Paul Scheerbart – The Glass architecture: an architect circumnavigates the globe by airship, constructing wildly varied, colored-glass buildings

Paul Scheerbart, The Gray Cloth. Introduced, translated, and with drawings by John A. Stewart. MIT Press, 2001.

"The German expressionist, architectural visionary, author, inventor, and artist Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915) wrote several fictional utopian narratives related to glass architecture. In The Gray Cloth, the first of his novels to be translated into English, Scheerbart uses subtle irony and the structural simplicity of a fairy tale to present the theories of colored glass outlined in his well-known treatise Glass Architecture. The novel is set forward in time to the mid-twentieth century. The protagonist, a Swiss architect named Edgar Krug, circumnavigates the globe by airship with his wife, constructing wildly varied, colored-glass buildings. His projects include a high-rise and exhibition/concert hall in Chicago, a retirement complex for air pilots on the Fiji Islands, the structure for an elevated train across a zoological park in northern India, and a suspended residential villa on the Kuria Muria Islands off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea. Fearing that his architecture is challenged by the colorfulness of women’s clothing, Krug insists that his wife wear all gray clothing with the addition of ten percent white. This odd demand brings him notoriety and sensationalizes his international building campaign. For the reader, it underlines the confluence of architecture with fashion, gender, and global media. In his introduction John Stuart surveys Scheerbart’s career and role in German avant-garde circles, as well as his architectural and social ideas. He shows how Scheerbart strove to integrate his spiritual and romantic leanings with the modern world, often relying on glass architecture to do so. In addition to discussing the novel’s reception and its rediscovery by contemporary architects and critics, Stuart shows fiction to be a resource for the study of architecture and places The Gray Cloth in the context of German Expressionism." "In The Gray Cloth, Scheerbart shows that even in the most edifying buildings, the human comedy finds a home." —Alan G. Brake"Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion, which the architect designed for the 1914 German Werkbund Exhibition, is one of the idealistic icons of Expressionist architecture. Commissioned by Germany’s glass industry, the smallish circular building with its faceted cupola, glass brick wall, and open interior conveyed on a modest scale the mystical properties of glass that author Paul Scheerbart espoused in his seminal tract, Glasarchitektur (Glass Architecture) published by Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm press the same year. The pavilion façade was actually inscribed with Scheerbart’s polemical aphorisms on the virtues of glass: among them “Light wants crystal”: “Without a glass palace, life becomes a burden,” and “Building in brick only does harm.”
Scheerbart met Taut in 1913 when he sought to organize a “Society of Glass Architecture.” Taut had already received the commission to design the Glass Pavilion, which he ended up dedicating to Scheerbart just as Scheerbart dedicated Glasarchitektur to him. Though Scheerbart died in 1915, the year after the Werkbund Exhibition, his book was eagerly consumed by utopian German architects who sought to renew their nation’s culture after the destruction of World War I. As Walter Gropius wrote to the artist Herman Finsterlin, “You absolutely must read Paul Scheerbarth [sic]…in [his] works you will find much wisdom and beauty.” Taut was actually the architect most responsible for keeping Scheerbart’s vision alive after the war. He published several books, including Alpine Architecture (1919) and The Dissolution of Cities (1920), which translated Scheerbart’s fervent espousal of glass architecture into projects for utopian towns, including the construction of glass temples in the mountains. In 1919 Taut also started a correspondence among a group of his colleagues called the Glass Chain which obliged each member to share ideas about the future of architecture. Around the same time, he inaugurated a journal, Frülicht (Early Light), which published some of the Glass Chain correspondence among other idealistic articles about architecture.
In 1921 Taut was appointed city architect of Magdeburg, a position which committed him to a much more pragmatic approach to building than Scheerbart’s glass fantasies allowed. Others in the Glass Chain also moved on to practical work. By the time Germany adopted the Dawes Plan in 1924, architects were more inclined to address the nation’s need for low-cost housing than to concern themselves with the magical properties of glass. It is unclear whether or not Scheerbart influenced Mies van der Rohe, whose models for steel and glass towers in the early 1920s were allied with the rationalist tendencies of the G group. Certainly Mies’s early Weimar experiments paved the way for the subsequent explosion of glass curtain wall office and apartment buildings. Though his spartan aesthetic left no room for the extravagant use of colored glass that Scheerbart promoted, his structures and those of others responsible for modernism’s corporate style after World War II came closer to realizing Scheerbart’s vision than the utopian projects of Taut and other Expressionist architects. Scheerbart’s novel The same year that Scheerbart published Glasarchitektur, he also brought out a novel, Das graue Tuch und zehn prozent Weiss; Ein Damen Roman, which has now been admirably translated into English as The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies Novel by John A. Stuart, professor of architecture at Florida International University. Stuart also wrote an extensive contextual introduction and produced several lovely pastel drawings as visual complements to Scheerbart’s text. From Stuart, we learn that The Gray Cloth was the last of Scheerbart’s novels. It is also the first to be translated into English. Scheerbart was a prolific writer who produced a good number of novels and theater pieces as well as myriad essays, stories, and reviews, many of them on architectural topics, for Berlin’s daily press. He also participated in the city’s lively café life. As a writer, Scheerbart was known for his ironic style, which one might compare with that of Karl Krauss or Adolf Loos, who were writing around the same time in Vienna.
From the time of his first novel, Das Paradies: Die Heimat der Kunst (Paradise; Homeland of Art), published in 1893, Scheerbart was preoccupied with glass architecture, which is a major theme of The Gray Cloth. The novel is set in the middle of the twentieth century, a time when new technologies as envisioned by the author enable people to travel around the world, build large structures of glass, and communicate with each other by telegraph. His protagonist is Edgar Krug, an immensely successful Swiss architect and a proponent of buildings made of colored glass. Krug circumnavigates the globe in his own dirigible-like airship, attending to his many projects. The novel opens in one of Krug’s buildings, a large exhibition hall of steel and colored glass in Chicago where an organ concert is taking place. The organ “roared with such a stormy rhythm that all the seated visitors involuntarily sprang up and stared at the dazzling color magic.”(4) When Krug is introduced to the organist Clara Weber she is wearing a simple gray dress with ten percent white trim. Krug is enraptured with this outfit because he believes that only gray clothing with no more than ten percent white added, is compatible with his colored glass architecture. Clara’s outfit so endears Krug to her that the two move quickly to a marriage contract, which obligates Clara to dress only in gray with no more than ten percent white trim or accessories. Clara’s seeming submissiveness to Krug’s will, however, is countered by her powerful organ playing. She is, in fact, introduced to the reader through the potent rhythms of her music, which induce the audience to stand up and respond to the colored glass walls around them. Throughout the book Clara is encouraged by her American friend Amanda Schmidt to reject the decision to dress as Krug wishes. Amanda is an artist who sells one of her sculptures to Krug at the beginning of the book. In the piece that Krug buys, a head which might be a lion’s or a human’s, is attached to a fish’s body while the side fin covers the entire fish’s body like a cloak. The replacement of a fish’s head with that of a lion or human, thus combining either brute force or refined intelligence with the flowing movement of the fish’s body, suggests an empowerment of Amanda as an artist and a woman.
Though the examples of Clara’s organ playing and Amanda’s art introduce both women as strong figures, male power is quickly reasserted when Krug’s airship takes off, whisking him and Clara to the Fiji Islands, where he must attend to one of his projects, a convalescent home for retired air chauffeurs which is being built by an Englishman, Mr. Webster. Beginning with this project, Krug travels in his airship from one place to another as he is called to make important decisions and attend to crises. Though the male force that Krug embodies is now front and center, Scheerbart keeps the female voice alive through telegraph messages back and forth between Clara and Amanda. Clara is confined to the airship and laments that her agreement to dress only in gray is now making her long for colors. Meanwhile Edgar Krug is embroiled in a dispute with the builder, Mr. Webster, about how much color can be included in the convalescent home. Webster argues that the chauffeurs are against the colors Krug proposes and want only single-colored glass plates. Here Scheerbart pits Krug’s vision against the realities of his clients’ desires. In his discussion of the convalescent home, Scheerbart conveys an impressive knowledge of building techniques. Krug and Webster have a technical discussion of how to position the building’s windscreens to enhance a view of the sea. Krug enlists Clara to introduce the prospect of adding color to the project. Initially he calls Webster’s attention to her gray outfit as evidence of his taste for simplicity but he then invites Clara to suggest several bright colors for the glass windscreens. Webster finally agrees to use them. Once again, we find a contrast between Clara’s gray garb and her discursive power to influence a response to colored glass architecture. Meanwhile, Clara receives a telegram from Amanda which exhorts her to question her marriage to Krug whom she thinks will turn Clara into a "sandwich lady.” (21) The telegram becomes part of a secret dialogue among women that speculates about Krug’s desire for power and the female response to it. Female forces Scheerbart then shifts his ground and reintroduces female power through a group of women artists in the painter-colony of Makartland, a territory at the South Pole. The colony recalls the German turn-of-the-century artist’s colony, Worpswede, near Bremen where at least one important woman artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker, worked. Scheerbart’s colony consists of twenty female painters, ten of whom are married to male artists and ten of whom are unmarried daughters. One of the women is a seamstress who tries to subvert the dress clause in Clara’s marriage contract by making her clothing that continually interprets the ten percent white in new ways. Edgar and Clara remain for nine months in Makartland while Edgar builds a glass expansion of the colony. One of the artists, Käte Bandel, befriends Clara and decides to go with her when the couple leaves the South Pole. After they arrive in Australia on their way to Borneo, Käte engages in a dialogue with Krug about the comparative virtues of wood and glass as building materials. Not only does she defend wood but she also claims that the