A Fortnightly Review of
‘Pataphysics: A Useless Guide
By Paul Cohen.
Bien ‘pataphysic à vous!
SINCE ‘PATAPHYSICS IS still not a household word after more than a century, at least in the Anglophone world, some background would no doubt be appropriate. ‘Pataphysics is the science devised and developed by Alfred Jarry, the fin de siècle French playwright and novelist best known for his inflammatory Shakespearean satire Ubu Roi. ‘Pataphysics, we are told, is “the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments,” and that “‘Pataphysics is the science which lies as far beyond metaphysics as metaphysics lies beyond physics, in any direction.” As you see, this is not exactly what you might call a mainstream science, and pataphysical education, to the extent that it exists, has not typically been found in traditional colleges of science.
In 1948, a group of French artists, writers, and intellectuals remedied this situation by founding the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, a research rather than an instructional institution. Members over the years have included Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, René Clair, M.C. Escher, Jacques Prévert, Jean Dubuffet, Raymond Queneau, Eugène Ionesco, Dario Fo, Jean Baudrillard, Fernando Arrabal, and Umberto Eco. If you appreciate these people’s work, you’ll be interested in ‘Pataphysics. Prominent non-members such as Gilles Deleuze and Harold Bloom have written admiringly about Pataphysics. (As for the rules governing the use of that leading apostrophe—don’t ask.) The luminaries among the members generally hold titles such as Transcendental Satrap and Commandeur Exquis de l’Ordre de la Grand Gidouille.
Though the Collège underwent an “occultation” throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century, it is quite active today, studying ‘Pataphysics, discussing the work of the science’s forerunners such as Jean-Pierre Brisset and Raymond Roussel, issuing many publications, and carrying out pataphysical activities.
For example, when critic Jean Paulhan had the temerity to suggest, in the pages of his Nouvelle Revue Française, that His Magnificence Dr. I.-L. Sandomir, the Collège’s first Vice-Curator, had never existed, the Collège had hundreds of postcards saying “Jean Paulhan n’existe pas” sent to Paulhan by members from all over the world. (Incidentally, since Jarry’s fictional Dr. Faustroll, the discoverer of ‘Pataphysics, is the permanent head of the Collège, the more, well, active leaders are Vice-Curators. The current holder of that exalted position, His Magnificence Lutembi, happens to be a crocodile.)
In short, ‘Pataphysics presents a challenge to reality, most characteristically, though not always, carried out through humor. Unfortunately, as Andrew Hugill notes in his new book on the subject, “the word is often used quite loosely to invoke anything that seems wacky, weird, or bizarrely incomprehensible,” much as the word “surreal” is often used to refer to anything strange.
THE SUBJECT WAS introduced to Americans in a landmark 1960 issue of Evergreen Review called “What Is ‘Pataphysics?” including English versions of texts by numerous central figures in the Collège, as well as by their forerunners, and the issue remains a fine introductory anthology.1
The influential literary group OuLiPo, also still going strong, began as a Sub-commission of the Collège, and retains many traces of its pataphysical origins, especially in attitude or tone. For example, while the Collège makes no distinction between living and deceased (or even fictional, for that matter) members, the rules of OuLiPo specify that no member may ever leave the group unless he or she commits suicide in front of a notary who will attest that the OuLiPian did this for the sole purpose of renouncing membership. Again, the College‘s keen interested in its like-minded predecessors is echoed in OuLiPo’s avid study of its “anticipatory plagiarisms.”2
In 2001, just after the Collège’s emergence from its occultation, Northwestern University Press published Christian Bök’s ‘Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science, and six years later, Yale University Press gave us Thomas Chimes: Adventures in ‘Pataphysics, a splendid art book on the pataphysical painter. In 2011, MIT Press released Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life, and now, five months after Levin Becker’s book from Harvard University Press, we get Andrew Hugill’s ‘Pataphysics: A Useless Guide, also from MIT. American universities are rather suddenly taking an interest in these subjects after all these decades of, at the most, small-press coverage.
HUGILL, A BRITISH academic, composer, and longtime pataphysician, has done a generally admirable job of introducing the science to newcomers, while also providing a fair amount of information for scholars and pataphysicians alike. Among the book’s most valuable features are the numerous important pataphysical texts, such as Vice-Curator Sandomir’s “Inaugural Harangue” on the occasion of the Collège’s first meeting. Some of these have never before been published in English, and some have never before been available to the public in any form. Hugill’s English versions of previously untranslated pataphysical texts are quite helpful, even if they are occasionally unnecessary. For example, does any reader of this book need this: “’Les Réincarnations de Père Ubu’ (The Reincarnations of Père Ubu)”?
