"This book is only for people who like joy, absurdity, passion, genius, dry wit, youthful folly, amusing historical arcana, or telescopes." —Rivka Galchen, author of Little Labors and American Innovations
In 1666, an astronomer makes a prediction shared by no one else in the world: at the stroke of noon on June 30 of that year, a solar eclipse will cast all of Europe into total darkness for four seconds. This astronomer is rumored to be using the longest telescope ever built, but he is also known to be blind—and not only blind, but incapable of sight, both his eyes having been plucked out some time before under mysterious circumstances. Is he mad? Or does he, despite this impairment, have an insight denied the other scholars of his day?
These questions intrigue the young Gottfried Leibniz—not yet the world-renowned polymath who would go on to discover calculus, but a nineteen-year-old whose faith in reason is shaky at best. Leibniz sets off to investigate the astronomer’s claim, and over the three hours remaining before the eclipse occurs—or fails to occur—the astronomer tells the scholar the haunting and hilarious story behind his strange prediction: a tale that ends up encompassing kings and princes, family squabbles, obsessive pursuits, insanity, philosophy, art, loss, and the horrors of war.
Written with a tip of the hat to the works of Thomas Bernhard and Franz Kafka, The Organs of Sense stands as a towering comic fable: a story about the nature of perception, and the ways the heart of a loved one can prove as unfathomable as the stars.
In his sublime first novel (following the story collection Inherited Disorders), which recalls the nested monologues of Thomas Bernhard and the cerebral farces of Donald Antrim, Sachs demonstrates the difficulty of getting inside other people's heads (literally and figuratively) and out of one's own. In 1666, a young Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz the philosopher who invented calculus treks to the Bohemian mountains to "rigorously but surreptitiously assess" the sanity of an eyeless, unnamed astronomer who is predicting an impending eclipse. Should the blind recluse's prediction come to pass, Leibniz reasons, it would leave "the laws of optics in a shambles... and the human eye in a state of disgrace." In the hours leading up to the expected eclipse, the astronomer, whose father was Emperor Maximilian's Imperial Sculptor (and the fabricator of an ingenious mechanical head), tells Leibniz his story. As a young man still in possession of his sight, he became Emperor Rudolf's Imperial Astronomer in Prague, commissioning ever longer telescopes, an "astral tube" whose exorbitant cost "seemed to spell the end of the Holy Roman Empire." The astronomer also recounts his entanglements with the Hapsburgs, "a dead and damned family," all of whom were mad or feigning madness. These transfixing, mordantly funny encounters with violent sons and hypochondriacal daughters stage the same dramas of revelation and concealment, reason and lunacy, doubt and faith, and influence and skepticism playing out between the astronomer and Leibniz. How it all comes together gives the book the feel of an intellectual thriller. Sachs's talent is on full display in this brilliant work of visionary absurdism.