still sea (i.e. nature), when it seems like a sheet of ice, is more beautiful than glass architecture. Her lively explanation gets Edgar so excited that he jumps up and demands two bottles of champagne from the airship steward. When they arrive in Borneo, Käte persuades Clara to appear at a mountain restaurant wearing ten percent plaid (a checked scarf) instead of white. Clara acquiesces and enrages Krug who demands that Käte return to Makartland immediately. Despite her provocation of Krug, which results in her banishment from the couple’s party, Käte’s vigorous defense of nature’s beauty is nonetheless another example of how Scheerbart uses the woman’s voice to establish an empowering relation to Krug’s architecture. For someone who became known for his persistent promotion of such architecture in real life, Scheerbart shows a surprising dialogic tendency in the novel, where he constantly questions assumptions about the architect’s power and the virtues of his creations. On the one hand, woman is subordinate to the male will, represented by Clara making herself a gray compliment to Krug’s colorful designs; but it also a woman, Käte Bandel, who argues for the superiority of nature over Krug’s architecture. Scheerbart recognizes female power in another way through his description of the Japanese women whom Edgar and Clara meet when they arrive in Japan from Borneo. These women, who live in glass buildings within a small mine, “went around in airy costumes that were, naturally, ablaze with very, very bright colors.” (41) Krug does not like these colors because he thinks they overwhelm those of the glass walls. When he tries to praise his wife’s gray clothing, he is met with opposition by the Japanese women. Their spokeswoman, the Marquise of Fi-Boh tells Edgar that his thoughts about contrast might sit well in Europe but they don’t hold up in Japan. She praises his architecture but denigrates his wife’s drab clothing and offers to change it. Krug refuses and leaves the room with his wife. Subsequently they head to north India where Krug is involved with a project in a large zoological park. Architectural ambitions With the exception of the exhibition hall in Chicago, Krug’s architectural projects are primarily in underdeveloped countries and territories, some real and some fanciful. Most are in Asia or the Pacific region, while several are in the Middle East and one is at the South Pole. Scheerbart goes out of his way to contrast the grand scope and advanced technology of Krug’s glass architecture with the backward or primitive conditions of the places where it is being considered or built. In the Fiji Islands, the natives “probably sleep in holes and never think about glass architecture.”(16-17) Webster, in a discussion with Krug, advises against laying a rail line there. Considering transportation plans for the islands, Krug sees the advantages of using litters to carry people. This, he says, would give the natives something to do. In India at the foot of the Himalayas Krug observes a zoological park where the walls that separate the animals are made of brick. Electric carriages run along the walls, moving the visitors from one animal area to another. Despite the sophisticated technology, Krug is unimpressed because the park does not have enough glass. He tells the park directors that foreigners will only visit the zoo if they find great glass architecture there. Then he proposes that they build colored glass roofs in a variety of shapes over the brick walls. The directors agree to enclose only one quarter of the buildings. THE architects of the INDIAN animal park decide to build a ten-tower organ for Clara, thus amplifying her musical voice which causes the wild animals to stop their roaring. Shortly thereafter the Marquise Fi-Boh arrives from Japan with an entourage of eighty five women bringing bolts of silk cloth. They persuade Clara to dress in the colorful silk. She does so and then plays “wild waltz music” throughout the night. At the moment of Clara’s liberation in India, Krug is in Ceylon with Mr. Webster where he is discussing plans for a Center for Air Research, that would require more than one hundred iron and glass ports in the mountains. Krug’s ideas for using glass to build the center are challenged by the engineers who think glass would be too heavy for the structure. As a replacement they suggest “a wire mesh with a colorful transparent glue spread over it.”(56) They also question Krug’s proposal to use parabolic and elliptical shapes for the hangars. Krug fails to persuade the engineers in Ceylon of his views and moves on to other projects. In the so-called Kuria Muria Islands he has a rendez-vous with a wealthy Chinese client Li-Tung who makes him dress in red silk for their meeting and presents in his honor a performance of exotic female dancers of all races in colorful veils (Scheerbart mentions Negresses, Indians, and Persians). Li-Tung tells Krug that he wants to build houses that hang from gallows. Krug proposes glass houses that could be raised or lowered using a lever arm and rotated so that the living room is always in the shade. The projects that engage Krug range from the futuristic as in the Center for Air Research in Ceylon to the archeological as in Babylon, where a group of businessmen want to recreate the ancient city as it was under Nebuchadnezzar. They propose to staff the Babylonian theme park with Bedouins who would dress up as “warriors, court officials, eunuchs, and temple servants.” (72) All visitors would have to dress in Babylonian costume and women would be carried about in litters. Majolica, Scheerbart tells us, was the triumphant material of the new Babylon and Krug can do little with the project except to glass in the ancient king’s barge. Although he has no architectural success in Babylon, Krug agrees there to strike the clause in the marriage contract with Clara that requires her to dress in gray. Nonetheless, Clara says that she will continue to wear gray with ten percent white by her own consent. Now Clara can costume herself as she likes and her desire to remain a quiet compliment to her husband’s architecture becomes an important contrast to Käte Bandel’s more contentious earlier debate with Krug about the aesthetic power of nature versus his buildings. The succession of events that leads to striking the dress clause from the marriage contract is paralleled by Krug’s continued lack of success with his projects. In Cairo, where he is invited to meet with members of a newly formed pyramid society his suggestion to build small glass hotels on the banks of the Nile is rebuffed and the society members propose instead the construction of large glass obelisks on the tops of the pyramids. Outraged, Krug refuses to mix glass architecture with ancient buildings and he will have nothing to do with the Egyptian project. When they leave Egypt, Krug reveals to Clara that he is also an archeologist. He explains that antiquity and glass architecture are still compatible and he proposes to demonstrate this compatibility with the design of a new museum for Oriental weapons on Malta. When he and Clara arrive there, Clara is now more outspoken about her views on architecture. She has become Krug’s supporter, telling him that she wears her gray clothes strategically in order to help seduce his clients into using at least a couple of colors. Meanwhile she continues her dialogues by telegraph with her women friends, Käte and Amanda. At this point, Clara reaffirms Edgar’s views on the gray cloth and replies to Käte that “[it] is better to have a colorful house than colorful clothing.’ (86) On Malta, the Oriental weapons are stolen and instead of a museum to house them, a museum of glass architecture is built instead. Despite his recent lack of success, Krug has achieved his due recognition and he and Clara repair to his sumptuous home in Isola Grande, Switzerland. In the end, Krug has not altered the world’s reception to glass architecture. His sense of sanguinity about its virtues is countered by the many setbacks he experiences during the course of the novel as he faces difficult clients, contentious engineers, and hesitant builders. The public as described by Mr. Webster and Clara is highly resistant to this form of building and must be persuaded of its merits. Clara become a devotee. When Krug ceases to insist that she wear gray, she continues the practice of her own accord despite the contradictory counsel of her women friends. Although Scheerbart ends the novel with this decision, he allows a multitude of other voices to express different positions and does not impose on the reader a simple polemic about either glass architecture or fashion. In fact, the play of voices is central to the novel and makes the meaning of the title more complex. Subtitling the book, “[a] Ladies Novel,” the author offers innumerable images of independent and strong women, particularly artists. Written at the end of the Wilhelmine era, the novel expresses in many ways prevailing German attitudes of the time: the acceptance of colonialism and the subservience of the darker races, the imperial ambitions of Western capitalists, and the male as a powerful creative force. But Scheerbart also gives unusually strong voices to a diverse group of female characters including several, notably Clara and Amanda, who are extremely successful artists. Although Clara voluntarily dons gray at the end, she has not done so because of patriarchal coercion, nor has she compromised her power as an artist. Scheerbart’s title, The Gray Cloth, can thus direct the reader to an unanticipated theme, the strength of the female voice, which competes vigorously with the architectural discourse that one might have otherwise expected to dominate the novel." - Victor Margolin"Glass is commonly associated with the presumed rationalism of modern architecture. Architectural historians directly link the glass exhibitions and botanical structures of the mid 1800’s to modern architecture. But this simple modernist storyline bypasses a large amount of other major influences that played an even more significant part in the development of meaning behind glass architecture. My research is about one such forgotten character, left behind by the modern movement in its written history: Paul Scheerbart. That he, the author and advocate of Glasarchitektur, should also be named as a pioneer of glass architecture has sunk into oblivion. My dissertation, through Scheerbart’s various writings with an emphasis on his book Glasarchitektur and his novel Das Graue Tuch, brings to light his influence on architecture, particularly through his close collaboration with Architect Bruno Taut on the design of the GlasHaus. Architectural historians view Taut and Scheerbart Expressionist work’s as being unrealistic and competing against a more rational interpretation of European destiny (whose monument was to be the factory). Consequently, the portrayal of Taut’s and Scheerbart’s architecture as only being fit for fantasises does no justice to the actual impact they had on built architecture and future generations of architects. This disparity is due to some simple facts: Taut (1880-1938) and Scheerbart (1863-1915) died before they had the opportunity to write their own history like other architects of the period. This contributed significantly to their being forgotten about, whilst architectural historians deemed the International Style the source of rebirth for architecture and shunned all other movements. Furthermore World War II created an overwhelming prejudice against anything that was German so this hindered the discovery of Paul Scheerbart’s interpretation on glass architecture. All these factors resulted in Scheerbart receiving some attention as a literary figure in Germany for his eccentric tales and fantasies but the short historiography of English works examining his architectural fictions are considerably lacking, hence my dissertation tries to return to Paul Scheerbart his rightful place in
history as the Glaspapa of glass architecture. - Amélie Conway


