Saturday, 18 June 2011

Alfred Jarry (8/9/1877 -1/11/1907) -Life as a riot

The following is a companian to my post earlier this week by J.G.Ballard.
Mr Jarry was a man whose entire existence seemed to be devoted to fun , pleasure and mischief. Best known I suppose for his epic burlesque  play 'Ubu Roi ' , which was first performed in 1896 when he was twenty-three. Ubu who he let loose on the world was a grotesque figure, a personification of human greed, cunning and treachery. Jarry devoted himself to chaos , but also  also managed throughout his wild but  pleasurable life to write plays, novels, essays and journalism.
He wrote a series of notes and reviews for  ' The Wild Duck'  a satirical,  anarchist, anti-clerical paper named after the Ibsen play.

He developed the Ubu theme in further plays including 'Ubu Cocu', and in his Rabelaisian-cum -symbolist epic 'Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician' he invented a character as important and intersting to modern readers as Ubu himself.
His works are now considered major precursors of surrealism, Andre Breton and the surrealists hailed him as an immediate predecessor and Ubu as a prophetic figure. Although the coarsness of his language was deliberately shocking, Jarry's humour was often metaphysical in nature. He would for example, often give a logical demonstration in lucid style of an absurd proposition. Ubu  gave us a terrifying image of the animal nature of man, his cruelty and ruthlessness.
Born in Laval, Mayenne, France, he was of Breton descent, moving to Paris when he wa 17 where he gained attention for his poetry and prose poems and general outlandishness behaviour.
A life of bachaalian excess was his main preoccupation, drinking was to him his 'sacred herb' and absinthe in particular made his heart warm.
A mephisto in miniature ,wild, extravagent and unhibited, in his use of language,permanently dressed head to toe in black,another devotion was to cycling, an obsession . His life lived hardcore to the extremes, an anarchic adventurer chasing the sweet excesses of the absurd.  A hardcore eccentric he also took very seriously the art of taking nothing seriously and referred to himself in the third person. Often painting himself green, in homage to his favourite tipple, eating his  meals in reverse , adapting his own living quarters to such an extent that visitors had to stoop on entering his myterious lair, which was full of strange things.. He followed closely the footsteps of his hero Rabelais. Reading a book by Jeremy Reed at moment called ' Isodore' about Isidore Ducasse who called himself the Comte de Lautreament (1846-70) and who wrote 'Les Chant de Malador whose dark , brooding, haunted world Jarry also belonged to. Jarry also owes a debt to Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarme, visionaries too, revolting against the rational. A lot of his writings predate science fiction in their othertherworldiness.

Illustration for Ubu

Welcomed by many symbolist poets , painters and journal writers, because of and not despite his extremity.
Throughout all  his excessives , he maintained his sense of humour, and his unigue sensibility. Speaking with exagerrated and flowery precision. Drink practiced as discipline! He wrote ' anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so solvent and corrosive than out of all substances, it has been chosen for washing and scourings, and a drop of water, added to a clear liquid like absinthe, muddies it'. That's right he took his absinthe neat, and when  without funds resorted to ether.
People could apparently tell when he was coming, because sometimes he did not wash for long periods, and he had a general disorder about him, guzzling from whatever drink he had available, whilst swaggering around waving  two pistols, which he  had about his person,at all times, between riding his bicycle in hell raising style,often in a drunken haze, but how I imagine how he must have dazzled, this swaying subversive, dressed head to toe in tall stovepipe hat and  black hooded cape, full cycling gear worn at all times, a wildness about him , that makes many a modern rock god look like mere pussycats.
Almost mythological now is his status, burning bright, dissipating suddenly into the Paris night.
Never bowing to boring convention, this inspiring  even on his death bed, his last words  which were " Bring me a tooth pick."
What a guy, what a time. My god he must have dazzled. Long may his memory be kept green. We are all Ubu, still blissfully unaware of our destructiveness, the world still rich in its ridulousness..

