Andrew Hugill

Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp, ’Pataphysics, & the Fourth Dimension


The list of Duchamp’s references to Jarry is extensive, and goes well beyond these few salient examples. Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s authoritative study Duchamp in Context (Henderson 1998) makes clear the extent to which both Jarry and Duchamp drew on contemporary scientific and not-so-scientific developments. She explores the themes of electromagnetism and electricity that appear in The Supermale and Dr. Faustroll, and in particular on Jarry’s interest in non-Euclidian geometry and the fourth dimension, derived from the contemporary scientific theories of C. V. Boys, William Crookes, and Lord Kelvin, and expressed most completely in How to Construct a Time Machine. Duchamp developed these ideas further, partly inspired by Gaston de Pawlowski’s Voyage au pays de la quatrieme dimension (Journey to the Land of the Fourth Dimension, 1911) (Pawlowski and Jarry knew one another well) and Henri Poincare’s Science and Method (1914). [pp. 158-159]


In the first of the two Almanachs du Père Ubu, published in 1899, Ubu takes a journey on an imaginary day (30 February) by “tempomobile” through the streets of Paris, “starting in the heights of Montmartre, and like a blazing meteor our gidouille rolls forwards at a slow and majestic pace.” The tempomobile allows Ubu to “transcend the boundaries of time and space” (Dubbelboer 2009, 93).

We, Père Ubu, open up to you our knowledge of all things past, which is more accurate than any newspaper, because: where we tell you something that you have read elsewhere, universal witness will assure you of our veracity: where you can find no confirmation anywhere of what we say, our word will thereby rise in its absolute truth, without any discussion. By way of our Tempomobile, invented by our science in physics in order to explore time [ . . .] we will reveal to you all future things.

H. G. Wells’s story The Time Machine had been published in French in 1898 and had clearly inspired Jarry, although it was typical that he wished to replace Wells’s social theorizing with a piece of pataphysical engineering. Jarry was also friendly with Gaston de Pawlowski, who was to publish his Voyage au pays de la quatrieme dimension (Voyage to the Land of the Fourth Dimension) in 1912; this was itself inspired by an essay by Charles Howard Hinton published in French in 1882: "Qu’est-ce que la quatrieme dimension?" (What is the fourth dimension?). In Wells’s story there is considerable discussion of what the fourth dimension might be:

“Clearly,” the Time Traveler proceeded, “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.” (Wells 2008 [1895], 6)

Even more important than these was the publication of the French edition of Lord Kelvin’s lectures in 1893, on which Jarry draws substantially. Indeed, one might consider his text a kind of ironic commentary on Kelvin’s theories, in particular that elasticity is a form of motion, which he sets out to prove using weightless spring balances, gyrostats, and a hook to which a weight is attached. The whole apparatus oscillates as if were itself a spring balance, but, as Paul Edwards observes:

Jarry, perhaps not inadvertently, conjures up a spring balance of the physics classroom, recognisable by its big hooks but, moreover, notoriously inaccurate and erratic, since it tends to develop a “memory” of the previous weights attached to it. Perhaps Jarry inwardly rejoiced at including those tetchy instruments in his atomic model, knowing that no two spring balances behave identically. The spring balance corresponds to the Clinamen in Jarry’s model [ . . .] . (Edwards 2001, 319)

Jarry lifts Kelvin’s ideas about gyrostats and, indeed, several actual chunks of text, but in doing so recontextualizes and pataphysicizes them into a marvelous piece that genuinely baffles the reader, for it is very difficult to see the “seam” point at which this model moves completely into the imaginary solution. Perhaps, as Edwards suggests, this occurs around the mention of the Machine “swinging freely in azimuth on the extremity of the horizontal gyrostatic axis” (Edwards 2001, 320). Or perhaps, as Robert Calvert said, it is the moment at which we realize Jarry might as well be describing his bicycle. Either way, this text was published in 1899 under the name “Dr. Faustroll,” which is a strong indication of its pataphysical importance. It also is indicative of a change in the way Jarry understood ’pataphysics, which had matured into something more scientific and analytical. Just as Jarry had now “become” Faustroll in his own mind (despite continuing to play the role of Ubu for his friends and acquaintances), so the science had developed a distinctly different tone.

The final section contains a piece of reasoning that echoes Faustroll, and the introduction of the concept of ethernity:


It is worth noting that the Machine has two Pasts: the past anterior to our own present, what we might call the real past; and the past created by the Machine when it returns to our Present and which is in effect the reversibility of the Future.

Likewise, since the Machine can reach the real Past only after having passed through the Future, it must go through a point symmetrical to our Present, a dead center between future and past, and which can be designated precisely as the Imaginary Present.

Thus the Explorer in his Machine beholds Time as a curve, or better as a closed curved surface analogous to Aristotle's Ether. For much these same reasons in another text (Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Book VIII) we make use of the term Ethernity. Without the Machine an observer sees less than half of the true extent of Time, much as men used to regard the Earth as flat.

From the operation of the Machine there can easily be deduced a definition of Duration. Since it consists in the reduction of t to 0 and of 0 to -t, we shall say:

Duration is the transformation of
a succession into a reversion.

In other words:


(Jarry 1965a [1911], 121)

[pp. 214-216]

SOURCE: Hugill, Andrew. ’Pataphysics: A Useless Guide. Cambridge, MA; London: The MIT Press, 2012. Excerpted: pp. 158-159, 214-216. Boldface added. The index lists further pages pertaining to the fourth dimension: 26, 31, 74, 162, 164.

Definition of ’Pataphysics by Alfred Jarry

Formal Logic of Pataphysics by René Daumal

Alfred Jarry, the Uninvited Guest, Achras & Ubu by Jill Fell

Alfred Jarry’s “How to Construct a Time Machine”: A Web Guide

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine: Selected Bibliography

Martin Gardner, Mathematical Games, & the Fourth Dimension


’Pataphysics @ Ĝirafo (blog)

Andrew Hugill

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