02 February 2010

Alfred Jarry Bicycle Club

‘All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops – the geometry’

Long before Copenhagen Cycle Chic et al., Alfred Jarry was the king of avant-garde cycling. He was notorious for his wild eccentricity and his outrageously unconventional cycling.  More recently, the Alfred Jarry Bicycle Club is homage to eco-friendly means of transport as well as a psychogeographical exploration of the cityscape.  The cyclist exploits the urban geography unconsciously on dérive exploits, stopping occasionally for an ice cream.

Alfred Jarry was a French writer and poet, who became famous for his play L'Ymagier while living in Paris in the late C19th.  This play paved the way for absurdist theatre as we know it today. A serious eccentric, he took very seriously the art of taking nothing seriously. Under five feet tall, he habitually dressed in black cycle-racing clothing, grooming himself like Mephisto in miniature, and ate his meals in reverse, desert first.

He spoke in a staccato, nasal vocal delivery, which emphasized each syllable (even the silent ones). He adopted a ridiculous and pedantic figures of speech; for example, he referred to himself using the royal we, and called the wind "that which blows" and the bicycle he rode everywhere "that which rolls". Often he would be seen, tearing in and out of Parisian bars and houses astride his bicycle, swilling absinthe and pointing his two pistols at anyone who questioned him. He often alternated between meticulous cleanliness and not washing.

In the meantime, the young Jarry floundered in his own pataphysical world, discovered the pleasures of alcohol, which he called "my sacred herb" or, when referring to absinthe, the "green goddess". A story is told that he once painted his face green and rode through town on his bicycle in its honour (and possibly under its influence).

He fell at the age of 34, mainly from his absinthe drinking and ether sniffing, and had himself photographed as a corpse, so that he could send postcards to his friends. Eventually, he was overcome by tubercular meningitis, and lapsed into a coma, waking momentarily before death to call for a toothpick.

His life mirrored his work, a particular favourite of mine is the wonderful The Passion Considered As An Uphill Bicycle Race, a short prose piece, with Barabbas scratched from the starting board, Pilate starts the race, and St. Matthew is the sports commentator. Jesus gets a good start, but a bed of thorns puncture his front tire, and ends up carrying his cross-shaped frame up the hill, while the two other competitors ('as thick as thieves') escape.

Jarry's influence has been considerable. Movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism Cubism, Theatre of the Absurd - all owe debts to his works. Picasso, Flann O'Brien, The Marx Brothers, the Goons, Mad magazine, Robert Anton Wilson, Monty Python and their spawn were all influenced by Jarry, whether they knew it or not.

{ Sadismul Adevarului. Ilustratil de Victor Brauner, Marcel Iancu, Alfred Jarry, Kapralik, S. Perahim, Picasso, Man Ray, si Jacques Vaché }

But nothing's original, it's daft to think that he began it all - he himself owes much to Rabelais. But at the same time you can't help but think he just had an ultimate desire to be socially subversive.

There's more here - Alfred Jarry: a Cyclist on the Wild Side.