Paul Scheerbart and the Art of Science




IN HIS CELEBRATED 1899 WORK of popular science The Riddle of the Universe, Ernst Haeckel lamented that his era’s immense technical advances had not correlated to social improvement: “Unfortunately, this vast progress of empirical knowledge in our ‘Century of Science’ has not been accompanied by a corresponding advancement of its theoretical interpretation — that higher knowledge of the causal nexus of individual phenomena which we call philosophy.” [1] The shock that knowledge does not equate to wisdom was one that would soon find its bitterest expression in the horrors of World War I, but its malaise was already in the fin de siècle air. It’s a malaise we ourselves are familiar with. Mapping the human genome results in … a map of the genome and a lot of questions about proteins, while the internet’s absolute freedom of information results in … the election of Donald Trump. The scientific utopian dream is one in which this correlation of knowledge and wisdom holds true, and hardly any writer dreamed of scientific utopias as fervently as the German author Paul Scheerbart.

Scheerbart (1863–1915) is best known to English-speaking audiences for his writings on glass architecture and their influence on the Weimar-era architect Bruno Taut. However, the majority of his work consists of fantastic fiction centered around the wonders of modern science and technology — precursors to the little-known genre of science fiction. Utopianism is one manifestation of Scheerbart’s interest in the scientific imagination, both in terms of how imaginative processes contribute to science, and how science and knowledge of the natural world forms a basis for art and culture. His best-known piece of fantastic fiction, Lesabéndio — reviewed here by Erik Morse — is a more or less uninterrupted exploration of these two dynamics, following an extraterrestrial scientist-artist as he struggles to build a tower that will help him attain spiritual enlightenment.

Scheerbart’s enmeshing of scientific activities in a larger continuum of cultural activities — and the lives of human (or sentient) beings within the larger context of the natural and spiritual universe — can be profitably analyzed as a type of monism, a naturalist, often materialistic, perspective that was popular in his era. Turn-of-the-century monism emphasized the unity of everything in the universe, from celestial phenomena to human creativity. Several varieties of monism were in the intellectual air at the turn of the century, but Ernst Haeckel’s was the most famous of these, promoting a kind of cultural scientism, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and a strong anti-clericalism. Scheerbart’s longing for unity — of substance and essence, of intellect and spirit, of man and nature — precludes all division into genre, and led him into intellectual territories that seem alternately prescient and outlandish to us today.

You might say that Scheerbart penned the sort of over-oxygenated prose of someone who had seen a steam engine but not yet heard of the horrors of the gulag. His fictions tend to play out in landscapes so otherworldly that they bear nearly no resemblance to the world we know, even as inversions. Scheerbart’s visions emanate an earnest wonder, and the sharpest criticisms leveled at him have often condemned his naïveté; the critic Ernst Osterkamp is one among many who point to the fact that Scheerbart’s complete divorce from reality “has hindered critical engagement with his work.” [2] In Germany, Scheerbart was not so much forgotten as never remembered; a contemporary described him as “the least-read of all living German authors.” [3] He was, however, prolific, publishing over two dozen books in his lifetime, comprising poetry and short story collections, novels, satires, and treatises. And a flurry of English translations and reviews over the past decade indicates that he fascinates us, and that his thinking speaks to something in our culture.

This season, Wakefield Press has published The Stairway to the Sun & Dance of the Comets, a slight volume that gathers several short works from the first years of the 20th century, beautifully translated by W. C. Bamberger. This new book contains four fairy tales and a two-act “astral pantomime,” all clearly written under the sign of an era whose tolerance for the excesses of artistic precocity far outstrips our own. They are a prism encapsulating Scheerbart’s obsessions and magnifying his (already pronounced) eccentricities. Though it is a collection, it is in no way fragmentary; in its way, each text develops Scheerbart’s utopian themes of unity. Scheerbart emerges as a figure who not only sought to incorporate art into daily life, but who also sought to fuse science and art — turning the ascetic, objective, and technical pursuit of scientific knowledge into a cultural production of humankind’s own shimmering transcendence.

The longest and perhaps most representative of the fairy tales in The Stairway to the Sun is its first, eponymous story. In it, Adam is a boy who “always believed that behind every word there were many hidden thoughts,” but also “misunderstood everything.” There is a local inn called The Sun, and he believes that the stairway leading up to its side entrance is literally the stairway to the sun (rather than a stairway to a bar or brothel). One day, he ascends it and discovers that he is right, and he embarks on a solar adventure through the Sun-King’s court.

