Gaston de Pawlowski - a dizzying catalog of absurd imaginary gadgets and “improvements” to everyday life. An early satire on consumer society and the cult of the inventor
Gaston de Pawlowski, Journey to the Land of the Fourth Dimension, Adapted by Brian Stableford, Black Coat Press, 2009. [1912.]
Immortality, it was understood in the Age of the Golden Eagle, is potentially attainable at any moment by a thought released from the three-dimensional world, escaping thereby from the illusions of time and space.
Written between 1895 and 1912, Gaston de Pawlowski's Journey to the Land of the Fourth Dimension predates by almost 20 years Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. In this prodigious future history, we shall visit the singular era of the Leviathan, when a colossal entity enveloped men like cells in a gigantic body, the time of the Scientific Tyranny, when the Savants ruled supreme, and finally the Great Idealist Renaissance, or Age of the Golden Eagle, when the fourth dimension becomes familiar to all men. We shall meet homunculi and supermen, intelligent machines and giant microbes.
"Much primitive futuristic fiction now seems banal and unadventurous in its anticipations, but there is nothing banal about Pawlowski's future history. The surreal quality of his futuristic vignettes-especially those dealing with "atomic dissociation" and future biotechnologies in the Scientific Era-has been given an extra edge by actual advances in modern science." - Brian Stableford.
This volume also contains the preface to the 1923 edition by Pawlowski in which the author explores and attempts to come to terms, philosophically and scientifically, with the impact of Einsteinian physics upon his work.
Amanda DeMarco is the recipient of a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of New Inventions and the Latest Innovations by French science fiction writer and satirist Gaston de Pawlowski. Read an excerpt of the translation here.
Published in 1916, Gaston de Pawlowski’s New Inventions and the Latest Innovations is a catalog of absurd imaginary inventions. In it, Pawlowski presents an ingenious array of “improvements” affecting nearly every area of life, from anti-slip soap with spikes to a water filter inserted directly in the throat to two-sided German cannons (for defending the eastern and western fronts simultaneously).
In other words, it is a book of dumb jokes with a sharp underlying social critique—which sounded like a dream project to me when it was mentioned by a friend of a friend. And so I got my hands on a slim, recently reissued volume, a hundred or so pages long—a couple of months’ work at most, I thought, shouldn’t be too hard to find a publisher to pick it up.
Then I started to do my research. It turns out that all editions published in the past half-century have merely presented excerpts from what is actually a 350-page tome, in which Pawlowski reimagines more or less every object he has ever laid his eyes upon and many he has only heard of. It is stunning. If the book’s premise is absurdity, then its length is absurdity ad absurdum. Why would someone write 350 pages of jokes?
I think the answer lies in the fact that Pawlowski recognized a cultural shift so pervasive that it would come to affect nearly every facet of life in the industrialized world. Pawlowski witnessed the rise of consumer society and scientism, and the attitude that technology would remove discomfort from every part of life. It was a change so total that the only fitting satire of it was one that also satirized its totality.
And so Pawlowski set off to rewrite the world of things. In the face of a growing faith in science, his absurdities are an elegant, far-sighted critique of the church of innovation. Aping the endlessly optimistic language of the sales pitch, he explains how each product will solve the problems of the human condition.
Written in the depths of the First World War, the book also reflects the bitterness of an age in which technology unleashed previously unknown agonies on humankind. His “innovations” take on a more biting quality in the section “Armaments, Marine Defense, Wartime Stratagems”: a shell too large to be shot by a cannon that must be sent to its target by railway, for example, or “the cigar cutter aeroplane for pursuing zeppelins.”
A critique of technophilia is more relevant than ever in an age when drones rain down death remotely and start-ups receive funding for ideas so ridiculous, Pawlowski could have imagined them. As Leon Wieseltier put it in an article from The New York Times, “Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life.” In our age, the humanities are constantly degraded as irrelevant and “soft”; Pawlowski’s book is a testament to the force with which a well-developed literary voice can address current issues.
Gaston de Pawlowski, New Inventions and Latest Innovations,
Transl. with an introduction, by Amanda DeMarco, Wakefield Press, 2016.
A friend to Alfred Jarry, Alphonse Allais, and Guillaume Apollinaire (and a later inspiration to Marcel Duchamp), Gaston de Pawlowski was the France’s Albert Einstein of humor. First published in book form in 1916, New Inventions and Latest Innovations collects in one volume the endless inventions Pawlowski imagined and wrote up for Le Rire rouge, forming a dizzying catalog of absurd imaginary gadgets and “improvements” to everyday life. An early satire on consumer society and the cult of the inventor, the collection would also become a noteworthy precursor to the sort of imaginary science that would influence the Collège de ’Pataphysique.
Gaston de Pawlowski (1874–1933) was a French author best known for his early work of science fiction, the 1911 Voyage to the Land of the Fourth Dimension. He was also an important and prolific representative in the long tradition of French satire, and New Inventions and the Latest Innovations is his most significant contribution to the genre. Throughout his many publications, Pawlowski focused on science, the transformation of society, and skepticism of the “church of progress.” Born and raised in Paris, he was an early bicycle aficionado and a true visionary. - See more at: http://www.pen.org/essay/absurdity-ad-absurdum-translating-gaston-de-pawlowski#sthash.lOK0dUd2.dpuf