Apr 03, 2020, 05:57AM

In the Merdre With Alfred Jarry

On hot air balloons, social-climbing, climate change, sex, white lies and toothpicks.

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A few weeks ago I saw a 60 Minutes segment about the effect of climate change on the recent bushfires in Australia. The massive fire created its own weather system apparently, accelerating and spreading the blaze to an extent unprecedented. And while a fire can sometimes be snuffed out by an encroaching cold front, as it brings with it cooler temperatures and increased moisture, a cold front also brings with it violent winds which, when fed by the heat of the flames, can spread the fire further, which is what happened: Swift changes between hot and cold produced disastrous gusts. I don’t want to make invidious comparisons, but Klaus and I have been hot and cold for months now, and yesterday, instead of ending things, I farted on his lap.

I hesitate to blame climate change, but I’ve never broken wind in front of a man before, so you tell me. A small, elegant burst, it sounded like the American pronunciation of the word “mauve,” which I Googled—just to verify— and listened to the next day at the Morgan Library where I’d gone to see the Alfred Jarry exhibit, “Carnival of Being.”

While I enjoyed the show, which included works by Jarry’s admirers and collaborators—Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Henri Rousseau, among others—alongside Jarry’s own experiments in visual art, puppetry, typography, and bookmaking, I was plagued by the memory of the fart. Certainly, the word “Merdre,” printed here and there on explanatory placards, did little to distract me. I was looking through a glass case, at a depiction of a spiral, what became the symbol for Jarry’s invented science of ‘Pataphysics, when the sound “mauve” intruded again upon my thoughts, the fart haunting me like Duncan’s ghost haunts Macbeth.

I met Klaus for the first time in June when a mutual friend invited him to a dinner in East Hampton that I didn’t want to attend. I’d been laid low by a relationship that wasn’t supposed to end but instead ended eight months earlier when I learned he was married and found myself alone in a NYC fertility clinic, telling the IVF doctor through quavering lips that I’d be freezing not fertilizing my eggs after all. (Did I know he’d been lying? Should I have known? Was it my fault for not knowing? Was I the villain? The victim? Was I in love? What then is love?) For months I avoided people, worried someone might ask me something innocuous like, “How are you?”

When you’re in your 20s heartbreak is considerably easier. However bad the nightmare, hope rides on its back. There are other fish in the sea, people tell you, and you’ve only to look around to know that it’s true. But when you’re 40 and most of the fish are married and you’re reaching the end of your fertile years, hope is harder to summon, and if you’ve been hurt badly enough, courting it feels like courting disaster. Hope is, after all, what lead you to this pain.

“’Hope is the thing with feathers that shits on you,’ Emily Dickinson might’ve said, were she a bit more thorough. “What’s the point of life?” I told a therapist during our first session last winter. “To get a series of colds and then die?”

You must keep living, the self-help books say. “Hope on, hope ever,” read the flag for the rescue team trying to find Sir John Franklin’s doomed arctic expedition. Try to hope no matter what, we’re told, for it’s the lack of it that makes you feel as if you’re lying on the bottom of an hourglass, being buried alive.

In June, I dusted myself off and shook Klaus’s hand. “Ha Ha,” I heard myself laugh. Klaus had said something funny and smiled. We were sitting in a restaurant in East Hampton with five others, and I was having fun. Outside after dinner, a breeze blew through me and I agreed to see him again.

He was recently divorced, he explained, looking at my face as if it were a teleprompter conveying his story. He read himself aloud. And it was refreshing to hear about his life instead of thinking about my own, comforting to feel for a time somewhat invisible, to find the only part of me that showed was light-hearted and happy. It made me feel for the time I was with him that I was actually light-hearted, bubbly, floating. I felt like a passenger in a balloon dropping its sandbags and now, together, we were giddily heading skyward. Up we laughed—dinners, a lecture at the library, splitting the newspaper at the diner, a used bookstore, a gallery opening, walking his dog on the beach. And looking down from our basket, my pain grew smaller, my ex-boyfriend an old toy, our abandoned future, a dollhouse. All that held me captive; I was escaping with Klaus.

