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Paul Scheerbart’s Perpetual Motion Machine: Some Thoughts on Literature & Energy

Two texts are now sitting on my desk.  They are still and inert — like rectangular paperweights.  I would like to activate them, to mingle their pages.  I would like to set them, if only momentarily, into motion.


The first text in front of me is a little gem of a book: Paul Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine (Wakefield Press, 2011), translated by experimental poet Andrew Joron.  In late 1907, Scheerbart — a visionary German author and artist who wrote, among other things, poetry, essays, theater pieces, and a prodigious amount of fantastic fiction (he called them “astral novels”) — set out to devise, in his laundry room, a perpetual motion machine.  Das Perpetuum mobile, which was originally published in 1910 along with 26 charming diagrams, is a roller-coaster account of Scheerbart’s failed but energetically inspired attempt to set such a machine into motion; it is a fascinating record, as Joron puts it, “of a two-and-a-half-year-long tantrum of the imagination.”

For Scheerbart, the idea behind the machine (and he often used the word “story” in place of “machine”) was elegantly simple: “I named this story ‘The Weight-Driven Cogwheel’…the work of attraction exerted by the Earth is perpetual, and this perpetual force of attraction may be transformed, through a system of wheels superimposed on one another, into perpetual motion.”  Thus, if the weight L, being equal in weight with the suspended car K, was attached to f, then the passenger in K could enjoy a perpetual ride forward, all due to the attraction of what Scheerbart sometimes called “the Earthstar.”

The narrative is filled with discoveries of unforeseen problems and imagined solutions, which would, in turn, lead to more diagrams showing different versions of and alterations to the contraption.  Scheerbart’s bouts with failure in which he would behave “not at all reasonably” would be punctuated by optimistic trips to the Imperial Patent Office.  Scheerbart became obsessed with the wheels; he would sketch them upwards of fifty-times a day; he would become “seized by a wild fury.”  His imagination, indeed, became the perpetually spinning wheel that he had sought: “my imagination kept spinning ceaselessly, ‘against my will.'”  Late in the narrative, he says, “Even if I wanted to abandon the wheels, they would no longer abandon me.”  Reading Scheerbart’s account is not unlike watching one of Werner Herzog’s fumbling but driven protagonists — like Fitzcarraldo who wants to build an opera in the middle of the Peruvian jungle (Fitzcarraldo, 1982) or Dr. Graham Dorrington who takes an airship to Guyana to fly over the forest canopies (The White Diamond, 2004) — yet Scheerbart, who was nearly destitute, had neither a labor force nor hi-tech engineering to aid him and had to depend upon the hired help of plumbers…along with the fuel of his own fantastical imagination.

The enduring value of this document, I think, is the way in which Scheerbart endlessly speculates upon the consequences that a perpetual motion machine would have on a global society.  Much of these speculations are ecstatically grandiose.  The machine would solve the world’s energy and labor problems and Scheerbart imagines lights everywhere as nature is transformed into a shimmering and wondrous field of aesthesis: “the watery deeps can be lit up in such a way that even the fish will not cease to be astonished.”  The easy construction of canals could make deserts bloom and usher in a golden age of fecundity, and in the “perpet-future” there would be enormous cathedral-like observatories (“three times as big as the Cologne cathedral”) with vast libraries and meeting rooms for intellectual activity.  Scheebart’s musings even anticipate the “earthworks” or “land art” of the late 60s and early 70s: “we will have advanced so far that we can organize the greatest mountains according to rhythmical patterns, creating depths and heights at our pleasure. A colossal art of space can then be realized.”  Such descriptions call to mind Michael Heizer’s monumental and ongoing work City (which was begun in Nevada in 1972) or his Levitated Mass which will be coming to LACMA in November.

