The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
Picture a glass globe, hollowed out. Is it empty, or paradoxically, is it filled with a void? Like the questionable audibility of a falling tree in a distant forest, it’s a conundrum that is endlessly philosophized. Can something have meaning without any resonance? Can a joke still be a good one if nobody really gets it? Or is the joke on the thinkers of the world, endlessly searching for meaning in the meaningless, their noses so deep in their books they miss the wondrous clamor of the world around them?
Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s debut novel The Organs of Sense is at once a satire and celebration of man’s relentless search for enlightenment. Set in Prague in the mid 1660s, the novel follow the meandering story of a curious young man and an eccentric astronomer. With his comically large telescope, the astronomer has predicted a four-second total solar eclipse will cast Europe into darkness. He’s alone in this prediction, and if true, it would instantly elevate the astronomer’s status as the finest in the world. But there’s an impossibility to this story: the astronomer has no eyes, yet his science is undeterred by the black voids where they once were. He repeatedly peers into his telescope and writes numbers into his notebook.
Purportedly a retelling of young Gottfried Leibniz’s visit to the astronomer’s observatory in anticipation of the eclipse, The Organs of Sense is set hours before the blackout. The incredulous Leibniz prompts the astronomer to tell his story, with hopes that this would explain both his scientific successes and his cruel disfigurement. The novel alternates between flashbacks to the Imperial Bohemian courts and their interview at the observatory, counting down to the predicted astronomical event.
Sachs is a remarkably clever author, effortlessly capable of spinning the plates of satire, reverence and philosophy. Inhospitable syntax will deter many readers from the novel, but those who grin through and bear his ancient, prolix stylings will find both humor and wisdom in his prose. In one tangential scene, the astronomer explains the story of some statues the Emperor of Prague had made of his father:
“And parody, anyway, needless to say, is always implicitly reverential of what it parodies, it always takes most seriously precisely that which it mocks most ruthlessly, this paradox is well-known, so even if these statues were intended not as tribute but as parody, perhaps especially if they were intended as parody, they still reveal the high esteem in which the Emperor held his father…”
While the central philosophical question to The Organs of Sense circles around the eyeless astronomer and whether he could logically be called a great astronomer if his prediction were to be true, there’s so much more in Sachs’s book to ponder. At the start of the novel, another narrator claims to have found Leibniz’s account of his meeting with the astronomer; this playful refraction of narrators and frames is compounded further, later on, when the astronomer’s recollections introduce even more new characters. Like the astronomer’s telescope, which is amplified and extended time and again by a new system of lenses, Sachs’s novel focuses deeper and deeper within its own premise as it unfolds. This hyper-focus seems primed for some heavenly clarity, but in reality is a muddy and wickedly silly send-up of obsessive academicism.
“The curvature of the sky is the curvature of my skull,” the astronomer declares late in the novel. And Sachs shows the boundless imagination and human, biological limitations that all that means. It’s a messy, difficult experience, but eventually a revelatory one: Sachs captures the awesome paradox of seeking to learn the unknowable, see the unseeable, and read the unreadable. As Leibniz explains elsewhere in the novel, “Never had I been so reliant on words to expose to me the innards of another head, and never had words seemed so unequal to the task.”