Convulsive Beauty: What (Is) ‘Pataphysics (Is)(?)

By Daulton Dickey


‘Pataphysics is the science of blasting particles with thoughts designed not to blast particles. It is the exception within the obscene. All thoughts twist and squirm until the world is perverted, or disentangled. Alfred Jarry, who has been a corpse far longer than he was alive, founded the science, then posthumously spit it out, offering a somewhat opaque definition in Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, which we need not quote here. 

For our purposes, here’s the quote:

Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.

To their lineaments: imagine superimposing a concept over an object but overlaying a structure onto the concept—there you’ll have a moat in your eye. 

But what’s the moat?

The truth, as far as I’m willing to admit it, is that you can’t define ‘Pataphysics. Any definition will—and by necessity should—contradict any other definition because ‘Pataphysics is interested in the particular and in the exceptional, and one particular or exceptional definition begets another particular or exceptional definition. Soon, we’d have an infinite loop of definitions, a spiral of words spilling into other words and upsetting the already confused.

And if we compared all definitions for general themes or ideas, and we used those to construct a definition, then that definition would be negated by the fact that it’s a general definition, contradicting the science of the exceptional. Or of the particular. But then what if a general definition drawn from myriad definitions is itself exceptional? That would only hold until someone drew up another general definition. Then we’d relegate the original general definition, and all those that followed, to the dusty heaps of the hallucination we call history.

Alfred Jarry on a bicycle (via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to say how Jarry imagined or envisioned ‘Pataphysics. Reading Dr. Faustroll opens possibilities but says little about probability. And probability matters far more than possibility, but only insofar as we’re trying to define the concept. In the world of applied pataphysics, possibility far outweighs probability. 

In terms of literature, Jarry forced the possible onto the probable, building a frame for windows opening onto possible worlds. He called such novels ‘hypothetical novels,’ in that they described hypothetical worlds and didn’t try to simulate ours. Throughout Faustroll, for example, Jarry piled puns and absurdities atop obscure metaphors—much of the novel describes journeys to hypothetical lands, or islands, themselves metaphors alluding to people Jarry either liked or disliked. His friends and enemies danced with the worlds spiraling out of his imagination, and in the spiral we catch glimpses of ‘Pataphysics.

We could even go so far as to consider spirals the most important images of all. In his revolutionary play, Ubu Roi, Jarry gave us Ubu, a rapacious idiot who steals a kingdom, and runs it into the ground. In an illustration of Ubu, Jarry incorporated a spiral into the king’s belly. The spiral itself represents mathematical precision, a concept found both in pure mathematics and in nature. But the spiral as Jarry might have perceived it deals more with perception than with precision. 

In ‘Pataphysics: A Useless Guide, Andrew Hugill says of the spiral:

[D]rawing the spiral in fact creates two spirals: the one that is drawn and the one that is described by what is drawn. This echoes the plus-minus, or that which is and that which is not, in simultaneous existence. In pataphysics, mutually exclusive opposites can and do co-exist.

Spiral motions run seamlike through pataphysics, evoking its energy, timelessness, headiness, absurdity, and self-contradictions. It describes the nearly repetitive flow of history from a pataphysical perspective: endlessly passing again, yet distant from, the same point.

The real portrait of Monsieur Ubu (via Wikimedia Commons)

So the question remains: what is ‘Pataphysics? In a way, it is whatever you want it to be. It’s the undrawn spiral carved within the trenches of the drawn spiral, defined by ineffable and shifting aspects of perception. 

To define ‘Pataphysics is to betray it, in a sense. And it’s to betray other definitions, those self-involved tildes approximating the intangible honeycombs we superimpose over everything we perceive, or even consider. It’s the trenches of a spiral curling around itself by never overlapping, a complicated circle folding in on itself and confusing more than it defines.

And so we can assert without fear of impregnating bafflement: ‘Pataphysics is the science of blasting particles with thoughts designed not to blast particles. It is the exception within the obscene. All thoughts twist and squirm until the world is perverted, or disentangled.

And if that doesn’t simultaneously strengthen and dissolve the moat, nothing will.

Daulton Dickey is a pataphysical surrealist currently living in Indiana. He’s the author of Flesh Made World, Still Life with Chattering Teeth, and other books he failed to publicize.