Return to Previous Page

What is 'Pataphysics?

Alfred Jarry (Ethernity), 1973
Thomas Chimes, American
Oil on panel
21 3/4 x 17 3/4 inches
Private collection
In 1964, Thomas Chimes received from his brother-in-law the May-June 1960 issue of the Evergreen Review, devoted to Alfred Jarry, and entitled "What is 'Pataphysics?" It was through this publication that Chimes became interested in the French writer’s invented science of 'Pataphysics, which Jarry defined as "the science of imaginary solutions," and the journal has remained the artist’s "bible" ever since.

Jarry explores 'Pataphysics in his dauntingly dense masterpiece Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, 'Pataphysician (Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, 'Pataphysician). Jarry presents a highly imaginative alternative universe where even the most absurd and contradictory propositions make sense. Faustroll offers a positive vision of the future, in which 'Pataphysics will harness the energy of the universe to extend the laws of science and physics and push the possible to the limits of the imaginable, thus anticipating quantum physics and many other scientific developments of the twentieth century. Jarry's idea of extending frontiers clearly appealed to Chimes, who remains fascinated by the author’s search for a new reality through humor and a heightened vision informed by science, poetry, classical learning, religion, and, above all, an unfettered imagination that allows his mind to conjure a supplementary universe made up entirely of exceptions:

'Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be—and perhaps should be—envisioned in the place of the traditional one, since the laws that are supposed to have been discovered in the traditional universe are also correlations of exceptions, albeit more frequent ones, but in any case accidental data which, reduced to the status of unexceptional exceptions, possess no longer even the virtue of originality.

From Paris to Paris By Sea
From Paris to Paris by Sea, 1988
Thomas Chimes, American
Oil on canvas
18 ½ x 22 ¼ inches
Courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia
In this "neoscientific" novel, which was published posthumously in 1911 (although a few fragments of the book had appeared in the Mercure de France in 1895), Jarry’s protagonist, Doctor Faustroll, embarks on a Homeric voyage "from Paris to Paris by sea," navigating across dry land in a sieve with his two companions, Panmuphle and Bosse-de-Nage. The trio’s peregrinations carry them to exotic locales inhabited by Jarry’s friends or enemies, where a variety of adventures, discussions, and a great banquet ensue. After sinking his skiff, Faustroll dies, but his death does not prevent him from continuing his scientific explorations, which now focus on the ethereal realms beyond the physical world, as in his "telepathic letters" to the Scottish mathematician and physicist Lord Kelvin regarding the latter’s experiments in measurement, matter, and light. Finally, Faustroll undertakes the ultimate 'Pataphysical experiment: ascertaining the surface and nature of God, which he determines to be "the shortest distance between zero and infinity."

A testimony to the validity of paradox, Faustroll's vessel also reveals Jarry’s consummate skill in recasting scientific documents into literature. The skiff is constructed from woven quartz fiber and coated with melted paraffin. When placed in water, the skiff would stay afloat according to the laws of surface tension, weightless membranes, surfaces without curvature, and the elastic skin of water demonstrated by the English physicist Charles Vernon Boys. All of these phenomena were central to Boys's experiments, the findings of which he published in 1890 as Soap Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them, and which were appropriated and embellished by Jarry. Jarry’s obsessively detailed and seemingly logical explanation of how the elongated sieve is not only seaworthy, but also unsinkable, typifies his synthesis of the absurd and the rational in Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, 'Pataphysician, in which the author unrelentingly contorts external reality through a complete embracement of contradiction and paradox. Faustroll's ever-dry floating sieve, which should leak and sink, due to Jarry's logical reversal can be used safely as a skiff. Having established the magnificent seagoing properties of the sieve, which is propelled by oar blades and three steam rollers, Jarry informs the reader that "we shall not be navigating on water but on dry land." There is, of course, no hint of irony or sarcasm in the novel’s tone, which always remains clipped and inhumanly pompous, like the "official" language of the military or government bureaucracy.

