Jarry: Pataphysical Life
Rachilde quite rightly considered Jarry as “the precursor of all the buffoons of the present-day world of letters” (by which she meant Dadaists, Surrealists, etc.), & it was something which she could not forgive him.
[In the military] sweeping the parade ground was his main occupation. Jarry explained the theory; “It is no mere gesture toward the rhetorical that this object, which in the civilian world is commonly known as a broom, is here referred to as a ‘brush’. This is because it is only suited, at best for sketching out decorative motifs in the dirt, and for roughly outlining the design of some future sweeping project, one which is likely to remain in the realms of the improbable.”
Duration comprises exactly such an indivisible and endless moment, & for Bergson the fusion of past & present in duration is accomplished by memory, which is capable of actualizing the virtual past into the present, as was outlined in chapter 3 on Pataphysics.
Pataphysics, too, has the subsidiary function of reconnecting Jarry with his childhood past. The world seen anew, with its virtuality intact, resembles a child’s perspective in which all sorts of imaginary solutions suffice to explain the world’s complexities, & in particular the more incomprehensible preoccupations of adulthood. Thus if Hebert [Ubu] represented adulthood and its stupidities, he also, strangley enough, represented its central mystery: that of sexuality, [what with] all those daughters.
Jarry’s idyllic childhood, overseen by an indulgent mother, is reminiscent of those of two other homosexual contemporaries: Marcel Proust & Raymond Roussel. Comparisons of thier literary works, apparently so different from one another, could indeed be easily constructed from this perspective.
“Ubu […] is not exactly the bourgeois, nor the boor; he is more the perfect anarchist, except that he possesses all those eminently human qualities that prevent all of us from becoming the perfect anarchist, namely cowardice, filth, ugliness, etc.
Of the three souls described by Plato: the head, the heart, & the gidouille [belly] in him only the last is less than embryonic.
I do not know what the name Ubu means; it is a more eternal deformation of his still-living accidental prototype: ‘Ybex’, perhaps, or Vulture. But this is only one of his various incarnations.”
In place of the plain backdrop Jarry had proposed at the beginning of the year, he had come up with a scheme which was shockingly original & yet succeeded in incorporating many of the ideas current among his contemporaries. Nothing like it had ever been seen in European theater, & nothing would be for several decades. It was composed of realistic elements by turns banal (door, window, bed, fireplace, tree), incongruous (skeleton, elephant), or farcical (chamber pot). Each was perfectly plausible one its own, but all were here arranged in a completely illogical synthesis so that it was simultaneously day & night, summer & winter, tropical & arctic, inside & outside, rational & absurd. This contradictory pictorial equation conveyed the same pataphysical resolution of opposites as the setting of the play described by Jarry in his opening address to the audience; its conglomeration of elements added up to Everywhere, but their illogical juxtaposition produced a canceling-out effect taht signified Nowhere … or (the then nonexistent) Poland. This Jarry contrived to combine Symbolist ideas of the universal, the Nabis’ conceptions of spatial deformation & synthesis, his own ideas of nonrealist stage production, & the actual country where “Les Polonais,” a schoolboy skit at the expense of a physics teacher, was set.
From the various descriptions of the backcloth it is possible to offer this reconstruction:
For Bergson, the techniques of humor (the means devised to make us laugh) allow the discovery of something mechanical in a living being, & it is the mechanical element that constitutes the essence of the comic. “The attitudes, gestures & movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as the body reminds us of a mere machine.” This mechanical element can manifest itself as repetitive or habitual gestures, pratfalls, absentmindedness, etc., & bergson instances marionettes in this context. Furthermore, he says, comedy is concerned with the general & with the creation of types, rather than individuals. “Comedy depicts characters we have already come across & shall meet with again. It takes note of similarities. It aims at placing types before our eyes. It even creates new types, if necessary.”
The function of comedy is this: “Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed. By laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it.”
Jarry’s military service constitutes the surface events of the book [Days & Nights] in which he explores the various modes of perception that define human consciousness — waking life, reverie, dream, memory, & hallucination — & then evokes, or describes, these states in a poetic prose by turns intensely subjective & rigorously analytical. This collision of subjectivity & analysis aims at comprehensive representation of consciousness & the self.
[…] Symbolized by the name “Faustroll,” that may provide the key structure of this book. Faustroll should be seen as a representation of Jarry’s present life in its totality. Just as Days & Nights was structured around the opposition between a soldier’s moments of freedom (the nights, representing escape & imagination) & the days in which every waking moment is dominated by discipline, so Faustroll, in order to represent the integration of the imagination into the everyday, must incorporate Jarry’s trollism too, his debts, his friendships, his life in the country… & his indulgence in alcohol. Rachilde maintained that Jarry was permanently inebriated, even resembling an “enraged monkey locked in a cage.” Although philosophy was as vital to his existence as sharing a bock with the bargees in the local taverns, the combination was even more seductive: sobriety passing unnoticed into drunkenness, & the two states impreceptibly merging together. In Fasutroll such distinctions are dissolved in an exuberant & luscious prose whose narrative appears thrown together like a splendid evening’s drinking. It has a structure that exactly mirrored its author’s existence & thus constitutes a representation supplementary to the book’s actual narrative. [superspective]
Jarry held his own creative process in particular reverence, & he would often, as a mark of respect, preserve aspets of a work’s beginnings in the finished version. Ubu Roi, for example, contains references that would have been meaningless to any but an ex-pupil of Hebert. He often cited his own books, & this self-referentiality is symptomatic of the extent of his literary ambitions. They were limitless, or in the parlance of the time, absolute: it was quite simply a matter of creating one’s own universe, a “bootstrap theory” of literary creation. Thus the apparently chaotic structure of Faustroll may simply be a structure that he preserved from another state of consciousness (just like those in Days & Nights), one carefully conserved during the periods of sobriety necessary to set down a work imagined & organized in a state of semi-hallucination induced by absinthe.
