Review: Pataphysical Essays by René Daumal
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Metaphysics is that, despite the Universe, it somehow manages to take itself seriously.
When I say ‘Metaphysics’ here, I mean two things: 1) the legacy of those Great Bearded Thinkers whose psychic concepts and guttural neologisms have been preserved in the spiritual brine of academic pretense, 2) the white-smock’d tradition of speculation, investigation, and Latin recapitulation. Shorthand for these is ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Science.’
As a result of cultivation, or culture, we wrinkle our noses at the thought of these two creatures somehow commingling. What we fail to realize, however, is that ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Science’ emerged from the womb joined at the abdomen and the thighs. They shared the same flesh and scratched each other’s itches. In centuries past, a dichotomy drawn between Philosophy and Science would be as sensible as – say – a seperation between math and arithmetic.
On the microcosmic level, Philosophy and Science appear to be unrelated entities. On the left, you have Philosophy: a self-referential system of psychological speculation, cosmoligcal exposition, and abstract intellectual theory. On the right, you have Science: a self-referential system of physical speculation, mathematical exposition, and abstract chemical theory. On the macrocosmic level, we soon see that these systems and specualtions are the langauge of metaphysics.
In other words, Metaphysics is the Siamese flesh of Philosophy and Science. Philosophy and Science are rhetorical, and rhetoric is nothing more than peacocking. This is why it only takes one word to boot a Scientist or Philosopher off his high horse: “So?”
Enter ‘Pataphysics, the science of “So?” As described by French writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) in Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, the term means: “the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.” Jarry also goes on to say that pataphysics “will study the laws governing exceptions, and WILL EXPLAIN THE UNIVERSE SUPPLEMENTARY TO THIS ONE.”
In Pataphysical Essays (Wakefield Press, $12.95), newly-compiled collection from René Daumal (1908-1944) and brilliantly translated by Thomas Vosteen, Daumal shows that:
This “supplementary universe” is the inside-out world where the dead and the dreamers go, according to primitive beliefs; it is the hollow mold of this world; put this world in its mold, and nothing is left, nothing hollow, nothing extruded, just one unified whole.
‘Pataphysics, in other words, is the philosophy of other words (worlds). And in Pataphysical Essays, this is the world examined, catalogued, and unfurled. This is the world where the currency used for drilling the deep wells of knowledge is measured in thomasaquinases; the world where humans, according to cobblestones, are “social bipeds unskilled in measuring the number π.”
In the introduction to his translation of Daumal’s essays, Vosteen places Daumal and other pataphysicians within the context of the absurdities of the Great War (xi). As WWI not only wreaked havoc across the continents, but also utilized new forms of technology, reconnaissance, and battlefield tactics, it was clear that a new strain of evil had seeded in the fields of modern consciousness. Atrocities were larger, more powerful, and less sensible. The structures of self-deception decomposed in kind. Knowledge came to be revealed as a facade intended to cast a new coat of white on landscapes paved with ash and bone. This intention, of course, was informed by the mechanisms of science, philosophy, religion, and various combinations thereof.
Thus, you have Daumal writing a poem about war:
What I am going to make won’t be a real, poetic, poet’s poem for if the word “war” were used in a real poem—then war, the real war that the real poet speaks about, war without mercy, war without truce would break out for good in our inmost hearts.
For in a real poem words bear their own facts.
But neither will this be a philosophical discourse. For to be a philosopher, to love the truth more than oneself, one must have died to self-deception, one must have killed the treacherous smugness of dream and cozy fantasy. And that is the aim and the end of the war; and the war has hardly begun, there are still traitors to unmask.
Originally, for Daumal, the so-called ‘pseudo-philosophy’ of ‘Pataphysics presented something like a tongue-in-cheek solution to the problems of metaphysics. However, as Vosteen notes, Daumal was once ‘berated’ by his friend (and Dadaist), Julien Torma, who said, “Putting metaphysics behind ‘Pataphysics is like making belief into a mere facade, when in fact the real nature of ‘Pat is to be a facade which is only a facade, with nothing behind it.” This itself hearkens back to the Shakespearian philosophic concoction via Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”
Daumal thus delved unreservedly into ‘Pataphysics, which for him, signifies nothing. The first essay of the book, Pataphysics and the Revelation of Laughter, is something like the embellishment of the sound and fury. Laughter, rather than reason or method, is what grants one access to the Universal, though we can be nothing but particular, but not even this particularity can be taken seriously because “every form is absurd once taken seriously.” In response to this seriousness, which tries incessantly to stake pride in its existence (“I am a man!” “I am a man!”), Daumal writes:
Contemplating these immense efforts expended at each moment to convince oneself of an arbitrary affirmation, my breath falters and shakes me from head to toe. “I am a man?” Why not say, “I am Alphonse,” or “I am a wholesaler,” or “a crook,” or “a mammal,” or “a philosopher,” or “a proud animal”?
Laughter is thus the context for these essays and fragments. Many of them read like encyclopedia entries for a photocopy’d version of Earth, which has some semblance to our own, but is still somehow different in unquantifiable ways. For this reason, people dismiss ‘Pataphysics as something like a tongue-in-cheek science or winking pseudo-philosophy, but by such skillful and playful undermining, Daumal manages to show that, yes, this is pseudo-philosophy, but all philosophy is pseudo-philosophy and all science is pseudo-science. The only difference between Daumal and Kant is that Daumal knows its a joke.
As such, this is a very dry sort of humor which only occasionally lapses into outright ridiculousness. This style of absurdity is often what makes these proto-surrealist exercises seem coy, but Daumal writes like a dreamer weaving in and out of various states of consciousness. Some of these states resemble our standard realm of interchange, whereas others manage to be more subversive. No doubt this literary/cognitive style was informed by Daumal’s own experiments with psychoactive drugs, which included, but were not limited to, the inhalation of carbon tetrachloride. (Daumal died of tuberculosis at 36, largely due to these experimentations.)
Pataphysical Essays is a short but satisfying read. Not only does it serve as a mirror of Daumal’s own era, but it doubles as a guidebook to our own. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say then that the greatest accomplishment, not only of Metaphysics, but of the entire Modern Age, is that it somehow continues to manage to take itself seriously. There’s nothing behind the facade, save a slight trace of carbon tet.
Publisher: Wakefield Press
Pataphysical Essays by René Daumal, with a translation and introduction by Thomas Vorsteen, will be available May 2012. Preorder now.
The next time someone asks me who I am, I am definitely going to respond ” a social biped unskilled in measuring the number π.” that’s about as good as a description as ever I heard.