Our Science of Pataphysics

by Φ

Alastair Brotchie

Jarry introduced his definition of the term with this statement: “An epiphenomen is that which is superimposed upon a phenomenon.” In nonspecial language, an epiphenomenon is something that is the accidental by-product of something else. Biographically speaking, Pataphysics may be considered as the epiphenomenon of Jarry’s attending the class of Henri Bergson.
Jarry entered his class in 1891. In a few years Bergson would become the most famous philosopher in France; int eh meantime he lectured on the history of philosophy at the lycee Henri IV in Paris. He endowed this history with a personal slant, and his course commenced, like his own philosophy, with the epistemological problems posed by the interaction of mind and matter. Other wise this course of Bergson’s appears to have been quite as peculiar as his own philosophy; it traveled down all sorts of forgotten paths and eccentric dead-ends in the history of ideas, and any number of unusual theories were explored. Jarry was captivated: such an approach suited perfectly his jackdaw intellect, and he later wrote that Bergson’s lectures were “precious above all others.” Jarry followed these lectures for two years, and he transcribed them almsot word for word. Uniquely among his schoolwork, he carefully preserved these notebooks, and early on entrusted them to Edouard Julia, a fellow pupil. Even though they are incomplete (the exercise books from the last half of the first year are missing), they total more than 700 pages of close writing.
Ideas originating in Bergon’s course would indeed influence much of Jarry’s future writing. he would often incorporate nonliterary modes within his works, but rarely without subjecting them to transformations of meaning and form. Philosophical concepts were no exception, and he habitually cited them from memory, with no great regard for accuracy. Jarry, I suspect, extended this cavalier attitude to Bergson’s own philosophy, by appropriating elements from it which appealed to him, while rejecting its overall methods and conclusions. The most immediate effect of Bergson’s teaching, thought was to provide the philosophical underpinning for the young Jarry’s initial formulation of Pataphysics.
Shortly after arriving in Paris, Jarry envisaged a treatise on the subject with the title Elements of Pataphysics. However, his notions for this new science soon ruled out a simple exposition of its subtleties. Even carefully skirting around its meanings was—and still is—apt to result in deeply unpataphysical solecisms. “Pataphysics,” to paraphrase a modern exegesis by Ruy Launoir, “cannot be explained by non-pataphysical means.” This is why only a small portion of Jarry’s Elements was to appear eventually in Faustroll. it is also why this chapter is not intended to be a complete exploration even of Jarry’s own conception of this word’s significance, let alone the subsequent elaborations of it by the likes of Daumal, Torma, Piellet, and Baudrillard, among others. Instead it is an attempt to outline a little of what Pataphysics may have meant for Jarry, and how it reflected his intellectual interests and his character, and perhaps influenced his life; its biographical implications in other words.
The few surviving pages of the Elements in Faustroll commence with this preamble and definition written in 1897, but based upon ideas originally formulated some four years or so earlier:

An epiphenomenon is that which is superinduced upon a phenomenon. Pataphysics […] is the science of that which is superimposed upon metaphysics, whether within or beyond the latter’s limitations, extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics. And an epiphenomenon being often accidental, Pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general. Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiouslty, will describe a universe which can be — and perhaps should be — envisaged in the place of the traditional one, since the laws that are supposed to have been discovered in the traditional universe are also correlations of exceptions, albiet more frequent ones, but in any case accidental data which, reduced to the status of unexceptional exceptions, possess no longer even the virtue of originality. 

DEFINITION. Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments. 

This brief but elegant presentation of a new mode of thought is also a program for its exploration: Pataphysics will examine and explain. Although rigorously logical, and describing itself as a science, it begins with a critique of the limits of scientific induction, and then introduces a number of interlocking concepts : epiphenomenalism and the exceptional, the desirability of a “supplementary universe,” imaginary solutions, and the implied superiority of “virtuality” over the actual.
Such a summary may seem to ignore an obvious characteristic of Jarry’s text: his unruly logic is not entirely straight-faced. So it is quite legitimate to ask whether Pataphysics should be taken “seriously”? The answer may be found in a pataphysical principle omitted from the definition in Faustroll. A character in Caesar-Antichrist elucidates, in so far as Jarry cares for elucidation:

Axiom and principle of the identity of opposites, the pataphysician, clamped to your ears and your retractable wings, flying fish, is the dwarf atop the giant, beyond metaphysics.