We went to an outdoor movie, Hitchcock’s Notorious projected onto the haystacks at Marder’s Nursery. We lay blankets on the grass and I lay my head on Klaus’s shoulder before he kissed the crown of my head. And what of tick warnings? What of lyme disease? What of my lifelong hypochondria? Ravage me ticks! Take me into your tiny poisonous jaws! Take me, I don’t care, for I am happy! In the car after the movie, Klaus kissed me for the first time.

“I ought to go home,” I said, but then, catching caution by the tail as it blew by in the wind, I agreed to come over for a few minutes, so we could check each other for ticks.

It turns out a tick check is more intimate than traditional courtship allows. In his bedroom, he instructed me to take off my clothes. When I balked, he insisted my safety was paramount. Frightened, I complied. He had me lie down first on my back and then investigated every inch of me from my toes to the top of my head, carefully noting every freckle.

We may wear clothes to disguise our bodies or makeup to hide our blemishes and, clinging to these masks, come to believe that we want to wear them, that we feel safer, “more confident,” hiding behind them. But the desire for a mask only highlights a fear of being exposed, a fear that rejection might follow the body’s confession. One of love’s chief pleasures then is stripping, of being seen and accepted. His counting my moles felt like his “counting the ways.”

“Turn over,” he said. He needed to count the ways on my back. When he began to remove my underwear, I stayed his hand, “Are you sure this is how you do a tick check?” Gently, he explained where the ticks like to go. “Hold still!”

After alternating for a while between anxiety and longing—was I at a doctor’s office or on a date, was I being safe or slutty—I concluded that Klaus’ tick check was definitely a pretext. I was being seduced, and so I decided to let myself. If we were already at third base, I might as well enjoy it, I figured, when Klaus jumped up and said, “Got the bugger!”

We both ran over to the bedside lamp, where between his thumb and forefinger he showed me the tick’s tiny legs racing the air. “I saved your life!” he said, before flushing it down the toilet. “How do I know you don’t keep a jar of those by the bed?” I asked in the shower after. “Shhh, they don’t like soap,” he said, lathering me.

This is called “a trauma bond.” It’s why the producers of The Bachelor have the contestants bungee jump together or skydive. The fear connects you chemically, hastening the romance and predisposing you to disregard the many signs that might be warning you this relationship is impossible.

A forerunner of Surrealism and Dada, the French symbolist Jarry is best known for his imaginary science of ‘Pataphysics—which he describes variously as the “science of imaginary solutions” or, “the science of the particular, of laws governing exceptions”—and for writing the scathing, absurd, scatological farce Ubu Roi, a sort of expletive ridden Macbeth which, taking as its target its bourgeois audience, opened and closed on the same night in 1896, caused a riot in the theater, and made Jarry, at 23, an instant celebrity.

Set in Poland or, “nowhere,” according to Jarry’s introductory remarks, its sets and costumes were deliberately simple, a means to affect a timelessness and placelessness, which would create for the viewer an alwaysness and everywhereness. A revolution/devolution in style, at odds with the ornate naturalism in fashion at that moment, the play is hilarious, grotesque, and brilliant in its depiction of stupidity, and cupidity.

The plot: Mère Ubu persuades husband Père Ubu to kill the king of Poland and usurp the thrown. He does, then betrays his co-conspirators, then kills all the nobles, then claims their money and lands, then doubles the taxes on the rest of the citizenry, before he’s ultimately chased out by counter revolutionaries, robbed by his wife, attacked by a bear a la Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and, joined again by his wife who’s now also being chased, escapes to the open sea.

A taste: instead of a scepter, Ubu carries a toilet brush. And the play’s opening line, uttered by Ubu himself, is “Merdre.” That’s French for shit, with an extra r for emphasis. In the English version, Cyril Connolly offers “Pshitt” in place of “Merdre” and it loses something in translation. In soliloquy, Mère Ubu refers to her husband: “Pfartt, Pshitt, what a stingy bastard.” Some items on the menu for the first conspirator’s dinner: “…fartichokes, cauliflauer a la pshitt.” After dinner, when Ubu asks Captain Macnure, whom he calls “Captain M’Nure,” how he enjoyed the food, the Captain responds, “Very much, sir, except for the pshitt,” to which Ubu replies, “Oh, I didn’t think the pshitt was too bad.”

