’Pataphysics: A Useless Guide by Andrew Hugill

'Pataphysics: A Useless Guide BY Andrew Hugill. The MIT Press. Hardcover, 296 pages. $24.
The cover of 'Pataphysics: A Useless Guide

Frenchman Alfred Jarry (1873–1907), a diminutive queer alcoholic raised on Rabelais and steeped in Symbolism, could be called the John the Baptist of modernism. While most of modernism’s inspirational figures are better known than Jarry, he influenced nearly all of them to varying degrees: Filippo Marinetti, Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Henri Rousseau, Antonin Artaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, Erik Satie, André Gide, Eugène Ionesco, Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau, Jean Genet, Jacques Prévert, and especially Marcel Duchamp were all disciples. And if their explicit affiliation was less clear, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino exhibited so many Jarryisms in their work that it’s hard to imagine they were ignorant of the man. As such, wearing the twin masks of King Ubu (the monstrously self-gratifying tyrant who was the subject of three plays) and Doctor Faustroll, ’Pataphysician (who explains the arcane science in a novel). Jarry laid the groundwork for Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, the Theater of Cruelty, Absurdism, Lettrism, Situationism, Discordianism, the Oulipo, and serious bullshitters of all stripes.

Jarry’s disproportionate sway over the cultural vanguards of the first half of the twentieth century was largely due to his promulgation—through plays, novels, essays, and speculations—of ’pataphysics, “the science of imaginary solutions.” Known to adherents as "the science," ’pataphysics is a system in which there are no rules, only exceptions (or, more properly, where each exception creates its own rule), and where everything is equivalent—nothing is more important than anything else. It extends beyond metaphysics to the degree that metaphysics extends beyond physics, and relies on the acceptance of the simultaneous existence of mutually exclusive opposites, a positive (though not positivist) version of Orwell’s doublethink in 1984 that is also reminiscent of the flummoxing paradoxes of Zen.

As Georges Perec, pataphysican and Oulipean, put it, “If physics proposes: ‘You have a brother and he likes cheese,’ then metaphysics replies: ‘If you have a brother, he likes cheese.’ But ’Pataphysics says: ‘You don’t have a brother and he likes cheese.’” Roger Shattuck, in his “Superliminal Note” to Evergreen Review #13: What Is ’Pataphysics?, the 1960 publication that, more than any other, introduced the science to the Anglophone world, maintained that “’Pataphysics, then, is an inner attitude, a discipline, a science, and an art, which allows each person to live his life as an exception, proving no law but his own.” In contrast to the objective empiricism of conventional science, it could be called the subjective empiricism of the unbounded imagination. The pataphysical recasting of “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” would be “In the realm of the absurd (life itself), the absurdist is the only reliable expert.”

The mysterious apostrophe preceding the word possibly signifies an abbreviation of épataphysique, which would loosely translate as “shock to physics” (as in épater les bourgeois), but as with all of ’pataphysics, the meaning of the apostrophe remains fiercely indeterminate and indeed could be considered synecdochic to the whole enterprise. The apostrophe denotes the missing piece of information that would allow for a concrete definition, hence it is intrinsically pataphysical. Generally (though this is a perilous, even meaningless adverb for pataphysicans), ’pataphysics written with the apostrophe is conscious (explicitly referring to Jarry’s science), whereas pataphysics without the apostrophe is unconscious.

’Pataphysics prides itself on its uselessness, so it is with mixed sentiment that I can report that the volume under review is actually quite useful as a guide to an inherently indefinite field. Andrew Hugill, professor at De Montfort University and, equally important, Commandeur Requis of the Ordre de la Grand Gidouille in the Collège de ’Pataphysique, has in well under three hundred pages traced the lineaments of a science which, like a particle in quantum mechanics, fundamentally resists accurate measurement. He describes a field known for its wordplay and willful obfuscation with clear language, an admirable breadth of reference, and an abiding respect for the complexity and, well, willful obfuscation of his subject. As he writes in his General Introduction:

What distinguishes pataphysics from other artistic/philosophical movements that developed in the period from the 1890s through to the mid-twentieth century…is that it is not so much a movement as a collection of ideas. Since these ideas stand in counterpoint to science, rather than art, pataphysics has managed to sustain itself most effectively, finding fertile ground in any mind that thinks the objective truths of empiricism at least demand a little playful tweaking, if not wholesale reevaluation. Which is not to say that pataphysics is simply antiscientific, or even antirational. As always, the relationship between the parodistic aspects of pataphysics and the thing it parodies is complex: ironic, or even, as Marcel Duchamp would have said, meta-ironic. But we can say that pataphysics is subjective, privileging the particular above the general, the imaginary above the real, the exceptional above the ordinary, the contradictory above the axiomatic. Not that there is any choice in these matters: in pataphysics this is just the way things are.

Pataphysicians like to say that Jarry did not invent ’pataphysics, but merely identified what had been with us all along. The earliest known manifestation of the science comes from Epicurus, who according to Lucretius held that the universe is composed of atoms descending from an absolute high to an absolute low. Along the way, for unknown and unknowable reasons, the atoms swerve off their linear paths, bumping into other atoms and creating matter. The swerve is called the clinamen, and this concept—like those of anomaly (exception), syzygy (unexpected alignment), and the gidouille (spiral)—is primary to ’pataphysics. As ’pataphysics scholar Ruy Launoir wrote, “the pataphysician proposes to decorate with new solutions our representations of the poverty-stricken, linear, ‘world.’” One of Jarry’s alter egos, Dr. Faustroll, attacking the “universal assent” with which most people accept conventional scientific theories, put it this way:

Contemporary science is founded upon the principle of induction: most people have seen a certain phenomenon precede or follow some other phenomenon most often, and conclude therefrom that it will ever be thus. Apart from other considerations, this is true only in the majority of cases, depends on the point of view, and is codified only for convenience—if that!

