Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

The Perpetual Motion Machine

By Paul Scheerbart; Trans. by Andrew Joron

Reviewed By Peter Selgin

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In this video posted on YouTube, a white-bearded, bespectacled, and rather sage-looking Norwegian man demonstrates an elaborate, Rube Goldbergian device that he has invented—its myriad discs, rotors, levers, flanges, magnets, springs, balances and counterbalances all connected to or hanging from a central cylindrical track around which a gleaming metal ball rolls (apparently) forever. That is the machine’s sole raison d’étre, to keep that little ball rolling: an objective as simple as it is extraordinary, since it purports to do so without any source of energy other than that generated by the rolling ball itself. In few words the device is—or claims to be—a modern day perpetual motion machine.

The Norwegian sage’s name is Reidar Finsrud. Primarily a sculptor and painter, Finsrud’s foray into perpetual motion has been—for lack of a better word—a hobby. Still, as hobbies go, it’s one he takes very seriously, seriously enough to keep his device locked in a vault such as would give the Crown Jewelers many nights of sound sleep. Whether he does so to protect his brainchild from patent infringers or to prevent debunkers from discovering the electric motor hidden under its base remains to be seen.

The dream of perpetual motion is at least as old as the Middle Ages, with the earliest known design for such a machine credited to the twelfth-century Indian mathematician Bhaskara, who conceived of a wheel of curved hollow spokes filled with mercury so that once the wheel was set in motion the heavy liquid would flow from one end of each spoke to the other, forcing the wheel to keep moving. Since Bhaskara’s wheel there have been countless other devices, with some of history’s most able minds—from Leonardo da Vinci to Robert Boyle and Nikola Tesla—having a crack at it, this in spite of the fact that such an instrument violates both the first and second laws of thermodynamics: 1) the law of conservation of energy, which states that the total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant at all times, and 2) the law of entropy, which holds that the measure of degradation of the energy and matter in the universe never decreases. In grossly oversimplified terms: 1) there’s no free lunch, and 2) nothing good lasts forever.

If anything is perpetual, it’s the persistence with which the proponents of perpetual motion (“perpets,” they’re called) flout conventional wisdom, equating it with bone-headedness and vast conspiracy theories. In the firmament of perpet cranks and crackpots no star shines brighter than Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915). Though he never even came close to inventing a perpetual motion device, Scheerbart sure as hell tried. He recorded his many attempts and failures in a book he titled The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, originally published in 1910 and recently translated to English from German by Andrew. The book is itself something of a miracle, one that may well seal its author’s reputation—not as an inventor of impossible machines, but as a proto-Dadaist, anticipating by nine years the artistic movement that gave us Tristan Tzara and Marcel Duchamp and other champions of irreverence and nonsense for art’s sake.

The Perpetual Motion Machine (the book, that is) is a modest invention (there’s a contradiction in terms: a modest book by a man determined to invent perpetual motion). The English edition is only 112 pages and, as if to emphasize its modesty, the publishers have given the book pocket-sized proportions and an unassumingly attractive blue cover. As for what’s inside, Joron characterizes it as the first-person record of “a two-and-a-half-year-long tantrum of the imagination.” Illustrated with the inventor’s inadvertently droll pen and ink renderings and quoting freely from his real-time journals, the book documents a series of intimate failures leading toward the global catastrophe that was World War I. As Joron tells us in his introduction:

Four years after the story of [Scheerbart’s] invention was published, World War I swept over Europe—the first industrial war, mass-producing the deaths of fifteen million people. Scheerbart, who had not hesitated to announce his pacifism in the midst of the build-up . . . suffered a nervous breakdown at the news of the mounting carnage. When, in 1915, he collapsed and died in his wife’s arms, it was rumored that he had starved himself to death in protest over the war.

But the “two-and-a-half-year-long tantrum” that precedes this catastrophe is replete with tongue-in-cheek humor and the innocent optimism of an irrepressible spirit. There is something endearingly childlike about a man who, carried away by his naive belief in science and his cast-iron faith in humanity and the future, writes:

Someone once proposed digging the lines of the Pythagorean theorem on a colossal scale into the sands of the Sahara in order to give the Martians a comprehensible sign. Perhaps one may now contemplate setting up lines of perpets [Scheerbart’s word for perpetual motion machines], at an expanded width of seven miles, as beacons across the desert.

But Scheerbart’s glittering enthusiasms are continually undermined by the merciless reality that his machine won’t work. A line later in the same notebook he writes:

How droll that such lines cannot yet be implemented—wheel c appears more and more dubious to me.

By definition a great work of art is one that establishes and lives by its own credentials. Until it invents its own category, it resists classification. Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is such a work; Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is a more recent one. And now Scheerbart’s little book can be added to this select list. Not only are all of these books novel (one need only gaze at the pantheon of perpetual motion machines to see that novelty doesn’t necessarily spell success), but also because they do what great works of art are meant to do: force us to confront unfamiliar emotion. Reading Scheerbart’s book, we don’t know quite how to feel. Should we laugh at his ineptitude or cry for his naiveté? Is the author pulling our leg or is he in earnest with his talk of perpetual motion machines? Are we reading the memoir of a crackpot or a cunning science fiction novel?  Is this philosophy or satire? Or something else altogether?

Though he was an architect with a special interest in glass design, and though he wrote novels, plays, poetry, and criticism, it’s not at all clear whether Scheerbart considered his book a work of art or what, precisely, he intended in publishing it. What is clear is that he thought of his “invention”—the machine and the book about it—as one and the same. Throughout the book the words “machine” and “story” are employed synonymously (“If nothing comes of this story”). This blurring of the distinction between purposeful object and work of art is just what Duchamp achieved when, in 1917—seven years after Scheerbart published his memoir —he submitted a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt” for exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists. Duchamp knew what he was doing. Whether or not Scheerbart knew is hard to say, but that he succeeded is unquestionable.

Since Scheerbart’s invention and his book are one, we’re left with a paradox: for just as obviously as one failed, the other is a resounding success, a book which, by virtue of its modesty and novelty, is likely to live on, if not in perpetuity, for quite some time.

Peter Selgin’s Drowning Lessons won the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award. He has also written a novel, two books on fiction craft. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was short-listed for the William Saroyan Prize. He teaches at Antioch University and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.