Reflections on philosophy and culture

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Speculative Modernism II: Alfred Jarry's Time Machine

(This is an entry in a series of posts about 19th century French literature and fantastic literature.  For previous entries, you can go  here, and here)

A little known episode in the history of both high modernism and early science fiction occurred when they were both in their infancy.  At the end of 1898, the famed journal Mercure de France - one of the major hubs of the Symbolist movement - serialized Henry Devray's translation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, less than four years after its original publication in English.  A mere month later, Alfred Jarry wrote what was to be his last publication in that journal - a remarkable essay entitled "Commentary and Instructions for the Practical Construction of the Time Machine."

Jarry was perhaps the first writer to take up Wells' most famous literary conceit.  But to anyone familiar with his distinctive concerns, this would have come as no surprise.  Before science fiction even had a name, Jarry was using science and metaphysics as the departure point for a unique form of literary-philosophical experimentation: pataphysics.  What they are to truth and universality, pataphysics is to contradiction and exception.  At once a celebration, mockery, and imaginative extension of science and metaphysics, Jarry's imaginary discipline foreshadowed the obscurantist irreverence of high modernism.  But it also foreshadowed science fiction's obsession with  the aesthetic possibilities of modern science's uncanny image of the world.

Pataphysics was certainly on Jarry's mind as he composed his essay on time travel.  To publish it, he used as his pseudonym the titular protagonist of his novel The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, the manuscript of which he had just completed.  In fact, while pataphysics had simply been a central theme in that novel, "Commentary" was not a work of fiction but rather a piece of pure pataphysics.  It is written in the form of a scientific paper, and Jarry's knowledge of recent science and mathematics was such that it turned out to be so convincing an imitation that two eminent British scientists mistook it for a genuine scientific work.1  

Jarry begins "Commentary" much as the Time Traveller in Wells' novel does: with a discourse on the nature of time as a fourth dimension rather than a medium categorially distinct from space.  He then proceeds to outline the principles by which a time machine can travel, and gives a detailed sketch of its inner workings.  By the end of the essay, Jarry has prepared the reader for a metaphysical climax: a short section in which he tells us that in time as viewed from the vantage point of the machine, we are able to recognize a fundamental aspect of all time-experience, for which he uses his beloved Lycée teacher Henri Bergson's term: duration.

Had Jarry lived longer - he died at age 34 - I like to imagine he would have become one of the founding fathers of science fiction.  Perhaps the genre would not have developed at such a distance from the other great developments in 20th century literature, or from philosophy for that matter.  Perhaps Jarry might eventually have met Wells, and they would have co-authored the ultimate pataphysical scientific romance.  But as things actually happened, Jarry spiraled into poverty, alcoholism, and illness at a terrifyingly young age.  And while Dadaists, Surrealists, and other high moderns took up his work and celebrated it as inspiration for their own, his recognition among science fiction writers would have to wait until the 1960s, when early New Wave writers like J.G. Ballard rediscovered him.

**For Roger Shattuck's translation of "Commentary," click here.  For a more up-to-date translation, cf. Jarry, Alfred. Brotchie, Alisdair & Edwards, Paul (eds.) Adventures in 'Pataphysics (London: Atlas Press, 2001), pp. 211-218.

(1) As recounted by Alisdair Brotchie in his Alfred Jarry: a Pataphysical Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), p. 241.

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