I first read Alfred Jarry’s The Supermale in French many years ago, a part of a massive Gallimand paperback collection of all of Jarry’s work. I read it in my teenage years, on the advice of Sam Lundwall’s 1977 Illustrated History of Science Fiction, because he claimed Jarry, along with Wells, Verne and George Griffith, as one of the giants of early science fiction. I read The Supermale in a language I was still shaky in at the time, despite ten years of immersion. So I read it again this year, in English, and then passed it off to my girlfriend. It was a disquieting reminder both of the failures of memory and the difficulties of translation, even if the translation is occurring instantaneously, almost subliminally, in my head. I had forgotten much of the story and dialogue, even if, as a slim book, there isn’t even all that much to forget.
The action takes places in only a few scenes, a diner, a short conversation, a transcontinental bicycle race, a stupendously long and ultimately fatal display of sexual prowess the likes of which Ron Jeremy, I am certain, would be envious. Having read it so long ago, I imbibed the spirit of the book’s irrationality, and internatlised it to a certain extent, so that I failed to realise how strange it would appear to the people I have lent it too (undoubtedly stranger and more outrageous for those who read it a hundred years ago). I had forgotten the sheer lewdness and bawdiness of the book, including its climax, all puns intended, what with the marathon sex scene, 82 goes and all. Most disappointing for me, and yet pleasant in re-acquaintance, was the sheer poetry of the thing: an exuberance of langauge and stunning metaphors (at least to me, perhaps they seem overblown in an age that has read Hemingway and Updike and all that, but still, exuberant is the best possible word and (world) ), such as this:
“Bereft of ornaments and comforts, under a simple coat of red-lead paint, the machine exhibited without modesty, almost with pride, its organs of propulsion. It seemed like a lewd and fabulous god carrying off the girl. But with a sort of crown, she turned the head of the docile monster, wherever she willed, to left and to right. The dragons of legend are all crowned.
The metallic beast, like a huge beetle, fluttered its wing-sheaths, scratched the ground, trembled, agitated its feelers, and departed.
Ellen, in her pale green dress, seemed like a tiny alga clinging to a gigantic coral trunk being carried away by a rushing torrent.”
“The germ is that God in two persons, that God born of the union of the two most infinitesimal of living things, the half-cells known as the Spermatoozoon and the Ovum.
Both inhabit abysses of night and hazy red, in the midst of streams – our blood – which bear globules spaced apart like planets.
There are eighteen million queens, the female half-cells waiting in the depths of their cavern.
They penetrate and govern worlds with their glance. They are perfect goddesses. For them, no physical laws obtain – they disobey the law of gravitation. To the universal attraction of the scientists they oppose affinities proper unto themselves. Nothing exists for them but what they wish.
In other, equally formidable, chasms they are there, the millions of Gods whom reside the Power, and who created Adam on the first day.”
These images are often very hard to remember or translate from the French, in the sense that when I read it, I missed some of the words, associations, conceits that make up the richness of Jarry’s language. Likewise, the opening of the book, a dinner conversation led by Andre Marceuil, a balding bourgeois nobody (again the Ron Jeremy image emerges) leading his dignified, proper scientific and military friends in conversation, is brilliant: their language is dignified and reserved, in that middle class intellectual fashion, subtle and intelligent and very learned, making the most of a reverence to a complex of Greek philosophers, geographers and historians much more obscure then I could have imagined…and yet the conversation turns around how many times and how long a man can have sex. Marceuil, our supermale, is a freak because of his huge unit: he seeks to prove that the “Indian so famed by Theophrastus’ really could have made love more then forty times, if love means mechanical, repetitious sex, and to prove that both sex and bicycle riding are easy, as they require mere mechanical repetition, and nothing more. The trans-continental bicycle race, dreamy and eerie, is the high-point of the novel, with roses blooming on the high speed locomotive and the dead pedaling tandem across Russia. Bound by rods to their machines, the crew of the five man bicycle hurtle race against an express train. The riders, paced by jet cars and flying machines, reach speeds of 300 kilometres an hour thanks to their diet of Perpetual Motion Food, a volatile mixture of alcohol and strychnine. It is against them that Marceuil pits himself, shadowing them in such a way that the bicylists blame his appearance on hallucinations.
Jarry’s obsession with bicycles is well-known: his brilliance and intelligence and learning are less so, as we seem to expect an intellectual of Jarry’s erudition to be a little less self-destructive. But during my re-reading, Jarry’s intelligence is precisely what struck me most strongly. Jarry was a genius. And not just in his references, his poetics or his imagery. The Supermale practically invented the superman or superhuman as we understand it, not as a product of scientific tinkering or magic serums, though certainly Jarry, in the constant references to the mystical Indian, is consciously evoking that fantastic past, but as a product of human evolution. More importantly, as Lundwall argues, Jarry captures, despite the bawdiness and absurdity, the grim and melancholy aloneness of Andre Marceuil, of a superman, a theme that has become stock in American, European and Japanese treatments of superhumans.
The moment of greatest pathos comes at the end of The Supermale, when Marceuil realizes that his heart, formally unmoved by his own murder of a young woman in the act of coitus, and by any other human suffering, and even unimpressed by his own accomplishment, realizes he has actually fallen in love, a necessary step for the outlandish and deeply sad ending. He is strangled, in one of the most famous scenes, or so I say, in science fiction, by a machine, designed to give him love, but so overwhelmed by Marceuil that it falls in love with him.
Marceuil typifies, in The Supermale, the modern, science fiction concept of superman, and its application to the human condition: alienation, loneliness, a sense of ennui that nothing is beyond one’s reach and therefore worth nothing, that one is better then the masses but can never reveal or revel in this power for fear of revealing oneself: this aspect makes Jarry’s novel a fellow to J. M. Rosny’s Another World (1895) and the later Olaf Stapledon book’s Odd John and Sirius (1930’s), mixing the contempt of mankind with a deeply sublimated desire to belong. But The Supermale is also satire on supermen, as they had become something of a philosophical vogue at the time, not just Nietzsche obviously (and obvious in this book) but George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, making Jarry an unwitting and probably unwanted fellow traveller with G. K. Chesterton’s short story How I Found the Superman.
The Supermale is also a satire of science and technology, or at least those who place their supreme faith in them; a very light satire, but Marceuil’s death, a freak, abnormal, at the hands of scientists desperate to cure or fix his wrongness, outside their experience, (and perhaps warranted given Marceuil’s callousness). The mixture of organic and mechanical is pervasive throughout the book; the tandem bicylers racing across Siberia are described as being one with their machine, and Marceuil himself opens the novel with the famous quote reproduced below, that is, human reproduction is no stranger or harder then a simple piston, pumping mechanically with no care for why it should care about the cylinder.