Notes on Strange Fiction: The Pataphysical Quirk
Strange fiction is built from quirks -- words or phrases reading as images or image-combinations that breach the base-line subjunctivity level of "could have happened" attaching to any sentence read with a suspension-of-disbelief. Quirks come in different flavours according to (amongst othet things) the type of impossibility they embody, temporal or nomological. Dividing temporal impossibility into technical and historical, we get the hypothetical novum and the counterfactual erratum. Understanding nomological impossibility as a transgression of the laws of nature, we get the metaphysical (supernatural or extra-natural) chimera.
There's a third level of possibility identified by philosophers. While this is sometimes equated with the nomological/metaphysical (where the laws of nature are considered a priori truths -- essential and necessary in and of themselves,) a more useful distinction can be made (where we allow for the laws of nature to be considered a posteriori truths). The third level of impossibility is, in this schema, the logical. A dilating door is a novum, and a Nazi US president is an erratum; these are temporal impossibilities (one technical, the other historical). A crescent sun is a chimera, a nomological impossibility. A word or phrase reading as an image or image-combination that is a contradiction-in-terms is a different flavour of quirk altogether. (It would be useful to have a name for these quirks of illogic, I have to say, but nothing springs to mind right now. Suggestions are welcome.)
So how do these quirks of illogic feature in strange fiction?
Left turn, Clyde.
Illogic in literature is one of my interests, including that which arises from narrative discontinuities, jarring juxtapositions of apparently unrelated scenes, cut-up and fold-in threads of story that are irresolvable into a coherent causality. Delany's DHALGREN does this effectively on a number of levels, from the circularity of its structure (the half-sentence that begins the book completing the unfinished half-sentence which ends it, a la FINNEGANS WAKE) to the upside-down journal entries spliced into the narrative towards the end. A different but comparable type of discontinuity is to be found in the story that climaxes his Neveryon sequence, "A Tale of Plagues and Carnivals", where events in his invented elsewhen are intercut with events in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Right turn. Clyde.
Delany's reference, in one of the appendices to the Neveryon books, to the writer Guy Davenport was enough to intrigue me enough that, coming across a copy of Davenport's collection of short stories, ECLOGUES, in a bookshop, I picked it up out of curiosity. In that collection there's a story called "Idyll" which I've referenced on numerous occassions as a core influence on my own work.
The story begins in ancient Greece with a contest of insults between a shepherd and a goatherd. (Like much of Davenport's work it is imbued with a Fourieresque utopianism and homoerotic sensualism that is both deeply appealing in its relish of the world's intellectual and sensational richness and deeply unsettling in its openness to critique as pederastic apologia.) The story pivots radically, however, when a dialogue exchange between the characters becomes a transition from ancient Greece to the American Civil War. Without quite being able to point to precisely where in the narrative this happens, the reader realises they have crossed a seam in reality. The two characters have morphed into soldiers in the mud and misery of a more modern conflict. The name of the story and the juxtaposition of Arcadian pastoral with modern warfare make for a fairly obvious meaning in the bold contrast -- the reader is not left utterly baffled -- but the shift is a deeply strange structuring. If a surface "message" seems self-evident in the juxtaposition, a deeper, more liminal meaning is coded in the congruities of the two spliced-together scenes (the seam of more abstract continuity between them) and in the negative space between them (the seam defined by their spatio-temporal incongruity). I find this story endlessly fascinating.
On the back cover of this Davenport collection I came across the term "pataphysics"* for the first time, in a blurb describing Davenport as one of the world's foremost pataphysicians. At the time I remember finding that strange term also quite intriguing. What the fuck, one asks oneself, is pataphysics?
Left turn, Clyde.
The Wikipedia entry is not entirely unhelpful but the characterisation it offers is by no means instantly comprehensible. Roughly speaking, it describes pataphysics as the study of what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics. The term coined by Alfred Jarry, it was defined by him as "the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments". The wikipedia entry also offers Raymond Queneau's description of pataphysics as founded "on the truth of contradictions and exceptions."