The less discerning viewer might mistake the vulgarity of Jarry’s characters for the vulgarity of the playwright, and on Ubu Roi’s opening night many did, which proves one of Jarry’s central theses: The public is an idiot. But Jarry’s radical farce is a criticism of coarseness, not its endorsement and indicts the common theatergoer who’d fail to make the distinction. Referring to the play’s hostile reception, Jarry wrote: “It is not surprising that the public should have been aghast at the sight of its ignoble other self.”

Interior. An apartment in Manhattan. A cold night in February. Seven p.m. A knock is heard. In a red apron with iron-on letters that read, “Hot Like Your Mom” I run to the door and open it. Enter Klaus.

Klaus: (Looking around, then at me) Smells good. What are you making?

Last night Klaus came over for dinner. The week before that I’d gone to his place for dinner. And the week before that, we weren’t speaking.

I’d roasted a chicken. Handing him a breast, I asked him how it ended with the woman he’d been seeing during our last cold spell. “Badly. I think she’s bipolar,” he deflected.

I disapprove of these sorts of armchair diagnostics and regarded him icily as I diagnosed him a narcissist. As Klaus went on loudly, I went on silently, my diagnosis of him bolstered by his of her: My guess was he’d acted like a jerk, as he had with me before the last time we’d ended things, and when she/I called him on it, instead of acknowledging and apologizing for his behavior, he denied everything, insisting instead that she/I should just calm down even though she/I WERE calm and were merely trying to express our feelings!

I know what you’re thinking: If Klaus is so toxic, what kind of idiot am I that I should start seeing him again? Answer: The brilliant kind. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” wrote Fitzgerald. Klaus is attractive/Klaus is repulsive. Klaus is my soulmate/Klaus is my enemy. I believe in Klaus more than I believe in me/I don’t trust Klaus. Klaus went to the kitchen and, grabbing a handful of ice from the freezer, plopped it into his wine.

“Did you read my story yet?” I asked. I’d sent him a story from the book I just finished, hoping to impress/seduce/humiliate him with my talent.

“Yes, I enjoyed it. You’re a very clever girl,” he said, forking the meat.

“Tell me, if you needed a blurb for your next book, and I wrote ‘a very clever boy,’ how would you feel?”

He smiled. We both knew the answer. He’d never ask me for a blurb—too low status. Klaus was once chair of the American Association of Social Climbers for Social Justice and has a big head because of it. Sometimes when I’m with him I worry my head is too small. But then, Klaus does have a 20-year jump on me.

You’d think my relative youth would confer some advantage, but I’m pretty sure Klaus would rather be dating Connie Chung. Someone accomplished, I mean, whose kids are already grown, with whom he could form a power couple more powerful than his last powerful coupling. He admitted to the kids part the last time we broke up, after he told me he’d met someone older, with kids, someone with whom the stakes were therefore much lower, someone with whom he could keep things casual, adding with a gentle pat that he cared too much to waste my time since I wanted kids of my own. I felt at once too old and too young, like a child at an amusement park who’s been told she’s not big enough to go on the ride. Like a very, very old child.

It’s worth noting that while Ubu Roi is a broad-stroked grotesque, Jarry’s other works are drawn with a wit so refined as to be abstruse. His essay “How to Build a Time Machine” with its formulas, inane tautologies and detailed instructions as to materials, is technical writing as poetics. For Jarry, logic, and with that paradox and humor, informs a new romanticism. The apotheosis of this style—a wild combination of science, symbolism, ribaldry, the occult, and artistic references both high and low—is his “neo-scientific novel,” The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, ‘Pataphysician, which is so strange it couldn’t find a publisher during his life. His most supportive editors either couldn’t make sense of it, or felt they could not persuade a public to try.

