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Review: The Organs of Sense, by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
FSG, 2019. 227 pp. $26

In 1666, nineteen-year-old Gottfried Leibniz, not yet famous for inventing calculus, visits an unnamed astronomer who, alone in the scientific universe, has predicted a solar eclipse that will darken Europe for four seconds. Since the astronomer is rumored to have the longest telescope in the world, yet also to be blind, Leibniz wants to know whether the eclipse will really happen, and the man is for real. If he’s for real, and he’s blind, how can he observe the heavens, longest telescope or no? Or does he actually see, and is he sane? Or does he see, and is he insane? Does the truth or falsity of the eclipse affect any of these judgments? The possible combinations are many; you get the picture.

Now, when I tell you that Leibniz doesn’t directly narrate the story — an unnamed scholar/philosopher/scientist does, based on Leibniz’s account — you might think this tale is drier than a dust ball, a real snore, even in its slim length. Yet The Organs of Sense is seriously gripping and very funny at the same time. Start this book, and amazingly, like Leibniz, you’ll want to know, have to know, whether the eclipse will happen, how the astronomer lost his sight, and what Leibniz (and his interpreter) make of all that they relate.

A thinner premise could not be imagined, and yet on that Occam’s razor, much gets sliced apart, perhaps never to appear whole again in reputable print. Many philosophical themes reside in these pages, among which: how does a person “know” anything; which deserves to triumph, emotion or reason; what exactly constitutes insanity; what does blood mean variously to a commoner and a prince; and what’s the purpose of art.

But all this philosophy has a screw loose. The language and the reasoning both parody the discipline as well as apply it, and the best word to describe the whole effect is madcap. You could open the novel practically anywhere to see what I mean, but this passage stands out for me:

Have you noticed, Herr Leibniz, how our most celebrated scientists of the sentiments always possess the crudest understanding of laughter? I have seen laughter taxonomies that bundle together the giggle, the chortle, and the titter, or the chortle, the titter, the snicker, and the hoot. Even in Delft, where they have a superb understanding of tears, they do not distinguish between a whoop, the cackle, the guffaw, the hoot, and the hee-haw. Of course, the hee-haw has nothing to do with the hoot, and the whoop is not even a species of laughter at all! A man who confuses whimpering and weeping is rightly excluded from the circle of learned men, we demand very fine distinctions on the tragic side of life, yet someone who considers a hee-haw a hoot may still be regarded as an eminent authority on the nature of the world.

It’s all much ado about nothing, and yet, there’s meat here. There is also a historical context. Many of the scenes the astronomer recounts to Leibniz take place at the Prague castle of Emperor Rudolf, who indeed behaves as if he’s out of his mind, and involve his intelligent but highly stressed children. Rudolph has figured in fiction before, as with The Fifth Servant and, more recently, Wolf on a String, but here, he’s dissected, minutely, with Kafkaesque humor, as are his family and their various conspiracies.

The Organs of Sense thus makes a witty tale that goes around the bend and meets itself coming and going. Sometimes the prose repeats, but seldom, if ever, does it tire the reader; Sachs is making a point about long-winded philosophers who seek precision until it becomes meaningless. But in that search also lies several truths, one of which is that human life is largely absurd.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this commentary appeared in shorter, different form.