The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the main character of Adam Sachs’s debut novel, The Organs of Sense, had a minor obsession with telescopes. His hero was Johannes Kepler, the mathematician who had invented the refracting astronomical telescope in 1611. “Kepler, thanks to the force of his genius, has discovered a telescope whose glasses are convex,” Leibniz announced in a letter to a friend in 1679. Kepler’s glasses were “far more excellent than others”—more durable than the silver mirror in Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope, more powerful than the concave eyepiece Galileo Galilei gazed through, in which the evening star appeared only thirty times bigger than it did to the naked eye. Elsewhere, Leibniz rebuffed René Descartes as a geometer with a “rather limited mind” whose only redeeming ambitions were astronomical: “The only useful thing he thought he had given were his telescopes,” he sniped, “with which he promised to show us animals, or parts as small as animals, on the moon.” But the telescope that Descartes designed, the telescope Leibniz longed for, proved impossible for Descartes’s workmen to manufacture. The animals on the moon remained, regrettably, invisible.
At eighteen, Leibniz had decided that the highest effort of philosophy would be to construct a language of metaphysics that could perfect the extension of human thought with no less precision or glory than the telescope had perfected the extension of the human eye. The language he imagined would serve as the “greatest instrument of reason”: a universally comprehensible system of signs that would “supply not only the words but also the things” to which the words referred—the ideas that were a “reflection and refraction and multiplication” of the infinite wisdom of God, “supreme Author” of the cosmos. Perfectly mimetic, scrupulously logical, Leibniz’s language would transform every mind into “a perpetually living mirror of the universe,” allowing strangers to calculate their way to shared judgments about art, ethics, and politics, clearing the way for worldly happiness and harmony. It would even bring order to blind emotional impulses like love. “We should not have to break our heads as much as is necessary today,” Leibniz wrote. Surely there was a way to reflect God’s ideas, and the thoughts of others, too, in our language.
Leibniz’s fondness for the language of optics ignored the fact that, in the seventeenth century, mirrors were terrible reflectors. Made from silver, they were prone to tarnishing, enveloping whoever stood before them in an obscuring mist. Flattened by hand, they bent in or out, enlarging or diminishing whatever they beheld, focusing on the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong proportions. The same defects were found in the glass lenses of the earliest telescopes, whose convex lenses produced inverted images. Telescopes were “false Informers” and “meer deluders,” according to the Empress who rules over Margaret Cavendish’s late-seventeenth-century work of utopian fiction The Blazing World. “Nature has made your Sense and Reason more regular than Art has your Glasses,” she rages at her palace astronomers, a pack of half-bear, half-man creatures who cannot agree on how many stars burn in the night sky. She commands them to break their telescopes and use only their eyes. They demur, preferring the estranging pleasures of art: they “kneel’d down, and in the humblest manner petitioned, that they might not be broken; for, said they, we take more delight in Artificial delusions, than in Natural truths.”
The Organs of Sense imagines that Leibniz’s entire philosophical project emerged from one possibly hallucinatory afternoon—an “Artificial delusion,” or, as Sachs introduces his counterfactual history, “the sole significant intellectual crisis of a philosophical career otherwise dominated by the sanguine rationalism for which it is now known, and for which, at least since the time of Voltaire, it has periodically been ridiculed.” On the last day of June 1666—the same year Cavendish published The Blazing World, Newton started his work on the three laws of motion, and Giovanni Cassini measured the rotational period of Mars—a nineteen-year-old Leibniz seeks an old astronomer in a crumbling observatory perched somewhere above the dense forests of Bohemia. The astronomer possesses the largest and most powerful telescope in the world, and has predicted a solar eclipse that will plunge Europe into total darkness for four seconds. Leibniz has journeyed to the astronomer’s observatory because he doubts the prediction, and with good reason: the astronomer is blind. His eyes have been plucked out, leaving “two empty eye sockets,” “two uncanny voids,” Leibniz writes in an account of his visit, that the astronomer presses “to the brass eyepiece of that colossal telescope” while jotting down strange sequences of numbers. Having observed this “ceremony of sight,” Leibniz resolves to prove the astronomer is insane:
If this was a sort of performance, it was not clear for whom he might be performing, since there was no one else save a fat slumbering cat in the observatory, and as far as Leibniz could tell, he, Leibniz, had not yet been detected. If this was a performance for God, God, the being that need only be possible to be actual, and Who therefore is actual, because He is possible, and Who as a consequence of His actuality perceives at every instant an infinity of perceptions, would, no doubt, not be fooled, a fact of which reason itself, if it functioned rightly in him, would inform the astronomer. And if it is a performance for himself, he is, as I will prove, mad, Leibniz wrote, for it is part of the essence of a performance that one stages it for others, so anyone who performs for himself acts as if he has within him another being, who might be performed for—an evident absurdity; and if he believes this absurdity, then he is mad, and if he acts this way without believing it, then he is also mad.
