JANUARY 2, 2013
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, live according to a different sidereal calendar — one day is approximately one month in Earth time — do not experience conventional death or pain, and sleep with the aid of a mushroom weed that encloses their heads in a balloon skin.
Among the most notable members of Pallasian society are a group of artisans, thinkers, and designers — whose names, as the reader will later learn, come from the first sound each utters upon emerging from snap-nuts beneath the ground — including Labu, Manesi, Biba, Peka, Dex, Nuse, Sofanti and the protagonist, Lesabéndio. These Pallasians offer an individual talent; for example, Labu’s métier is building structures exclusively of curved shapes, while Peka, his competitor, is equally passionate about an architecture of straight lines — perhaps a hidden reference to the Arts and Crafts/Jugendstil movement then popular in Germany. Sofanti specializes in terrestrial skins that amplify ambient atmospherics into music, while Dex excavates a special kind of malleable steel from the ground for construction purposes.
However, only Lesabéndio and his closest friend, Biba, are drawn away from the perpetual artistic and design endeavors that consume most Pallasians and toward the mysterious, glowing cobweb-cloud above that obfuscates the size and nature of their star’s atmosphere. Lesa, as he is referred to by most, is a naïve but ambitious creature who insists that only by reaching past the cobweb-cloud and into the head-system beyond will the planet begin to understand its true cosmogenic purpose and position in the vast complexity of the Universe. To wit, he and Biba hatch a plan to construct an unprecedented steel tower that stretches from the edge of the northern funnel to the foot of the cloud, a distance first calculated to be 100 stories (though at other times it is referred to as 100 miles).
Despite the reservations of most Pallasians, an arduous construction ensues, employing the knowledge of most of the artisans to accomplish the ambitious feat. Throughout the design and building, which Scheerbart details with a blend of architectural precision and mathematical fantasy — much in the same way as he does in his fallacious Perpetual Motion Machine (1910) — the reader is introduced to the nitty-gritty of Pallasian life, which is dominated by a design sensibility that might be described as Corbusierian. Technology and nature are rarely distinguished from one another as the aliens build a kind of egalitarian super-city where planet and building, outside and inside, are one and the same, and details of such constructions occasionally extend for pages at a time. That Scheerbart lets his own obsessions with modern architecture often occlude or divagate from the story at hand serves to complicate the form of Lesabéndio: is it a novel, a manifesto, a futurist handbook, or all of the above?
When the tower finally reaches completion, Lesa’s desire to enter the cobweb-cloud and merge with the star-system above produces near-cataclysmic results for those left below on Pallas, transforming a world of blissful innocence into one of hyperconsciousness, filled with the spiritual rigors of pain and desire. For his efforts, Lesabéndio ascends into a higher plain of existence, becoming a light-energy that begins to receive divine communiqués from the sun, while looking over the well being of Pallas.
Before the seinsfrage of Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) and well before the anthropogenic mysticism of Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy (1998-2004), Lesabéndio posed the question of Being as synonymous with a certain technology of environmentality. The question of Being is conceived on the ground, on the surface, but it is forever drawn magnetically beyond its means upward to the sky, into the air, into the void. So, what are the possibilities of man as an ecstatic creature opened up to the world? And how does technology as an operative of unconcealment contribute or inhibit his understanding of the space of the Earth? As translator Christina Svendsen writes in the introduction to the new addition of the book, “Scheerbart’s novel was ecological before ecology became a discipline. […] Scheerbart finds hope in the possibility of humans imagining themselves projectively forward into posthuman era.” Or, as Benjamin alluded to presciently in his initial description of the novel, a cosmic ethic is rooted as much in the idea of plentitude and ecstasy as it is in conservation and self-denial, the latter of which have come to dominate the modern ordinations of the ecology movement.
Undoubtedly, war was at the forefront of this ecology for Scheerbart, as it was for every European living in anticipation of mechanized obliteration in 1913. In the initial chapter, Lesabéndio describes the Earth with a similarly rapturous — and alien — terror:
I have seen them attack each other in enormous hordes and of thousands, and inflict terrible wounds with sharp pieces of iron and weapons for shooting. This generally results soon after in death. […] As incredible as it may sound, it must be admitted that some of these humans are interested in life on other stars.
Complicating Scheerbart’s supposed utopian/pacifist stance, Lesabéndio posits the necessity of conflict — as an energy that transfigures as well as destroys the ecosystem of the World — a concept also explored in Benjamin’s discussion of mythical and divine violence in The Critique of Violence (1921).
That Lesabéndio was not received with the same zeal as Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires by German readers at the time of its publication is not surprising given its cryptic story line and predisposition toward philosophical meandering. But the novel’s exploration of a futurism tied to a global and technologized everyday (even among aliens) far surpassed Verne’s fanciful depictions of scientific novelty. Following his death, Scheerbart remains almost wholly forgotten in both the German and English-language world, despite the fact that his eccentric fables had massive repercussions not only in the writings of Benjamin but also the theories of Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius and Peter Sloterdijk, all of whom helped shape 20th century perspectives of the inextricable relations between technology and environment. As an artifact of this interdiscipline, Lesabéndio is an essential text and Scheerbart is a prophet in need of disinterment.
(With special thanks for German translation from Christina Svendsen.)