Sunday, November 2, 2014

Praxis would destroy many of my fantasies - Paul Scheerbart invents perpetual motion machines

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.


  1. This sounds like fun, although I've heard he goes on and on and on...

  2. Ironically, the book is only about 80 pages, and a third of that consists on increasingly elaborate diagrams.

    but of course the book is short - perpetual motion machines don't work!

  3. Thank you for your singular posting. I note with interest your link to a site entitled Writers No One Reads. I'm off to it now. I am expecting not much more of interest than irony (which is probably unintended).

  4. Really? I usually find the stuff at that site pretty interesting. They don't literally mean no one. That's ironic, I guess.

  5. Well, after visiting the site, I (slightly) revise my comments. The irony of the site remains overwhelming, but I would add this observation: when we stop to consider the numbers of books published each year that never find readers in any significant numbers, we must wonder about the authors' and publishers' (for lack of a better word) optimism. Then you add another layer: consider all the books that hardly anyone read in the past (e.g., Moby-Dick) but became worldwide favorites in later generations; perhaps I will find some similar future winners at the site. In the meantime, I continue to enjoy browsing the site's archives. And finally, there is this: what a drag for authors to have their books finally get recognition at the site. Sad, sad, sad. But enough of my rambling. It has been one of those days. Forgive the incoherence. It must be the meds. Hooray for big pharma!

  6. Almost every author at Writers No One Reads is long dead, so only their heirs are sad at this point. Sites like that are treasure houses for extensive readers like me. How they work for intensive readers like you, I am less sure.

  7. Are you familiar with a similar site, Neglected Books? It is consistently interesting. Btw....I hardly consider myself an intensive reader. I am not even sure what that means. I am perhaps more of a peculiar reader -- my responses to texts are often more peculiar than other readers' responses. My current profession is hardly compatible with my peculiar nature. So be it.

  8. Yes, Neglected Books is interesting too.

    You keep returning to the same books, or the same kinds of books - intensive. Extensive readers are always hopping to the next book. Exploring where I have settled - intensive - versus wondering what's on the other side of the hill - extensive. Both kinds of reading are good. Either can be peculiar.

    The terms come from book history.

  9. Thanks for the link.....I will be looking more closely at book history.....all the best from the Redneck Riviera, where more than readers are peculiar....

  10. I have lots of catching up to do on your posts, but how nice to return after weeks away to find this one. Such a delightful little book. Scheerbart's desire to escape "the material world…the imperfectly functioning mechanism of life" is perhaps even more apparent in The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White, in which his characters spend more time floating in zeppelins than they do touching the ground.

  11. I don't know if I got it across at all, but this is one of the lightest books I have read in a long time. Somehow it is written in a way that it felt like it could just float away.

    I think your review introduced me to Scheerbart.

  12. Now this is original. The drawings remind me of some Dada drawings. I guess they appreciated his work.

  13. The drawings are a treat, and there are dozens, mostly with minor variations until Scheerbart scraps the whole thing for a new design, which then starts to evolve.

  14. A great find! I knew Scheerbart only from Erich Mühsam's memoirs and one or two short stories in some obscure almanachs.

  15. For some reason there has been a recent burst of Scheerbart translation. A compilation titled Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!! just came out last month - from University of Chicago Press!