If it is not a performance—if the astronomer is sane—then, Leibniz concludes, “either he really sees, or he thinks he really sees.” But what can a blind man see? And how can an observer confirm that the blind man sees what he claims to see? Amid the apparent impossibility of blind sight, Leibniz glimpses the possibility of an epistemic breakthrough: “The problem of getting inside another head, and seeing what that head was seeing (or not seeing) and what it was thinking (or not thinking), now struck Leibniz as a profoundly philosophical problem.” Though he yearns to crack the astronomer’s head open, to drill into his skull and cut through its membranes, he knows that doing so would bring him no closer to the truth—that it would annihilate the truth he seeks to discover. The only instrument he can use to get inside the astronomer’s head is language. But, as Leibniz will discover over the three hours he spends listening to the astronomer tell the story of how he lost his eyes, language is never as transparent as one would hope.
The problem of making other peoples’ thoughts transparent was Leibniz’s lifelong philosophical challenge, but it is also the representational challenge the novel as a genre sets for itself. The structure of human subjectivity and the structure of the cosmos were often spoken about in the same breath after the Galilean revolution, when the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun overthrew the Ptolemaic belief that the universe was ordered around the earth’s single, centralizing point of view. Subjectivity could never be absolute, bounded, complete, or fixed by a single, logical perspective. Fictions, as Cavendish wrote in The Blazing World, “are an issue of man’s fancy, framed in his own mind, according as he pleases, without regard, whether the thing he fancies, be really existent without his mind or not.” Like Leibniz, Cavendish was a believer in panpsychism, the view that sentience was ubiquitous to reality; that not just man, but the inanimate matter of which man was made, had experiences of sense and sentience.* When Cavendish’s Empress asks the spirits that counsel her “Whether Man was a little world,” they answer that “if a Fly or a Worm was a little World, then Man was so too.” This was more than just a philosophy of the romantic imagination. It was a philosophy of consciousness.
“I confess that there are parts in cheese in which there appear to be no worms. But what prevents there from being other smaller worms or plants in those parts in turn?” wrote Leibniz in 1699. Sachs recognizes both the seriousness and the humor of the seventeenth-century provocation that man, like cheese, contains thinking multitudes. He resurrects the conventions of the earliest comic novels—Jonathan Swift’s satires of rationalism, Henry Fielding’s chatty, self-conscious narrators—to reveal that human thought is, fundamentally, absurd; that every mind is like the wobbly, distorted, and self-parodic mise en abyme created by the mirrors in a funhouse. Kepler may have been a genius, the astronomer tells young Leibniz, but he was also an unrepentant gastronome whose mind was always “screaming for bread dumplings,” making him sleepy and stupid and causing him to miss “untold astronomical phenomena throughout his life.” The blind astronomer’s father, imperial sculptor to Emperor Maximilian II, devoted years to “gluing thousands or tens of thousands of tiny mirrors to the inside walls of a box” to create an “infinitely mirrored microcosm of the cosmos,” only to realize that the box was “basically just a lot of mirrors.” The novel’s comedy deflates our heroic illusions about serious men thinking serious thoughts. Rationality is always waylaid by man’s baser appetites and illogical faiths, the “luminous instincts” that reason can never blind itself to, the desires that clarify and obscure with equal intensity.