Here's my own take on it, a suggested interpretation of pataphysics which might be a little less opaque:
As metaphysics is to physics, so pataphysics is to metaphysics. If this seems like gibberish, we can understand the relationship in terms of levels of possibility. Where physics deals with (the limits of) temporal possibilities, and metaphysics with (the limits of) nomological possibilities, pataphysics deals with (the limits of) logical possibilities. Physics examines our world for its temporal structure of material cause-and-effect. Metaphysics steps outside the domain of physics in order to build models of nomological substructure that might (theoretically) allow for apparent circumventions of material cause-and-effect. Pataphysicis is the next step, necessary because metaphysics accepts the limitations imposed by logic. Where metaphysics creates models of systems that are (or are meant to be) coherent and comprehensive (because consisent and complete, as Godel tells us, is too much to ask), pataphysics creates diagrams of systems that focus on the contradictions and exceptions as significant in their own right.
Pataphysics is the study of logical impossibilities. Where temporal and nomological impossibility is artificed into narrative in the form of hypothetical / counterfactual and metaphysical quirks, logical impossibility is artificed into narrative in the form of pataphysical quirks.
But what does that mean in practical terms? What does a pataphysical quirk actually look like?
Just as it's not that difficult to situate novae, errata and chimerae in textual specifics ("The door dilated," "President Himmler sat in the Oval Office," "The crescent sun was high, the moon low,") pataphysical quirks are not so hard to pin down, I think, as it may at first seem. Understanding that the basic unit of illogic is the contradiction-in-terms, we can define the pataphysical quirk as a use of words or phrases (reading as images or image-combinations) that generates an inherent self-contradiction in the narrative, something that renders a sentence literal nonsense. Chomsky offers one possible example in the sentence "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously," which is actually a self-contradiction in a number of ways: anything green cannot be colourless; the quality of colour is not an attribute of ideas; ideas cannot sleep; sleep cannot be done furiously. The definitions of the terms make them incompatible.
In its simplest form then, the pataphysical quirk is an oxymoron like Chomsky's nonsense sentence. In practice, however, the basic oxymoron is not a very common form of the pataphysical quirk, possibly because we're often able to apply simple transformations to these sort of oxymorons, reinterpret them as metaphoric sense or bad writing rather than nonsense. An oxymoron like "The silence was deafening," can be read figuratively. An oxymoron like "He froze, turning his head slowly to look," can be understood as simply sloppy prose. (It's a sentence like this in the first few pages of THE DA VINCI CODE that made me stop reading.) And in strange fiction particularly the tendency to concretise metaphor in the form of conceits makes us prone to reading pataphysical quirks as metaphysical quirks. One can imagine a strange fiction narrative in which Chomsky's sentence makes sense:
In the metaphysical elsewhen of Morphologyland, ideas are living creatures, gelatinous and transparent like amoeba when newborn. Into this elsewhen are born two new ideas -- Modernity and Postmodernity. Dismissed by their elders as too green to deal with the world, these naive young ideas resent their low status, but not on a conscious level. The ideas of Morphologyland, you see, are so emotionally repressed they can only really experience their anger while dreaming. By day, Modernity and Postmodernity frolic in the fields, blithely unaware of the ire building within them. At night however, under a gibbous moon, these colourless green ideas sleep furiously, twitching and snarling in their fitful slumber.
If we're looking for pataphysical quirks then, we have to look beyond the simple oxymoron. The oxymoron does however point us in the direction we need to look. The underlying illogic of the oxymoron resides in the fact that it consitutes a simultaneous negation of the very assertion it is making. It is a breach of coherence, a violation of the cardinal rules of composition that apply within a linguistic system, a statement which paradoxically denies its own validity, flaunting its self-evident artifice. If we treat this violation of the system as the core feature of the pataphysical quirk, then we might begin to see, I think, how they can be constructed from far more sophisticated mechanisms.
The wikipedia article on pataphysics offers an interesting avenue for investigation in the idea of the "pataphor", a figure of speech that is to the metaphor as the metaphor is to the literal representation, one that creates an additional degree of separation between the narrative and its context. So if a literal representation of the context would have a character "make it clear exactly where they stand," and a metaphor would have them "lay their cards on the table," a pataphor would transform the metaphor into a new context, have the character "lay their cards on the table, then pick them up and start building a house of cards". While concretised metaphors may be written into the strange fiction of novae, errata and chimerae, and this sort of fantastication therefore quite familiar, the pataphor is noticeably distinct in the fact that it concretises the metaphor, in this example, as it occurs, violating convention in the most fundamental way, rendering the whole narrative as unpredictable and metamorphic as a dream. We might easily follow that pataphor with another, a description of the character "unlocking the door of that house of cards, picking up the mail from the mat as they walk in."
