by Marie Rennard
(Swans - November 5, 2007) First formulated by tremendously creative French writer Alfred Jarry in Les Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, 'pataphysics is commonly defined as "the science of imaginary solutions that studies exceptions rather than laws and aspires to provide imaginary solutions to practical problems."
Alfred Jarry was a sixteen-year-old schoolboy attending a lesson about Epicure's Theory of Clinamen when he first conceived the fundamentals of this science. Deal on the same level with reality and imagination. That's how sixteen-year-old pupils generally survive daily boring lessons. Jarry, as an adult, was discharged from the army for reasons of precocious stupidity, wrote his worldwide famous Ubu, doted his favourite mode of survival with rules and reasons, managed to reckon the surface of God, and died before he was 35. Fortunately, he was followed in this state of mind by the greatest modern French (or so) writers, Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau (1), Eugène Ionesco, Georges Perec, and by painters like Miro, or visionaries -- hats off to El Señor Gaudí. For all of them, details are the major and essential rule, the guide to seeing the world from an outsider point of view, disintegrating reality to build a different image of truth. It may not be a hazard if most famous 'pataphysicians are French. Imaginary solutions can partly lie in mathematics, for which 'pataphysicians have always showed an inconsiderate attraction, but never can find their outcome without the help of language used as a crooking tool, and French happens to be the ideal language to bend a meaning, though I won't try to argue or demonstrate such an arbitrary assertion. If Jarry mathematically proved that God is the tangential point between zero and infinity, it's only with the help of language since, as said Georges Petifaux, the reckoning is, on a mathematic point of view, quite glib. (2) After the French, the greatest creators of parallel universes are Latin Americans, though they write their realities with less humour and levity than French writers do. Latino writers, from Alejo Carpenter to Vargas Llosa, have no equivalent for providing the reader with a strong visual evocation of characters, atmospheres, or landscapes, and their national histories may explain their lack of humour better than their inner personal abilities to laugh.
Something may appear paradoxical in the fact that those two languages, that respectively count about 150,000 words for Spanish and 200,000 for French, happen to be much more adapted to the expression of detail than the English, which counts 500,000 words. The difference seems to lie in the mere structure of the language. English has always been the language of rationalisation, almost as concise as Latin, and though it has more words, it also is less subtle and flexible. English synonyms are redundant more than genuinely differently connoted, whereas French or Spanish ones really induce the feeling of the speaker, which in English mainly lies in the choice of defective auxiliaries. The range of possible games is hence structurally different.
Let's take the example of this verse of Cid Corman: We're all part of what's going on to have gone.
Syntactically (and let aside the fact that this kind of literature has nothing to do with 'patpahysicism) this sort of sentence is a sphere. Impossible to attack or translate, just because the grammatical structure itself makes its depth. That's typically what languages like French or Spanish can't do. As a result of this structure, English offers astounding shortenings, sharp descriptions, devastating humour, and a different range of tools to put the detail in the centre of the whole, and transcript their sight on the world. Moreover, many English writers seem to have a clear predisposition to surrealism (Edgar Allan Poe, R.I.P), and when they use the weapons their language offers them, they brilliantly describe their own crooked worlds, in the true spirit of the 'pataphysic philosophy. It's just a different 'pataphysic, an insular sort of one, but fully in the tracks of philosophers like Bergson or Baudrillard. The humour they display, a very special eye on the world, widely makes up for their linguistic handicap for 'pataphysicism and confers them the true title of 'Pataphysicians. This humour, undoubtedly different from any other kind in the world, is most often an underlying one, or to go back to this image of the English sentence conceived as a sphere, constitutes the fragile envelope of the bubble. This becomes particularly obvious when facing the process of translation. A French version of an English humoristic text needs exploding the sphere to draw it in a two-dimensional language, and a careful wreath it before it can be adapted. Curiously, or not at all, this process of translation makes the belonging of those texts to 'pataphysics more obvious -- though still typically British.
Among the growing-up generation of 'pataphysician English writers, I advise you to try (and that is the true motivation of this so-called analytic essay of a housewife about 'pataphysics and languages) Richard Beard's novels (with a special mention to Dry Bones) and, for those who enjoy both rugby and literature, his increasingly famous essay about the world of amateur rugby, Muddied Oafs, now available in French as Le Rugbyman Nomade at French Editor E.M.C, which I translated myself, and which inspired me the present and inconsequent batch of reflexions.
1. Creator of the OuLiPos. (back)
2. General Proveditor of the 'Pataphysician college. (back)
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