern that I have about all of this relates to my fears of reading too much into the name dropping and references. Are we reading too much into all of this? I honestly don’t know, but would be interested in what others have to say.

    I do think that the Duchamp reference fits very nicely with Bolano’s continuing commentary about the practice of literary criticism.

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