“…airships, that’s the world that never materialized.” - Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book Two

German architect/writer Paul Scheerbart’s 1914 novel, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies Novel, a fictional accompaniment to his more scholarly treatise, Glass Architecture, imagines a world of spectacular, colored glass buildings. Translator John A. Stuart’s introduction notes that the novel may have been in part a public relations maneuver for promoting Scheerbart’s ideas about using glass as a building material, but where Scheerbart goes with The Gray Cloth - a whimsical, world-ranging, architectural caper - puts his novel firmly and enchantingly in the realm of literature.
One accepts early on that character development, complexity of language, and philosophizing will be minimal in The Gray Cloth, but this fairy-tale fantasy, set in “the middle of the twentieth century,” rewards the reader in other ways, not least by sprinkling into the interstices of its narrative myriad inventive, charming conceits. The novel’s plot is simple: the world’s leading proponent of glass architecture, Edgar Krug, is so taken by the gray dress trimmed in ten percent white worn by Clara, whom he meets at the inauguration of the Tower of Babel, his grand, glass concert hall in Chicago, that he immediately proposes marriage to her, with the caveat that she contractually agree always to wear gray clothing with ten percent white so as to enhance his colorful buildings and insure that they won’t be upstaged[i]. To everyone’s astonishment, Clara accepts Edgar’s terms, and the novel then traces the evolution of this contract as the newlyweds float about the planet on airships - the chief mode of transportation in The Gray Cloth - to visit Edgar’s architectural projects: a convalescent home for airship chauffeurs on Fiji, a painters’ colony in Antarctica, a bath complex on a Borneo volcano, a series of revolving, hanging houses suspended over Majolica terraces for a rich Chinese client, Herr Li-Tung, on an island off Oman; a museum for antique oriental weaponry on Malta, an experimental station for aquatic architecture in the middle of “the huge Aral Sea,” and Krug’s own estate – a palace of light and glass on an island in Italy’s Lago Maggiore. Edgar foresees a world covered in colored glass architecture: scalloped shells of great glass slabs, immense paned walls carefully controlled for color effects, towers of light, sculpted glass roofs to delight airship passengers. Despite his contemplating covering the Himalayas in glass, his ambition does have a few limits; he balks at developers who would wreck the Egyptian pyramids with glass towers, and asserts that “ always more wonderful that the somewhat weak fantasies of the small human,” intending his glass structures to evoke “Dragonfly wings!... Birds of paradise, fireflies, lightfish, orchids, muscles [sic], pearls, diamonds, and so on, and so on - All that is beautiful on the face of the earth.”
Scheerbart employs the language of a children’s fairy tale to tell his story. His humorous narrative consists of short, declarative sentences -
            The men then drank grog to Frau Clara’s health.

            They sat till midnight in the restaurant on the peak.

            Only colored lanterns and the stars in the sky shone above.

            The moon was not to be seen.

            Meteors moved along parabolic lines across the starry skies.

