The Strange Paradise of Paul Scheerbart

Illustration of Rakkóx by Félix Vallotton from Rakkóx the Billionaire
Illustration by Félix Vallotton from Paul Scheerbart’s Rakkóx the Billionaire & the Great Race, 1901

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.

Paul Scheerbart
Philipp Kester/Münchner Stadtmuseum, Archive Kester
Paul Scheerbart, 1910

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.

Figure 23 from Paul Scheerbart's The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, 1910
Figure 23 from Paul Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, 1910

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.

Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader is published by the University of Chicago PressThe Perpetual Motion Machine and Rakkóx the Billionaire & The Great Race are published by Wakefield Press.