Also useful are the discussions of pataphysical organizations in other countries, related institutions such as OuLiPo and the Situationist International, journals on ‘Pataphysics, and pataphysical art and music. I have been keeping up with ‘Pataphysics for half a century, sometimes as a member of the Collège, and I still learned about plenty of new things.
Though the book is quite up to date, this is a living science, and its presence will continue. For example, the 2012 novel Notes on the Potential for Crimean Wine, attributed to one Silas Creep, shows subtle pataphysical influences, with a brief acknowledgement as a character walking down the street “passed the College of Pataphysics.”
Many of Hugill’s observations – such as, “The pervasive influence of Marcel Duchamp has effectively pataphysicalized the visual arts” – are right on target, but a bit more on the important connections between the pataphysical emphasis on exceptions and the postmodern emphasis on particularity (e.g., Lyotard’s petites histoires and Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomes – particle ‘pataphysics, as it were) would have been helpful.
The writing is generally clear, in contrast to much deliberately obscure writing by pataphysicians, but Hugill inevitably struggles with the delicate balance of the comic and the serious which lies at the heart of the entire pataphysical enterprise. He acknowledges in the book’s first paragraph that “there is the problem of taking it all too seriously,” and later admits “the present volume is so unpataphysical as to aspire to be usable.”
Some of the book’s features are appropriately pataphysical, such as its subtitle—A Useless Guide—and its chronologically backward organization, moving from 2012 to 1873. The index offers this fitting and satisfying advice: “To use this index pataphysically, simply refer to any other book of equivalent length.” This also shows the influence of OuLiPo. Even the treatment of some controversial matters as if they were settled facts, such as the questionable existence of the poet Julien Torma, suits the subject, though it too illustrates a problem. While this may be in the spirit of ‘Pataphysics, the book presents itself as (and usually is) a factual account, and it’s nearly impossible to strike the proper balance in this, as well. Most readers of this volume, especially since it comes from a source such as MIT Press, will be seeking information, and they would want to know that some of what they’ll find here is dubious and sometimes rather far-fetched without being pataphysical, such as this:
Meanwhile, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) offered a pataphysical solution to the problem of fame. An imaginary band delivers a performance that is entirely synthetic to a nonexistent audience that is itself part of the recording. The celebrated album cover by Peter Blake seems to echo Dr. Faustroll’s Library of Equivalent Books, with its impervious juxtapositions of unlikely bedfellows, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bobby Breen, and Diana Dors. There are also some figures known to Jarry (Wilde, Beardsley) and others who were referenced in his writings (Poe, Wells).
Similarly, Hugill’s examples of pataphysical themes sometimes push beyond reasonable limits. We’re told, for instance, that Jarry’s famous addition of a letter, turning merde to merdre, is a clinamen, when, in fact, that deliberate alteration is far from Lucretius’ random, life-giving swerve. Again, we read that Ubu’s “green candle echoes Macbeth’s ‘Out, out, brief candle,’” which, despite the play’s Shakespearean models, is not much more relevant than any other candle is. And some of the connections to non-pataphysical figures, such as Joyce and Borges, are too vague or strained to be fully convincing or meaningful. Stronger cases could be made for those two writers.
But then I’m not sure that anyone could consistently strike the proper balance in a project such as this. Bök, a fine and innovative writer, did not manage it in his ‘Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. Naturally, I face the same problem in this review, and achieve no solution. Ideally, something closer to the tone of Dr. Sandomir’s “Inaugural Harangue” would have been more suitable.
Ultimately, though, this is about as effective a general overview of this slippery subject as Anglophone readers are likely to get for some years to come – and it’s also an enjoyable read. So, as the Collège wished Duchamp upon his physical demise, “Bien ‘pataphysic à vous!”
Paul Cohen, a longtime pataphysician, is Director of Graduate Studies in English at Texas State University.
The 1965 version of Ubu Roi by Jean-Christophe Averty, a member of le corps des Satrapes du Collège de Pataphysique, via youtube.com:
Click ‘CC’ to suppress subtitles.
- Though long out of print, with used copies commanding large sums, this issue is now available for download as a very inexpensive PDF ebook via LuLu. ↩
- For an up-to-date overview of OuLiPo, including its relationship to ‘Pataphysics, you can’t do better than the young OuLiPian David Levin Becker’s 2012 book Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature. ↩