            On the horizon Venus was radiant.
- sometimes incorporating playful elements verging on absurdity:
Many storks floated over the airship. A stork sat near the helmsman, then, in a little while, he flew off after the other storks.
Color, light, air, zipping about the globe on zeppelins – these ingredients suggest nothing of the grim events about to engulf Europe. Rather, The Gray Cloth, a poetic fantasy like an unrealized architectural rendering, speaks of a radiant future. The gently ironic tone conveyed in The Gray Cloth contains a frolicsome, internationalist optimism for the future of the sort generated by the international expositions and world’s fairs that have all but vanished in today’s world (two such fairs frame the novel’s action). Stuart’s excellent introduction – which discusses Scheerbart’s prescient anticipation of the global diffusion of design, the impact of cinema, media’s turn towards celebrity, and other predictive qualities - notes that in part these blithe, utopian elements are posed to stand out against the threats facing humankind.
The Gray Cloth also announces, with its subtitle, “A Ladies Novel,” a concern with gender relations, exploring the independence of women and the juggling of power within marriage. Colonies of strong women populate the book: the mostly female painters’ colony; the entourage of Marquise Fi-Boh of Japan, whose colorful robes prompt Clara’s first revolt against her contract; an internationalist troop of ballerinas who perform on Li-Tung’s terraces; and above all the female friends Clara picks up on her travels, who offer moral support, advice and courage. But despite her own misgivings and friends’ pleas for her to escape the “tyranny” Edgar has imposed, Clara remains steadfastly determined to navigate her own path around Edgar’s entwining of egotism, stubbornness, and artistic genius, leading her husband to recognize her independence and stature as an artist in her own right (with some chimes, bells and drums suspended in towers, Clara, an organist, uses architecture as a musical instrument, her performances attracting global attention). This assertiveness in insisting on gender equality is also demonstrated by Clara’s female companions, one of whom marries Li-Tung - on her own terms.
While few would take seriously the fanciful world The Gray Cloth imagines, it nonetheless presents a gem-like and strangely poignant vision of an unrealized world and glows with a spirit that seems today all but lost: open-ended optimism for the future; belief in internationalism and solidarity among races and genders; ebullience, wonder and daring in trying on the new. In a world where concrete apartment blocks dominate skylines, gains in gender equality face depressing backlash and “the huge Aral Sea” has been reduced to a puddle, the glowing colors, leisurely airship voyages and innocent caprices of the The Gray Cloth seem seductively attractive, and immeasurably far away.

Paul Scheerbart, Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, Translated, with an introduction, by Andrew Joron. Wakefield Press, 2011.

"In the last days of 1907, the German novelist and exponent of glass architecture Paul Scheerbart embarked upon an attempt to invent a perpetual motion machine. For the next two and a half years he would document his ongoing efforts (and failures) from his laundry-room-cum-laboratory, hiring plumbers and mechanics to construct his models while spinning out a series of imagined futures that his invention-in-the-making was going to enable. The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, originally published in German in 1910, is an indefinable blend of diary, diagrams and digression that falls somewhere between memoir and reverie: a document of what poet and translator Andrew Joron calls a “two-and-a-half-year-long tantrum of the imagination.” Shifting ambiguously from irony to enthusiasm and back, Scheerbart’s unique amalgamation of visionary humor and optimistic failure ultimately proves to be a more literary invention than scientific: a perpetual motion of a fevered imagination that reads as if Robert Walser had tried his hand at science fiction. With “toiling wheels” inextricably embedded in his head, Scheerbart’s visions of rising globalization, ecological devastation, militaristic weapons of mass destruction and the possible end of literature soon lead him to dread success more than failure. The Perpetual Motion Machine is an ode to the fertility of misery and a battle cry of the imagination against praxis. "Originally published in 1910, Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention recounts his failed attempt at perfecting an illusory device. Bringing together dozens of diagrams of the increasingly complicated perpet (his name for the machine in question) along with notes on scientific methodology, cosmology (the so-called Earthstar) and architecture, the memoir presents a brief survey of Scheerbart’s crystalline paradise. ‘How the airships will rejoice over the masses of light! All church steeples can truly be covered with light from top to bottom. Very tall mountains can be illuminated in the same fashion. And then the shining vehicles, the housetops, and the colossal boulevards of light – and the banks of canals.’ As his reveries digress, however, Scheerbart begins to substitute the construction of the machine for the composition of his prose, so that by the conclusion the hapless scientist reveals that the story of his invention is much greater than the contraption itself: ‘Ten thousand Utopian novels were waiting to be written about all these nascent revolutions; 1,000 novels couldn’t begin to exhaust the subject matter.’ The reader is left with a sense of Scheerbart’s stark Utopian vision of space and technology in the service of literary fantasy – a belief that led to his collapse and premature death at the onset of the Great War. Scheerbart was summarily excised from the canon of German literature and architecture, despite his direct influence on Die glaserne Kette (The Crystal Chain), a Utopian correspondence network led by Bruno Taut between 1919–20, in which a small group of architects and artists exchanged ideas on what form the architecture of the future should take; Walter Gropius’s ‘Ausstellung für unbekannte Architekten’ (Exhibition for Unknown Architects, Berlin, 1919) and Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project, 1927–40) all of which endeavoured to achieve similar interdisciplinary innovations in both theory and design from beneath Scheerbart’s shadow." - Erik Morse 

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.
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.”
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).
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. - Carl Little

  Paul Scheerbart, The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Force, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets. Trans. by M. Kasper, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007.

"Scheerbart's 1909 pamphlet could be characterized as a montage of shifting registers, from banal to bombastic, now chatty, now dry, full of non-sequiturs and with a deadpan tone that leaves readers uncertain as to what's funny and what's not." "Ugly Duckling Presse has recently re-published, as part of its Lost Literature series, this quizzical and provocative "flyer" (itself an intentional pun) by German writer Paul Scheerbart, The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets (1909, and ably translated by Michael Kasper, published in 2007). One is tempted to read this quasi-Swiftian pamphlet alongside the sundry modernist manifestoes of the time, which proclaim (a la Marinetti) the triumph of technology for modern man, yet Scheerbart appears to have been parodying such triumphalist gestures. The flyer's tones range from the bombastic to the tragicomic; note the opening: "We're on the brink of a tragedy. The magnificent military culture of the nineteenth century will soon be 'demobbed' would as soon assume the world was ending" (1). Scheerbart's "argument" is clear from the title: air power will end war culture as we know it. Though clearly, prior to World War I, glorification of the military and European power was very much in evidence, countervailing views also existed, and it is probable that Scheerbart enlists himself in that latter category. But such is the Swiftian cleverness of the flyer that he never completely reveals himself and his own opinions. Does he believe air power will make armies obsolete, or is he just miming the gestures of the triumphalists? That ambiguity is precisely what makes this flyer such a discomfiting, and critical, read, for those of us interested in war resistance texts. Does the text merely perform a Swiftian "Modest Proposal" for the armed forces? Absolutely not. After all, every new military technology that was created has been heralded as the end of warfare (Nobel's dynamite, the nuclear bomb, etc.), and yet immediately has become yet another weapon in the arsenal of potential or actuated threats. In fact, perusing a list of contemporary "non-lethal" weaponry researched by the Pentagon is to enter into a horror movie without end. Every human sense is threatened with ray guns, acoustic sonic blasts, malodorants, rubber and plastic projectiles, etc. (a list shortly forthcoming). The military admits that such "non-lethal" weaponry is, of course, not an attempt to make war less lethal, but to supplement its lethality regimes and to lessen protest. In Department of Defense Directive 3000.3 (July 19, 1996), the (heavily-Latinate) language goes: "Nonlethal weapons should not be required to have a zero probability of producing fatalities or permanent injuries." The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets is an essential read for helping us think about how literature might intervene in questioning our ongoing celebration of technology. At the same time, it offers a sobering picture of how imagination itself is harnessed to violent ends, in the weapons industries of our time. "Use your imagination," as Military Intelligence exhorted the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Finally, it is suggestive of the contradictions of the avant-garde project: how satiric and parodic gestures can become so easily co-opted, commodified and domesticated, and how all attempts at resistance come to resemble the object of critique; from Dada to Beat, from Pop Art to Punk, from Language Poetry to Flarf, avant-garde texts and practices often dwell on the liminal space between resistance and complicity, between oppositionality and top of the pops." - Philip Metres