In this novel, Dr. Faustroll (who is born at the age of 63 and bathes in wallpaper) travels on a sieve-bottom boat with Panmuphle, his pursuer and prisoner, the bailiff who has served his eviction papers in chapter one; and Bosse-de Nage (in English, “Bottom Face”), a talking monkey whose buttocks have been transplanted to his face, whose only words, like Ed McMahon on The Tonight Show, are “Ha Ha.” A later chapter is devoted to the term’s explication: 

“Pronounced quickly enough, until the letters become confounded, it is the idea of unity. Pronounced slowly, it is the idea of duality, of echo, of distance, of symmetry, of greatness and duration, of the two principles of good and evil.” 

Together they explore strange islands superimposed on the landscape of Paris and populated by figures from fiction, art, science, and life. We find the crossbow of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner; Henri Rousseau operating a painting machine; the poked-out eyeball of the prince from The Arabian Nights; a copy of Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Center of the Earth among Faustroll’s library, which also includes Mallarme’s Verse and ProseThe Odyssey, Baudelaire’s translation of Poe’s tales, Rabelais, and Ubu Roi. Throughout the text, theories of matter, motion, and other are pushed and extended toward the ridiculous. Following Faustroll’s death near the book’s end, the Doctor, writing now from “ethernity,” sends telepathic letters to Lord Kelvin detailing his theories on “the measuring rod, the watch, and the tuning fork”; “love;” “the surface of God”; and “the sun being a cool solid”: 

"The sun is a cool, solid, and homogeneous globe. Its surface is divided into squares of one meter, which are the bases of long, inverted pyramids, thread-cut, 696,999 kilometers long, their points one kilometer from the center. Each is mounted on a screw and its movement toward the center would cause, if I had the time, the rotation of a paddle at the top end of each screw shaft, in a few meters of viscous fluid, with which the whole surface is thinly covered…”

Jarry’s refusal to pander or explain has contributed both to his posthumous obscurity and cult-like following—the College de ‘Pataphysique was founded in 1948 and includes among its notable members Boris Vian, Eugène Ionesco, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Max, Ernst, Roger Shattuck, The Marx Brothers, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Queneau, whose Oulipo group began as a subcommittee. Paul McCartney mentions ‘Pataphysics in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the “avant-garage” punk band Père Ubu borrowed from Jarry its name.

Following the spectacular success/failure of his Ubu Roi (one of Jarry’s ‘Pataphysical tenets is that “opposites are equal”), Jarry himself became a character to rival Ubu. Blurring the line between art and life—to his mind, there should be no line—he lived his legend. Referring to himself in the third person, he ate only fish that he caught in the Seine, drank as discipline, wore a cycling outfit with a skeleton-tie clip and pistols holstered on both sides, and lived in an apartment on the third-and-half floor. His last words were, “May I have a toothpick?”

Klaus picked his teeth as a long gray hair flopped over one eye. Klaus has crisis hair. When women go through a breakup they often cut their hair dramatically short, while men, I’ve noticed, will let theirs grow. Klaus hasn’t cut his since his divorce was announced on “Page Six” last summer and he’s starting to look like an elderly lesbian. He pulled a headband from his pocket and drew the strands away from his face. “I think you should grow it longer,” I advised. “It would be great if you could sit on it.”

Klaus has aged six years in the eight months I’ve known him. “I’m 56,” he said the week we met.

“But Wikipedia says you’re 63?”

“I have a lot of enemies,” he answered darkly, as if he were Salmon Rushdie and the fatwa against him were not to kill, but to age, to make him die just a little bit faster.

I thought his claim absurd till I noticed my own Wikipedia page had aged me by one year. Moriarty! Then last night, after I mentioned that Dr. Faustroll was born at 63, the same age Klaus is now, Klaus confessed via denial: “I’m not 63, I’m 62! Who’s Dr. Faustroll?”

