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.
PATAPHYSICS AND THE REVELATION OF LAUGHTER
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:
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).”
TREATISE ON PATAGRAMS
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.
PATAPHYSICS THIS MONTH
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:
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.
THE PATAPHYSICS OF GHOSTS
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.