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

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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.

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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.”

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(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.

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“I don’t think [Scheerbart] ever saw himself as a practical builder. He wanted to be part of a community and energize other people.” 

—Josiah McElheny on the writings of Paul Scheerbart, which McElheny has edited and compiled into the first-ever English language collection of Scheerbart’s work.

“[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).”

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.


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…“

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.

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.

Stiklas, meilė ir amžinas judėjimas

Šauktukas tiems, kas mėgsta ekscentrikus arba šiaip galvoja, kad jau matė viską. Pavartykite nepelnytai pamirštą ir neseniai guvių entuziastų atkastą Paul Scheerbart. Vokietis kūrė daugiau nei prieš 100 metų, bet jo CV primena šiųdienį multitaskerį: vizionierius, mąstytojas, rašytojas, architektūros teoretikas, poetas, beprotis, eseistas, estetas.

Šie jo atspalviai surišti į knygą, talpinančią rimto veido veikalą apie stiklo architektūros perspektyvas (jos baisingos!), apsakymus apie filosofus, gavusius Atlanto patarimą išnaikinti turtinguosius, ar romaną, pavadintą “Perpetum Mobile”, kuriame jis iš visų jėgų bando parodyti, jog tai nėra romanas - detaliai braižydamas amžinai judančios mašinos, išgelbėsinčios pasaulį ir padarysiančios jį milijardieriumi, schemas.

Prisijunite prie Scheerbart fanklubo, apie kurį Georg Hecht pastebi:

“Kai Scheerbarto ekspertai susirenka ir pradeda kalbėtis, tarp jų stoja didelė kolektyvinė tyla.”

“ . . . we all suffer from light addiction. It is the most modern of diseases.”

The hot sun set.

The stars rose.

The waiters dressed in white were setting the tables for supper.

The lanterns were lit - like every evening - on the park terrace.

It was the Hotel de l’Europe, the best hotel in all Batavia.

Down in the park by the little fountain, Mrs. Hortense Pline sat next to the German architect Mr. Hartung. Mrs. Hortense said:

“You know, Mr. Hartung, there is too much light here during the daytime, and too little at night. During the day, one sleeps, makes one’s toilet, reads a little, and prepares for the evening’s entertainment. If there were only more light at night! The moon and stars do not shine brightly enough for my taste. They are splendid - the stars - but too far away. And I suffer from an addiction to light.


So begins The Light Club of Batavia, a Ladies’ Novelette (1912) by Paul Scheerbart, translated by Wilhelm Werthern. Scheerbart writes about a group of people who form a club dedicated to building a spa for bathing in light.

Read the full text (in German and English) paired with literary responses in The light club: on Paul Scheerbart’s The light club of Batavia (2010) by Josiah McElheny with contributions by Gregg Bordowitz, Ulrike Müller, Andrea Geyer, and Branden W. Joseph (find an excerpt here).