Jarry’s skepticism of established science is reminiscent of Charles Fort, but it would be a mistake to limit ’pataphysics to the study of unexplainable phenomena like UFOs and poltergeists. Consigning it to the ghetto of the zany is likewise incorrect. As Hugill notes:

It is important to understand what distinguishes pataphysics from other “radical,” “anarchic,” or “left-of-field” impulses. The word is often used quite loosely to evoke anything that seems wacky, weird, or bizarrely incomprehensible. . . . Pataphysics, although complex and difficult, is in fact quite a cogent body of exploits and ideas, which has a history and certain fixed precepts. While the contradictory and the exceptional are woven into its very fabric, the sloppy, the woolly, and the “hip” are not.

Hugill’s survey of ’pataphysics and its practitioners is remarkably thorough—drilling down to such sloppy, wooly minutiae as a Hawkwind song (“Silver Machine”) inspired by Jarry’s elaborate specifications for building a time machine (actually his bicycle)—but he misses some manifestations of the science that I, ranking far below a Commandeur Requis of the Order de la Grand Gidouille, humbly offer for consideration. To wit: though only glancingly mentioned by Hugill, William S. Burroughs was a clear descendent of Jarry, sharing with him homosexuality, an obsession with firearms and intoxication, a literally monotonous manner of speaking, an embrace (and inspired misuse) of science and science fiction, a repulsion-fascination with technology, scatological humor in the service of “high” art, fearless and methodical literary experimentation, a deep mistrust of authority of all sorts, a tendency to “borrow” texts, misogyny, etc.

Hugill cites cult classic Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001) as an example of pataphysical film (it is), but neglects Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999), which is suffused with Jarryisms: the short-ceilinged, between-floors office is a direct reference to one of Jarry’s Parisian apartments, which was similarly halved in height so his greedy landlord could double his money; Jarry’s love of marionettes is embodied in John Cusack’s puppeteer; and the portal to Malkovich is exceedingly pataphysical, both as an imaginary solution to the penury and obscurity of the puppeteer and as a “technology” that gleefully violates physics while raising unanswerable metaphysical questions. Given his screenplays for Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004), there is little doubt that Charlie Kaufman is au fait with pataphysics. Also, Guy Debord’s 1952 experimental film Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howls for Sade), which featured no images, only voices, with a white screen for the patches of dialogue and a black screen during the long silences in between, was an especially provocative imaginary solution to the problem of the spectacular aspects of cinema.

Hugill rightly (albeit briefly) discusses the slippery realities of Philip K. Dick, but fails to note that the work of horror master H.P. Lovecraft is also quite pataphysical. The “Cthulu mythos” coursing through his tales construes a “universe supplementary to this one,” with the “Cyclopean" architecture, based on non-Euclidian geometry, of the Old Ones’ dwellings being particularly Jarryesque. “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large,” Lovecraft once wrote to his editor at Weird Tales, a sentence that could have come from Jarry’s pen.

Finally, as Irénée-Louis Sandomir, first Vice-Curator of the Collège de ’Pataphysique, wrote in 1956, anticipating the cultural leveling of postmodernism to come:

For the Complete Pataphysician the most banal graffito equals in value the most consummate book, even the Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll themselves, and the humblest mass-produced saucepan equals the Nativity of Altdorfer. Who among us would dare to consider himself as having reached such a point of extralucidity?

A member of the Church of the SubGenius would dare, for Sandomir’s sentiment is neatly encapsulated the pseudoreligion’s concept of bulldada, defined in SubGenius Pamphlet #1 (1980) as follows:

Bulldada is the nearly unexplainable label for that mysterious quality that impregnates ordinary things with meaning for the SubGenius no matter how devoid of value they may appear to The Others. Seeing in the vivisecting light of bulldada, we recognize that the most awe-inspiring artifacts of our civilization are not the revered artsy-fartsy pieces of “culture” displayed in our swankest art museums, universities and concert halls—as the Conspiracy would have us believe!—but are instead to be found in such icons as low-budget exploitation movies, lurid comic books, all-nite TV, sleazy Paperbacks of the Gods, certain bizarre billboards and pulp magazine ads, and literally any other fossil of raw humanity in all its shit-kickingly flawed glory.

Jarry wanted to “make life beautiful like literature,” once attempting this by randomly firing his revolver at an acquaintance, a sculptor named Manolo, at a crowded café. He missed, but his theory was confirmed. It was as beautiful as literature. Jarry essentially drank himself to death; in later years subsisting primarily on ether with little food. He apparently died, as pataphysicans like to say, on November 1, 1907, after asking for a toothpick. One can be certain that he remained imperturbable to the last. Nevertheless, the spiral continues to spin into the twenty-first century, partly thanks to Hugill’s indispensible primer of ’pataphysics, as he writes:

For some, ’pataphysics is a cosmic fart, an ultimate spoof, a schoolboy prank, a raucous piece of nonsense; for others it is an attitude of mind, a way of life, a discipline, a doctrine, a deeply ironic religion, even. It is profoundly useless or, as pataphysicians prefer to say, inutilious, but nevertheless manages to inform and inflect the world.

Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Continuum 33/3 series, 2003).