The pataphor is not all there is to it however. The typographical tricks of concrete poetry can also be understood as pataphysical quirks, as can those of books like Danielewski's HOUSE OF LEAVES, or Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION or THE DEMOLISHED MAN, violating the sequential structure of prose. The portmanteau puns of FINNEGANS WAKEare pataphysical quirks, every single one of them, from riverun onwards, violating the structural integrity of the words themselves. The interpolated, upside-down journal entries in Delany's DHALGREN are pataphysical quirks, as is the sentence split between end and beginning, fusing the narrative into a (logically impossible) loop. The collaging of narratives in "A Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" makes each section and each interstice between them a pataphysical quirk. Wherever we find such collage, in fact -- in the elegantly structured order of Guy Davenport's "On Some Lines of Virgil" or the cut-up and fold-in chaos of William Burroughs' THE NAKED LUNCH -- what we are dealing with is pataphysical quirks.
In short, any such disruption, anything which fucks with the conventions of the system, ruptures the linear continuity of the text, breaks it up into pieces and puts it back together in non-consecutive patterns, collapses it into itself or splays it out into reality in a metafictional breaking of the "fourth wall", any violation of the integrity of the narrative.-- can be considered a pataphysical quirk. If novae, errata and chimerae can be said to dislocate the narrative, in fact, shift it in one of three "temporal dimensions" -- the "forwards" of the hypothetical, the "sideways" of the counterfactual, the "up/down" of the metaphysical -- then the "fourth dimension" of potential dislocation can be said to be the pataphysical, that dislocation which breachs the "inner/outer" boundary between narrative and context.
The pataphysical quirk is not new. One very good reason, in fact, for gathering these variant techniques together under an umbrella term, understanding them all as pataphysical quirks, is that it's well past time we ceased referring to techniques that have been around in Western literature for over a century (and possibly much longer) as "experimental". These techniques are no longer experimental, and the writers that utilise them are no longer experimentalists. The pataphysical quirk is tried-and-tested, it has specific effects, and the writers that use it as are as often as not entirely aware of what they're trying to achieve with it.
So, what are the effects of the pataphysical quirk then?
Let's look at a very simple form of the pataphysical quirk as a starting-point. We can scale up an oxymoron such as "He froze, turning his head slowly to look," into the more complex sort of narrative non sequiturs we get in absurdist or surrealist fiction, the discontinuities that give these works their oneiric quality, the discombobulation engendered where the sentences don't build up into a sensible sequence. The pataphor outlined above may result in this, but the effect can also be achieved by straightforward self-contradiction. To take a visual example, in Bertrand Blier's film BUFFET FROID there are two such pataphysical quirks right at the start of the film, strangenesses which serve to establish its agenda.
In the opening scene, a commuter waiting in an otherwise empty Metro station is disconcerted by a conversation with a character played by Gerard Depardieu, in which the latter talks of his dreams of murder and displays a potential weapon -- a flick-knife. The setting is uncannily deserted but for these two and the conversation rich with non sequiturs, but the real quirk comes when the flick-knife is laid down on a seat behind them only to have disappeared when they next turn to look for it. One might, at a stretch, imagine that one of the characters has surreptitiously pocketed it, or that someone has snuck in and across the large empty space of the platform to steal it, staying out of shot at all times; neither of these fancies is remotely plausible however. The knife is simply there one moment, gone the next.
The second quirk seals the deal, in fact. After being kept out of a train by the alarmed commuter, Depardieu is seen walking through a tunnel of the station -- where he finds the commuter who we've seen leave on that train just seconds ago. Depardieu's flick-knife is stuck in his stomach, and the dying man's description of his attacker is pointedly applicable to Depardieu. Again there is a strangeness to the presentation -- an absence of blood, a casual acceptance in the way both respond to the situation -- but it is the discontinuity that is the core of the strangeness. The narrative simply does not make sequential sense. The implicit cause-and-effect connections of the shots (like that which binds the sentences of written fiction) renders the whole series of events an inherent self-contradiction.