This is simple conjecture, admittedly, but nothing expresses more clearly the seamless alogical continuum that connects the everyday with the most outlandish speculation, via a sort of Symbolist shaggy-dog story, than the book’s beginning & end. It commences most precisely with a date on a bailiff’s writ, concrete & immediate, […] It ends with Faustroll’s rumination upon something ultimately inestimable, in which he literally has the measure of God. This is an extravagantly grandoise scheme, bordering on megalomania, & confirmed by some of Faustroll’s pronouncements (“I am God,” “the universe is that which is the exception to oneself”)
In factt, with Messelina, one of Jarry’s most apparently conventional novels, he assayed a grand paradox: he wrote an entirely fictional account of the events in the life of Roman Empress Messelina — a wholly fantastical account, in fact, but one in which every element, almost every detail, was based on specific sources & careful research (along with a few deliberate anachronisms to “eternalize” it). The sum of Jarry’s Rome would be unrecognizable to its inhabitants, despite the familiarity of its parts.
Thus history is revealed at its most pataphysical, as an imaginary solution. The past is a universe “supplementary to this one,” as malleable as the future, which may be actualized in the present by an act of imaginative representation. The conflict between the rigorous precision of the exposition, & the extravagant obscenity & cruelty of the content, creates a very modern sort of dislocation that alerts ther eader to the existence of a different underlying narrative […] Even as readers are drawn into the novel’s evenets by their luxuriance, they are made aware that this is only the pretext of the book. Jarry’s real interests lie elsewhere: in the formal manipulation of symbols, in generating a flux of related signifiers which the reader may clump together into a meaning. Such attributes are more often associated with poetry, here Jarry succeeded in combining both novelistic & poetic modes, neither being sacrificed for the other.
“He was one of the strangest characters of the younger generation, & the most contradictory person ever. Extremely intelligent, but with a rare & stubborn shortsightedness; original, certainly; an incredibly quick learner prone to absorb influences in all their detail no other seeker after the absolute was more at the mercy of the contingent; extraordinarily learned & understanding, yet he knew less about everyday living that almost anybody else; often fastidious, modest, & tactful in all circumstances, he loved to hide behind a cynical facade. He was gifted with ingenuity, rather than imagination, & from the automatic triggerings of his geometric mental processes ten different aspects of the same idea would emerge. He was headstrong, self-willed tenacious, a bit of a braggart at times, easily self-deluded, but always optimistically, from which sprang a quantity of first-class anecdotes that were directed against himself. As a man his enthusiasms were still those of a child: a book printed in a rare forieng typeface, a fishing boat, a hut on the banks of the Seine; he acquired them all on impulse — incontinently, as he might have said — without any thought of the consequences, either to himself or to others. He was charming, insupportable, & delightful.”
Jarry was indeed overwhelmed by banal reality: “the everyday & the relative vanquished this juggler of absolutes.” he was “disembrained” by the everyday: in part because he was serious, as a child or a savant is serious; in part because he was never serious, since he never shared the world’s opinion of what deserved to be taken seriously.
And then a new generation of writers revealed that Jarry’s life had precisely the opposite meaning. Yes, he did conceal himself behind a defensive facade, but only so that, unobserved, he could mark out for himself a zone of total individual liberty, & construct an existence in which distinctions between art & life were eliminated.
It was Apollinaire, in his memoir of Jarry two years after his death, who for the first time promoted this notion into the guiding principle necessary for the comprehension of Jarry’s life: “Alfred Jarry was a man of letters to an unprecedented extent. His smallest actions, his childish pranks, everything he did was literature.”
Andre Breton in his Anthology of Black Humor, went further: “after Jarry, the distinction between art & life, long considered essential, finds itself challenged, eventually to be abolished in principle.”
Jarry’s real interest in [theology] lay in the modalities & aesthetics of their structure rather than their supposed meaning. Theological speculations occur throughout Jarry’s works, most famously at the end of Faustroll, but also in chapter 8 of The Supermale. Both come to the conclusion that God is infinite, but infinitely small.
[Theology] furnished a scheme of codes & symbols, a system of representation, that could be subjected to aesthetic & logical manipulation. All the better that its premises were absurd. There could be no quesiton of taking such systems seriously, let alone their supposed significance, & most references to God in Jarry’s writings are sardonic & amused rather than reverential. Or narcissistic, as in Days & Nights: “Take not the Name of God in vain, is the only valid courtesy; it is ridiculous to spit on one’s mirror.” Religion, furthermore, was not exempt from Pataphysics, & was therefore an imaginary solution like any other, & thus the invention of man.
“The idea of God dates from the day a quadruped felt the muscles of his buttocks were firm & strong enough to allow an upright posture. On that day he looked up at the sky & was afraid it would fall on his head. His front legs being no longer required for walking, he clasped his hands together […] Since religious sentiments are directly related to the development of the gluteal muscles, it is obvious why women are more devout than men.”