imaginary solutions

Alfred Jarry (1873 – 1907) was a French writer and inventor of a pseudoscience or “science of imaginary solutions” which he called ‘pataphysique. 

image found here

In collaboration with his classmates at the Lycée of Rennes, he wrote Ubu Roi to ridicule a pompous and fat mathematics teacher, Monsieur Hébert. At the age of 18 he moved to Paris to pursue his studies and to write two sequels, Ubu Enchaîné and Ubu Cocu. 

Ubu found here

When Ubu Roi was first presented in 1896 at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, the coarseness of the language and anarchistic tones were too much for the audience, which rose in outrage after the first word, “Merdre!” One reviewer said: “Despite the late hour, I have just taken a shower. An absolutely essential preventive measure when one has been subjected to such a spectacle.”

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 was so disruptively funny that he was excused from parades and marching drills. After five months, Jarry was discharged for medical reasons.

dwarf in uniform in walnut shell coach found here

He then began to frequent literary salons and devoted himself to writing. Jarry’s first book was a collection of prose and verse. It was followed by an unperformable play and a novel, even more obscure than anything he had previously produced. Le Surmâle (The Supermale) was Jarry’s last work. “The act of love is of no importance, since it can be performed indefinitely,” states Jarry in the beginning of the book. The hero of the erotic fantasy is a superman who wins a bicycle race against a six-man team, he has sex 82 times with a women, and experiences the final climax with an amorous machine.

amorous machine found here

‘Pataphysics – the initial apostrophe was deliberate – mixed science, science fiction, technology and art. Jarry defined it as the science of imaginary solutions, “which will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one.” Paul McCartney paid homage to Jarry’s branch of metaphysics in his Beatles song Maxwell’s Silver Hammer from 1969.

image found here

Until his death at the age of thirty-four, Jarry was a familiar figure stalking the streets of Paris with his green umbrella, wearing cyclist’s garb and carrying two pistols. According to an anecdote, once he was asked for a light in the street and discharged a pistol shot instead. He also adopted the gestures of his creation, Ubu, speaking in a high falsetto and always employing the royal “we.” In response to a neighbor’s complaint that his target shooting endangered her children, he replied, “If that should ever happen, madame, 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).

Jarry and child found here

His fortune was soon spent, and Jarry lapsed into a chaotic, Bohemian life. He 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). He lived in a bizarre apartment where each storey had been cut horizontally in half to make double the original number of floors. He lived and died a virgin, and although he hated christianity, he felt compelled to seek God on his deathbed.  It is recorded that his last request was for a toothpick.

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49 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. He sounds like someone I would have loved to hang out with. Well, except for all the shooting.

    • Great fun in small doses

  2. A toothpick ? guess he wanted to clean his pearly gates.

  3. such an eccentric person. but i like that about this man.

    • I love eccentricity. Though it can be tiring.

  4. Wow- I knew of him because of the band Pere Ubu (who I still rather like) but had no idea he was quite that unusual. I love his offer to replace any damaged children. Actually, I think I like the band more now that I know who influenced their name.

    • Can’t say I’ve ever listened to their music. Will have to youtube…

  5. That machine is mind boggling. And what the hell is George doing to John?????

    (Hoping my login works and lets me comment – I’ve been having some bother lately).

    • Well obviously the commenting part works but there’s no link back to your site 😦

  6. A toothpick??!! Bizarre to the very end.
    I do like the definition & goal of ‘pataphyics – “…the science of imaginary solutions…”

    • I think there’s a little ‘pataphysician in all of us

  7. I have a strong feeling the Queen went to see a production of Ubu many years ago. I recall a ridiculous looking face heavy with make up..?

    I hope no-one suggests that process of cutting the floors in half over here, it’s bad enough as it is with ceiling heights falling like underwear in the building trade.

    The King

    • Yes, I saw an Australian production of “King Ubu” in 2001. Let me recommend it to everyone. It was hilariously funny and clever and utterly enjoyble.

      Great to know about the man behind it. Somehow I’m not surprised.