What follows is a small selection of his writings

The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race

Barabbas, slated to race, was scratched.
Pilate, the starter, pulling out his clepsydra or water clock, an operation which wet his hands unless he had merely spit on them - Pilate gave the send-off.
Jesus got away to a good start.
In those days, according to the excellent sports commentator St.   Matthwe, it was customary to flagellate the sprinters at the start the way a coachman whips his horses. The whip both stimulates and gives a hygeinic massage. Jesus, then, got off in good form, but he had a flight right away. A bed of thorns punctured the whole circumferance of his front tyre.
Today in the shop windows of bicycle dealers you can see a reproduction of this veritable crown of thorns as an add for puncture-proof tires. At Jesus's was an ordinary single-tube racing tire.
The two thieves, obviously in cahoots and therefore "thick as thieves," took the lead.
It is not true there were any nails. The three objects usually shown in the ads belong to a rapid-change tire tool called the "Jiffy."
We had better begin by telling about the spills; but before that the machine itself must be described.
The bicycle frame in use today is of relatively recent invention. It appeared around 1890. Previous to that time the body of the machine was constructed of wo tubes soldered together at right angles. It was generally called the right-angle or cross bicycle. Jesus, after his puncture, climbed the slope on foot, carrying on his shoulder the bike frame, or, if you will, the cross.
Contemporary engravings reproduce this scene from photographs. But it appears that the sport of cycling, a a result of the well known accident which puta grevious end to the Passion race and which was brought up to date almost on its anniversery, by the similar accident of Count Zborowski on the Turbie slope - the sport of cycling was for a time prohibited by state ordinance. That explains why the illustrated magazines, in reproducing this celebrated scene,show bicycles of a rather imaginary design. They confuse the machine's cross frame with that other cross, the straight handlebar. They represent Jesus with his hands spread on the handlebars, and it is worth mentioning in this connection that Jesus rode lying flat on his back in order to reduce his air resistance.
Note also that the frame or cross was made of wood, just as wheels are to this day.
A few people have insinuated falsely that Jesus's machine was a draisienne, an unlikely mount for a hill-climbing contest. According to the old cyclophile hagiographers, St. Beiget, St. Gregory of Tours, and St.Irene, the cross was equipped with a device which they name  suppedaneum. There is no need to be a great scolar to translate this as "pedal."
Lipsius, Justinian, Bosius, and Erycius Puteanus describe another accessory which one still finds, according to Cornelius Curtius in 1643, on Japanese crosses: a protuberance of leather or wood on the shaft which the rider sits astride - manifestly the seat or saddle.
The general description, furthermore, suits the definition of a bicycle current among the Chinese: "A little mule which is led by the ears and urged along by showering it with kicks."
We shall abridge the story of the race itself, for it has been narrate in detail by specialized works and illustrated by sculpture and painting visible in monuments built to house such art.
There are 14 turns in the difficult Golgotha course. Jesus took his first spill at the third turn. His mother, who was in he stands, became alarmed.
His excellent trainer, Simon the Cyrenian, who but for the thorn accident would have been riding out in front to cut the wind, carried the machine.
Jesus, though carrying nothing, perspired heavily. It is not certain whether a female spectator wiped his brow, but we know that Veronica, a irl reporter, got a good shot of hoim with her Kodak.
The second spill came at the seventh turn on some slippery pavement. Jesus went down for the third time at the eleventh turn, skidding on a rail.
The Israelite demimondaines waved their handekerchiefs at the eighth.

The deplorable accident familiar to us all took place at the twelfth turn. Jesus was in a dead heat at the time with the thieves. We know he continued the race airborne but that is another story.
The deplorable accident familiar to us all took place at the twelfth turn. Jesus was in a dead heat at the time with the thieves. We know that he continued the race airborne - but that is another story.

Alfred Jarry's portrait of Jesus's feet.

- Days and Nights, Book IV, Chapter 1

Sengle had taken it for granted that, owing to his proven influence on the behaviour of small objects, he  had the right to assume that the entire world, in all likelihood, obey him. If is not true that the vibration of a fly's wing " makes a bump in the back of the world," because there is nothing in back of infinity, or perhaps because movements are transmitted, accordind to the Cartesian equation, in rings ( it is established that the stars describe narrow ellipses, or, at least, elliptic spirals; and that a man in a desert, believing himself to be walking in a straight line, walks to the left; and that comets are rare phenomoena) - nevertheless, it is evident that a small vibration radiates outward in a series of significant displacements and that the reciprocal world is incapable of moving a reed in such a way as to make it take notice; for this reed, carried along in the retreat - which is never a stampede - of its surroundings, would remain in its particular rank and file and could confirm thaty, from every point of view, its relationship to its surroundings has remained fixed.
Under a glass bell Nosocome had suspended side by side a straw and a cocoon of silk, and verified the fact that a source of animal heat, which brought near, did not displace the enclosed air sufficiently to provoke a liberation. Fromseveral yards away Sengle obtained declinations with a brief glance.
Sengle rolled dice one day, in a bar, against Severus Altesch playing for the first fifteen. He rolled five, five, and five three probable combinations to Severus in advance, while the dice were srill whirling round in the opacity of the dice box. And on the second roll, already drunk on absinthe and cocktails, he threw a five, a four - the bourgeois idiot within Severus cackled derisively - and a six. Nobody would play with him any more, since he was cleaning them out of considerable sums of money.
His strength, having been breathed oiut toward the External, re-entered his body, funnelling into him a deposit of mathematical combinations. Sengle consructed his curiously and precisely equilibrated literary works by sleeping a solid fifteen hours, after eating and drinking, and then ejaculating the result in an odd half hour's scribbling. This could be anatomised and atomised indefinitely, each molecule being crystallized according to the laws of matter, in an ascending scale of vigor, like the cells of the body. Some professors of philosophy rhapsodize that this resemblance to natural processes partakes of the ultimate Masterpiece.