Adam’s visit to the sun, the pinnacle of the story’s unreality, is Scheerbart’s chance to invoke scientific imagery and reasoning. The sun is actually a monumental building guarded by knights in golden armor. Each holds a pair of opera glasses as they gaze upon the earth’s surface, jotting notes on human destiny; they are looking for “laws by which individuals and nations can judge whether they have it in them to evolve further and to become more intelligent.” Inside the sun, the Chief Star Councilor shows the boy his laboratory, which contains a series of living models of the universe. Adam does not understand what any of this means, and is quite bewildered by the spectacle. “I won’t show you any more of the great infinite world,” the kind Councilor reassures him, “otherwise it might make you ill. But — do you now have an idea of the magnificence of the world?” On the sun, science is the conduit to understanding, one that becomes a kind of spirituality through its omniscience. Capable only of astonishment, Adam asks the Sun King for a pair of the knights’ opera glasses, and, looking back down at the earth, he sees his parents grieving, unable to find their lost child. Stricken, Adam asks to go back home. “The Little One’s” adventure is soon deflated into a dream-vision as he is dying of an illness.

At first glance, the story’s plot follows a semantic arc: symbolic language is first misinterpreted as literal, then the symbolic becomes literal. The order of reality is restored by recourse to a device from classical German poetry in which a dying child has a fantastic vision, Goethe’s Erlkönig updated to include test tubes and a laboratory. And though the story ultimately returns to the sorrows of this world, Adam’s peek into the science of the universe gives him a glimpse of salvation, even if it is one he cannot understand.

The second half of the book is devoted to the deeply strange “astral pantomime,” Dance of the Comets. Literally a play without words, it was to be the basis for a ballet about the cosmos. Richard Strauss had planned to compose and stage it in 1900, and Gustav Mahler, then director of the Vienna Court Opera, even accepted Strauss’s proposal to perform it there. It’s a 40-page ekphrastic onslaught, presenting challenges to even basic staging since the human body has a limited number of available appendages:

The comets are represented by people whose heads are invisible. Their feet and human extremities are also invisible. In place of their heads, a beam like that of an electric headlight shoots into the air; smaller beams radiate from between their human shoulders. Their bodies are surrounded by feathers like glittering branches. The lights on their heads and between their shoulders are easy to move, and the glittering branches as easy to bend and manipulate as spiders’ legs — they glisten as if coated with enamel in countless bright colors.

People who are actually comets! Lights! Colorful, shiny things! This is peak Scheerbart. Freed from the shackles of any but the loosest demands for coherence, purely visual, necessarily opulent, reflexively outlandish, the ballet is an aesthete’s fever dream whose delirium drives it beyond the symbology of the cosmos it purports to pantomime:

The new planets are no longer shaped like spheres. They now take the form of giant diamonds and multifaceted phosphorescent crystal bodies. Some consist of shapeless tubular structures that shimmer like soap bubbles and are reminiscent of polyps, others resemble solidified flames — most are very gaudy and richly formed. From suns that resemble huge whitecaps, colorful lights strike out like headlights that shine through the new world of stars.

Before the piece dissolves into something like abstraction, the various characters — representing social or moral positions: a king, his wives, his harem, a maid from the harem, a poet, a wizard, an executioner (and comets, of course!) — are driven by the desire to unite with a higher, celestial form of being: “As the poet stands before the king, he indicates his deep contempt for his court and his harem, then with a transfigured expression regards the stars in the heavens, and the astronomical instruments themselves — and lastly the poet’s guitar.” If the fairy tales in this volume were a moralized expression of Scheerbart’s utopian scientism, then the geometry and astronomy of Dance of the Comets are its aestheticization to the point of atomization.

To fully grasp the dimensions of Scheerbart’s exploration of the scientific imagination, it’s worth touching on a handful of other recent translations. We can find evidence of Scheerbart’s interest in contemporary biology in The Great Race: A Development Novel in Eight Different Tales. In it, “worm spirits” seek autonomy and enlightenment as they compete in something like a metaphysical decathlon through outer space in order to become gods. Fantastical industrial elements populate grotesque cosmic settings. Each of the worms’ spiritual changes of state entails a physical one: “And because the spirits believed they were sinking again into the unfathomable, all joy left them and a hard crust formed around their entire being.”