The “perpet,” as Scheerbart called it, might even render utopian novels obsolete: “Once a perpetual motion machine is perfected, would anyone want to write a utopia set one hundred years in the future?”  Yet, for Scheerbart, a world of clean, constantly renewable energy would have its problems too, and he foresaw a cataclysmic “disruption of humanity’s way of life.”  He feared that the “militarists would, without delay, affix all their weaponry to the perpetua” and that “digging deep boreholes into the Earth” would cause “internal injuries to our fair planet.”  In short, “the perpet cannot, in itself, be equated only with progress.” 


The second text on my desk is the March 2011 issue of PMLA, which begins with an Editor’s Column called “Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.”  In her introduction Patricia Yaeger provocatively asks, after reflecting upon “America’s energy extravagance” in a text like Kerouac’s On the Road, “What happens if we rechart literary periods and make energy sources a matter of urgency to literary criticism? What happens if we think systematically about how On the Road and its sibling texts relate to energy sources across time and space?”  The Perpetual Motion Machine, then, must be a significant text in a consideration of the “age of steam” — particularly since Scheerbart believed that “[s]team power and electricity…produced a cultural decline.” 

In the final piece of the column called “Literature and Energy Futures,” Imre Szeman argues that literature participates in a “fiction of surplus” — a belief “that there will always be plenty of energy to go around.”  In science fiction texts (such as James Cameron’s Avatar) that imagine future energy sources, “energy is clean, no longer a threat to the environment, and available in indefinite or even limitless quantities.  Even more important, the switch to it miraculously does not threaten our way of life: we can continue to be who we are now.”   Szeman concludes,

Contemplating energy futures prompts us to reflect on what we desperately need in our literary present: narratives that shake us out of our faith in surplus (there will always be more; things will be better), not by indulging in the pleasures of end times or fantasies of overcoming energy limits but by tracing the brutal consequences of a future of slow decline, of less energy for most and no energy for some–a future that might well have less literature and so fewer resources for managing the consequences of our current fictions.

If Scheerbart’s text, at times, indulges in fantastic reveries of unlimited energy, it also shakes us out of an easy faith in progress; and his vision of  “ruin” that would come about by a switch to a “perpet-future” makes it a compelling exception to the other science fictional imaginings of future energy that Szeman analyzes above.

The "unobtainium" of James Cameron's AVATAR (2009)


Walter Benjamin, as Joron notes, was “one of Scheerbart’s few readers during the interwar period.”  Benjamin quoted Scheerbart’s Glass Architecture in The Arcades Project and around 1940 wrote:

This poet’s work is imbued with an idea which could not have been more foreign to the notions then widespread.  This idea—or rather, this image—was of a humanity which had deployed the full range of its technology and put it to humane use.  To achieve this state of affairs, Scheebart believed that two conditions were essential: first, people should discard the base and primitive belief that their task was to ‘exploit’ the forces of natures; second, they should be true to the conviction that technology, by liberating human beings, would fraternally liberate the whole of creation.

–“On Scheerbart” (translated by Edmund Jephcott)

In a generally positive review of The Perpetual Motion Machine at HTML Giant, Lily Hoang says, “It’s the kind of book that makes you cringe while reading it. You want to shake Scheerbart and tell him to stop being so megalomaniacal.”  I wonder if Scheerbart’s quest is not so much megalomaniacal rather than monomaniacal (and, at times, hilariously so).  And it seems as if Scheerbart is the one who shakes us: he shakes us out of the fantasy of unhindered progress, out of what Szeman calls “the bad faith of the present,” a present which, sadly, is not so different than Scheerbart’s present which Benjamin alludes to above.

4 thoughts on “Paul Scheerbart’s Perpetual Motion Machine: Some Thoughts on Literature & Energy

  1. Reblogged this on Ash and Dust and commented:
    Off to Whitechapel gallery tomorrow (http://www.whitechapelgallery.org) and, upon reading some of the context behind the Josiah McElheny exhibition, I found the ideas quite provocative. This blog bost discusses the influential poet, Paul Scheerbart’s views on enlightenment values. The idea of perpetual progress, what if a perfect machine were created? What would drive humanity? How would the image of utopia change in literature?

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