Capturing the recursive absurdity of thought, as well as the centrality of that thought to the human understanding of the universe, requires a narrative form that can expand from the inner folds of the mind to the outer recesses of the cosmos. The blind astronomer’s story is nested in Leibniz’s written account of it, which is, in turn, nested in the translation of Leibniz’s account from Latin to English, a translation performed in the present day by a mysterious, hovering narrator, his presence glimpsed in the commentary he provides on Leibniz’s account. Consider the story the astronomer relays to Leibniz, and Leibniz’s translator relays to us, of a story the emperor’s court chamberlain told the astronomer, which the emperor had told the court chamberlain, about the emperor’s purchase of a painting, Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s weird mannerist masterpiece Water (see illustration on page 34):
Once, many years later, as the Emperor’s Court Chamberlain and I stood in the Castle before Arcimboldo’s Water, he told me the following story. He and the Emperor, he told me, had once stood before that very painting, just as he and I stood before it now…. And the Emperor told his Court Chamberlain how he came to possess that spectacular painting, which as surely you know, Herr Leibniz, depicts the head of a woman by the ingenious juxtaposition of a thousand beasts and beings of the sea. The Emperor says to him: Many years ago, one of my agents, a soi-disant connoisseur of the art of Italy, returned from a journey to Florence and Milan with two paintings for my consideration, each portraying the head of a woman in profile, but one which did so with perfect grace, naturalness, and simplicity, while the other did so by the juxtaposition of fish, many fish, “together the fish make a head,” the agent told the Emperor.
Like Arcimboldo’s painting, which layers lobster on stingray on shrimp on octopus to create the painterly illusion of a head, The Organs of Sense embeds the voices of its storytellers to create a universe of thought that seems at once bounded and infinite, composed of many alien points of view. The novel can speak in the gently parodic interjections of Leibniz’s translator, the goofy exclamations of the astronomer, the officious tones of a seventeenth-century emperor. It can simultaneously peer out, through the eye of the telescope, at the splendor of the heavens, and gaze in, at the refractions of its own manic thinking.
In the first hour Leibniz and the astronomer spend together, the astronomer tells Leibniz about how he once helped his father fashion “out of pure matter a mechanical head that could speak in a human voice.” His father had planned to present the head to Maximilian’s moody, supercilious heir, Emperor Rudolf II, a collector of mechanisms who was obsessed with verisimilitude. The artificial head had to be indistinguishable from a real head, the astronomer’s father warned, even though the two were to perform very different functions: “One head was to be looked into: the mechanical head. The other was to be looked out from: his own organismic head. The former head had to speak, blink, and chomp, the latter head to think and see.” Face to face with the bored emperor, the mechanical head turns out to be “worthless, a curio, an aristocratic gewgaw.” The only organs worth salvaging are the eyes: two convex lenses that the astronomer plucks out and, in a moment of desperate inspiration, holds up to the light to invent the first telescope and win the favor of the emperor.
What’s funny here is not simply seeing the human head treated like a machine. The alienation of body from soul is an old party trick: no improvement on the pneumatic head of Don Quixote, which betrays its audiences’ secrets by means of a man concealed within, whispering through the pipes; as false as Roger Bacon’s “brazen head,” which claimed to voice the future in the thirteenth century. Rather, what’s funny is realizing that the human head is a machine of sorts. “Everything that happens in the human body…is just as mechanical as what happens in a watch,” Leibniz wrote in a letter to the philosopher Samuel Clarke. The human head was never primarily “a thinking thing,” the blind astronomer concludes as he observes the real and artificial heads of his father moving in tandem. Rather, the head was “a singing thing, a chomping thing, and a blinking thing.” It was “a machine of nature,” an assemblage of organs, each designed to execute a function determined by God. The exceptions were thought and feeling, whose movements could not be traced back to any single organ, but seemed to emerge as the immaterial products of the organism in its entire being. The novel, for Sachs, offers a mechanism for giving form to the immateriality of thought and feeling—the essential quality of being human that exceeds the singing, chomping, and blinking thingness of the body.
