Pataphysics – The Science of What isn’t – Notes and Playlist


This post is part of the material for Strange Times, Strange Tellers course in writing experimental fiction, designed taught by Dave Lordan at The Irish Writers Centre

“Pataphysics is a supplement to metaphysics, accenting it, then replacing it, in order to create a philosophic alternative, whose discipline can study cases, not of conception, but of exception: variance (anomalos), alliance (syzuaia), and deviance (clinamen).”

Pataphysics is a literary movement founded by Alfred Jarry in the late 19th Century and the first self-consciously strange fiction movement of the modern era.

It is a precursor of absurdism, surrealism, and Oulipo, all influential movements in 20th century experimental fiction.

Pataphysics own most obvious precursor is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which some critics have called a world of ‘’opposite values”.

Jarry claimed Pataphysics was not literature atall, but a new science dedicated to the investigation of illogical and impossible worlds, and highly unusual events. The science of imaginary solutions, said Jarry.

Even today, there are ‘pataphysical institutes’ in many countries.

For the Pataphysicist there are three levels to language, and three kinds of writing:

Literal/realist/descriptive. Tom and Jane are a pair.

Metaphorical/poetic/figurative. Tom and Jane are like a pair of shoes – you never see one coming without the other following.

Pataphysical/strange/disruptive: When Snakeskin Jack feels like wearing a pair of shoes that talk a lot, but don’t argue, he puts on Tom and Jane.

The metaphorical is one remove from ‘reality’; it connects the imaginary with the real. The ‘pataphysical’ is two removes from reality, it actively disconnects the imagination from the real world and sets about constructing it’s own separate realm.

I think a good way of thinking about pataphysical writing is as ‘taking a metaphor for a walk’.

Let’s see how this works at the level of a simple sentence:

Literal: Two boys kicked a ball back and forth between them.

Metaphorical: The ball went back and forth between the two boys like a pendulum

Pataphysical: The pendulums kicked the boy back and forth between them.

From one impossible sentence we can begin to construct an impossible world. In what kind of world do pendulums kick boys around?

When the pendulums got tired and slowed down the boy shrunk to an egg and when they sped up he turned into a grandfather in minutes. Once when the pendulums were drunk and on cocaine and had become unbalanced and deranged the boy turned into a rocket and then an artificial sun. The pendulums are not very good company either for each other or the boy. The boy cries and says to the pendulums I want a sister, I want a sister right now but the pendulums utterly refuse this saying only one time at a time is allowed, only one time at a time can be afforded. The boy gives up and stops asking for a sister and for the rest of his tiny eternity repeats only one phrase which everyone hears and knows by heart but no-one ever figures out how to reply to or silence.

The pataphysical is impossible, illogical, playful, at the edges of the recognisable. It disrupts and re-organises and forces us to imagine what we have never before imagined or experienced. With the pataphysical we are always in new territory.

Another way to thing of pataphysical writing is as protaganising figures of speech i.e making metaphors, similes etc into characters and making up illogical worlds and stories. Here is an example – The Iron Lady. In fact, nicknames of celebrities and politicians are a great resource for pataphysical writing e.g Mr. Clutch, Governor Moonbeam, Mr. Dynamite, Queen of Reinvention, Teflon Tony…

The pataphysical writer treats language as a cartoonist treats pictures. Anything that can be depicted can happen in a pataphysical fiction, just as in a cartoon. It doesn’t have to conform to any kind of logic. What is being investigated isn’t the limits of logic, as breaking logics limits is a given, but the extent of the depictable and the limits of the imagination – the limits of language and consciousness and how far into the impossible both can travel together.

Academic Introduction