On his travels in the sieve, which trundles through the streets and sidewalks of Paris, Faustroll and his companions visit fourteen islands or countries, each of which are subsumed by the world of a specific artist, writer, critic, composer, or scientist, among them Aubrey Beardsley, Emile Bernard, Pierre Bonnard, Félix Fénéon, Paul Gauguin, Stéphane Mallarmé, Rachilde, Marcel Schwob, and Paul Valéry. Each island is an imaginative synthesis of that figure’s own writings, pictures, or ideas, often expressed by Jarry through affectionate parody.

This idea of a hallucinatory voyage to the imaginative realms of a particular artist or writer would provide the impetus for Chimes's extraordinary series of panel paintings in the 1970s, which were similarly intended to refer less to the subject represented than to the ideas that person generated. The panel portraits, as well as the more recent white paintings, are all informed by Jarry's farcical, tongue-in-cheek philosophy of 'Pataphysics, which defies rational explanation. 'Pataphysics opened up for Chimes a new and exciting vocabulary of esoteric, quasi-scientific imagery, along with a pantheon of like-minded "father figures" to whose contributions to the world of ideas he continually pays homage.

Defining 'Pataphysics:

Evergreen Review
Cover of the "What is 'Pataphysics?" special issue of the Evergreen Review, no. 13 (May–June 1960)
" 'Pataphysics: philosophy of the gaseous state. It can only define itself in a new language as yet undiscovered because too obvious: tautology. More than that: it can only express itself in its own terms and consequently it doesn’t exist....
The rules of the 'Pataphysical game are more terrifying than those of any other. It is a narcissism of death, a lethal eccentricity."
—Jean Baudrillard

"The 'Pataphysical approach does not consist in forcing oneself into catching people red-handed being inconsistent, but in making obvious, in valuing even, this universal characteristic we are generally encouraged to disavow or ignore (which in fact means simply submitting to it), and thereby making it more real than ever....
The 'Pataphysician is not afraid of contradictions, and even less so does he, in his behaviors, avoid this aberration; rather, he employs it to study the manifestations of the world, like a physicist with his weights and measures. He gives himself up to contradiction only in full knowledge of the circumstances, and with pleasure moreover, because for him there is no hint of that sadness and despair suffered by the usual philosophers of the absurd who are still no doubt stuffed with nostalgia for severity and order." —Jean Borzic

"Anyway, one of the fundamentals of 'Pataphysics is that of Equivalence, which may explain to you this obstinacy we have with regard to what is serious and what is not; for us there is no distinction: it is 'Pataphysics. Whether it suits us or not, everything we do is 'Pataphysics."
—Boris Vian

"If mathematics is the dream of science, ubiquity the dream of mortality, and poetry the dream of speech, 'Pataphysics fuses them into the 'common sense' of Doctor Faustroll, who lives all dreams as one." —Roger Shattuck

"Make no mistake about it: 'Pataphysics 'Pataphysicies itself through the 'Pataphysics of 'Pataphysical Modes." —Dr. I.L. Sandomir

"If physics proposes: 'You have a brother and he likes cheese,' then metaphysics replies, 'If you have a brother, he likes cheese.' But 'Pataphysics says: 'You don’t have a brother and he likes cheese.' " —Georges Perec

"The merit of 'Pataphysics is that it has at least confirmed that there is no metaphysical justification for forcing everyone to believe in the same absurdity." —Asger Jorn

"Simplicity does not need to be simple. Instead it should be forged of complexity that has been compressed and synthesized." —Alfred Jarry

"['Pataphysics], knowledge of the specific and irreducible, is therefore the opposite of physics." —René Daumal



Definitions of 'Pataphysics quoted in Alastair Brotchie, Stanley Chapman, Thieri Foulc, and Kevin Jackson, Pataphysics: Definitions and Citations. London: Atlas Press and the London Institute of Pataphysics, 2003.

Return to Previous Page