"Paul Scheerbart is unlikely to be remembered in America for his poetry, if at all for any of his writing. However, in his satirical flyer The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets, Scheerbart writes with ambiguously sardonic and wry humor that speaks to anyone who’s watched for the last 100 years, addressing the omnipresence of and social malaise relative to technological development, specifically military development, that presses forward from generation to generation. He criticizes the arms race which took place before the start of World War I and predicts—unknowingly—what later was to be coined Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. The flyer is organized into 16 smaller essays concerning the point “Aerial Militarism is far stronger than ground forces, fortresses, and navel fleets.”
Beginning with the first essay, “The Impossibility of a Land Battle when Air-Fleets are Involved,” Scheerbart presumes that two European powers possessing Air-fleets want war with one another. If such a war occurs, according to Scheerbart, Air-fleets would cause great and irreconcilable damage in attacks to military installations, parliaments, and palaces; it would happen so quickly that the troops would be “greeted with a hail of torpedoes,” rendering land troops “totally superfluous.” In the second smaller essay, “The Impossibility of a Fortress War when air-fleets are Involved,” the author goes on to explain that “a fortress war is inconceivable no matter what, if air-fleets exist on both sides.” Scheerbart states that air-fleets simply aren’t bothered by forts, forts being the standard first line of defense against invading armies. Furthermore, air-fleets can fly with complete freedom and need not pay further attention to forts. He then concludes that forts are superfluous and should be converted for peaceful purposes, a notion rendered with marvelous humor. Scheerbart’s logical, direct and deadpan humor laughs the reader into identifying with Scheerbart’s position—even if he has no clear “stance” other than the hint that it is careless to brainlessly praise technology for its own sake. You’ll laugh inaudibly at his absurd, yet almost conceivable logic: “many soldiers can hide in the forts. But if they come out, they’re exposed to air torpedoes. They might as well not come out. Now it’s obvious that soldiers who can’t put in an appearance in wartime are totally superfluous.” The irony speaks for itself; the future, and future technology, are incoherent, a little bit frightening and always based on something of a false premise. A bit antique, Aerial Militarism might raise the “relevance” question at first. But good political satire is timeless; Scheerbart keeps a steady eye on the illogical and contradictory moves by Militarists, as well as their denial of the proliferation of god-knows-what new military technology as it “pursues its own steady progress without regard for humanity or civic sentiment” and “compels a dynamite war.” It also serves to remind us of the speed at which once-fascinating and unnerving technology can become commonplace as newer and more destructive ends are researched. Figuratively, the flyer (pun intended, if you haven’t determined that yet) claims a war of terror and atrocity, which literally depends on dynamite. There have always been Rules of War, and there have always been people ordered to break them; nevertheless, the question of morality is raised: “in the future, even the dropping of explosive munitions on enemy ships will be possible so that, as in a land war, the battle will have to take another course, and at the very least leave a powerful moral impression.” In the end, Scheerbart strikes a profoundly relevant chord, asking Aerial militarists should “feel a moral lift when, with a couple of dynamite bombs, they succeed in sending a couple of thousand enemies to kingdom come? Indeed—I wouldn’t be surprised if they soon started talking about “holy” dynamite…” What’s more holy than victory?" - Komo Andanda

"Like Rilke’s mirrored stag, Scheerbart offers sixteen points in this “flyer”, newly translated a hundred years after it was written.
I. “A land battle however is completely impossible—the dynamite dropping from above works so fast that ground forces don’t arrive until long after events develop.”
II. “Naturally—many soldiers can hide in forts. But if they come out, they’re exposed to air torpedoes. They might as well not come out.”
III. “Naval fleets count for nothing in future dynamite wars... in particular, the English are to be pitied.”
IV. “Infantry is of no use whatsoever.”
V. “Artillery, all the same, would have a limited ‘right to existence.’”
VI. “Horse soldiers nowadays haven’t the slightest value.”
VII. “One could stop building submarines.”
VIII. “I’m against demolishing fortifications—they’re excellent examples of architectural landscapes... even torpedo boats would be well received as passenger steamers.”
IX. “Superfluous cannons... horses... most sabers and most uniforms will probably wind up in the war museums of the future.”
X. “A European or international congress of militarists should be organized in the very near future. Whether it meets in Berlin, Paris, or Switzerland is neither here nor there... redeployment of armaments is what needs discussing, not disarmament.”
XI. “Anti-militarism hasn’t the slightest right to exist anymore; it’s over, and the friends of peace should realize that very soon.”
XII. “Naturally, the smallest state can be very dangerous to the biggest.”
XIII. “’This image also suggests notions of just what an air apparatus might mean to anarchists, nihilists, and others of that ilk. The eagle eye of the police may constantly monitor the doings of these groups, but who’ll watch over them if they hurl their murderous weapons from on high, which, with flying machines, will soon be within reach?’”
XIV. “Festivals! After what’s just been said, I need hardly add that we have little reason to celebrate dirigibles with festive enthusiasm.”
XV. “Over the centuries, the United States of Europe have constituted a much-ridiculed utopia. Faced with a dynamite war, this utopia becomes a much more realizable thing—soon losing its comical side.”
XVI. “Private aircraft, therefore, are easily utilized in air warfare.” - Christopher Mulrooney

Josiah McElheny, The Light Club: On Paul Scheerbart's "The Light Club of Batavia", University of Chicago Press, 2010.

"Paul Scheerbart (1863–1915) was a visionary German novelist, theorist, poet, and artist who made a lasting impression on such icons of modernism as Walter Benjamin, Bruno Taut, and Walter Gropius. Fascinated with the potential of glass architecture, Scheerbart’s satirical fantasies envisioned an electrified future, a world composed entirely of crystalline, colored glass. In 1912, Scheerbart published The Light Club of Batavia, a Novelle about the formation of a club dedicated to building a spa for bathing—not in water, but in light—at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft. Translated here into English for the first time, this rare story serves as a point of departure for Josiah McElheny, who, with an esteemed group of collaborators, offers a fascinating array of responses to this enigmatic work. The Light Club makes clear that the themes of utopian hope, desire, and madness in Scheerbart’s tale represent a part of modernism’s lost project: a world based on political and spiritual ideals rather than efficiency and logic. In his compelling introduction, McElheny describes Scheerbart’s life as well as his own enchantment with the writer, and he explains the ways in which The Light Club of Batavia inspired him to produce art of uncommon breadth. The Light Club also features inspired writings from Gregg Bordowitz and Ulrike Müller, Andrea Geyer, and Branden W. Joseph, as well as translations of original texts by and about Scheerbart. A unique response by one visionary artist to another, The Light Club is an unforgettable examination of what it might mean to see radical potential in absolute illumination."

