IN THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING WORLD, perhaps the only traces of the phantasmagoric novels of German critic, serialist, and outsider theorist Paul Scheerbart exist by way of another fantastique, albeit less anonymous, German theorist Walter Benjamin. Throughout the surfeit of translations of Benjamin’s copious letters, reviews and folios, particularly The Arcades Project (Passagen-Werk, 1927-1940), which have piled up over the last several decades on the desks of American academicians, architects and Europhiles, the name of Scheerbart has made numerous notable appearances. In 1919, five years after Scheerbart’s death, Benjamin, who never met him, wrote his first impressions of Scheerbart’s utopo-science-fiction masterpiece, Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel, after having received the book as a wedding present from a friend, Gershom Scholem.
The novel, concerned with an alien of titular name, describes the length at which Lesabéndio will go to erect a 100 story tower on his native planet, Pallas, in order to unite with the mysterious head-star that hovers above it. “This book was imagined in reverence and, in an understated way, from plenitude,” Benjamin claims with an eye toward Scheerbart’s similarly grandiose prosody.
It is marked by the fulfillment of a strict law, which is decisive in regards to its value as well as its boundaries because it is a law of mythic forms rather than of art. The law says: true interpretation encompasses the outer surface of things, their purest sensuousness. Interpretation is an overcoming of sense [der Sinn].
Revisiting Lesabéndio over 20 years later, after which Scheerbart had come to perform a central pedagogical role in Benjamin’s form of Marxist/Messianic cosmology:
Scheerbart’s great discovery was that the stars could be used to plead the cause of creation before an audience of humans. […] It will awaken to a new life and reach out to its brother stars. It will dream only of uniting with them, forming a link in the chain of asteroids which one day will encircle the sun.
If Benjamin’s career-long meditations on Scheerbart seem capacious (and, in fact, Benjamin had planned to dedicate a chapter of his last book to Scheerbart at the time of his suicide), it is likely because there was nothing quite as strange and, well, “cosmic,” as Scheerbart’s Lesabéndio at the beginning of the 20th century. Published in 1913, only a year before the author died of starvation — perhaps self-imposed — and after tackling topics like aerial militarism, glass architecture, color theory, and perpetual motion — Lesabéndio’s only signposts are Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus (1914), the journal, Phalanstery, and, perhaps, Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863). Set on an alien topography that is near enough to Earth to share the same galactic sun, the novel relates the story of the peace-loving, salamander-like Pallasians, who reside on a double-funnel shaped star, where the odd levels of gravity allow them to glide at extreme heights and travel at high rates of speed, with conveyer belts the only necessary form of transportation. In addition to their yellow, nonchordate bodies, Pallasians possess telescopic eyes, l...read more