What is ‘Pataphysics you ask? Surely something high-minded and science-y; like physics but “pata”…? Well, yes and no; but mostly no. ‘Pataphysics is the study of imaginary solutions; a supposition based on a supposition, what lies beyond reality. Assumptions built on assumptions, the fearful imaginings and anxieties of life- for instance seeing someone you know and then assuming they are ignoring you and then wondering why they are ignoring you.
‘Pataphysics has its origins with French writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), an Absurdist to the core. Jarry shot to fame at the age of 23 with his play, Ubu Roi, a humorous, satirical and biting 5 act piece that was shut down after its opening night. Might have had something to do with the first word in the play being “Merdre!” (or “SHIT-R!”- Jarry had a unique way of speaking that was the inspiration for the title character where he pronounced everything, even silent letters)- which caused pandemonium in the crowd. (Alfred Jarry on a bicycle which he called “that which rolls”)
After his brief bit of fame, Jarry succumbed to the life of the bohemian, drinking heavily and dying in poverty. However, his impact and that of ‘Pataphysics is one of those strange, invisible hands that helped shape contemporary culture. Picasso, also a frequenter of the Parisian scene, became fascinated with Jarry after his death, wearing Jarry’s pistol around his neck.
In 1948 ‘Pataphysics acquired a second life with the founding of College de ‘pataphysique in Paris. Members included notables like Joan Miro, Marcel Duchamp, and Eugene Ionesco. Even the philosopher Jean Baudrillard identified himself with the absurdist philosophy. So we can definitely see a clear lineage from Jarry’s absurdist ‘Pataphysics to the work of Dadaists and Surrealists. In the 1960s Asger Jorn also subscribed to ‘Pataphysics which influenced his work with the Situationist International. From there Pataphysics hotspots popped up all over the world. Oh yeah, John Cage’s seminal Black Mountain College performance in the 50’s? Chalk it up to ‘Pataphysics!
The ‘pataphysic effect has influenced not only visual art, but also music and literature. The Pataphor (coined by writer and musician Pablo Lopez) is an extended metaphor that describes two degrees of separation (rather than one, which would be a metaphor). It describes a new and separate world where the idea has taken on its own life (for an example click here.)
Beatles fan? In “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” what is mentioned as the course of study for Joan? That’s right, “Pataphysical Science.”
And the best thing!? It’s still around! After going underground in 1975, the College de ‘Pataphysique reemerged in 2000. The London chapter especially is thriving with an actual journal, documents, and all the trappings of sophisticated officialness. So there! Art doesn’t have to be serious to be great or influential. Sometimes the greatest truths are found within the absurd.