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Pataphysics is dead serious

By Pascal Engel.

Pataphysicians have the reputation of not being serious. Indeed they seem to have elevated the spirit of non seriousness to the status not only of an art, but of a science, pataphysics itself. As Richard Marshall says in his illuminating account of pataphysics: “The pataphysicist insists that nothing is serious, including pataphysics. The riddling nature of this injunction reminds us that the goad and guide of paradox requires agnosticism that can take more than one form.” The lives of the great pataphysicians, first and foremost, Alfred Jarry, illustrate this attitude. Can a man who asks for a toothpick on his deathbed be serious? Can a College which has Committees for Hirsutism and Pogonotrophy or a calendar with names of months such as Phallus (Phalle) or Pshit (merdre) , and whose members devote a large amount of time to spoonerisms and to Oulipo games such as writing novels without the letter “e”, be really serious? Indeed, His Magnificence Irénée-Louis Sandomir, the founder and first Vice-Curator of the College, says in his Opus Pataphysicum: “Doesn’t serious mean anti-pataphysical”? And the College’s specialist of spoonerisms, the Regent Luc Etienne formulated the main axiom:”The real pataphysician takes nothing seriously, except ‘Pataphysics, which consists in taking nothing seriously”, and added a corollary: “‘Pataphysics consisting in taking nothing seriously, the true Pataphysician cannot take anything seriously, not even ‘Pataphysics”.

As Richard Marshall reminds us, the root of the non-seriousness of pataphysics are in two of its main doctrines. The first is metaphysical(sorry!): pataphysics is a form of generalized fictionalism, according to which everything, from science to religion, is fictional. Pataphysics, says Jarry in his Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll, is “the science of imaginary solutions which attributes to lineaments the properties of objects described by their virtualities”. In his famous introduction to pataphysics, The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck compared pataphysics to the doctrine of the German post-Kantian philosopher Hans Vaihinger, who in his Philosophie des Als Ob argued that all our intellectual constructions are but fictions. The second doctrine is logical: pataphysics rejects the principle of non-contradiction, and accepts worlds were contradictions are true, thus anticipating the views of paraconsistent and dialetheist logicians. But, as Richard Marshall aptly comments, pataphysicians rather than accepting the dialatheist claim that some contradictions are true, should accept that all contradictions are true, that is they ought to accept trivialism. As Marshall says: “This is the view that all contradictions are true and therefore, assuming that a conjunction entails its conjuncts, that everything is true. Priest and Sylvan want to resist this last entailment. If the ‘Pataphysicist recognises the usefulness of distinguishing truth from falsehood then they will be happy to embrace the conclusion that everything is true on the grounds that it is a stirringly useless conclusion.’

Richard Marshall got it right about pataphysical logic. But he could have pushed his reasoning further. It is a mistake to infer, from the fact that pataphysics is not serious, that it is not serious. For, in the first place, if pataphysicians reject the principle of non-contradiction and accept trivialism, they ought to infer from the fact that pataphysics is not serious, that it is serious (for this is a true contradiction). In other words, they ought to accept that from P, one can infer not P, or from not P that one can infer P. They ought to accept that anything follows from anything .(Alternatively we could also say that the pataphysician accepts the notoriously absurd connective tonk invented by the logician Arthur Prior (“The roundabout inference ticket, Analysis, Vol. 21, No. 2, (Dec., 1960), pp. 38-39, ) which obeys two rules only: from A infer A tonk B, or from B infer A tonk B, and from A tonk B infer A, or from A tonk B infer B . E.g from Honky one can infer Honky tonk women, and from the latter one can infer women ( hence from honky one infers readily women , which will surprise nobody)). Now they also deny also the principle of identity, according to which from P one can infer P. In other words they ought to deny that from the fact that pataphysics is not serious,on can infer that it is not serious. They ought to infer instead that it is serious. For remember Ubu’s spiral gidouille, which contains also the motto of the college of pataphysics: Eadem mutata resurgo , “I give back the same as different”. So either way, whether you reject the principle of contradiction or the principle of identity, from the fact that pataphysics is no serious, it follows that pataphysics is serious. So pataphysics is indeed serious. In the immortal words of Irénée Louis Sandomir: “Le sérieux est total” ( complete seriousness reigns).

Having now proved, a priori and by the principles of pataphysical logic, that pataphysics is, contrary to the popular interpretation, utterly serious, let us now proceed to verify empirically and inductively this claim ( for pataphysics not only revises deductive logic, but also inductive logic: only a few cases of X being F allow us to infer inductively that All Xs are F). So I shall give only a few examples in order to show that all true pataphysicians are serious.

