The Victorian Fantasy Author and Illustrator Ahead of his Time

Paul Karl Wilhelm Scheerbart (1863 – 1915) born in Danzig, Berlin was a German author of fantasy literature and an amazing illustrator. He was also published under the pseudonym Kuno Küfer and is best known for the book Glasarchitektur, 1914.

Scheerbart was associated with expressionist architecture and one of its leading proponents, Bruno Taut. Whereas most people thought Scheerbart eccentric, it’s more likely that he was just ahead of his time and, therefore, misunderstood. He composed aphoristic poems about glass for the Taut’s Glass Pavilion at the Werkbund Exhibition in 1914. He decided to starve himself (to death, some say) instead of living through WWI. “I became a humorist out of rage, not kindness.”

Paul Scheerbart profile by Matthew Jakubowski

A guest post by Matthew Jakubowski. His short stories are available online at 3:AM Magazine and Necessary Fiction. His book reviews appear most often in The National.

No one reads German polymath Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915). Yet during his prolific career his eccentric fiction, art, and poetry influenced a range of intellects, from architect Bruno Taut to writer Walter Benjamin. It’s a testament to Scheerbart’s prophetic vision that his fiction has attracted such lasting attention: he wrote mostly outer-space novels and utopian stories about things like glass architecture.

Beyond the quirky concepts, however, Scheerbart’s work has a revolutionary, philosophical zeal and the image of him that arises is that of a steampunk Ralph Waldo Emerson with imaginative powers equal to those of Thomas Edison and Jules Verne.

Some major university presses have published a handful of Scheerbart’s work in English. MIT Press brought out his glass architecture novella, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel, and University of Chicago Press published The Light Club (the full title is The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies’ Novelette), about an underground utopia created by a group of wealthy humanists. These are enjoyable books, optimistic, ironic, and, as the titles indicate, pro-feminist for their time.

The most recent Scheerbart in translation is Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel, and kudos to Wakefield Press (in Cambridge) for creating a wonderful illustrated edition of Scheerbart’s short novel about brainy humanoid worm-aliens, dreamers who float around and consider their place in the cosmos. Using the basic tropes of sci-fi, Scheerbart creates a sharp social satire of European salon culture, industrial ambition, and the groupthink of his day, including offhand musings like this about quantum mechanics and string theory that are startlingly accurate:

Lesabendio fell asleep. He dreamed of an enormous solar system—and it appeared to him like a system of millions of rubber bands that were continuously being stretched apart and then rebounding back together again.

My favorite Scheerbart in English so far is The Perpetual Motion Machine (Wakefield Press). The central question seems to be—is success or failure better for the imagination? Translator Andrew Joron did great work capturing Scheerbart’s wonderful range of raw emotion as he struggles to tell “The Story of an Invention,” as the book is subtitled. The diary of intense frustration hits innumerable highs and lows as Scheerbart tries, fails, and fails again to invent a real perpetual-motion machine (he and his wife needed the money). “I’m getting nowhere with my prototype,” he says. “This has not in the least hindered the outpouring of my imagination.”

(The book also shows off Scheerbart’s impressive skills as a draughtsman: it includes 26 schematic diagrams of prototypes for a real perpetual motion machine, which will prove humorous for anyone familiar with, say, gravity, or the concept of friction.)

Eventually, Scheerbart uses failure as a route to revelation, and revelation as an engine for belief in infinite creativity. The diary gives way to several short stories, including “The Astral Direction,” in which Scheerbart mentions “the significance of the Earthstar.” His failures have yielded a vision that “The Earth itself is a perpetual motion machine” and if his “perpet” (his nickname for a perpetual motion machine) could actually harness gravity’s power it would cause a “sublime revolution,” bringing about the “obsolescence of labor,” freeing humanity from “nation-states” and “militarism.” He imagines great changes ahead. “We are standing, then, before a cultural earthquake. A great many old arrangements will be undone.”

He was right, but unfortunately wrong about the nature of the impending earthquake—World War I would soon break out. The mass death would reveal how earnest Scheerbart was about his dreams for utopia and peace: Joron states in his introduction to The Perpetual Motion Machine that Scheerbart is said to have killed himself in a hunger strike protesting the war.

”[Paul] Scheerbart’s book bears the subtitle An Asteroid Novel, and all of its action takes place far from Earth. Not a single human character appears in the story; nor do its protagonists resemble the anthropomorphized aliens of so much science fiction. Rather, Scheerbart populates the asteroid Pallas with a race of newt-like creatures who are capable, when provoked, of expanding their bodies to several times their normal size. Moreover, the Pallasians have eyes that extend on stalks and function as telescopes or microscopes (the latter for reading micro-books: the Pallasians wear, as personal adornment, entire libraries around their necks).”