Thus Pataphysics incorporates the “principle of the identity of opposites,” which is a philosophical idea with a history that goes back to Heraclitus. Jarry had subscribed to it even at Rennes, and may have encountered it in Coleridge, who averred his favorite proverb to be “Extremes meet.” Even were this the case, Jarry certainly rediscovered it in Doctor Mises’ Comparative Anatomy of Angels, a text which he first referred to in 1894. Dr. Mises was a pseudonym initially employed by Gustav Theodor Fechner, the German scientist and philosopher, for his supposedly less serious writing, but later for works much harder to categorize. This text proved highly influential on Jarry’s early ideas for Pataphysics, and one consequence of the “equivalence of contraries” was that distinctions between the serious and the comic were henceforth to be considered invalid. Jarry was introduced to Fechner’s work in Bergson’s lectures, and incorporating Fechner’s maxim into Pataphysics also ensured it would remain quite distinct from the philosophy of Jarry’s teacher, since Bergson acknowledged his own thought to be “frankly dualistic.” Although Jarry’s formulation of Pataphysics may well have many connections with Bergson’s ideas, these connections were often adversarial as approving.
To return to Jarry’s text preceding his definition… The first thing to note is that Bergson was highly critical of epiphenomenalism, a theory which proposed that consciousness was no more than an accidental side effect of the state of the brain. Jarry, on the contrary, was so taken by this idea that he extended it to matter as well, by adopting the principle of the clinamen. This theory, from Lucretius’s De rerum natura, cropped up in Bergson’s lecture on determinism. Lucretius maintained that the original condition of the universe was that of an endless and uniform vertical rain of atoms into the void. A small random swerve (clinamen) by one of them was enough to cause an initial collision and initiate the creation of matter, and thus the universe. In Jarry’s Pataphysics, a science of exceptions, both matter and mind are epiphenomenal, and are therefore immune from explanation by physics or metaphysics respectively.
Jarry’s digression on epiphenomena leads to the actual definition of Pataphysics. By a science of imaginary solutions jarry appears to imply that theories should be valued for their originality, independent of meaning or efficacy. This is followed by a statement that Pataphysics, presumably as a part of its program to describe the universe supplementary to that of physics, “symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.”
A simple reading of this would be that objects, in the widest sense, mental as well as material, should be imagined in their totality. But the word virtuality has a particular meaning in the philosophy of Bergson, which I suspect connects Jarry’s proposition with his professor’s idea of “duration.” It is highly probably that Jarry had at least read Bergson’s first book, Time and Free Will, And Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, published in 1889, where this imaginary solution made its first appearance in print; and Jarry’s own works refer often to this concept (he had originally been introduced to it in Bergson’s course during his lecture on “Habit”).
Conceptions of time are central to Jarry’s works—sometimes explicitly, as in his treatise on how to construct a time machine; at other times hidden, in works that explore subjective states and modes of perception (Days and NightsAbsolute Love, for example). Time was likewise at the core of Bergson’s philosophy. He believed that the confusing of time and space had given rise to most of the problems of philosophy, and had resulted in theoretical positions inimical to “common sense,” notably in Kantian idealism, whereby the actuality of the external world held to be only imperfectly perceptible to the mind. The time described by (Hebertian) physics, according to Bergson, was actually a form of space, since it is divisible, and one can envisage the idea of divisibility in one’s mind only by assigning it spatial dimensions. (A doubtful assertion that is typical of Bergson’s reasoning.) Real time, on the contrary, he considered to be a succession constructed from the instants of physical time by consciousness, perception, and memory. This is what he called duration.
Bergson’s duration appeared to be rather difficult to explain. “Duration,” he wrote, on one of the rare occasions when he advanced a direct description,”when restored to its original purity, will appear as a wholly qualitative multiplicity, an absolute heterogeneity of elements which pass over into one another.” More simply, it may be imagined as a flux of matter and memory where the actuality of objects is indistinguishable from their more subjective resonances: meanings, associations, and significance. These are qualities which, for Bergson, constitute “virtuality.” Now this is very close to Jarry’s definition of Pataphysics.
In pure duration, says Bergson, memory is able, by an act of will, to actualize the virtual past and project it back into the present. Bergson asserts that this is a fluid psychic state, in which reality is intensified and augmented, is not only “scientifically unknowable,” but its essential qualities are inexpressible. Language, he says, tends toward fixity, the opposite of duration; thus duration may be imagined only by a symbolic representation, and even then, imperfectly.
Existing in duration, if nothing else, must be an intensely subjective state of being, and Bergson’s description of how it might possibly be evoked resembles both Mallarme’s conceptions of symbolist poetry, and Rimbaud’s idea that a poet must become a “seer,” a state in which he is able to willfully substitute the exotic for the banal, a mosque for a factory, and observe carriages traversing the sky. This is it s turn can be related to an idea from Taine that featured in another of Bergson’s lectures, and which Jarry cited in his novel Days and Nights. Jarry misattributed it to Leibniz, and anyway only approximated its actual formulation: “Perception is only a hallucination that is true,” is how he remembered it. Rimbaud’s method of the poet making himself a seer by a “prolonged, determined and rational derangement of all the senses” is very close to this “supplementary” world where perceptions and hallucinations are indistinguishable, and the flux of constant becoming throws up objects with all their associations intact. It should be noted, however, that although Jarry was to use similar means to those of Rimbaud (drink and drugs), he could not have known of this theory of his. The seer letters were not published until 1912, and Rimbaud’s biographer and brother-in-law carefully concealed their import up until that time.
