From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Since the epiphenomenon is often equated with the accident, pataphysics will be above all the science of the particular, even though it is said that science deals only with the general." --Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (1911) by Alfred Jarry
Best known for his play Ubu Roi (1896) and its incipit 'merdre', Jarry wrote in a variety of genres and styles. He wrote plays, novels, poetry, essays and speculative journalism. His texts present some pioneering work in the field of absurdist literature. Master of the grotesque, he also invented a pseudoscience called 'Pataphysics.
Biography and works
A precociously brilliant student, Jarry enthralled his classmates with a gift for pranks and troublemaking.
At the lycée in Rennes when he was 15, he led of a group of boys who devoted much time and energy to poking fun at their well-meaning, but obese and incompetent physics teacher, a man named Hébert. Jarry and classmate Henri Morin wrote a play they called Les Polonais and performed it with marionettes in the home of one of their friends. The main character, Père Heb, was a blunderer with a huge belly; three teeth (one of stone, one of iron, and one of wood); a single, retractable ear; and a misshapen body. In Jarry's later work Ubu Roi, Père Heb would develop into Ubu, one of the most monstrous and astonishing characters in French literature.
At 17 Jarry passed his baccalauréat and moved to Paris to prepare for admission to the École Normale Supérieure. Though he was not admitted, he soon gained attention for his original poems and prose-poems. A collection of his work, Les minutes de sable mémorial, was published in 1893.
That same year, both his parents died, leaving him a small inheritance which he quickly spent.
Jarry had meantime discovered the pleasures of alcohol, which he called "my sacred herb" or, when referring to absinthe, the "green goddess". A story is told that he once painted his face green and rode through town on his bicycle in its honour (and possibly under its influence).
When he was drafted into the army in 1894, his gift for turning notions upside down defeated attempts to instill military discipline. The sight of the small man in a uniform much too large for his less than 5-foot frame—the army did not issue uniforms small enough—was so disruptively funny that he was excused from parades and marching drills. Eventually the army discharged him for medical reasons. His military experience eventually inspired the novel Days and Nights.
Jarry returned to Paris and applied himself to drinking, writing, and the company of friends who appreciated his witty, sweet-tempered, and unpredictable conversation. This period is marked by his intense involvement with Remy de Gourmont in the publication of L'Ymagier, a luxuriously produced "art" magazine devoted to the symbolic analysis of medieval and popular prints. Symbolism as an art movement was in full swing at this time and L'Ymagier provided a nexus for many of its key contributors. Jarry's play Caesar Antichrist (1895) drew on this movement for material. This is a work that bridges the gap between serious symbolic meaning and the type of critical absurdity with which Jarry would soon become associated. Using the biblical Book of Revelation as a point of departure, Caesar Antichrist presents a parallel world of extreme formal symbolism in which Christ is resurrected not as an agent of spirituality but as an agent of the Roman Empire that seeks to dominate spirituality. It is a unique narrative that effectively links the domination of the soul to contemporaneous advances in the field of Egyptology such as the 1894 excavation of the Narmer Palette, an ancient artifact used for situating the rebus within hermeneutics.
The spring of 1896 saw the publication, in Paul Fort's review Le Livre d'art, of Jarry's 5-act play Ubu Roi—the rewritten and expanded Les Polonais of his school days. Ubu Roi's savage humor and monstrous absurdity, unlike anything thus far performed in French theater, seemed unlikely to ever actually be performed on stage. However, impetuous theater director Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poe took the risk, producing the play at his Théâtre de l'Oeuvre.
On opening night (10 December 1896), with traditionalists and the avant-garde in the audience, King Ubu (played by Firmin Gémier) stepped forward and intoned the opening word, "Merdre!" ("Shittr!"). A quarter of an hour of pandemonium ensued: outraged cries, booing, and whistling by the offended parties, countered by cheers and applause by the more forward-thinking contingent. Such interruptions continued through the evening. At the time, only the dress rehearsal and opening night performance were held, and the play was not revived until after Jarry's death.
The play brought fame to the 23-year-old Jarry, and he immersed himself in the fiction he had created. Gémier had modeled his portrayal of Ubu on Jarry's own staccato, nasal vocal delivery, which emphasized each syllable (even the silent ones). From then on, Jarry would always speak in this style. He adopted Ubu's ridiculous and pedantic figures of speech; for example, he referred to himself using the royal we, and called the wind "that which blows" and the bicycle he rode everywhere "that which rolls".