Sachs’s twinkling and zany philosophical account of the astronomer’s father tells only half the story of why a nineteen-year-old boy, even one as uncommonly philosophical as Leibniz, might want so badly to get inside other peoples’ heads. The other, more sentimental half comes from the astronomer’s stint as a teacher to the emperor’s children, particularly his young, sadistic, bastard son Prince Heinrich. As the astronomer tells Leibniz in the second hour of their encounter, Heinrich had once fallen in love with Ludmila, daughter of the Imperial Bloodletter. Ludmila (her name an echo of the love interest in Italo Calvino’s metafictional romance of storytelling, If on a winter’s night a traveler) is an austere, self-sufficient girl who, amid the monotony of Heinrich’s palace life, strikes him as immeasurably strange and different. He seizes her from her father, rapes her, and makes her his consort, a role that, from Heinrich’s point of view, she seems to take up with happiness, asking him about all the things he likes: clocks, hogs, trees. “I wanted to be transparent to her,” Heinrich tells the blind astronomer. “I wished Ludmila to know exactly what I was thinking when I looked at a tree.” The desire to be transparent to another person, to disclose one’s thoughts without misunderstanding, is a seductive prospect—so seductive that Heinrich’s undisclosed thoughts begin to disrupt the functionality of his head:
He came to realize that the pressure he felt in his head, which was not unpleasant but which could only be relieved by disclosing to Ludmila with perfect precision what everything—hogs, trees, people, paintings, and everything else—evoked in him, in his head, was love…. The feeling of being in love is the feeling, Heinrich realized, of one’s head being no longer equilibrated with the cosmos but being instead perilously albeit pleasurably out of equilibrium with it, overinflated with private associations that must at all costs be discharged, or pumped, into the head of the loved one. One’s head never feels more private, more cloistered, more one’s own, than when one is in love, love seals us in our head and our lover in our lover’s head…. The fervid urge to share one’s thoughts, in conversation, is the mental counterpart of the material urge to share one’s seed, in the carnal act, Heinrich observed.
Conversation, freely and willingly given, transforms ordinary attraction into love. Or so Heinrich thinks, never suspecting that Ludmila may be feigning interest in his thoughts as a tactic of self-preservation. Nor does he realize that the thought he fetishizes as the “mental counterpart” to sex moves in one direction, from his head to hers, creating a perverse asymmetry between the two. The more Heinrich discharges, or pumps, into her head, the more like him Ludmila becomes, losing her distinctive silence and depth, dematerializing into nothing but a product of Heinrich’s imagination—a mirror that reflects him far too flatteringly to be believed. Weighed down by his thoughts, she sinks into an “irreversible unreality.” Heinrich is “assailed…by his former suspicion that her head was hollow and void or else filled like a clock with gears upon gears.”
Since people do not mind hurting what is not real to them, Heinrich begins to take Ludmila apart to see whether she’s a natural or artificial machine. “He inflicted such injuries upon her head in his effort to open it up and look inside, cutting off her ears, plucking out one eye, shattering her teeth, and finally splitting open her skull,” the astronomer recalls to Leibniz. When Heinrich is finished, he throws her body off the castle’s walls and into the pen of his pet hogs. Devastated by what he has done, he contemplates killing himself, until he realizes that his crime can be rationalized by a shift in perspective. “What had appeared organic to him would not appear so to someone much smaller, or to someone equipped with…‘a tube like yours,’” Heinrich tells the blind astronomer. Through a long enough tube, all of humanity “would show itself to be mechanical through and through, little but toothed wheels turning one another in vast empty silent spaces.” The estranging eye of the telescope buffers Heinrich from the truth of his crime, allowing him to pretend that Ludmila was never real in the first place. Killing her was merely a sane, philosophical investigation of a mechanical head with a human voice, no different from the one the astronomer’s father had invented. Unwilling to face the crimes that his lens has allowed Heinrich to commit, the astronomer flees the court for the forests of Bohemia.
