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Alfred Jarry

Page history last edited by Thomas Kutzli 9 years, 12 months ago

 

Alfred Jarry, by Félix Vallotton

 

Alfred Jarry (8 September 1873 – 1 November 1907) was a French writer born in Laval, Mayenne, France, not far from the border of Brittany; he was of Breton descent on his mother's side.

At the lycée in Rennes when he was 15, he led of a group of boys who devoted much time and energy to poking fun at their well-meaning, but obese and incompetent physics teacher, a man named Hébert. Jarry and classmate Henri Morin wrote a play they called Les Polonais and performed it with marionettes in the home of one of their friends. The main character, Père Heb, was a blunderer with a huge belly; three teeth (one of stone, one of iron, and one of wood); a single, retractable ear; and a misshapen body. In Jarry's later work Ubu Roi, Père Heb would develop into Ubu, one of the most monstrous and astonishing characters in French literature.

Best known for his play Ubu Roi (1896), which is often cited as a forerunner to the surrealist theatre of the 1920s and 1930s, Jarry wrote in a variety of genres and styles. He wrote plays, novels, poetry, essays and speculative journalism. His texts present some pioneering work in the field of absurdist literature. Sometimes grotesque or misunderstood (e.g. the opening line in his play Ubu Roi, "Merdre!", has been translated into English as "Pshit!", "Shitteth!", "Shittr!", "Shikt!", "Shrit!", "Pschitt!", and "Shitsky!"), he invented a pseudoscience called 'Pataphysics'.

A precociously brilliant student, Jarry enthralled his classmates with a gift for pranks and troublemaking. After school he moved to Paris.

Jarry had meantime discovered the pleasures of alcohol, which he called "my sacred herb" or, when referring to absinthe, the "green goddess". A story is told that he once painted his face green and rode through town on his bicycle in its honour (and possibly under its influence).

Jarry's play Caesar Antichrist (1895) drew on this movement for material. This is a work that bridges the gap between serious symbolic meaning and the type of critical absurdity with which Jarry would soon become associated. Using the biblical Book of Revelation as a point of departure, Caesar Antichrist presents a parallel world of extreme formal symbolism in which Christ is resurrected not as an agent of spirituality but as an agent of the Roman Empire that seeks to dominate spirituality. It is a unique narrative that effectively links the domination of the soul to contemporaneous advances in the field of Egyptology such as the 1894 excavation of the Narmer Palette, an ancient artifact used for situating the rebus within hermeneutics.

On opening night (10 December 1896), with traditionalists and the avant-garde in the audience, King Ubu (played by Firmin Gémier) stepped forward and intoned the opening word, "Merdre!" ("Shittr!"). A quarter of an hour of pandemonium ensued: outraged cries, booing, and whistling by the offended parties, countered by cheers and applause by the more forward-thinking contingent. Such interruptions continued through the evening. At the time, only the dress rehearsal and opening night performance were held, and the play was not revived until 1907.

Living in worsening poverty, neglecting his health, and drinking excessively, Jarry went on to write what is often cited as the first cyborg sex novel, Le Surmâle (The Supermale), which is partly a satire on the Symbolist ideal of self-transcendence.

In his final years, he was a legendary and heroic figure to some of the young writers and artists in Paris. Guillaume Apollinaire , André Salmon, and Max Jacob sought him out in his truncated apartment. After his death, Pablo Picasso, fascinated with Jarry, acquired his pistol and wore it on his nocturnal expeditions in Paris, and later bought many of his manuscripts as well as executing a fine drawing of him.

Jarry lived in his 'pataphysical world until his death in Paris on 1 November 1907 of tuberculosis, aggravated by drug and alcohol use. It is recorded that his last request was for a toothpick. He was interred in the Cimetière de Bagneux, near Paris.

 

 

 

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