Jarry moved into a flat which the landlord had created through the unusual expedient of subdividing a larger flat by means of a horizontal rather than a vertical partition. The diminutive Jarry could just manage to stand up in the place, but guests had to bend or crouch. Jarry also took to carrying a loaded pistol. In response to a neighbor's complaint that his target shooting endangered her children, he replied, "If that should ever happen, ma-da-me, we should ourselves be happy to get new ones with you" (though he was not at all inclined to engage with females in the manner implied).
Living in worsening poverty, neglecting his health, and drinking excessively, Jarry went on to write what is often cited as the first cyborg sex novel, Le Surmâle (The Supermale), which is partly a satire on the Symbolist ideal of self-transcendence.
Unpublished until after his death, his fiction Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien) describes the exploits and teachings of a sort of antiphilosopher who, born at age 63, travels through a hallucinatory Paris in a sieve and subscribes to the tenets of 'pataphysics. 'Pataphysics deals with "the laws which govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one". In 'pataphysics, every event in the universe is accepted as an extraordinary event.
Jarry once wrote, expressing some of the bizarre logic of 'pataphysics, "If you let a coin fall and it falls, the next time it is just by an infinite coincidence that it will fall again the same way; hundreds of other coins on other hands will follow this pattern in an infinitely unimaginable fashion".
In his final years, he was a legendary and heroic figure to some of the young writers and artists in Paris. Guillaume Apollinaire, André Salmon, and Max Jacob sought him out in his truncated apartment. After his death, Pablo Picasso, fascinated with Jarry, acquired his pistol and wore it on his nocturnal expeditions in Paris, and later bought many of his manuscripts as well as executing a fine drawing of him.
Jarry lived in his 'pataphysical world until his death in Paris on 1 November 1907 of tuberculosis, aggravated by drug and alcohol use. It is recorded that his last request was for a toothpick. He was interred in the Cimetière de Bagneux, near Paris.
Selected Jarry works
- César-Antéchrist (Caesar Antichrist) (1895) - introducing Pere Ubu
- Ubu Roi (Ubu Rex) (1896, revised in 1888)
- Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) (1897)
- Ubu Enchaíné (Ubu In Chains ) (1899)
- Ubu Sur La Butte (1906)
- Le Surmâle (The Supermale) (1901)
- Messaline (Messalina) (1900)
- Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, Pataphysicien (Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician) (published posthumously in 1911)
- Les Jours et Les Nuits (Days and Nights) (1897)
- L'Amour en Visites (Love in Visits) (1897)
Other notable works
- Short story, La Passion considérée comme course de côte (The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race), has been widely circulated and imitated, notably by J.G. Ballard, and Robert Anton Wilson
- Les Minutes De Sable Memorial (Minutes of Memorial Sand) - a collection of short early works including the symbolist play Haldernablou (1894)
- La Chandelle Verte: Lumieres Sur Les Choses De Ce Temps (The Green Candle) - a collection of absurdist essays originally published in reviews and collected in 1969
Archaeopteryx, Jabberwocky, Occam's razor, Valeria Messalina, Puppeteer, Zéro de conduite, Marie Vassilieff, List of tuberculosis victims, Pseudophilosophy, Mask, Davíð Oddsson, Soap bubble, Stefan Themerson, Cimetière de Bagneux, Ubu Roi, Pere Ubu (band), List of satirists and satires, Postmodern literature, Jacques Copeau, Julien Torma, Victor Brauner, Aurélien Lugné-Poe, UBU Productions, Sarah Rudinoff, Max Wall, History of modern literature, Le Piège de Méduse, Theatre on the Balustrade, Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Bob Holman, Defiant Theatre, Axel Jensen, Marcel Schwob, French literature of the 20th century, Modern Greek literature, Young Marx, C. V. Boys, Paulo Leminski, Claude Terrasse, Incoherents, Jacques Vaché, Mercure de France, Todd Bash, Literary nonsense, Félix Fénéon, Mump and Smoot, Rusty Magee, Absinthe in popular culture, John Clancy (playwright), Teiji Ito, Franciszka Themerson, Rude Mechanicals (a.k.a. Rude Mechs), John Juliani, World of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Grigore Cugler, Simon Watson Taylor (surrealist), Silver Machine, The Counterfeiters (novel), Oobu Joobu, Kaunas State Drama Theatre, Giannina Braschi, Works based on Faust, Beejan Olfat, David Perry (Australian filmmaker), Tintamarre theatre company, 391 (magazine), Reverend Fred Lane, Maxime Jacob,