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Wheel Life: Paul Scheerbart’s Quest to Build a Perpetual Motion Machine

Paul Scheerbarth (via Wikipedia)

My favorite shelf in the home library is where Raymond Roussel, the Comte de Lautréamont, E.T. A. Hoffmann, Leonora Carrington and other writers form a brilliant phalanx of eccentricity and marvel. I turn to it like a five-hour energy drink, sampling a few pages of, say, Raymond Queneau or Heinrich von Kleist when in need of a shot of alternative reality (I’m waiting for cable to start producing surreality shows in which men and women practice automatic writing while in trances).

So what fun to add Paul Scheerbart and his perpetual motion machine to the line-up, an altogether delightful addition to the foule folle. A German writer who was born in the Prussian port of Danzig and lived in Berlin for much of his life, Scheerbart (1863-1915) was a jack of all genres — art critic, playwright, novelist, poet, etc. — with many muses.

The cover of Paul Scheerbart's "The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention" (via wakefieldpress.com)

In 1907, one of those muses, that of engineering, called upon him to invent a perpetual motion machine. Over nearly three years he recorded his ideas for this machine, undergoing what the translator, Andrew Joron, in his excellent introduction to Wakefield Press’s The Perpetual Motion Machine, calls “a tantrum of the imagination.” The text takes the form of a journal (the first actual dated entry is 7 January 1908). From the author’s foreword on, we are led on a merry and often frustrated chase to challenge “the great law of the conservation of energy” by creating a “weight-driven” motor that will move perpetually.

Scheerbart begins in a kind of Eeyore mode: “Only in misery do great hopes and great plans for the future take shape.” Company loves misery: soon we are at the inventor’s elbow — and in his head — rooting for his mechanical folly. As an opponent of the “naturalism of his day” and the author of “interplanetary satires” as Joron informs us, it makes sense that Scheerbart dons the mantle of futurist. He imagines “the entire sky crisscrossed with funicular railways” and conjures today’s monster trucks: “As for land routes, I came up with the notion of gigantic wheels that in my opinion would roll more quickly to a given destination than the little wheels currently in use.” And how about this vision of fracking: “Most serious, in my view, was the idea of digging deep boreholes into the Earth and thereby causing internal injuries to our fair planet.”

Oskar Kokoschka, “Paul Scheerbart” (1910) (via ArtObserved.com)

Scheerbart’s ruminations are highly entertaining, whether he’s envisioning a world where there’s no more need for the sun or criticizing pragmatism: “There’s something dilettantish about wanting to see everything immediately carried out in reality.” A favorite bon mot: “I simply don’t believe that a period of economic expansion serves the cause of literature.”

The perpetual motion machine isn’t the only invention proposed. How about this ingenious device: “I came up with the idea of a new mode of capital punishment: the criminal would be fastened to a kite powered by a weight-driven motor — and would ascend into the clouds, never ever to return.” Shades of Fellini!

The wheels on Scheerbart’s machine go round and round and up and down, but, spoiler alert, the darn thing doesn’t quite have the mojo its maker seeks (although he hints at the end that he has found the solution to his mechanical malfunctions). And it’s a shame, considering his hopes for releasing humanity from the burden of labor (sign me up).

Photography of Paul Scheerbart by Wilhelm Fechner (via scheerbart.de)

The text is illustrated with a series of diagrams, the parts lettered for easy assembling. These designs recall the inventions of outsider artists, who sometimes are engineers (see Emory Blagdon’s healing machines or William Rice Rode’s drawings for weapons and airplanes). The aesthetic here is Dada stick figure, with a pinch of Francis Picabia (a few designs recall the outline of Mickey Mouse’s head). They are essentially well drafted working doodles for a fantasy machine Herr Scheerbart tried to build in a “laundry room-cum-laboratory.”

The photograph of Scheerbart that serves as frontispiece shows a standard-issue German gentleman of the turn of the last century, with pince-nez glasses, a coiffed and winged mustache, a tightly trimmed beard and close cropped receding hairline. There’s a hint of sadness in his left eye that is expounded when we read that his death may have been due to starving himself in protest of World War I.

Scheerbart’s wife, in whose arms Scheerbart is said to have collapsed and died, must have been relieved. According to the author, she would often exclaim, “I can’t stand hearing the word ‘wheel’ anymore. Whenever you speak that word I feel ill.” By contrast, I feel for anyone who tries to reinvent it — the world, that is, by way of the wheel.

The Perpetual Motion Machine. The Story of an Invention. Paul Scheerbart. Translated from the French by Andrew Joron. Wakefield Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2011. 86 pp. Softbound, $12.95. ISBN 978-098115549

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