The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21 by Stephen Quay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Reading of this clinamen for the uninitiated will prove a portal into the strange unscience of pataphysics. I will only go so far as to say that immersion only requires reading. Understanding will come later.
There is a corollary for those watching the Quay brothers’ cinematic art. There is much to understand, but most of it is obscured through symbols and signs, some of which are present merely to distract and lead one down . . . alternate paths. One does not watch a Quay artwork and simply traipse from point A to point B, noting the static scenes along the way. No, their cinematic space is more immersive and entrancing (in the most literal sense of the word), with side-tunnels and branches that lead nowhere and everywhere all at once. The primary experience in entering the Quays’ world with any degree of attentiveness is just that: experience. One does not watch Quay cinema, one is baptized in it and must be careful to hold one’s breath, at times, lest the initiate drown and come up vomiting brackish waters. One considers a Quay experience, but one cannot fully apprehend it. This is what is so inviting about their work – there is always something new, something previously occulted, that peeks out from the interstices.
Some have a difficult time getting “into” the Quays’ films. This remove is understandable, as the medium of stop-motion cinema is something outside of our normal experience. Objects do not, simply put, move like that. The Quays have an admittedly strange way of looking at things and bringing them to life.
But what is an object in this sense? According to physics – as pataphysical today as it was in the time of Lord Kelvin – objects are only partially accessible to the approximations of our sensory mechanisms, because they consist of no more than a constant flux of virtual particles. The philosopher Nelson Goodman summarized this situation with the phrase: “An object is a monotonous process.” So it is perfectly reasonable to consider the “persistence of objects” to be in every way equivalent to the persistence of vision that causes us to interpret a sequence of still pictures as a moving image. The cinematic illusion is indistinguishable in any meaningful way from our perception of the “real” world, because while animation creates a cinematic illusion of what we take to be actuality, its semblance of movement is not qualitatively different from the apparent stasis maintained within the “real world” by so-called actual objects that appear the way they do only because we perceive them that way, and, in the great scheme of things, only momentarily, like a still from a film. The Great Pyramid has persisted for thousands of years, but it is not categorically different [as an object] from a mayfly, only somewhat more “monotonous”.
Taking this cue from the prologemenon of this volume of The Journal of the London Institute of Pataphysics, one starts with a good idea of what the Brothers Quay are trying to do with their work. But this is only a beginning. One must go to the words of the Brothers themselves to gain further insight into the dark nooks and crannies that feature in their work. This comes as an answer to the (long dead) Heinrich Holtzmüller’s interview questions:
HH: I’m curious about the stories you were proposing to tell with your puppets? They don’t seem to be fairy tales per se or anything easily recognizable. Why?
QQs: I think initially we were merely trying to establish for ourselves just what puppets might be capable of; what kind of subjectivity, what kind of thaumaturgical murmurings, or pathological drifts were possible; and scenographically speaking, what cartographies and “voyages of no return” could occur and what places of the soul might be rendered explorable. And since we’ve always believed in the aesthetic power of the illogical, the irrational and the obliqueness of poetry, we didn’t exclusively in terms of “narrative”, but also of the parentheses that lay hidden behind the narrative. It is always generally assumed that narrative should dictate everything, but we wanted the domain of puppets and objects to have its own distinct “light”, and especially its own “shade”, so that the subject could pulsate with unknown possibilities – typhoons of splinters at 1/24th of a second.
This statement sheds light on what makes certain people so susceptible (nay, subject to) their art: It makes explicit what some love in the peripheral interstices of works they read (and write), the shadowed recesses that are not always explicitly "plot," but that make the difference between adequate writing and enjoyable writing. The Quays make peeking into those crevasses their primary concern, but these dark cracks, these interstitial planar windows, exist in all truly great work.
As one of those devotees to the Quays’ art, this volume comes as a sort of holy book in many ways.
The prologemenon is akin to the Rabbinical treatments of the Talmud, the explanatory notes and explications, the fables and allusions around the work that both expand the context of their work and, in some ways, fence it in. The constraints of pataphysical theory (are those really constraints at all?) provide a certain reading of the Quays oeuvre, but an expansive reading.
Following this devotional is the iconography: a section of 13 photographic plates showing never-before-seen images of the Holy of Holies, the Quays’ London studio (which, since this volume was published, has moved – giving the whole an ephemeral quality bordering on the mystical).
Next is “The Embellished version of On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets”. It is “Embellished” from the original interview between Holzmüller and the Quays found in the original. This is a significantly deeper dive, a higher order of initiation, if you will, into the working of the twins’ minds. If you want to enter the inner creative temple of the Quays, this might be it.
Holzmüller’s Liber Perutilis, a primer on Renaissance calligraphy, is next. This is the volume from which the Quays draw the alphabet that they use in the title-cards for their films. Consider it a mystic alphabet, something akin to Grave’s Ogham alphabet, the symbols of evocation used to call up devils or call down angels.
The culmination of the experience is in the mysteries, here presented as portions of Alfred Jarry’s texts on marionettes and puppets, particularly Pere Ubu.
In all, this volume is a sort of esoteric experience, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But beyond the jocularity is a modicum of seriousness that demands reflection and adoration.
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