He had absolute confidence regarding practical matters, having always experimented, unless the inducive principle was false, in which case all the laws of physics would be equally false; so that all he needed to do was to rely on the benevolent return of the Externals which would jolt him and trap him in a series of dilemmas, until he emerged, via the inner stairway of salt, at the summit of the Pyramid. And that had never failed him yet.
This repriprocal relationship between himself and the Things which he was in the habit of controlling through his thought processes (but we are all at this stage, and it is by no means certain that there is a differnce, even in time, netween cognition, volition, and action, cf. the Holy Trinity) resulted in the fact that he made no distinction whatsoever between his thoughts and his actions or between his dream and his waking; and perfecting the Lebnizian definition, that perception is a true hallucination, he saw no reason why one should not say: hallucination is a false perception, or more exactly: weak  one, or better yet: predicted ( remembered sometimes, which is the same thing). And, above all he considered that there existed nothing except hallucinations, or perceptions, and there were neither nights nor days ( despite the title of this book, which is why we chose it), and that life goes on without interruption; but that one could never be conscious of life's continuity, or even that life exists at all, without these movements of the pendulum; and the first proof of life is the beating of the heart. The heartbeats are extremely important; but Sengle didn't give a damn for the fact that these little deaths nourish life, an explanation which is no more than a statement of the obvious. Neither did he give a damn for the piddling professor who once postulated that explanation.
The world was simply a huge boat, with Sengle at the helm; contrary to the Hindu concept of the huge Tortoise carrying the tiny universe, the least absurd image was that of the Roman scales, whose fantastic balance-weight was reflected and balanced by Sengle himself ( the balance-beam's fulcrum being a lens, although this hypothesis is contrary to all the laws of optics). More philosophically - ad Sengle, not thinking pride a sin, liked to imagine this grandiose scheme, constructed in observance of the theories of the formation of images, with the rays crossing at the same point as abov- it was indeed Sengle who identified himself with the enlarged image, and the imaginary figure; and the tint world, stood on its head by the projection of its gigantic double on the screen of the other scale pan, toppled under the traction of the new macrocosm, as a wheel revolves.
The concept of this great windmill is perhaps quixotic, but only imbeciles still recognise mills by their grist alone.
And Sengle had dulcnified or deified his strength.

The Man with the Axe
After and for P.Gauguin

On the horizon, with sea-mists blown,
Vague hazards roar and moan
Waves, our demons we array
Where troughs of mountains shift and sway.

Where we sweep into a bay
A giant towers above the clay.
We crawl beneath him, lizards, prone,
Whilst, like a Caesar on his throne

Or on a marble column, he
Carves a boat out of a tree,
Astride in it will give us chase

To where the leagues' green limits lie.
From shore his copper arms in space
Upraise the  blue axe to the sky.

Through the Door...

Through the door and the holes in the wall are crawling;
Through the door and the holes in the wall flights glide.
It's the rustle of hippogryphs' wings and silk falling,
and a flurry of snowflakes, a soft drifting tide.

In the air hover hieroglyphs, darkly enthralling:
Skinny necks twist around in a mischievous pride
To decipher their meaning. Then, wheeling aside,
The flock lights on wasteland, clumsily sprawling,

And marches, a band of prim pundits in column,
Mumbling strange words in a gibberish obscure-
Singkle-minded, their beaks so ascetic ignore

The spiders which gnomes, with their hands far from solemn,
Have displayed in the corners like fruit  on a stand ...
The procession advances to some distant land.

Poems translated by SIMON WATSON TAYLOR


Nothing is terrifying, if it be not a widowed gallows, a
bridge with dry piers, and a shadow which is content to be
black. ear, turning away its head, keeps its eyelind lowered
and the lips of the stone mask closed.


His round hump hides the world's roundness, as his red
cheek rends the lion on the tapestry. Clubs and diamonds are
embroidered on the crimson silk of his garments, and toward
the sun and the grass he makes a benedictory aspersion with
his tinkling aspergillum.


The soul is wheedled by Love who looks exactly like an
iridescent veil and assumes the masked face of a chrysalis. It
walks upon inverted skulls. Behind the wall where it hides,
claws  brandish weapons. It is baptised with poison. Ancient
monsters, the wall's substance, laugh into their green beards.
The heart remains red and blue, violet in the artificial absence
of the iridescent veil that is weaving.

WOOD ENGRAVING BY JARRY - ' Les minute de sable memorial

A Dream of Pere Ubu
Short puppet show based by Guignol by Jarry

UBU ROI , Act one, Scene 2

Selections from:-
Selected works of Alfred Jarry
Jonathan Cape, 1965.
Recommended further reading:-
The Theatre of the Absurd
- Martin Esslin
Pelican, 1982

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