“An exciting hybrid—beautifully clear, yet complex; a meditation on meta-narratives by a leading artist and writer of his generation; a work of art.”—Michelle Kuo

"McElheny surrounds this vision of "ironic utopia" with metanarratives, which he commissioned from other artists and writers, or authored himself. In a play, a reminiscence, a male/female dialogue, and a critique, Scheerbart’s century-old original gets re-narrated -- its bold creative idealism is hightlighted while its discriminating and, in hindsight, alarming aspirations are exposed." - Sabine Russ"The Light Club is built up around Der Lichtklub von Batavia: Eine Damen-Novellette, a very short text (despite what one might expect from its designation as a 'novellette') by Paul Scheerbart, first published in 1912, which Josiah McElheny and his collaborators use as a springboard for their own pieces, which range from simply translating the text (it is printed in both the original German and the English translation by Wilhelm Werthern) to reimagining it (as in the poem 'From the Shadows' by Gregg Bordowitz and Ulrike Müller) to providing context and analysis (the Introduction, and the pieces on Scheerbart himself). Scheerbart's work has not been widely translated into English but he is a fascinating writer who defies easy categorization. Among his works are a 'hippopotamus novel', a 'railway novel with sixty-six intermezzos', and his 'asteroid-novel' Lesabéndio (the original edition of which came with illustrations by Alfred Kubin). He also had a thing about glass and architecture, and it's this that has attracted the most English-language attention, with The Gray Cloth: Paul Scheerbart's Novel on Glass Architecture (MIT Press, 2001) the most prominent of his works in translation; it is also this that is of particular interest to McElheny here, as Scheerbart's 'The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies Novelette' involves a subterranean project where: "The villas of the mine and the hotels are also to be constructed top to bottom with Tiffany-glass and iron", etc. As McElheny notes about Scheerbart in his Introduction:
It is often hard to tell in his texts what he intends as humor, satire, or a call to arms, but he continually returns to the idea that cultural stagnation can be overcome, that renewal is possible.'The Light Club of Batavia' -- a mere six pages long -- seems like a simple little piece, but there's quite a bit to it; between McElheny's Introduction and his story, as well as the elaboration of the text in the poem by Gregg Bordowitz and Ulrike Müller this volume nicely shows how a text can be explained, read, and understood through a variety of approaches. McElheny's story, 'The Light Spa in the Mine', is both reading of and elaboration on the original, repeating parts of the story -- in paraphrase, rather than direct quote (allowing him to continue the translation, as it were), and the variations on the original are all quite good, usefully enhancing the text. The Light Club also serves as a good if limited introduction to Scheerbart himself, an author whose works certainly deserve a larger readership: 'The Light Club of Batavia' is barely even the tip of the iceberg of his work." - M.A.Orthofer 

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Paul Scheerbart, Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel. Illus. by Alfred Kubin. Trans. by Christina Svendsen, Wakefield Press, 2012.

“The serene and gentle amazement with which the author tells of the strange natural laws of other worlds, the great cosmic works undertaken there, and the naively noble conversations of their inhabitants makes him one of those humorists who, like Lichtenberg or Jean Paul, seem never to forget that the earth is a heavenly body.”—Walter Benjamin

First published in German in 1913 and widely considered to be Paul Scheerbart's masterpiece, Lesabéndio is an intergalactic utopian novel that describes life on the planetoid Pallas, where rubbery suction-footed life forms with telescopic eyes smoke bubble-weed in mushroom meadows under violet skies and green stars. Amid the conveyor-belt highways and lighthouses weaving together the mountains and valleys, a visionary named Lesabéndio hatches a plan to build a 44-mile-high tower and employ architecture to connect the two halves of their double star. A cosmic ecological fable, Scheerbart's novel was admired by such architects as Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius, and such thinkers as Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem (whose wedding present to Benjamin was a copy of Lesabéndio). Benjamin had intended to devote the concluding section of his lost manuscript "The True Politician" with a discussion of the positive political possibiliti<\h>es embedded in Scheerbart's "Asteroid Novel." As translator Christina Svendsen writes in her introduction, "Lesabéndio helps us imagine an ecological politics more daring than the conservative politics of preservation, even as it reminds us that we are part of a larger galactic set of interrelationships." This volume includes Alfred Kubin's illustrations from the original German edition.

An interesting first approach to Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel is to acknowledge its influence on prominent early Twentieth Century thinkers and artists. Its author, Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915), was a novelist, playwright, poet, newspaper critic, draughtsman, visionary, proponent of glass architecture, and would-be inventor of perpetual motion. His ideas inspired avant-garde art and architectural circles, especially the so-called Glass Chain movement, a group that included architects Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, and Hans Scharoun. His ideas also influenced the mystical and Romantic strains of early Expressionism, Futurism, Bauhaus, German Dada, and German science fiction literature. Gershom Scholem presented a copy of Lesabéndio to philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin as a wedding present, who, in a glowing review, lauds Scheerbart’s serene vision and calls him a humorist who never forgets that Earth is a heavenly body.

For Benjamin, technology sped up the process of turning its artifacts into commodities, along with the workers who produced them, thus alienating people from each other and the fruit of their labor. Says Benjamin, instead of accumulating experiences or wisdom, societies so affected by technology spend all their time filtering continuous, discrete bits of disconnected information, distracted in their reaction to rapidly changing social structures.
In Lesabéndio, however, the inhabitants of the imaginary star Pallus, make no rigid dichotomy between technology and nature, between themselves and technology, or between themselves and the surrounding natural world. Rather, they follow two preconditions Benjamin thought essential for humans on Earth: disregard of the belief that it is our task to exploit the forces of nature, and belief that technology, by liberating human beings, will liberate the whole of creation.
The star Pallas is a rugged, mountainous topography overlaid with an urban metropolis highlighted by many lighthouses. Moving beltways provide transportation between the northern and southern halves of Pallas. A glowing cobweb-cloud surrounds the planet and provides its light source.
Pallasians are organic parts of their home star. They have one rubber-like leg, with a suction cup at its end, convenient for attaching themselves to any surface. They expand and shrink various parts of their bodies in order to see at a distance, shelter themselves at night, or propel themselves via a method of high speed bouncing. They smoke bubble weed in mushroom meadows until they fall asleep under violet skies and green stars.
And, thus, we have another way to conceptualize the novel: as an ecological science fiction story. Lesabéndio, the hero of the novel, persuades all Pallasians to build a 44-mile high tower, utilizing newly discovered Kaddimohn steel in order to connect the two halves of their double star. An unintended effect is that the height of the tower alters Pallas’ center of gravity, which in turn changes the Pallasians’ internal nature as well as the form and function of the star on which they live. As a result, Lesabéndio achieves a nearly unimaginable level of consciousness, sensory perception, and communication abilities heretofore only experienced by astronomical entities like stars, asteroids, and the Central Sun of his local galaxy.
Lesabéndio, the novel, was ecological before ecology was a discipline, and science fiction before it was a literary genre. But, the novel may also be read as a political parable about the dangers and necessities of conflict. For example, Peka, an artist who believes in art for art’s sake, wants to decorate the tower. Lesabéndio, on the other hand, wants to use the tower to aid and transform Pallas. Peka loses to Lesabéndio, who absorbs Peka through his pores, nonviolently making Peka a part of himself. This highlights Scheerbart’s idea that technology must be integrated into the natural world and subordinated to values greater than itself in order for humans to live in a world that is at once harmonious and worthwhile. Rather than a tool for altering and reconfiguring both nature and the surface of Pallas, technology alters its users and their ecological and cosmic niche.
But, far from programmatic, Scheerbart is unsettling, quirky, and ironic in his humor and parody. The fact that pain and injuries are so rare on Pallas that they are remembered by only the oldest living beings, might be an echo of Neo-Darwinist understanding of nature not so brutally based on one species exterminating another. The mystical union Lesabéndio undergoes with the star Pallas might echo Nietzsche’s superman. The cooperative consensus among Pallasians might echo thoughts of applied art, where art and technology should serve the spiritual needs of the people. Finally, the novel might be read as a pastiche of scientific texts, even while questioning the ability of such texts to summarize and objectify knowledge.
And so, yet another way to approach Lesabéndio: as part science, part art, part humor. Scheerbart’s odd humor, with its ability to estrange so much of our usual experience, makes the novel Lesabéndio both a challenge and delight to read, wrecking havoc as it does with assumptions about fiction and expectations about physical reality. This is, however, offset by the double star (two stars orbiting around a common center of mass) nature of the novel. The other, equally offsetting yet attractive result is that Lesabéndio becomes a novel about the future that we can read in the present. The dangers of ecological crisis and the opportunity for planetary transformative renewal portrayed in the novel are very much real today. A reconfiguration of one’s relationship with the planet one inhabits and its relation to other stars, as portrayed in the novel, speaks to the strand of current/future posthumanism celebrating disembodied information. In the end, Lesabéndio provides a surprising look at future alternative visions that is as fresh today as it was in the past when originally written.
Lesabéndio is often considered Scheerbart’s master work---his other works include The Development of Aerial Militarism and The Perpetual Motion Machine---but, published in German, in 1913, on the eve of World War I, its ability to wield wider influence was, arguably, cut short. This first English translation by Christina Svendsen and publication is especially welcome. - John F. Barber