Pataphysical quirks such as these often invite a reading of the narrative as oneiric, the discontinuities modeled on those of dreams, the whole narrative as a representation of a dream even. This is, I'd say, one potential reading of BUFFET FROID, suggested right at the start by the unreal quality of the deserted station, the casual attitude of the characters to the strange situation, perhaps even specifically hinted at in Depardeiu's casual disclosure that he dreams of murdering strangers. In Michel Gondry's THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP similar pataphysical quirks of narrative non sequitur are explicitly sourced to dreams. The narrative is comprehensible as a night-time recombination and fancification of a day-time situation that can be at least partially reconstructed. Likewise, we might read BUFFET FROID as a dream of the day-time counterpart of Depardieu's character, reconstructing some of his reality from the alienation and existentialism articulated as much in the setting as anything else. His loveless relationship with his wife, their home in an otherwise empty tower-block in La Defense, her eventual murder -- these could be read as pointers to an external reality.
With BUFFET FROID this reading remains largely a projection of the viewer however, with little more than Depardieu's early mention of dreams to suggest it. An equally viable (and equally suppositional) reading is possible in which the grim desolation is that of some sort of existentialist Hell. The films sits easily within that mode of strange fiction which represents the afterlife as an amnesiac reiteration of the bleak misery of reality. The depopulation of the cityscape, the casualness with which murder is committed throughout the film, the fact that most characters seem entirely willing to despatch others without regret, the fact that Depardieu's murdered wife's corpse has an expression of relief -- much of the strangeness of the film makes perfect sense if we simply imagine that this is a murderer's circle of hell. So, Depardieu, having committed some murder in reality, has been damned to a cold inferno inhabited by characters with as little empathy as himself, spiritless souls whose only course in their empty afterlives is to repeat their crimes upon each other until they themselves are (presumably) sent to oblivion through murder. The murder of the commuter at the start of the movie is, in this reading, a presentation of his own culpability to him. While Depardieu buries this in his amnesiac denial, editing his action out of the incident, he remains sufficiently aware of this guilt to question, wondering aloud to his wife and others as to whether it's possible that he did actually murder the commuter.
This reading of the film is, of course, just as much a projection, a rationalisation which is ultimately unneccessary and reductive. In this type of narrative, the point is not to find a "solution" to the strangeness, the underlying "actual truth" which makes everything sensible. In THE BIRTHDAY PARTY by Harold Pinter, it's not really relevant what "organisation" Stanley might or might not have left. In THE PRISONER it doesn't really matter whether the Village is run by the British, Russian, American or Ruritanian secret service. To look for such literal reductions is, as often as not, to miss the entire point. The pataphysical quirk is there to disrupt this process of rationalisation, to strip away the self-serving logic of cause-and-effect, to disjoint our stories of self and world, present us with the bare bones of the dynamics that our relationships with self and world are based on, the meat of isolated actions and situations. BUFFET FROID translates from the French (for anyone that doesn't know this) as COLD CUTS. It is the same image that underlies the title of William Burroughs seminal work of cut-up and fold-in narrative non sequitur: THE NAKED LUNCH. Burroughs explained his title as representing the moment of realisation that comes when one looks down at the dead meat on one's plate and understands exactly what it is.
This is pataphysics.
As Guy Davenport demonstrates, though, this is not all that pataphysics is, not all it can be. The illogic is not necessarily used to expose brutality, the bleakness of an amoral universe empty of intrinsic meaning. This is certainly a tendency in pataphysical writing, in which the absurd and the cruel often go hand in hand, but the technique of the pataphysical quirk is simply a technique. Like any technique it can be used with quite different objectives in mind.
Michael Winterbottom's movie NINE SONGS is a narrative which utilises pataphysical quirks to great effect (as I've blathered on about at great length previously). To be fair, the disruption of the system is subtle and restrained, the narrative of a relationship told through largely dialogue-free sex scenes separated by nine gig scenes (the nine songs of the title), emphasising the artifice of the cut-between-scenes as a mild quirk in its own right but maintaining the linear order; the intercutting of this structure with a diegetic framing narrative -- shots of Antartica from the sky with a voice-over by the protagonist as he arrives -- is the only substantial breach of continuity. Nevertheless, this formalism reveals a purposeful and powerful pataphysics in action.
