An Introduction to 'Pataphysics'

An introduction to 'Pataphysics

The 'Pataphysical Museum and Archive resides in a converted room in a spacious north London house. Swimming in portraits, drawings and paraphernalia it is, at first glance, a tribute to the French playwright Alfred Jarry, a precursor to the theatre of the absurd, dadaism and surrealism whose best-known play, Ubu the King, is currently being revived at the Barbican. The archive, however, celebrates another aspect of Jarry's legacy - his invention of an esoteric philosophy that defies rational belief.
This philosophy is called 'Pataphysics, but it's hard to fathom just exactly what it stands for. With the help of two of London's pre-eminent 'Pataphysicians and a little book of 120 definitions of the science, I attempt to understand.
"Just choose any definition you like," I'm told.
"Any definition?"
"A lot of them are completely wrong of course, but it wouldn't be 'Pataphysical to exclude them."
"Oh. Thanks." 'Pataphysics (the apostrophe is meant to be there) is probably best understood as that which lies beyond metaphysics. Correct definitions are equivalent to wrong ones; all religions are on a par as imaginary and equally important; chalk really is cheese. It's an escape from reality - reminding us of just how idiotic the rules that dog our everyday existence are.
But while Jarry, immersed in the artistic circus of literary Paris in the early 1900s, may have conceived of 'Pataphysics, it only flourished after his death when, in 1948, a collective of avant-garde writers and artists set up the College de 'Pataphysique.
With early members including Eugene Ionesco, Joan Miró and Marcel Duchamp, the college revived Jarry's works and was the first to stage Ionesco's plays. The Oulipo or Workshop of Potential Literature - a literary movement famed for inventing writing constraints - was formed as a sub-committee. (Typical of Oulipo methods is Georges Perec's 300-page novel, A Void, written without the letter e).
In 1975, the college made a decision. It was to go underground and see what happened: an experiment in survival. For the next 25 years it was a secret - emerging only in 2000 happily confident it could remain intact. Today, it's a thriving organisation of more than 1,000 members. The upper echelons still bulge with literary luminaries including Umberto Eco. Nonsensical bureaucracy is its hallmark and with a remit to conduct useless research, the college seems more of a joke than a serious enterprise.
'Pataphysics is indeed becoming an international quasi-science. Affiliated organisations have sprung up all over the world, even in Mongolia. The London Institute of 'Pataphysics has more than 100 fee-paying members, if no formal premises. Mostly artists, they engage in regular activities that can only be described as outrageously pretentious. There's a Committee of Hirsutism and Pogonotrophy determined on fertilising their beards, a Department of Reconstructive Archaeology building model time machines based on Jarry's writing and, best of all, the Department of Pottasons whose project is to satirise the other projects.
Quite what the members themselves make of their organisation is difficult to tell. They seem to see their philosophy as an elaborate pose while at the same time affording it a beguiling degree of gravity. Though perhaps, deep down, it is merely a sign of respect for a long dead playwright.


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