But before that I need to address one worry with the claim that pataphysics is serious (or not serious). What does “serious” mean? If it is a vague word, which can be applied, by easy steps, like in a sorite kind of reasoning of the same form as If X is a heap of sand, then removing one grain leaves us with a heap, etc). Where does the frontier between seriousness and non seriousness lie? Perhaps one cannot be absolutely serious, and being serious or not is a matter of degree. This would perhaps be conform to the pataphysical logic, which, one might expect, rejects also the principle of excluded middle : either A or no A. So the pataphysician would be both serious and non serious, neither serious nor non serious. But if it were, it would be devastating for the nature of pataphysics. For there are two doctrines which are crucial for the pataphysician. The first is, as we saw, global fictionalism, the view that everything is fiction. The second is neutralism about values, or what the pataphysician calls the principle of equivalence: all values are equal, there is no hierarchy of values, hence no hierarchy of what is “important” as opposed to what is not important. But if we say that there is no difference between what is serious and what is not serious, we cannot sort out what is fictional from what is not fictional, everything becomes fictional. And how could we study he “imaginary solutions” if they were not imaginary? How could we assert that no value has precedence if it turned out that there is no difference between what is valuable and wha is not valuable? Similarly how could we say that a piece of discourse is ironical if we could not oppose it to a discourse which is not ironical? Similarly for “metaphorical” and “fictional”. Here Richard Marshall is again right when he warns us not to mistake pataphysics with a kind postmodernism, whether in its Baudrillardian guise- according to which everything is fiction – or Derridean ( and Nietzschean) view that there is no difference between metaphor and literal truth. The pataphysician is neither a postmodern nor a Nietzschean. He is a Victorian ( remember that Lewis Carroll was a Victorian too): there are things which are serious, and things which are not serious, and one must not only see clearly which is which, but also follow the Right Path of Seriousness. The pataphysician therefore needs a sharp distinction between what is serious and what is not. He cannot accept the view that some things are more or less serious, or more or less non serious, and he cannot accept the idea that certain things are more or less laughable. No: he must accept that certain things are laughable, and that we must take them seriously. For how could we take them seriously if they were not laughable? As Sandomir said in his inaugural speech: “The Collège de pataphysique has been created to study these problems, the most important and the most serious of all: the only ones which are important and the only ones which are serious”.

Indeed seriousness cannot be simply a stance or an attitude that one takes towards life, human endeavors and productions. I must a have a certain content, relative to certain subjets. But what kind of concerns, topics or questions are supposed to be serious? Indeed toothpicks, spoonerisms, anagrams and hair on the one hand seem not to be very serious, whereas on the other hand money, health, happiness and justice seem to be. And here one cannot deny that the pataphysician has apparently more interest in the first than in the second. All the manifestos of the Collège de Pataphysique claim that the seriousness to which they are opposed lie in the cult of utility. One can therefore predict that pataphysicians ought not to be utilitarians. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill ought to be their enemies. But this is wrong, and it is actually the other way round: the pataphysician is interested in useless objects or actions because they are serious, not because they are useless. They can indeed be serious, depending on the context. When Jarry asks for a toothpick on his deathbed, he means that it is a matter of life and death to get him a toothpick. And what can be more serious than death? To this it might be objected that Jarry himself did not care very much. He used to fire a gun in his flat. A woman who lived next door came to him and said : “ You are going to kill my children!” – “Never mind, said he, we shall make others”. Famous pataphysical figures, like Ubu and Julien Torma do not apparently care for life and death. But here we have to correct another mistaken picture: pataphysics is not a form of Dadaism or of Indifferentism. The pataphysician takes matters of life and death very seriously, he has a great respect for life, because he has a great respect for death. And what can be more serious than death? Death is the very point where seriousness appears: “No more laughter!” “Fini de rire !”.

Let me, finally, illustrate my claims with some cases. I shall pick up only three.

The first is Jonathan Swift, whose birth is celebrated in the pataphysical calendar. In his famous Modest Proposal, he suggests that in order to remedy famine in Ireland, one cooks newborn babies. Was he joking? Was he providing what is considered today as a paradigm of literary irony? Indeed he was, in his ferocious irony. But he was, in his feelings and values, dead serious: he meant that children in Ireland were starving, he was not suggesting that he was indifferent to their fate. Swift was an Anglican rationalist, who revered truth and justice. Swift was deeply serious, but he loved puns and jokes. In his Life of Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson reports that “His favourite maxim was “Vive la bagatelle:” he thought trifles a necessary part of life, and perhaps found them necessary to himself.” As Swift’s epitaph at Saint Patrick Cathedral says, Swift was taken permanently by “saeva indignatio”. Indignation is not the kind of feeling that someone who is not serious can indulge into.