One does not talk about worms in 1900 — not even esoteric spirit worms — without thinking of Ernst Haeckel. Scheerbart’s descriptions of alien creatures are often lifted straight from another of Haeckel’s turn-of-the-century successes, Art Forms in Nature. (The 2011 translation of Lesabéndio includes a reproduction of Haeckel’s plankton shells, though we would like to draw your attention to his images of siphonophores; Stairway to the Sun & Dance of the Comets, The Great Race, and especially Lesabéndio are best read with a copy of Art Forms at hand, available free online and in inexpensive reprints.) The connection between Haeckel and Scheerbart has been noted before, first by Cornelius Partsch. This should hardly be surprising, given Haeckel’s status as one of the most popular and notorious public figures in science, a precursor to today’s superstar astrophysicists like Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Lesabéndio even bluntly references Haeckel’s influence as a popularizer of science: one of the characters writes controversial books explaining the nature of the cosmos that nobody can stop talking about.

However, Haeckel’s influence on Scheerbart should be read as part of Scheerbart’s general receptivity to current scientific ideas. Lesabéndio itself is a relentless profusion of descriptive alien-naturalistic detail — the geography of the planet Pallas and the astronomy of its galaxy, the Pallasian’s anatomy, their metabolic and reproductive functions, and their architecture, infrastructure, and aesthetics. The book opens with a description of the eponymous protagonist and continues in this mode more or less uninterrupted for the duration of its 220 pages:

The sky was violet, and the stars were green. The sun was green too. Lesabéndio made his suction-foot very wide and stuck it firmly against the jagged stone cliff that fell away steeply. He then stretched his body, which consisted of nothing but a rubbery tube-leg with a suction-cup foot at one end, more than fifty meters high into the violet atmosphere.

A great transformation took place as Lesabéndio’s head rose into the air: the rubbery skin of his head began to unfurl like an umbrella. Then it slowly shut itself up again, hiding his face, and his scalp began to turn into a pipe, open at the front. His face appeared on its back-surface, from which two long telescopic eyes protruded, eyes which Lesabéndio could use to effortlessly gaze at the green stars, just as if he were near them.

And so on. “De gustibus,” as one reviewer noted drily. [4] The spirit of this prosaic description is lifted straight out of scientific and natural historical descriptions of new species of animals, a byproduct of European exploration and imperial expansion of the preceding centuries. German biologists of the era were fascinated by cataloging the utterly alien invertebrate life dredged up from the seafloor, and Lesabéndio seems inflected with biologists’ laborious descriptions needed to delineate previously unknown life forms. In natural history, there is a desire to describe a complete system of nature, despite the tension between nature’s riotous diversity and the limited, conventional human ordering of that system. Scheerbart’s descriptive excesses, as well as his matter-of-fact tone, sound like an attempt to objectively catalog in human words a natural world not of human scale, the task of any natural historian.

Why devote so much ink to describing the minutiae of an imaginary planet completely unlike our own? Or the spiritual development of worms, or the transcendental nature of comets, for that matter? If you are a monist, and believe that all things are actually one, then no story is too far-out to contain reality, nor is any scientific truth separable from its corresponding spiritual context. As such, Scheerbart’s abiding and omnipresent interest in biology (and geology, astronomy, and architecture, whether alien or earthly) is as equal of an expression of his materialism as his spiritualism.

The most delightful and widely discussed of Scheerbart’s bizarreries is The Perpetual Motion Machine, which documents Scheerbart’s (perhaps earnest) attempts to build a perpetual motion machine in order to ultimately free mankind from physical want, resulting in an artists’ paradise. With the power of the perpetual motion machine, Scheerbart gleefully predicts he will “found, and foster, and promote many observatories, top theaters, top publishing houses, and top architectural exhibitions, along with other top institutions.” When his plans don’t pan out, the reader is unsure if Scheerbart is more disappointed with the limitations of reality or his imagination. There were reports that Scheerbart actually tried to build such a machine in his basement — or, rather, that he hired handymen and plumbers to build it, since he had no manual aptitude — but the “real,” functioning perpetual motion machine seems to have made it only as far as the book’s 26, compass-and-straightedge construction figures, the schematic diagrams from which the actual machine was supposed to be willed into existence. They look like drafts or sketches that a real engineer would produce, mental playgrounds where ideas get ready to make the leap into reality, and this was precisely the point for Scheerbart: on a purely intellectual level, there was, he would argue, no difference in kind between an engineer’s imagination, a scientist’s imagination, or the imaginative capacities of a writer or artist.