      • Review

      • Good review queenie. sounds like something I’d like to see.

  8. What did biking clothes look like in the 1800’s? Certainly no lycra.

    • “Typical clothing included the “wheelman” or sleeveless vest with insignia worn over a shirt, long shorts (to the knee), and shoes without socks. In 1874 Charles Bennet, an avid bicyclist, decided to tackle “the delicate problem that men faced as they were jounced on their penny farthings” (Norcliffe, p. 128). He designed the “bike web,” a knit and elastic garment to provide support and cushioning.”

      • ooh I hate it when my penny farthings get jounced.

  9. If he was around today we would have had Ubutube. 😀

    • Clever wordplay elmediat

  10. In the end the green fairy got him. There’s a line from grandfather Jarry to absurdism, to the delicate Vian, to Zazie and Sally Mara (under the pseudonym Queneau, is right: “Man ist immer zu gut zu den Frauen”), maybe even to my personal hero Georges Perec, who wrote a novel without an “e”, was a bit hard to translate.

    • I’ve heard of that novel but never read it. Must have been difficult to write

  11. How do we know he lived and died a virgin? Presumably that was his own claim. I bet there were a few women out there who could have told a different story….

    I suspect that once I’m in my dotage, I shall also lapse into a chaotic, bohemian life. It might even be a lot of fun.

    • I can’t think why a man would claim to b a virgin if he wasn’t one…?

  12. He sounds like a very tedious person to have around – and then he found the bottle which I suspect made him even worse.

    • I’m not fond of alcoholics. My ex husband was one.

  13. A Green Umbrella? That is the height of bohemianism. All the rest seems perfectly normal to me. But then I have been living in NurseMyra’s blogiverse for so long – – –

    • Yes, you’ve been with me almost from the start haven’t you Archie?

  14. You know what his second to last request was for? Some spinach. Hahaha!

    • Lightly steamed to retain the colour

  15. I’ve often wondered about that Beatles song. Now I know.

  16. that’s quite a machine! and quite a woman, as the resevoir on it will hold up to 40 litres of ‘jus’….

  17. I saw a production of Pere Ubu here a couple of years ago. It looked very tricky to stage but great fun, a mind rioting.

    The machine reminds me a bit of de Selby’s fantastical machines in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (but sexier).

  18. I’m sure everyone thinks that dying a virgin is a terrible waste of a life but just imagine being liberated from sexual desire. How many people have gone mad fore want of a good lay? Some men need it so bad that they throw away their families, careers and net worth chasing a little tail. If you could cast aside desire, would you?

    • Sorry to jump in… but I can’t imagine anything worse. I don’t consider myself really living if I do not have a sexual relationship.

      • I wouldn’t cast it aside but when you finally learn it’s not the end all be all of existence you free yourself to do other things… but yes society in general is mad for it, see former Highmark CEO Ken Melani.

      • I wouldn’t willingly cast aside sexual desire BUT….. if there was no choice, how different a world without it would be. People would be able to channel so much energy into other things like art, writing, creativity. The population would be much smaller, there would be less violent crime….. I can’t imagine what the ramifications would be. no doubt it’s a question that has fascinated philosophers for centuries

  19. Imaginary solutions? sounds like the government.

  20. ‘We’ are amused, as always, N.M.!

  21. I feel even more discouraged at my inability to ever find interesting guests for my dinner parties. Where do I go to meet people like Jarry?

    • we have several “interesting” inmates at the Gimcrack.

  22. There have been many times when I could have used the science of imaginary solutions.

    • To develop a wine gum tree perhaps?

  23. I thought the machine created by George Clooney’s character in ‘Burn After Reading’ was a joke, but it seems it wasn’t the first

  24. Such a colourful character (that colour being green) and a huge influence on 20th century literature and performance.

  25. How are you, nurse???

  26. How are you nurse???

  27. I would love to meet this fellow and would gladly bring a toothpick in exchange for the invention of an imaginary solution. Yet, since I don’t know what the toothpick was for, perhaps it is an imaginary solution?

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