Some of Alfred Kubin’s drawings for the 1st edition of Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel

Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel was written by Paul Scheerbart and published originally in 1913.  The new edition translated by Christina Svendsen and published by Wakefield Press is very much worth checking out.  ”An intergalactic utopian novel that describes life on the planetoid Pallas, where rubbery suction-footed life forms with telescopic eyes smoke bubble-weed in mushroom meadows under violet skies and green stars…Scheerbart’s cosmic ecological fable was admired by such architects as Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius and by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem…”

Bruno Taut, Construction Drawing for his Glashaus, 1914.

"The face of the earth would be much altered if brick architecture were ousted everywhere by glass architecture. It would be as if the earth were adorned with sparkling jewels and enamels. Such glory is unimaginable. All over the world it would be as splendid as in the gardens of the Arabian Nights. We should then have a paradise on earth, and no need to watch in longing expectation for the paradise in heaven." Paul Scheerbart, Glass Architecture, 1914.

Hafentraum, ein Gedicht von Paul Scheerbart

Mein Lieblingsgedicht habe ich in dieser Version kennen- und auswendig gelernt. Es stand in der Tageszeitung als ‘Gedicht des Tages’. Mir gefiel in der 2.Strophe das ‘dich’, das wirkt ein wenig mehr surreal und konkretisiert die Probleme, die die tausend Schafe darstellen. Aber auch die 1. und 3. Zeile der 1. Strophe passen besser, als in der Originalversion, auch der Anzahl der Silben wegen. Ok, ist halt meine Meinung. Ich hab’ mich halt verliebt in diese falsche Version.

Hier das Original:

Hafentraum von Paul Scheerbart

Ich hab in dieser ganzen Nacht
Still wie ein Stall geschlafen.
Ich hab in dieser ganzen Nacht
Geträumt von tausend Schafen.

Sie waren alle dick und rund,
Ich aber war nicht ganz gesund,
Ich kam allmählich auf den Hund;
Es war in einem Hafen.

In diesem Hafen trank ich viel
Mit großen Welt-Matrosen,
Die spielten Handharmonika
Und mit den tausend Schafen.

If we wish to raise our culture to a higher level, we are forced for better or for worse, to transform our architecture. We shall only succeed in doing this when we remove the element of enclosure from the rooms in which we live. We can only do this, however, with glass architecture, which allows the light of the sun, moon and stars to enter not merely through a few windows set in the wall, but through as many walls as possible - walls of coloured glass. The new milieu created in this way must bring us a new culture…Then we should have a paradise on earth…
—  Paul Scheerbart, Glasarchitektur (Glass Architecture) 1914

A storm is whirling through the land.
The trees break, the roof tiles fly away with the flower-pots, people’s hats and the fluttering crows, far off - into the open country.
And it is hailing and raining.
The rain tastes as cool and pleasant as the hailstones.
There is something strange about this hail and rain.
The professors drive up to the town hall in their finest coaches and hold long discussions; all the professors have hailstones in their hands, some also have bottles filled with the new rainwater.
The professor’s discussions are excellent, and all the while it is raining and hailing, stronger and stronger outside.
And the storm wails - wails.
The clever professors explain that it is not ordinary hail - neither is it ordinary rain.
And they take a taste of the hailstones and drink the rainwater.
And they say, there is a new substance contained in them - a comet must have exploded in the sky - it definitely must have been a comet.
The new substance is Comet Salt.
But it has such an odd effect.
Whoever tastes the new salt feels a weakness which permeates every limb, and their thoughts become so simple.
The comet salt is seductive as alcohol.
But the comet salt does not burn the back of the mouth, nor, in the body below, does it stimulate - it makes one satisfied - quiet.
Soon the people with salt in their stomachs can no longer collect their thoughts. For them it is as if everything has gone. And then they remain there standing and go no further, their limbs become stiff and hard as wood, the upheld arm will not go down again; the hand which had raised a hat in greeting remains holding the hat in the air.
Gradually the storm dies away and the weather improves once more.
But for the first time, in the bright sunshine, one can see the extent of the matter.
Ten wet soldiers are standing bolt upright on one leg on the parade ground, the raised legs will not go back down. A baker’s wife gives one of the soldiers a shove in the side and all ten of them fall like wooden soldiers from a toy-box.
The air is quiet once more.
And the people lick the comet salt which covers the ground in heaps. The animals lick the comet salt as well.
And one by one all the people and animals, in the streets and in their homes, remain standing, sitting or lying in strange positions.
The dogs’ mouths stay open.
The birds turn head over heels in the air and fall with stiffened wings on to the piles of salt, and move no more.
A funeral procession stands in front of the church and can go no further.
The trees become just as stiff. The weeping willows and the weeping birches freeze in the positions they have been blown into by the wind - branches blow out wide - as if a great storm were raging.
And the air is so still.
And the people and animals are also so still, as if they no longer know what to say.
A policeman sits unmoving on a bench beside a tramp - looking unceasingly at one another.

