Pataphysics is a freewheeling literary trope that had an oversized but under-appreciated impact on 20th century art and postmodern philosophy. It’s generally thought of as a precursor to other artistic movements, such as Dadaism, Surrealism, and the Decadent movement. However, pataphysics is much more than a footnote in literary history. It’s also a powerful tool for boosting creativity. Just like William Burroughs’s “cut up” method adds spontaneity and randomness to any artistic work, pataphysics adds a nearly magical element of calculated absurdity.
Pataphysics goes by a number of definitions. It’s broadly conceptualized as an extension of metaphysics, just as metaphysics is an extension of physics. Alfred Jarry, the inventor of pataphysics, also calls it “the science of imaginary solutions” as well as “the science of the particular.” Another way to think of pataphysics is to define it in terms of the pataphor, which is basically a wildly extended metaphor. In this view, pataphysics is the “science” of creating pataphors.
Since each of these definitions yields a different tool for aiding the creative process, I’ll expand upon them separately.
1. Divergent Thinking
At face value, pataphysics, defined as an extension of metaphysics, is pure nonsense. What could it mean for something to be beyond metaphysics? No matter how hard you try to wrap your mind around it, you won’t find any significant meaning at the heart of this conception.
But you do find a wide-open canvas for unhinged ideas and associations. This is “science” with no wrong answers, only some that are funnier or cleverer than others. Put another way, this pataphysical canvas is a place to fearlessly engage in divergent thinking.
Divergent thinking is the heart and soul of creativity. When psychologists measure creativity, they do so by testing one’s ability to think divergently. In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell gives a classic example of a divergent thinking test. Consider the prompt: “How many uses can you think of for a brink.” One test-taker with an unusually high IQ responded, “Building things, throwing.” Despite this person’s intelligence, this answer is a hard fail. Another test-taker who excelled at divergent thinking responded, “To use in smash-and-grab raids. To. Help hold a house together. To use in a game of Russian roulette if you want to keep fit at the same time (bricks at ten paces, run and throw — no evasive action allowed). To hold the eiderdown on a bed tie a brick at each corner. As a breaker of empty Coca-Cola bottles.”
Gladwell contends that divergent thinking is often more important than IQ for finding success in the world. This is why, he says, people who win the Nobel Prize don’t all come from Harvard, but are frequently from schools with far less exclusive admissions standards.
How do you get better at divergent thinking? One way is to spend time beyond the metaphysical realm, on the pataphysical canvas. If you’re faced with a question like, “What is a brick used for?” step outside your usual experience. Abandon your typical notion of what might be “logical.” Go off the deep end. Peek over the cliff’s edge. Dive off the rocker. Find something random, reach out for something tangential to that, and then turn it upside down.
What is a brick used for? Among other things: Holding open the nozzle to the floodgates of your imagination.
2. Imaginary Solutions
“Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.” — Alfred Jarry
The scientific process involves observing the natural world and drawing conclusions about how things are. Jarry wants us to step out beyond that process and imagine how things could be. He wants us to study not the rules, but the exceptions — especially the imaginary exceptions.
For example, with gravity, forget about studying how objects fall toward a center. Instead, Jarry writes, study “the ascension of a vacuum toward a periphery.”
If you’re stuck creatively, chances are you’re hung up on thinking in terms of normal rules and standard, cliched solutions. But when you’re writing or creating any sort of art, there really aren’t any rules. It’s art. You can do what you want. You can do anything.
Writers are often cautioned not to solve a character’s problems with a random, unexpected occurrence. This is probably good advice. For example, if a protagonist gets thrown in jail, it would be too easy to have him escape by sending a hurricane to knock down the jail walls. It’s unexpected — but boring.
The “imaginary solutions” tool is best used to inject humor into otherwise uneventful scenes, rather than solving major problems for the hero. For example, in the book “Antkind” by Charlie Kaufman, the main character frequently goes off on a mental tangent, ranting about how much he hates Charlie Kaufman movies. Every time this happens, the character abruptly falls into the sewer — the author’s (Charlie Kaufman’s) way of stopping the character’s rant.
3. Science of the Particular
“[P]ataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general.” — Alfred Jarry
Alfred Jarry often parodies scientific and philosophical texts by writing in a way that’s loftier than necessary, and by going into greater detail than could possibly be justified. The result can be a little tedious, but it’s also humorous — and an easy way to stumble into creative ways of thinking. Many writers have used a similar technique, from François Rabelais to Laurence Sterne to Donald Barthelme.
It’s worth trying out. Take any idea or object. Find some aspect of it that’s easily ignored. Focus on that aspect as if it were the primary thing under consideration, even though it blatantly is not. Now discuss it at great length with overly technical jargon. It’s almost impossible to do this without achieving a comical effect. And there is something exciting about taking an idea or object that’s small and overlooked, finding an entire world inhabiting that space, with ever more granular elements to describe and explore.
4. The Pataphor
The word “pataphor” was coined by writer Pablo Lopez to describe the hyper-extended metaphors used by pataphysicians. A metaphor takes you one step away from the thing you’re actually talking about. A pataphor takes you an additional step further, to the point where an entirely new context exists with no relation to the first.
There’s a simple formula for creating a pataphor: Make a metaphor. Now inhabit the world of that metaphor just long enough to make another metaphor. Now inhabit this second metaphor, as if this is the world you’d been in all along. Now, if you choose to return to “base” reality, you’ll find that the horizons have expanded on all sides.
The book “Trout Fishing in America” by Richard Brautigan is full of examples. The act of trout fishing in America is treated as a noun — as a character. When Trout Fishing in America (the character) appears, it’s always in some sense a metaphor. And this metaphor/character gets involved in all sorts of unlikely scenarios that only occasionally have anything to do with the base reality of fishing for trout in America.
For example, here’s the first part of a chapter titled “The Shipping of Trout Fishing in America Shorty to Nelson Algren”:
Trout Fishing in America Shorty appeared suddenly last autumn in San Francisco, staggering around in a magnificent chrome-plated steel wheelchair.
He was a legless, screaming middle-aged wino.
He descended upon North Beach like a chapter from the Old Testament. He was the reason birds migrate in the autumn. They have to. He was the cold turning of the earth; the bad wind that blows off sugar.
He would stop children on the street and say to them, “I ain’t got no legs. The trout chopped my legs off in Fort Lauderdale. You kids got legs. The trout didn’t chop your legs off. Wheel me into the store over there.”
Playing with Pataphysics
If this all sounds too complicated or too academic to ever actually be of any use, I want to emphasize that pataphysics is actually deceptively simple. In the natural world, pataphysics is most widely practiced by children. The best pataphysician among us are almost certainly toddlers who instinctively engage in unhinged babbling and free-association.
As the philosopher Jean Baudrillard points out in his essay Pataphysique, pataphysics is a game. It is not serious. That’s the key to unlocking the creative potential of the pataphysical process: to treat it seriously as a non-serious game.
“Finally,” writes Baudrillard, “to exalt pataphysics is to be a pataphysician without knowing it, which is what we are all. Because humor wants humor in regards to humor, etc.”