By stripping away all conversational melodrama and pseudo-meaningful story, Winterbottom presents the course of an entire relationship through these wafer-thin slices of scenes which consist almost entirely of two people fucking. What he understands and articulates masterfully is the degree to which people relate without language, simply through the way they behave to and with each other. Infatuation, resentment, forgiveness, pity -- every act of sex in the film is an act of communication, a dynamic exchange composed of actions and reactions which speak volumes about the characters and their relationship. Even at its most artificed -- through this artifice, in fact -- NINE SONGS achieves a realism that makes the staged conversations of most realist cinema look as phony as the insufferable babbling of Dawson's Creek. Each snapshot moment encapsulates a state, every congruity and interstice between them suggests a transformation, and -- assuming the viewer actually gets it -- the film resolves into an excruciatingly tender and poignant portrayal of a relationship. As far from affectation as one can get, it becomes an incredibly natural and sincere representations of a relationship.
The result was, of course, criminally misrepresented by reviewers who seemed to just miss the point entirely for the most part, focusing on the reality of the penetrative sex acts filmed by the camera. Interrogating the film for some grand controversialist statement on the relationship pornography and art, most reviewers apparently failed to glean the fact that the actuality of the intercourse was only a means to an end -- a rendering of sex at the level of detail necessary for it to function as a visual language. If NINE SONGS implictly asserts, by example, that the filming of actual intercourse normally associated with pornography is valid as a technique in art, that assertion bears as much relevance to a reading of the film as if one were to read SNOW WHITE as a movie about the relationship between animation and feature-length cinema. As the first full-length animated feature, SNOW WHITE does make an implicit assertion, by example, about the validity of animation as a technique in feature-length moving pictures. Disney were, in fact, quite concerned as to the audience's response, whether viewers would accept a movie-length cartoon. While this may be of interest to a historian of cinema, it is hardly an incisive comment on the movie as a work of art.
There's clearly a relationship between pataphysics and postmodernism, but that relationship is not one of identity. The conflation of the techniques and one project that utilises them is another good reason for rearticulating the discourse; all too often any work that uses these sort of systemic ruptures is glossed as postmodernist (or postmodern experimentalist, in a combination of the two glib labels) when it may be far from this. Where postmodernism plays in the ruins of modernism, its ludic gamings of narrative safely couched in archness and irony as often than not, and as often as not refusing the whole notion of meaning, defiantly irrelevant, where it fragments the narrative with quirks of illogic in order to make it abundantly clear to the reader that all of this is mere artifice (because God forbid we take the strangeness seriously) this is only one application of the technique.
That technique, we shouldn't forget, was inherited by postmodernism from the modernists whoo came before them. Hell, it's arguable, I'd say, that postmodernism can be seen as simply a sort of nihilist/existentialist modernism. If modernism sought to craft grand meta-narratives that could explicate the Big Picture of the human condition, fusing rationalism and romaticism, modern science and ancient myth, the postmodernism which claims to reject all such grand meta-narratives sounds suspiciously like a meta-narrative in its own right. The end of history? Yeah, OK, whatever.
Davenport was, I'd say, about as modernist a writer as you can get. Pataphysics in his hands was all about the restoration of the archaic in modernity. It's no accident, I think, that he writes of the death of Picasso in one story and, in another, of the discovery of the cave-paintings of Lascaux that resonate so deeply with the imagery of the bull that dominates much of that painter's work. Or that the dog in that story of discovery is called Robot. In Davenport, the fragmentation of story born of a pataphysical approach is not a declawing of the narrative. It does not reduce everything to a ludic artifice, an ironic game to be enjoyed on a largely intellectual level. Enthusiasm is as much a key word in terms of his fiction as is elegance, and in its most ancient sense -- en-thusiasmos... having the god within.
To put this in the context of the last entry on seams, with much pataphysical fiction, it seems to me, the very point of the fragmentation is not to show how really all we have is this multiverse of idios kosmoi [sp.?] -- realms of individual subjective reality; rather it is to refocus the reader on the seams, not just as the boundaries between these realms but as the interstitial spaces we travel and, in fact, in which much of the real action takes place.
So, yeah, that -- as far as I'm concerned -- is what the "pataphysical quirk" is all about. Now if only I could think of a name for it. As I say, suggestions welcome.
*Jarry called it 'pataphysics, but I'm dropping his apostrophe here cause pataphysics is poncy enough in its own right without making it more so. Sue me.