I’ve done a regrettably poor job of keeping up my reading this year, to say nothing of writing about what I’ve read; I feel bad about that, as there are a small handful of books that I would like to have written about in some depth. Too much work, not enough time, the eternal refrain. I’m breaking my silence with this, which I can’t pretend to review impartially: the translator has been a dear friend for years, and when she sent me a chapter wondering if I knew anyone who’d be interested in it I suggested Wakefield Press, who ended up publishing it. (I think I also passed her a copy of the first Scheerbart novel to appear in English, though I might be misremembering that.) Even so, it’s sat on my desk for a month before I could slot in time to make my way through it. But: this is a strange and interesting book, which should be clear from the publisher.
The strangeness of this book starts with genre: Lesabéndio is a science fiction novel from 1913 with strong architectural elements that might be more accurately described an architectural fantasia with a science fiction overlay. There’s probably more similarity to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili than there is to Jules Verne or H. G. Wells; the science is almost entirely fantastical, though it does take place on an asteroid in our solar system, and mention is made of one historical scientist. The protagonists are of two species, neither of them human; the physical laws of our universe don’t entirely seem to apply to them. A portfolio of illustrations that Alfred Kubin did for the novel’s initial publication is included in the back of this volume, but Odilon Redon’s floating eyeballs and natural intelligences almost seem more appropriate to the cosmology of this book, where planets and planetoids quite literally have a Weltgeist.
What happens in this book is fairly straightforward, if bizarre. The setting is the asteroid Pallas, which is inhabited by a species of unisexual beings who appear to be primarily engaged in architectural endeavors. The asteroid is barrel shaped, though it has been turned into a torus by means of two inverted cones at the north and south poles, the points of which meet at the center. Lesabéndio gets it in his head to create an immense tower around the rim of the northern inverted cone; it will reach into the cloud that hovers over the north end of the asteroid which provides, by its motions, day and night to the planet. Lesabéndio’s motivations for constructing this tower vary across the novel; eventually, he seeks to pierce the cloud (made of living beings) to reach the unseen body that hovers past the cloud, which is seen as the head to the asteroid’s torso. Connecting the asteroid’s head-system to its body will achieve the planet’s destiny; Lesabéndio is taken into the head-system and becomes one with the planet.
Much of the book is concerned with the process of building the tower and the various impasses that the builders face, chiefly among them keeping Pallas’s population in agreement with the idea of building a tower. There are a handful of main characters, who have different aesthetic beliefs: one believes that the planet should be polished and crystalline, one prefers irregular and round forms, one is most interested in growing plants. These wills are eventually subsumed into that of Lesabéndio – quite literally, because when a Pallasian dies, he disintegrates and is sucked into the open pores of whichever person he chooses to be taken into. (Pallasians are all male in gender; they spring from walnut-like eggs which are dug from the metal core of Pallas and hammered on until opened. Before hatching, they live in a dream-world, communing with the universe. Who hammered open the first Pallasian nut is left unexplained.) They live in a sort of socialism, where all decisions are made by consensus; public opinion seems to shift very quickly though, and there are any number of setbacks before Lesabéndio’s building plan ineluctably succeeds. Most notably, there’s a conflict between those who think the enormous tower should be built and those who would like to create art; while something of a middle way emerges (parts of the tower are made beautiful), engineering wins out in the end.
The politics of this book are unsettling. Lesabéndio is the great man who will lead the race of Pallasians to their destiny; there is the unbending faith in progress, seemingly religious in nature, that could only exist at the start of the twentieth century. Doubt is never expressed that building a tower to heaven could lead to something bad or even to something desirable; there is only doubt about whether or not this is possible. When Lesabéndio begins constructing his tower, he does not even know that the head-system of Pallas exists; when he discovers it, this is mapped on to his pre-existing plan. It’s a strange book to read now: as trained readers, we keep expecting everything to go terribly, terribly wrong, but that steadfastly refuses to happen. There are technical problems, but those can be surmounted. It’s essentially a Futurist novel; as with Italian Futurism, fascism lurks, though in 1913 one could be happily oblivious.
It’s a strange novel as well in how hard it is to pin down; it’s reminiscent of many things, both before and after. The hollow planet looks backward to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Symzonia, as well as forward to Ringworld or the wooden planet that Lebbeus Woods designed for Alien 3. Lesabéndio’s ecstatic oneness with the planet seems like the end of 2001, though, as I mentioned before, it feels aesthetically closer to the drawings of Redon. Though I’ve meant to, I haven’t actually read Thea von Harbou’s novel for Metropolis, the film she wrote with Fritz Lang. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scheerbart’s influence turned out to be apparent: Lesabéndio‘s emphasis on the head-system and torsos of stars (and the desirability of their successful merging) feels strongly akin to that film’s emphasis on mediation between head and hands. My knowledge of early science fiction is spotty; but this should be very interesting to those who know more. -

