“A few decades ago, it became permissible for families to emigrate from the unincorporated areas of ‘reality’ into the science fictional zones,” reads the manual in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Vintage, 2010), and lately it’s been feeling more and more like we’re slipping into an adjacently possible dimension. Consider the following scenarios:
- A man is imprisoned, accused of encouraging and enabling the digital distribution of audio and video amusements. All of his property is confiscated, his assets are frozen, and before his arrest, his house is raided by armed and jack-booted storm-troopers.
- A man ends his own life, having been accused of distributing information he garnered from a source that didn’t care if he freely spread their knowledge.
- A man is disgraced after winning a contest that tests athletic prowess through extreme endurance on bicycles. The competitors having been fed on-the-go with concoctions made to enhance their stamina. The winner of such a race also endures side-effects that include extreme self-absorption and hubris.
The latter of these is the premise of The Supermale by author, poet, playwright, and cyclist, Alfred Jarry, who has long been one of my favorite eccentrics. His passion for cycling and pistols was matched only by his appetite for alcohol and absurdity.
Unlike his contemporaries (e.g., Proust, Gide, Valéry, et al.), Jarry’s work hasn’t lent itself to widespread study in the same way that it has widespread influence. Among his admirers were Andre Breton, Antonin Artaud, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso. He is most widely recognized for writing the absurdist Ubu plays and inventing the science of Pataphysics.
Simply put, Pataphysics is to metaphysics what metaphysics is to physics: It’s one level up. “Pataphysics… is the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics,” writes Jarry (1965), “whether within or beyond the latter’s limitations, extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics” (p. 21). He adds, “Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments” (p. 22). In what is perhaps the best example of the science applied, Dr. Faustroll, the pataphysician, even put together plans for the construction of a time machine (see Jarry, 2001, pp. 211-218). If there’s ever a scientific discovery that proves pataphysical, it’s sure to be time travel.
Inhabitants of Universe 31 are separated into two categories, protagonist and back office.
– How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life (MIT Press, 2011) goes a long way to explore his life and lingering influence. Its alternating chapters — odd-numbered chapters covering anecdotal tales of Jarry’s twisted times, even-numbered ones documenting his biography proper — play on one of Jarry’s favorite tropes: the mirror or double. His life was his work was his life, and as Regent of the Collége de ‘Pataphysique, Brotchie has studied both very closely. And it shows: This bulky biography is the most complete chronicle of Jarry’s life available.
This proud picture of human grandeur is unfortunately an illusion and is counterbalanced by a reality that is very different.
– Lewis Mumford
Bringing together Jarry’s life-long loves of alcohol, bicycles, and sex, The Supermale is an allegory of extremes. As Bettina Knapp (1989) writes, ”The bicycle, the Perpetual Motion Food Machine, the dynameter, and the Machine to Inspire Love suggest a takeover by the very instruments designed to alleviate pain and suffering and facilitate daily living,” At the center of this collusion of bodies and machines lies the 10,000-mile race, an analogue to the real race of similar lengthy proportions — and to the extremes winners will go to win. Knapp adds, “Even more dangerous, perhaps, is the fact that machines increasingly cut people off from nature in general and from their own nature, in particular” (p. 28). If this story and its lessons haven’t damn near come true recently, then I’m reading it all wrong.
Brotchie, Alastair. (2011). Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Jarry, Alfred. (1965). Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change.
Jarry, Alfred. (2001). Adventures in ‘Pataphysics: Collected Works I. London: Atlas Press.
Knapp, Bettina L. (1989). Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Mumford, Lewis. (1934). Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
Yu, Charles. (2010). How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. New York: Vintage.