THE PERPETUAL MOTION MACHINE: THE STORY OF AN INVENTION
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.
Paul Scheerbart (1863–1915) was a novelist, playwright, poet, newspaper critic, draughtsman, visionary, proponent of glass architecture, and would-be inventor of perpetual motion. Dubbed the “wise clown” by his contemporaries, he opposed the naturalism of his day with fantastical fables and interplanetary satires that were to influence Expressionist authors and the German Dada movement, and which helped found German science fiction. After suffering a nervous breakdown over the mounting carnage of World War I, Scheerbart starved to death in what was rumored to have been a protest against the war.
“Despite its relative anonymity in contemporary literature, the importance of Roussel and Scheerbart’s work cannot be overstated, as it prefigures a century whose mechanized landscapes were limited only by the size of its designer fantasies.”
“[A] delightful read. It’s the kind of book that makes you cringe while reading it. You want to shake Scheerbart and tell him to stop being so megalomaniacal. And yet, there’s something utterly pleasurable in watching the man’s failure, especially a man with such brazen dreams.”
“Scheerbart’s ruminations are highly entertaining, whether he’s envisioning a world where there’s no more need for the sun or criticizing pragmatism...”
“The Perpetual Motion Machine is the kind of book, a very specific category to which I would also add Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which renders the beauty of science in a way the artist can experience it. Translator Andrew Joron deserves recognition for his superb rendering of Scheerbart’s humor, joy, ego, and despair, in a language that is extremely readable but somehow still feels like it comes from a bygone age.”
“Concerned only intermittently with how one might actually go about creating a perpetual motion machine (though the included diagrams, unworkable to even the trained eye, are priceless), Scheerbart dreams of its effects. Without diffidence, he foresees the end of war, nation states, class struggle ("The social question is finally resolved"), and the “so-called 'modern’ cities,” as well as the accumulation of his own mind-boggling wealth. All of this is merely incidental to the real focus of Scheerbart’s fantasy—to release humanity from the icky, disagreeable fetters of toil and indeed reality itself. [...] His style has a dusty but decadent fin-de-siècle quality, tactfully captured in Andrew Joron’s translation. Joron’s introduction contextualizes and interprets Scheerbart’s unusual text affectionately and with understanding.”
“By definition a great work of art is one that establishes and lives by its own credentials. Until it invents its own category, it resists classification. Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is such a work; Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is a more recent one. And now Scheerbart’s little book can be added to this select list.”