The lie only bothers me because he denies it’s a lie, and the denial only bothers me because he offers them in answer to all the other lies I’ve caught him in. Like his assertion that his caddishness is a consequence of innocence, following his plea to be forgiven because he’s not used to dating and doesn’t know how.

Recently my friend Amanda, who writes about sex for a feminist website and so is inundated with free sex toys pending her review, gave me an “Emojibator.” “What a funny coincidence,” I puzzled, “It’s a 3D replica of Klaus’s last text!” When I’d received Klaus’ eggplant text, I’d thought he was improvising and, sighing at his creativity and care (Tender lamb! He searched ALL of his emojis for just the right metaphor!), had no idea it was the universal symbol for penis. “He’s more experienced than he’s letting on,” Amanda warned, patting my naïve shoulder.

Klaus, confronted, said he only knew about the emoji from his son. “Is your son sexting you?” I asked, throwing salad into his bowl.

Because his lies are so small, so unimportant, I feel like a raging giant when I push him to answer for any single one. He shrugs, tells me to relax, as if I’m pointing only to a single particle of dust while yelling madly about filth. Yes, what I’m pointing to is smaller than small, but the room is nearly covered with these things now and everything in it has started to seem dirty.

What is he honest about? He once told me rather snootily that he does “not believe in radical honesty.” Klaus calls his lies good manners, the aim of which is to protect the feelings of others. He sniffed at my poor ones, as if lying were a testament to his goodness, and my striving for the truth were a strike against my own. Have I no heart that I shouldn’t cover the sound of its beating? What cruelty compels me to keep Klaus up with its foul noise?

But Klaus’ noble lies have never protected my feelings, I notice. More precisely, they seem aimed at protecting my feelings about him.

“I bought your books, but haven’t read them because they’re in the other house.”

“But when we were in the other house, you said they were here?”

“I think about you all the time and have to force myself not to call.”

“So you like me too much to call me back. If only you were less into me, Klaus…”

“I slept with her because I don’t want to hurt you.”

If not a good liar, Klaus is a forceful one. And while I try to be honest with myself, I’m much less persuasive.

On the one hand I see that Klaus manipulates me. On the other, he does it so well. It’s hard not to enjoy some of the effect. Klaus looks into my eyes and lies right to my face, and I feel this is love while knowing it isn’t. This is what’s called romance. And this is why romantic love for most of history has been regarded as madness.

Klaus held me in his arms on the grass. Klaus kissed the crown of my head. Klaus is my escape. Klaus is a trap. Klaus goes away and then comes back. Klaus is my imaginary solution.

“I like your toenail color,” he said on the sofa after dinner, pulling my feet onto his lap.

“It’s darker than I wanted. I thought it would be more mauve.”

“Is that how you pronounce mauve?” he asked.

“Don’t you?”

“Maybe the English say it differently,” he said, picking up his phone to Google the British pronunciation.

“I‘ll die before I say it your way!”

I’m not sure how Klaus and I became enemies, how everything including our flirtation became such a battle, or what we’re even fighting over.

“I am penis hear me roar!”

“I thought it was ‘I am woman hear me roar.’”

He shook his head.

Maybe we were never friends. That’s what Klaus said anyway when I told him on the sofa that I didn’t want to start up again but preferred we keep things platonic, as planned, as we have planned now a number of times over. “Come on, Iris. We were never friends, and we’re never going to be friends!” he growled, before taking me in his arms and pulling me onto his lap.

At last, we kissed. At last, we were together. Then, pulling away and looking into his eyes, I farted.

Jarry defined ‘Pataphysics as the science of “laws governing exceptions.”

A pattern has been established; it’s easy to see where things with Klaus and I are going. Oh, but what if this were different?

After we had sex, in the tender armistice that always follows, we spoke of taking a trip together—to Montreal, to Niagara Falls, anywhere, nowhere. I imagined us happy in a sieve-bottom boat.

“Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being” was to be on view at the Morgan Library through May 10th. The Morgan Library is currently closed. You can explore their collections online until it reopens.


-Follow Iris Smyles on Twitter @irissmyles.



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