A German Expressionist Space Fantasy: Scheerbart’s “Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel”

(All images courtesy Wakefield Press)

The German fantasist Paul Scheerbart’s greatest novel, Lesabéndio, was first published in 1913, the year that Expressionism began to flower in Berlin. The novel, both deriving from and contributing to this Zeitgeist, opens with a highly Expressionist scene: “The sky was violet, and the stars were green. The sun was green too.”

Scheerbart’s book bears the subtitle An Asteroid Novel, and all of its action takes place far from Earth. Not a single human character appears in the story; nor do its protagonists resemble the anthropomorphized aliens of so much science fiction. Rather, Scheerbart populates the asteroid Pallas with a race of newt-like creatures who are capable, when provoked, of expanding their bodies to several times their normal size. Moreover, the Pallasians have eyes that extend on stalks and function as telescopes or microscopes (the latter for reading micro-books: the Pallasians wear, as personal adornment, entire libraries around their necks).

The Pallasians, in keeping with Scheerbart’s notorious aversion to the human body, don’t have sex, don’t eat (they absorb their nutrients from the mushroom-beds on which they sleep), and don’t really die (upon reaching the end of their lives, their personalities are absorbed nutrient-wise into the bodies of younger Pallasians).

The society of the Pallasians is similarly etherealized: dwelling in the interior of the asteroid, and spared from any earthlike struggle for survival, they innocently cultivate the arts. They care only about refashioning the walls of the asteroid into fantastic architectural patterns conjoined with vast music and light shows, reveling in a kind of perpetual sensory overload. This interior-gazing bliss-out finally is disrupted by the advent of Lesabéndio, a Nietzschean über-newt and visionary engineer, who wants (as visionary engineers often do) to build a giant tower. (Scheerbart’s novel was written at a time when Eiffel’s tower still possessed an aura of wondrous novelty.)

Drawing by Paul Scheerbart
Drawing by Paul Scheerbart

Many of Scheerbart’s writings — such as his influential book on glass architecture — sound a note of technological utopianism within the generally dystopian dissonances of German Expressionism. In Scheerbart’s odd tract The Perpetual Motion Machine, for example, a fantastic invention becomes a means of reconciling social contradictions. Yet Lesabéndio reverses this pattern, presenting us with the picture of an already achieved communal utopia disrupted by one individual’s technological hubris.

Even with this turn, however, Scheerbart remains true to his longing to exist (as Baudelaire put it) “anywhere out of this world.” Like his protagonist Lesabéndio, Scheerbert wanted to leap off the surface of his home planet into the embrace of the cosmos, which he conceived as a realm ruled not by Newtonian mechanics but by (proto–New-Age) love-vibrations between celestial bodies. In the novel Lesabéndio, the object of attraction takes the form of a mysterious “light-cloud” that hovers above the Pallasian community. Lesabéndio’s tower is intended to penetrate this cloud.

Paul Scheerbart (click to enlarge)
Paul Scheerbart (click to enlarge)

It is here that the allegorical function of the novel comes into play. Pallas is described as a double asteroid: the lower, inhabited part is called the “trunk,” while the upper part (hidden from view by the mysterious cloud) is called the “head.” Lesabéndio’s tower thus becomes a bridge between the system’s head and body. Narrating the laborious construction of the tower, Scheerbart deploys a number of other binary values: superman versus the masses, science versus art, conservatism versus progress, and most of all, part versus whole. The novel culminates in a tale of death and transfiguration: when Lesabéndio leaps from the top of his tower into the embrace of the cloud, he is both destroyed and universalized. He returns as a disembodied voice, offering counsel to the remaining Pallasians as the cloud collapses and their way of life is radically reconfigured.

While the allegory may be heavy-handed, Scheerbart’s style is marked by a conversational familiarity that extends to self-mockery. Many of Scheerbart’s ideas were spun out in drinking sessions with his friends in Berlin beer-halls, where he had acquired quite a reputation as a drunken raconteur. The novel retains this sense of giddy, spontaneous imagineering.

Scheerbart’s otherworldly fantasies proved unpopular in a Germany devastated by fascism and war, and his work languished for over half a century before being revived, first among German-language science-fiction fans in the eighties and more recently in English translation. Wakefield Press has now released Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel in a fine-press edition, adroitly rendered into English by Christina Svendsen (who also provides an informative introduction). As a bonus, Alfred Kubin’s original drawings from the novel’s first German edition have been included here as well.

In the end, Scheerbart’s madcap writings broke free from the weightiness of German Expressionism in a way that prefigured the insouciant human machinery of Dada. And maybe that’s why Scheerbart’s work now speaks to us twenty-first-century cyborgs: even in our post-postmodern moment, finding freedom within mechanism is still the order of the day.

scheerbart drawings2
Drawing by Paul Scheerbart

Paul Scheerbart’s Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel in translation (trans. Christina Svendsen) was published by Wakefield Press (Cambridge, MA, 2012) and is available on their website and at other online booksellers.

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