From the short story Cascading Comets by Paul Scheerbart, 1902.

Glasarchitektur, Paul Scheerbart: Our culture is in a sense a product of our architecture.

We live for the most part within enclosed spaces. These form the environment from which our culture grows. Our culture is in a sense a product of our architecture. If we wish to raise our culture to a higher level, we are forced for better or for worse to transform our architecture.

And this will be possible only if we remove the enclosed quality from the spaces within which we live. This can be done only through the introduction of glass architecture that lets the sunlight and the light of the moon and stars into our rooms not merely through a few windows, but simultaneously through the greatest possible number of walls that are made entirely of glass —coloured glass. The new environment that we shall thereby create must bring with it a new culture.——


Paul Scheerbart - Rakkóx der Billionär. Ein Protzenroman und “Die Wilde Jagd”. Ein Entwicklungsroman in acht anderen Geschichten.

Ach, ich mag Paul Scheerbart ja, und gerne will ich alles lesen, was er schrieb. Dann kommt mir so etwas hier zwar hin und wieder unter, doch will ich gar nicht murren. Nur ein wenig, also, gut, ich möchte doch murren. Über den “Rakkóx” nicht, gut, man weiß nicht, weshalb und warum wer was tut, doch stört das nicht, er ist eben seltsam, der Protz. Er geht seinen Launen nach, macht sich Feinde, das lässt sich schon erzählen. Aber muss es so kurz sein? Schade, schade. Hier hat der Klappentext beinahe recht, so kurz ist der Text, ihn können auch ein paar Sätze wiedergeben… Aber ich nicht, nein, nicht meine Sätze, ich mag nicht.

Und “Die Wilde Jagd”? Wenn sie doch nur jemand zeichnen würde, das wäre eine psychedelische Freude! Und wenn mein Vorstellungsvermögen doch nur besser wäre, aber nein, ich sehe nicht, wie hier Geister, Sterne, Nebel, Diener, seltsame Wesen, Wasser, Seegetier und weiß der Geier was noch wirbeln und strömen und rasen und sich wandeln. Wäre ich Spiritist, dann hätte ich vielleicht mehr Freude hieran. Gut, die hatte ich auch, das Nachwort nämlich ist besser als manch andere, die ich bisher zu Scheerbart las, schließlich muss er ja immer wieder vorgestellt werden, allzu bekannt ist er nicht, glaube ich. Hier wird er jedenfalls nicht als Visionär der Architektur, sondern als sonderlicher Mensch, Trinker und Träumer gepriesen, und das ist mir dann doch lieber als irgendetwas aus seinen Texten herauslesen zu wollen, das nicht darin steht. Auf zum nächsten Band, demnächst!

5 von 10

Es haben,’ erwiderte nun der Biba, ‘unzählige Weise auch auf andern Sternen immer wieder nur den einen Gedanken gehabt, daß grade nur die Ergebenheit uns mit unserm ganzen Leben versöhnen kann. Auf einzelnen Sternen sterben Millionen von Lebewesen in jeder Sekunde – dieses große Sterben ist nur dazu da, damit die Überlebenden die großartigen Schauer der Ergebenheit kennen lernen. Man nennt das zuweilen auf andern Sternen auch Religion. Und es ist ja auch so klar, daß wir eigentlich stets etwas vor uns haben müssen, das größer ist als wir; nur so bekommen wir immer wieder einen Begriff von der kolossalen Großartigkeit der Welt. Würde es uns so leicht sein, höher zu steigen, so würden wir die Welt nicht so als Größeres und Ganzgroßes empfinden; wir müssen immer wieder zurückgedrückt und ein wenig erdrückt werden, damit wir merken, wie groß das Große der großen Welt ist – wie wir diese Größe niemals ganz ausmessen könnten.’

Lesabéndio: Ein Asteroiden-Roman von Paul Scheerbart (1913)

"There have been,” Biba replied, “countless beings who, on other stars as well, have always had but only the singular thought that devotion alone can reconcile us with the entirety of our lives. Millions of living creatures die each second on individual stars - this grand death exists only in order to acquaint survivors with the terrific shudder of devotion. On other stars this is sometimes called ‘religion’. And it’s also rather evident that we have a constant need for designs that are bigger than ourselves; it is only in this way that we are capable of reclaiming some kind of conception of the colossal grandiosity of the world. Were it easy for us to ascend higher, we wouldn’t perceive the world as being so grandiose and gargantuan; we must always be pushed down and somewhat crushed, so that we recognize how great the grand world is - that we’d never be capable of completely surveying this magnitude.” — Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel by Paul Scheerbart (1913)