Recently, The New Yorker published a profile of Nick Bostrom, a philosopher who runs the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and is on the scientific advisory board for the Future of Life Institute. Reading the article, however, I wondered whether it might more accurately be called the Future of Death Institute, since its work has to do with imagining various scenarios in which humankind is wiped out—by artificial intelligence run amok, or by a runaway chain reaction of dark matter that consumes the known universe. These are exotic speculations, but they extrapolate a mood of profound anxiety about the future that is shared by just about everyone in the twenty-first century. For seventy years, humanity has lived with the prospect of nuclear war, which could extinguish civilization in a moment. Just as the end of the Cold War caused that prospect to recede, its place in our imagination was taken by climate change, a different kind of self-inflicted, slow-motion annihilation.
What’s notable about these fears is that they depend on, and foster, a profound suspicion of technology—the very technology that has visibly improved human life in so many ways. When we think about the power of science these days, we are more inclined to dwell on drones and fracking than, say, bypass surgery or antibiotics. (Indeed, one common doomsday scenario envisions the evolution of deadly superbacteria, thanks to the overuse of antibiotics.) The more we take science’s victories for granted, the larger its threats loom in our collective unconscious. Thus people who have grown up in a world without polio now refuse to vaccinate their children against polio, as if the cure had somehow become more threatening than disease. In general, to predict that technology will solve all the problems it has caused—that we can innovate ourselves out of global warming, for instance—today seems childishly, intolerably optimistic.
It is exactly that kind of unfashionable, childlike hopefulness that animates the writing of Paul Scheerbart, a German writer whose name is only now becoming familiar to English readers, a hundred years after his death. Scheerbart, born in 1863, was never a major figure in German letters. He was, rather, a literary bohemian—“a mainstay of cafe society” in Berlin, according to Christopher Turner, writing in the recent University of Chicago anthology Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader. Alcoholic, eccentric, and prolific, supported mainly by his wife, Scheerbart produced “over thirty major works and hundreds of minor works of staggering diversity.” But he had little commercial or critical success, and only a small audience appreciated his speculative science fiction or his wildly imaginative, futuristic manifestoes. These works—at least, the ones that have been translated into English so far—are driven by a technological utopianism so extreme, and yet so apparently earnest, as to make them tantalizingly strange.
Scheerbart often reads like an apocalyptic mystic out of the Middle Ages who was somehow transported to the age of railroads and telegraphs. He returns again and again to the idea that existence—our own, or those of aliens on other planets—can be transformed into a paradise inhabited by beings who are like gods. In the introduction to a small new Wakefield Press volume, Rakkóx the Billionaire & The Great Race, the translator W.C. Bamberger recommends Scheerbart to the reader with the imprimatur of Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin, both of whom liked his work. And it was surely this oddball utopianism that so appealed to Scholem and Benjamin, each of whom was in his own way obsessed by the messianic. Scheerbart, Benjamin wrote, seemed “never to forget that the Earth is a heavenly body”; science fiction was a way of forcing the reader to see humanity in a cosmic, celestial perspective.
Yet the agency of earthly renewal, in Scheerbart’s work, is not divine—at least, not directly. It is, rather, the power of human ingenuity, operating with hitherto unimaginable tools and techniques, that will literally remake the face of the earth. Scheerbart is a mellow Marinetti; his faith in modern technology is not suffused with Futurist aggression, but with a dreamy aestheticism. Here, for instance, is the architect Stummel, speaking to his patron, the title character of the short story “Rakkóx the Billionaire” (1901):
The rulers of the world have always documented their existence by way of colossal buildings. Therefore, it would be in your best interest to create colossal architectural works. The former rulers of the world were too poor to work on the grandest scale. However, your riches, Mr. Rakkóx, allow you to tackle the grandiose—and, yes, the adventurous and the magical…. Perhaps, Mr. Rakkóx, if you are willing on a one-time trial basis, you could transform not merely pieces of rock, but rather an entire cliff from top to bottom into a work of architectural art? That truly would be a great thing, and would encourage coming generations over the course of the next millennium to convert the entirety of the Earth’s surface into a great work of architectural art.
The idea of the globe itself turned into an artwork is the ultimate Faustian arrogance—the power of man exalted above nature, once and for all—and so it is no surprise that Stummel’s plan goes awry. After Rakkóx, a mega-tycoon with a private army, goes to war with the Allied States of the Globe, he is captured and his body is sliced into two hundred pieces, which are then “packed neatly into two hundred enamel boxes” and distributed to his foes. (This kind of hyper-literal yet surreal detail, narrated by Scheerbart in matter-of-fact prose, is one of the things that make his fiction sometimes read like proto-Dadaism, or automatic writing.) The cliff-art Rakkóx had sponsored is allowed to decay, and finally it is blown up by an American mining company. This dark ending seems to suggest that the forces of militarism and greed—which Scheerbart knew well, living in Wilhelmine Germany—are more powerful than “the adventurous and the magical” elements of the human spirit.
Yet in other works, Scheerbart envisions what the world had not yet learned to call a “synergy” between humanity’s technological might and its artistic dreams. This is especially the case in the two mock-manifestoes for which he is best known: The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, published in 1910; and Glass Architecture published in 1914, just months before the outbreak of World War I. (Both are included in the Scheerbart Reader, and The Perpetual Motion Machine was earlier published by Wakefield Press in a different translation.) At least, they seem to be written with tongue in cheek: how else are we to interpret Scheerbart’s claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine—by his own description, a rudimentary contraption made of weights and cogs—or his call for all buildings in the world to be made of colored glass? And yet Scheerbart’s prose, so calm and almost naive in its extremism, doesn’t seem to be in on the joke. This was, after all, an age of wild artistic demands and commands—Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” was published in 1909, Pound’s “A Few Don’ts” in 1913—and the difference between these canonical texts and Scheerbart’s Glass Architecture may be only a matter of degree:
We live for the most part in closed rooms. These form the environment from which our culture grows. Our culture is to a certain extent the product of our architecture. If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. And this only becomes possible if we take away the closed character from the rooms in which we live. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars, not merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass—of colored glass.
Most relevant to Scheerbart is Adolf Loos’s architectural polemic “Ornament and Crime,” first delivered in lecture form in 1910. To Loos, living in Vienna, the Austrian love of surface decoration—as apotheosized in Art Nouveau—was a form of deceit, a cover-up for a corrupt society. His essay looked forward to the austere, functional aesthetic of Bauhaus and the International Style. Scheerbart, on the other hand, is fanatical about decoration. The key to glass architecture is that it is supposed to be made of colored glass; it is not moralistically transparent, but synesthetically indulgent. As he writes, “I should like to resist most vehemently the undecorated ‘functional style,’ for it is inartistic.” Scheerbart writes enthusiastically, almost incontinently so, about every kind of surface decoration, anything that conceals and adds color: “Wherever the use of glass is impossible, enamel, majolica and porcelain can be employed, which at least can display durable color, even if they are not translucent like glass.” He mentions Tiffany approvingly, and a Scheerbart world would be one in which everything—walls, doors, heating systems, towers—is made of Tiffany glass.
The comedy of Scheerbart’s manifesto lies in its deadpan refusal to distinguish between the fantastic and the pragmatic. What might seem like a dream vision, or a psychedelic trip, is treated by Scheerbart as if it were the sheerest common sense. He insists that buildings made of glass are not only pretty, but durable, economical, and clean: “That in a glass house, if properly built, vermin must be unknown, needs no further comment,” runs one section of Glass Architecture. He even argues, counter-intuitively, that a glass building would resist aerial bombardment better than a brick one: “A glass tower, when it is supported by more than four metal piers, will not be destroyed by an aerial torpedo,” he assures us.
Yet at the bottom of all these recommendations is not pragmatism, of course, but a poetic vision of the world transformed into an artwork: “After the introduction of glass architecture, the whole of nature in all cultural regions will appear to us in quite a different light. The wealth of colored glass is bound to give nature another hue, as if a new light were shed over the entire natural world.” This vision of a new heaven and a new earth is religion transposed into the key of technology.
The same thing happens in The Perpetual Motion Machine, which purports to be the record—complete with diagrams—of Scheerbart’s attempts to invent this uninventable device. Naturally, no model he builds will actually work, but this doesn’t detain him; for what really interests Scheerbart is not engineering, but his fantasy of a world in which energy is free and unlimited.
Soon enough, he stops writing about how cog A fits into wheel B, and starts rhapsodizing about the Eden to come:
As long as humanity has existed, labor has always been very highly valued. And the laborer has always been very proud of his drive and activity; the inactive artist and the impractical poet have always been treated with great condescension by the true laborer. This is now going to change completely. The laborer must realize, unfortunately, that all of his dull and arduous labor is completely superfluous, that indeed the Earth—all by itself, through its perpetual labor of attraction—takes care of all our needs.
Here is the revenge of the cafe intellectual on the world of work and money, politics and power.
Scheerbart’s utopia is impossible to take seriously—as impossible as the perpetual motion machine itself—and yet, like the machine, it seems as if it ought to exist. One flash of insight, one clever invention, and we will all be redeemed. Of course, history let Scheerbart down: he died in 1915, during a war he vehemently opposed, and rumor had it he had starved himself as a protest. Writers greater than Scheerbart have devoted their work to this same hope of redemption, but perhaps none have done so with the same combination of humor, pragmatism, fantasy and faith. - Adam Kirsch

Scheebert's texts (German) 
Im Projekt Gutenberg-DE vorhanden


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