The second case is Jarry’s own. As the author of Ubu roi, of such novels as Le Surmâle or Faustroll, Jarry’s reputation has been that of a pre-dadaïst, for whom nothing matters and who elevated the jokes of Rennes schoolboys about their ridiculous professor of physics to the status of a mock Shakespearean tragedy. But as all his readers know, Jarry was also a mystic, formed in the catholic religion, strongly influenced by the symbolism movement, and a disciple of Rémy de Gourmont. Many of his works, from Caesar Antechrist to Absolute love , refer to the Absolute as a focal point located between the finite and the infinite. Can a mystic be a joker? Probably, as the earlier examples of Isidore Ducasse or of Rimbaud show. But if one believes in the Absolute, it is not clear that one can easily draw the line between what is serious or not. In Le mendiant ingrat ( The Ungrateful Beggar) , one of Dr Faustroll “peer” books which Jarry praised as being the foundation of his inspiration, Léon Bloy says :
« It is odd to remark that when one has, like me, found one’s home in the Absolute – I really mean, in the Absolute – it becomes almost impossible to assert or to deny anything without seeming ironical » (« C’est une remarque bizarre que, quand on est, comme moi, installé, domicilié dans l’Absolu, — vous m’entendez bien, dans l’Absolu, — il devient à peu près impossible d’affirmer ou de nier quoi que ce soit, sans avoir l’air ironique » )

It seems to me almost impossible that Jarry, quoting this book, has not meditated this sentence. The standpoint of the Absolutist is necessarily ironical.

The third example is Raymond Queneau’s Le dimanche de la vie (The Sunday of life, 1952 ). The novel tells us the story of a rather naïve provincial man from Bordeaux,(Bru settles in the XIIth arrrondissement in Paris, which is almost suburban. Queneau, who liked to call himself a suburban writer, lived in Rueil Malmaison) Valentin Bru, is the incarnation of an Hegelian hero, for whom life is forever still, and who has reached the end of History, he state where Reason ( (i.e for Hegel Reality itself) is identified to its very Concept, which is the Absolute. What could be more serious? Queneau’s novel is a comment on Hegel’s comments on Brueghel ‘s paintings of village life: “It is the Sunday of life, which makes everything flat and removes every evil: such joyful people cannot be intrinsically bad or vile.” Who could be more serious, as a philosopher, than Hegel? In the preface of his Phenomenologie des Geistes, Hegel famously denounces those books which do not bear the marks of “seriousness, pain, patience and the work of the negative”. Queneau, like many people of his generation, was fascinated by Alexandre Kojève commentaries on Hegel ‘s Phenomenologie des Geistes, and his work is often seen as an indirect commentary of Hegel.(For an account of the influence of Kojève on a whole generation of French thinkers, see Vincent Descombes, Modern French Philosophy)At the very same time when Queneau was writing his novel, Maurice Blanchot wrote his major works were death is a main character, which are a reflection on how language can deny reality to objects, hence bring their death. Not totally unexpectedly, we can bring together Blanchot and Queneau as representatives of the seriousness of pataphysics (and I find it very odd that the College de patahysique as not elevated Blanchot as one of the transcendent satraps).

The last word will be given to Blaise Pascal, one of the writers who would be the least suspect to have any sympathy for the pataphysical outlook, and who, as mystic, incarnates the essence of the spirit of seriousness. In his Provinciales (XI Provinciale, par.14), Pascal argues here that the use of laughter and humour in one’s writings on theology is not only tolerable, but commandable. About the Jesuits’ mistakes, he says, not only laughing at them is not an offens to charity, for charity sometimes obliges us to laugh at the mistakes of men in order to lead them to laugh also at themselves and free themselves from these errors. Pascal was giving the formula to the mystical pataphysician : in order to be serious, be non serious.

The conclusion should now be obvious. From these three cases – but one could display many more – I conclude, from the first rule of pataphysical inductive logic, that From Some Fs are G, one can infer that All Fs are G,that all pataphysicians are serious. Pataphysics is not only serious, it is dead serious.

Pascal Engel studied philosophy at Ecole normale Supérieure rue d’Ulm, the Sorbonne and at UC Berkeley. Before coming to Geneva in 2006, where he is director of Epistemè, he has held posts in the Universities of Paris XII, Grenoble, Caen, Paris IV Sorbonne, and has held visiting positions in a number of universities among which Montréal, Hong Kong, Tunis, Athènes, Aarrhus, Canberra, Oslo, Nottingham et Leuven. He has written on the philosophy of logic, philosophy of language and on the philosophy of mind. He is currently working on issues in epistemology, especially the epistemology of belief and epistemic norms. He is also interested in theories of truth and is formerly Auditeur Réel of the Coll. De Pat.(97-103 EP)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 19th, 2014.