This essay is part of my series on pataphysics, the literary trope invented by French absurdist Alfred Jarry. Past essays in the series include: Pataphysics: A Secret Weapon for Creativity and What Happened to Patapsychology?
Among the many definitions of pataphysics, one in particular stands out. It slips and bounces off the tongue. It’s damn lovely, the closest thing to a fully-formed poem a dictionary definition has ever come. It’s this:
Pataphysics: The science of imaginary solutions.
We’ve got a couple of big words there. “Science.” “Imaginary.” “Solutions.” It’s not entirely clear what they’re doing together. Take them differently, “The solution of imaginary science” or “The imaginary science of solutions,” and you sort of — practically speaking — have the same thing, right? So the meaning is almost certainly a little…loose.
What do we make of this damn lovely thing?
Well, meaning aside, it is important for “science” to come first in the string of big words. Alfred Jarry, the founder of pataphysics, was clear that his invention was in fact a hard science (parody). And from there, we might as well accept and make peace with “imaginary solutions” keeping their original orientation.
As for the meaning…
Pataphysics, of course, is a literary trope. It’s a license to be utterly exact about totally nonsensical details. As if you’re doing science, but like in a dream state, with dream objects and dream logic.
But the end result — all pataphysicians will assure you — is not nonsense. In fact, it’s highly practical and useful in a real-world sense. How?
I’ve thought about this for a while. There are many ways to look at it, but I’ve found one that I especially like.
Think about magic. Casting spells and shit. Mixing potions. Performing rituals. Etc. What’s this all about? Presumably it doesn’t work. Otherwise the secret would be out and we’d all be doing some form of magical spells to live longer and get rich quicker. Really. If it actually worked, it would be verifiable. It would be studied and refined by the best minds in the world. Practitioners would congregate at Oxford, not on Bourbon Street. There would be freaking college courses on the…