An Actually-Useless Guide

Andrew Hugill, Pataphysics: A Useless Guide

MIT Press, 296pp, £17.95, ISBN 9780262017794

reviewed by Robert Kiely

The French writer Alfred Jarry (1873–1907) is best known for his play Ubu Roi, staged in 1896. The play managed to upset almost everyone who saw it, thereby securing a lasting legacy; recently revisited by Tom Jenks and Chris McCabe’s adaptation, Ubu Boris. His life appears to have been a string of anecdotes, many involving guns and pregnant women. A list of those he influenced would be terrifyingly imposing; suffice to say that a major web-archive of the avant-garde is called Ubuweb. Alongside Ubu, Jarry left us the related legacy of pataphysics.

Jarry defined ‘pataphysics’ in his posthumously-published Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll, Pataphysician (Exact Change, 1996; first published 1911) as ‘the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.’ To clarify: it is concerned with imaginary solutions which attributes (symbolically) the properties of objects to their lineaments, i.e. to their distinctive features. So, it is an extended exercise in circular-reasoning, with the added caveat that this circular-reasoning be imaginative and symbolic. Jarry also defines it as ‘the science of the particular’, the project to ‘examine laws which govern exceptions’ – pataphysics is, in other words, an extended and verbose oxymoron. This elaborate joke attracted Roussel, Artaud, Duchamp, and many others, to that department of the impossible, the Collège de Pataphysique.

How, given such a topic, and such luminaries to discuss, can anything go wrong? The content surely speaks for itself, it is so fascinating. Well...

The books failings are mainly structural. The chapters are rough-and-loose; subheadings and lengthy quotations abound (which receive little-to-no analysis), so much so that one feels Hugill wants to make an anthology, not a book. Straining to summarise Flann O’Brien’s body of work, he bemoans that ‘[s]pace does not permit the reproduction of five whole novels’! Here is Hugill’s attitude in a nutshell. And it is everything that is wrong with the book. Fascinating content is used throughout as a crutch, while the text limps towards its end, page 226. But even on page 226 there is no consolation prize: it ends with a three-page quotation from the conclusion of Faustroll, a kind of bridge to no-insight. List after quotation after list after quotation is given, with no analysis or synthesising at any point. No conclusion. The inherent absurdity and humour of Jarry’s science is no excuse for such sloppiness.

Hugill repeatedly stresses the difficulty of defining pataphysics; in fact, wallows in it. He goes on to spend a lot of time explaining why he feels Joyce, Zappa, Flann O’Brien and many others are pataphysical. Hugill is on firmer ground when discussing Jarry, the Collège de Pataphysique and the fascinating experimental writing workshop of the 1960s, Oulipo.

This book is a missed opportunity, and it is surprising that it saw print in this state. Hugill clearly knows his subject, but a severe edit was necessary. The subtitle of Hugill’s work, ‘A Useless Guide’, is a bad joke which has unwittingly hit upon the truth. Those who want a good guide to pataphysics might be better served by a trip to The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, or, or a perusal of Alastair Brotchie’s biography, Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life (MIT Press, 2011).

Did I mention how many quotations there are?

Editor’s note: Jarry’s pataphysics is ordinarily denoted with a single apostrophe - i.e. ‘pataphysics. We are reliably informed that this notation was devised by Jarry in order to disambiguate the word from various French phrases for which he feared it might be mistaken. We have taken the liberty of dispensing with this apostrophe in this review, which is written in English.
Robert Kiely is a poet, critic, and book reviewer, currently completing a PhD and tutoring at Birkbeck College, University of London.