imaginary solutions

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

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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.

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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.