Event: German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie’s Literary Life and Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat.
Book: The Perpetual Motion Machine by Paul Scheerbart (1910).
Scheerbart describes his various attempts to invent a perpetual motion machine, a “perpet.”
You have to imagine that you are actually in the box K, that this is a kind of vehicle, and the source of power is the effect of gravity on the weight L, which turns the giant wheels in such a way to launch the whole thing forward, with poor terrified me trapped in the dangling K-car. The whole concept is based on an imaginative misunderstanding of gravity.
All through the month of March 1908 I wrote astral novellas, which took place on asteroids where the force of gravity is weaker than on earth. (32)
Scheerbart calls his creations not inventions but “stories.” The book is a memoir, but also a novel that the author enacted in order to create the book, and also a parable about imaginative creation. The potential of a story leads to a reconfiguration of society:
It’s somewhat tiring and trying, to picture this kind of building activity; a couple thousand utopian novels could be written on this subject alone. (27)
The thought of a thousand utopian novels is what I find trying, and thus it is a relief to have Scheerbart imagine them for me.
This was without a doubt one of the most beautiful periods of my life; I had completely forgotten the Earth. I was doing very badly in terms of finances, but I didn’t care. I constantly argued with my wife, telling her that our dire straits themselves were a sign that something better was coming our way. Yet I was never quite able to win her over to this point of view. All the same I was so happy – as one can only be when constructing and working out the implications of new worlds… (36-40, ellipses in original)
I believe the irony is clear enough in this passage to demonstrate the tone of the book. It does not matter that the “stories” do not work. No, it is better:
These are naturally only fantasies. Actual reality is always completely different and destroys a good many fantasies. And so I must honestly confess that I really don’t wish very strongly for the perpetuum to becomes practically usable. Praxis would destroy many of my fantasies. This I know with certainty. (81)
As a glutton, I was dismayed to learn on p. 59 that Scheerbart is one of the people who dislikes eating: “It’s always been deplorable that we can’t just derive our sustenance from air.” A page of scifi Schopenhauer follows, as the transcendence of earthly things leads us to our more authentic “astral existence.” The gravity Scheerbart wants to escape is that of the material world, of the imperfectly functioning mechanism of life.
Recommended to anyone who does not mind some abstraction in her science fiction, or mechanical diagrams in his novel of ideas.
Andrew Joron is the translator, Wakefield Press the publisher. More Scheerbart at seraillon and at Writers No One Reads.