For Bergson, freedom could reside only in duration: free will could exist only if causality and determinism were done away with. Since duration consists of an ever-changing heterogeneity, no situation may exactly recur, and nothing may be predetermined. The free act of the individual, defined as self-expression, is then able to emerge as an exception in a state in which everything is always exceptional, just as Pataphysics proposed. “We are rarely free,” Bergson wrote. “The greater part of the time we live outside ourselves, hardly perceiving anything of ourselves but our own ghost, a colorless shadow which pure duration projects into homogeneous space. Hence […] we live for the external world rather than for ourselves; we speak rather than think, we ‘are acted’ rather than act ourselves. To act freely is to recover possession of oneself, and to get back into pure duration.”
The concept of duration was intended to resolve problems of epistemology and return philosophy to “common sense.” It resulted in an ever more complex metaphysics that became distinctly remote from this goal. Physics, too, was prone to similar imaginary solutions. In the 1890s this most tangible of sciences was being forced into ever more extreme and counterintuitive theories in order to explain observed phenomena. Thus, in Jarry’s day, the universe was supposedly filled with an invisible and undetectable substance called “luminiferous ether,” which had been proposed to explain the wave propagation of light. According to physicists, in Jarry’s words, it consisted of a “perfectly elastic and infinitely attenuated solid.” This ultimately insubstantial substance, rather reminiscent of today’s “dark matter,” was the chief component of a theory of mater proposed by William Thomson. Lord Kelvin of Lairgs, by far the most celebrated scientist of the period. According to Kelvin, matter was naught but vortices within the ether. Bergson despaired such theories. Physics, he believed, was being taken to such levels of abstraction that “concrete existence was tending to vanish into algebraical smoke.” jarry, on the contrary, could not have been more delighted. That reality was tenuous conformed perfectly with symbolist aesthetics and his own intuitions. Nothing could be more poetic; and Kelvin makes frequent appearances in Faustroll.
Jarry absorbed the more extravagant solutions of both physics and metaphysics into his new science. Here was a new space inhabited by a new matter enduring within a new time; a supplementary continuum lying to one side of everyday life. Jarry called it Ethernity in Faustroll; elsewhere it became known as The Absolute.
Nevertheless, for Jarry the imaginary solution par excellence was literature, and the real beauty of all these concepts lay in the fact that they were ripe for literary transmutation. Kelvin’s theories featured in Faustroll precisely because it was a work of literature and not of theory: Jarry was a poet above all else. He plundered theory for Pataphysics, but he plundered everything for literature, including Pataphysics itself. Indeed, if one were to reduce Pataphysics to literature, then the definition proposes a literature as far beyond Symbolism (metaphysics) as this was from Naturalism (physics) to one in which expression is imbued with its opposites, tragedy is inseparable from irony, the hoax from the heartfelt, a literature at once frivolous and hermetic: in sum, all the literary faults of which Jarry was to be accused.
This chapter may, after all, have attributed to Bergson too great an influence on Jarry during his first years in Paris. He poked fun at his professor in Faustroll—the list of dualities symbolized by the words “Ha Ha” includes “magnitude and duration,” and whatever Bergson’s influence, the implications of Jarry’s definition remain. The qualifier “symbolically” indicates that Pataphysics is a science of interpretation, of will and representation, or, more especially, of imagination both in its literal and figurative meanings. it is a method for augmenting actuality with the virtual, whether in Bergson’s sense or otherwise, and this alone would ally it with the poetic theories already cited.
In this interpretation, Pataphysics was an appeal for an intensification of existence, for a supplementary universe in which imagination would have a reality equivalent to that of the actual. Such a proposal might not initially appear a particularly original poetic credo, but Jarry’s statement of it in philosophical, and especially, scientific, terminology was not only distinctly novel, but laid the foundations of its future influence. Jarry would replace the first poetic formulation of Pataphysics with a more “scientific” formulation, and it is this variant of the “science” that lent itself more easily to elaboration by others. His literary contemporaries considered science a rather vulgar activity, but physics and mathematics employed symbols too, and Jarry recognized the literary and imaginative potential of their increasing abstraction. As time passed and Jarry’s circumstances altered, Pataphysics would indeed assume subtly different meanings. Initially, however, in his first conception, it may be seen as an unusually systematic mapping of the realm of the poetic imagination, a symbolic cartography that was both representation and idealization. It included previously neglected regions that were ripe for exploration, and it was Jarry’s idea to substitute the map for the territory: “he wanted his life to conform to his literary program,” in the words of Rachilde—an act that was likely to bring travelers in this realm up sharp against the conventions of the everyday.
Couching an appeal for the superiority of a poetic universe in the language of rationality was itself an eminently pataphysical procedure. Pataphysics was able to seamlessly assimilate contradictions, or at least relegate them to the status of ambiguities. As a representation, it reflected Jarry’s contrary nature; it was an almost inevitable product of his temperament. As a willful philosophy, it may be seen initially as his attempt to resolve these contradictions by elevating them into a basic principle and then codifying them as a discipline. However, the epiphenomenon of this approach was the creation of a conveniently unanswerable rationale for his contrariness. Pataphysics, therefore, could be either (or both) a tool for psychic integration or a license for dissipation. Jarry’s life would unfold between these options.