It is not romantic love but filial love that offers a momentarily incandescent vision of a shared world of thought. In the last half-hour before the eclipse he has predicted, the astronomer tells Leibniz that he had a son, the most skillful weaver of tapestries in Europe. Father and son had always argued over whose system of thought, art or astronomy, brought mankind closest to the truth of the cosmos. Though the astronomer tried to interest his son in the question of “what the stars were,” his son was interested only in what the stars could be made to represent: “Whatever allure the stars had for the boy lay only in their aesthetic potentialities, their vulnerability to versification, their more or less inexhaustible metaphorical application.” Father and son part in anger, but are reunited when the son joins his father in his observatory, ready to accept that art stops at the surface of objects, while astronomy penetrates the depths of the universe. Together, they begin to chart the heavens. Yet one night, the astronomer discovers that what he thought was the night sky over Bohemia, is, in fact, his son’s most magnificent tapestry:
With a few exceptions—the rings of Venus!—the tapestry was remarkably accurate, his son must have had an intimate and sophisticated understanding of the astronomer’s work in order to weave it, “it suggested to me a prolonged period of time during which he had done nothing but study my work, scrutinize it, live with it, in it.”… This is what the astronomer was thinking when his son ran up to him, dug his fingers into his sockets, and tore out his eyes.
Like Heinrich’s murder of Ludmila, the astronomer’s blinding makes him realize that, by looking at the sky only through the eye of the telescope, he has collapsed representation and reality. Blindness restores the tension between the two. It replaces the certain visibility and invisibility of the stars, and the astronomer’s relentless counting, with his indefinite memories of the heavens. “From deep down inside my head I am peering out at the inner surface of the outer wall of my head,” the astronomer tells Leibniz. “As for the stars in the sky, Herr Leibniz, basically I had blasted them up there myself, onto the inner wall of my own skull.” He ushers Leibniz to the telescope at the exact moment of the predicted eclipse and urges him to look. Through the eyepiece, Leibniz sees nothing but a monumental darkness. When the darkness lasts longer than four seconds, he realizes that the telescope is broken. Meanwhile, the astronomer has vanished.
I started reading The Organs of Sense several weeks after a team of over two hundred scientists produced the first image of a black hole: a glowing orange torus that pulsed softly when you blinked at it. The image was created by the Event Horizon Telescope—not a telescope in any physical sense, but a synchronization of over a trillion data points from eight radio telescopes around the world. If the telescope had been real, the diameter of its lenses would have been as big as the diameter of the earth. In the days after the image of the black hole was published, memes of it began to circulate online. My favorite zoomed out from the uncanny void to reveal, first, two uncanny voids; then, in the middle of them, a pink heart; then, hanging below the heart, two gray whiskers—a feline face, surfacing as swiftly and startlingly as the grinning Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.
“An aphorism,” says the astronomer to Leibniz, who intuits that the philosopher is eyeing his snoozing cat with mistrust: “A man delighted by a cat is discomfited by existence, a man delighted by existence is discomfited by a cat.” What the meme’s creators understood was that any work of art that aspires to represent the infinite with instruments designed by men is courting, at best, absurdity, and, at worst, dread about the significance of human existence. The only appropriate response is, to echo Calvino once again, cosmicomic: the construction of a narrative form that can wrest laughter from the impossibility of comprehending the scale or substance of our alien environments; the futility of placing man meaningfully in the universe.
Yet the comedy of The Organs of Sense is never easy, never lazy, and not especially accessible. Reading it can sometimes feel like overhearing an inside joke or eavesdropping on a private conversation. Sachs makes you work for the privilege of sharing his derangements of thought. (Do you think I knew this much about Leibniz or brazen heads before?) For this reason, the novel is less a novel of ideas than it is a novel about the emotional, illogical, concealed, and self-duplicitous reasons why we grasp, and are grasped by, particular ideas at particular moments; how our histories and history writ large get twined together by forces not totally within our control or imagination; how whatever space is left for human determination must be claimed by a spectacularly, hilariously exaggerated effort of will. “The stars incline but do not necessitate,” Leibniz wrote in his 1711 treatise Theodicy. “The event towards which the stars tend…does not always come to pass, whereas the course toward which the will is more inclined never fails to be adopted.” In projecting his own stars onto the inside of his mind, the blind astronomer shows how one’s will may be strengthened by fiction, the issue of a man’s fancy, which lights the darkness of the world from within. And by telling us the story of the blind astronomer, The Organs of Sense shows how the rationalist project may have been spurred by the blindest and most irrational impulse: love.