Pataphysical Essays by René Daumal

daumalcover4Pataphysical Essays
By René Daumal
Wakefield Press, April 2012
136 pages, $12.95 (buy it at Wakefield Press)

Rene Daumal is known primarily for his unfinished novel Mount Analogue (which, in ways, was the point of inspiration for Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain) & his novel A Night of Serious Drinking, a narrative examination of issues of reality and spiritualism, set within the never ending halls and floors of a seemingly infinite pub. To others he’s known as a mystic, studying Eastern currents throughout his life; to others he is simply an ex-surrealist, a primo member of le grand jeu; others know him as the rambunctious teenager of A Fundamental Experiment, taking after Rimbaud in a youthful attempt to escape the banality of reality. He was, of course, all of these things. But what seems to most often, perhaps, get overlooked, is Daumal’s position as a ‘pataphysician.

‘Pataphysics, often simply called “the science of imaginary solutions” is a, shall we say, philosophy created (popularized?) by Alfred Jarry at the end of the 19th century. It’s torch has been carried on through the 20th century and into the 21st–publishers Atlas Press being primarily responsible for the publication of the documents of the College of ‘Pataphysics. There is much playfulness present.

Wakefield Press has recently published a collection of Daumal’s essays on ‘pataphysics, and it’s a wonderfully head-scratching collection that perfect sums up the mood of ‘pataphysics.

The translator’s introduction starts the book off strongly, offering both enough of a biographical context for Daumal himself, as well as le Grand Jeu, the sort of post-Surrealist collective Daumal was involved with that found itself far more interested in pataphysics than the surrealists themselves ever had. It’s brief enough to not distract from the text at hand, but perfectly suited to show the importance of both Daumal & pataphysics itself. It establishes a mood in which I, at least, found myself excited for the texts that followed, seeing as Daumal has always held a specific point of interest in my headland, and the translation of further documents, taking place outside of the main realm of his currently available work, becomes a feeling akin to discovering a lost manuscript.

A short essay, Daumal more or less manages to explain his conception of ‘Pataphysics in all its approaches, in a humor-filled, concise mode. Couched within the idea of laughter, I can’t help but compare it to Bataille, especially when considering the following, from Daumal’s essay:

Pataphysical laughter is the keen awareness of a duality both absurd and undeniable. In this sense it is the one human expression of the identity of opposites (and, what is remarkable, in a universal language). Or rather, it signifies the subject’s headlong rush toward its opposite object and at the same time the submission of that act of love to an inconceivable and cruelly felt law which prevents me from achieving total and immediate self-realization–the submission, that is, to that law of becoming according to which laughter is begotten in its dialectical forward march:

I am Universal, I burst;
I am Particular, I contract;
I become the Universal, I laugh.

He later conceives of the most concise & perfect explanation of ‘pataphysics:
“To know x = to know (Everything – x).”

Perhaps simultaneously the most “fun” and “difficult” essay in the entire book. A complex series of titled sections, broken down to even smaller fragments, adding up to… well, something, certainly. There are narrative bits in here, taking pataphysics as the hold of their source, expanding into ideas and sciences–though so hard to mete with reality when you are as much of a luddite as I! Regardless, a terribly fun time to read.

At varying points between 1934 & 1940, Daumal wrote a column for the Nouvelle Revue Francaise called “Pataphysics this Month.” The column is fascinating, and potentially the most transparent (and by transparent I don’t mean devoid of content, but rather clear) way to understand the idea of pataphysics. Short bursts of hyper-intelligent pseudo-science discourse, rooted within the actual discoveries of the day, Daumal maintains an acute prosody throughout, readable almost as poetry divorced from content:

Everywhere, it’s booming, it’s bombing, it’s blasting. Dr. Oliphant is bombarding beryllium; Dr. Cockcroft is bombarding elements 89 to 91. All of them, in their turn, are bombarded by cosmic rays. Belgian scientists are bombarding, with shots of ultraviolet rays, rats coated with tar; result: cancer.

The assonance of the “b,” specifically withing the initial ‘couplet,’ booming/bombing/blasting/bombarding berfyllium; this awkward sound maintains its scientific discourse but is clearly guided by a poetic move.

Though I have to admit, while the humongous number of end notes provided by the translator do help to clarify the content & reality of what Daumal is injecting into his column, its increasingly distracting to have to jump to the end of the book every three sentences just to read a minor biographic snippet on a scientist–clarity, occasionally, is offered via association, but most of the time the end-notes read as entirely unnecessary. They are, certainly, of interest, but perhaps are unnecessary upon an initial read, as it breaks away from the prosody of Daumal’s words.


“What is a hole?” a clown asked his partner in a ring at the Circus Medrano. Having thus quite confused the fellow, he wasted no time in lording it over him: “a hole,” he said, “is an absence surrounded by a presence.” For me, this is an example of a perfect definition, and I will use it to define the object of my interest. A ghost is indeed a hole; but a hole to which are attributed intentions, a sensibility, morals; a hole, that is, an absence–surrounded by presence–by the presence of one or several. A ghost is an absent being amidst present beings. And as it is the pierced substance that determines the shape of the hole and not the absence which that presence surrounds–for it is only in jest that some tell of cannons of bygone days that foundry workers made by taking holes and pouring bronze around them–when we endow ghosts with intentions, a sensibility, and morals, these attributes reside not in the absent beings, but int he present one that surround the ghost.

The final essay in the collection begins as such, and moving forward Daumal briefly addresses the idea of ghosts, in as ‘pataphysical mode as possible. It turns into a hugely poetic game of linguistics that simultaneously serves well a definition of the spectre. The essay is a brilliant example of Daumal’s ‘pataphysics, and a total joy to read.

Overall, the book displays a myopic verisimilitude, covering a wide-range of subjects through the lens of Daumal’s own ‘pataphysical outlook, and as such, stands as a brilliantly literate document.

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