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Theatre of the Absurd

by Alia

Dada & Jarry, Part II

Flashback to an age of innocence: my days as an art student. I whooped with delight when I delved into Dada. It made perfect sense! The world, I had been taught, is built on truths—we just have to find them and everything will be better. Everything will make sense. Progress equals happiness. Yay for the atom… yay for the dishwasher…

Except of course it doesn’t and it will probably never make sense. Dada artists rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern society. They stood beside the ruins of the Great War and saw no logic, no sense. Dada manifested their vision in nonsense, irrationality and anti-bourgeois sentiment. “I see your stupidity and raise you,” they said. “There is only nonsense,” they said.

I was ready to sign up on the spot. I’d stumbled on an idea that had been brewing in my own mind since childhood, albeit without a name. And now it had one! But I was too late! It turned out that Dada had long ago evaporated into Surrealism, Pop Art, and then poof, gone! My spiritual home was an overlooked casualty of WWII. My path was closed. I would have to join my Derrida-toting peers and embrace um… Post-Post-Deconstructionism? …Meh!

Until, wobbling recklessly into my pit of despair, came a new light.

Flashback (much further) to 1893. A play, Guignol by the diminutive Parisian, Alfred Jarry, had included a reference to ‘Pataphysics. A shot had been fired at the void. There was smoke in the air.

Jarry derived the name ‘Pataphysics from the Greek, τὰ ἐπὶ τὰ μεταφυσικά (tà epì tà metàphusiká): that which is above metaphysics, and it most likely began its life as a wry joke, a parody on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. But, like wry jokes sometimes do, it resonated for Jarry. He fleshed out the idea in his delightful novel, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician.

The novel relates the adventures of Dr. Faustroll (a scientist who is born in 1898 at the age of 63, and who dies the same year at the same age) and his companion, a lawyer named Panmuphle, on their travels in a copper skiff on a sea that is superimposed over the streets and buildings of Paris. Written in the first person by Panmuphle, the narrative describes the fantastic islands that they visit. The pair are accompanied by a monkey named Bosse-de-Nage, who perishes along the way, leaving Panmuphle wondering if he had imagined him or whether he had been real.

At the end of the novel Dr. Faustroll dies, and he sends a telepathic letter to Lord Kelvin describing the afterlife and the cosmos. The symbolism of the novel has imagination and language overriding the reality of the French capital, and the story is wryly comic and surrealistic in nature. The novel concludes with the line: "La 'Pataphysique est la science...

Just so!

Jarry, it turns out, had been a major inspiration for Dada. Their vehicle of protest may have sprinted ahead and run out of gas but Jarry’s ‘Pataphysics was still idling in first gear.

The online dictionary defines ‘Pataphysics as: a supposed branch of philosophy or science that studies imaginary phenomena beyond the realm of metaphysics: the science of imaginary solutions.

Supposed! How unkind! The College (founded in 1948, four decades after Jarry’s death) describes itself as: "The vastest and most profound of Sciences, that which indeed contains all the others within itself whether they want it or not."

Thank goodness for balance! Jarry, unknowingly, had laid the groundwork for Le Collège de 'Pataphysique. They picked up the baton.

’Pataphysics, science of the particular, science of exceptions (it being clearly understood of course, that the world contains nothing except exceptions, and that a “rule” is precisely an exception to the exception; as for the universe, Faustroll defined it as “that which is the exception to oneself”.

The Science, to which Jarry dedicated his life, is practised unwittingly by all mankind. Human beings could more easily dispense with breathing than with Pataphysics. We find ’Pataphysics in the Exact and Inexact Sciences (though nobody admits it), in the Fine Arts and the Foul Arts, in every kind of Literary Activity. Open the newspaper, turn on the radio or television, explore the Internet, speak : 'Pataphysics!

’Pataphysics is the very substance of this world.

Aside from my love of subversiveness—which in ‘Pataphysics rolls out like thunder on the horizon, beyond which a wagon stops by a river to refresh the horses where the wagoner discovers his grey gelding needs a shoe—what really got me hooked on ‘Pataphysics was the “pataphor”. It is the juiciest of literary morsels. A pataphor is an extended metaphor that creates its own context (that which occurs when a lizard's tail has grown so long it breaks off and grows a new lizard!).

Jarry stated that 'pataphysics existed "as far from metaphysics as metaphysics extends from regular reality," therefore a pataphor is a figure of speech that exists as far from metaphor as metaphor exists from non-figurative language.

An example from Pataphor Test, by Pablo Lopez:
"Jenny is eleven years old. She lives on a farm in Luxembourg, West Virginia. Today Jenny is collecting eggs from the hen house. It is 10 a.m. She walks slowly down the rows of cages, feeling around carefully for eggs tucked beneath clucking hens. She finds the first egg in number 6. When she holds it to the light she sees it is the deep tan of boot leather, an old oil-rubbed cowboy boot, creased with microscopic branching lines, catching the light at the swelling above the scarred dusty heel, curled at the cuff, bending and creaking as the foot of the cowboy squirms to rediscover its fit, a leathery thumb and index prying at the scruff, the heel stomping the floor. Victor the hotel manager swings open the door and gives Cowboy a faint smile."

Non-figurative—Jenny is in reality.
Metaphor—The boot is in metaphor.
Pataphor—Cowboy, the hotel, Victor, exist in pataphor.

Lopez goes so far as to see parallels with QM saying concepts like String Theory constitute a kind of mathematical pataphor. These concepts mirror the 'pataphysical idea of "supposition built on supposition." String Theory is speculation based on ideas that are ''themselves speculative'' (the theories of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics), therefore String Theory is not in fact physics, but 'pataphysics.


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