Whether Scheerbart was aware of it or not, scientists of his era were arguing over precisely this: whether such image-making and imagining was useful to science, or even properly scientific. The turn of the century saw several lively debates on the role of images, imagination, and fanciful hypotheses in science, as well as a vibrant avant-garde that was engaging with and feeding off of the relationship between mechanical production, scientific rationality, and creative art. The Viennese physicists Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann, for example, were engaged in a highly visible debate in the 1890s over whether physics ought to be based on immediate human experience (Mach), or if hypothetical or sensibly inaccessible worlds of atoms and molecules have a role in advancing science (Boltzmann). Chemists in the 1890s were celebrating the success of August Kekulé’s benzene ring theory, an idea that famously came to Kekulé while dreaming about dancing atoms stringing together into snakes. (“It came to me in a dream” was a cliché even in the 19th century, but in Image and Logic, Alan Rocke has shown that Kekulé and a few rebellious chemists were using pictures and wooden models of atoms and molecules, at a time when chemists dismissed them as imaginative and thus unscientific ways of thinking.) And as Nick Hopwood has extensively documented in his recent book Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud, Haeckel’s own images of embryos and undersea organisms were rooted in long traditions of scientific idealizations, schematization, and theoretical generalization — but they also opened him to charges of forgery, and, more enduringly, scientific racism. Applying the scientific imagination was understood at the time as an undertaking that was fraught with controversy and peril, but also great promise. If Scheerbart’s diagrams seem outré, they nonetheless exist at (okay, somewhat past) the outer limit of a spectrum denoting what could be termed truly scientific thought. Nor was Scheerbart alone. Artists were finding ways of exploiting the new sciences of the human mind and body, grappling with the biological basis of art and aesthetics — in The Pulse of Modernism, Robert Brain describes movements in “aestho-physiology” in Britain, Kunstphysiologie in Germany, esthétique scientifique in France, and other trends in modern music and dance that were inspired by biological studies of kinesthesia and synesthesia.

Critiques of scientific rationality and science tout à fait often attack its dry empiricism, its tendency to flatten rich, diverse natural and cultural worlds into dehumanizing measurements and generalizations. But Scheerbart suggests a dimension that scientists as well as science’s critics have been slow to admit: that the work of science requires such leaps; that scientific work is a profoundly human activity; and that such leaps are imaginative. Scientific production and technological production were artistic endeavors for Scheerbart, and it was his ability to aestheticize this belief that endeared him to the likes of Benjamin and Scholem — thinkers who reveled rather than despaired at the paradoxes of modernity. And this may be the key to why Scheerbart appeals to English readers today: the strict positivists and rationalists ultimately lost this battle, and so too have critics who unyieldingly believe science is nothing more than instrumental rationality. Our modern sciences are filled with imagined entities, and we have grown comfortable with the role that creativity plays in scientific discovery, as well as creative applications of scientific ideas that change our world or inform our art. Reality, in other words, has moved a little closer to Scheerbart.

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Amanda DeMarco is a translator of German and French literature and philosophy.

Daniel Liu is a historian of the life and physical sciences.

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[1] Ernst Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Joseph McCabe (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900), v.

[2] Ernst Osterkamp, “Die Gegenwärtigkeit von Paul Scheerbarts Gegenwelten” in Über Paul Scheerbart, Band 2: Analysen, Aufsätze, Forschungsbeiträge, edited by Berni Lörwald (Berlin: Igel Verlag, 1992), 238.

[3] H. H. Ewers (ed.), Führer durch die moderne Literatur. Dreihundert Würdigungen der hervorragendsten Schriftsteller unserer Zeit (Berlin: Globus Verlag, 1909), 145.

[4] William B. Fischer. “Whimsical Avant-Garde Oddball” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 40 (2013), 390–391.


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