The Organs of Sense

Written by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
Review by Larry Zuckerman

In 1666, 19-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. Since the astronomer is said to have the world’s longest telescope, yet also to be blind, Leibniz wants to know whether the eclipse will happen, and if the man is for real. If he’s blind, how can he observe the heavens, longest telescope or no? Does he actually see, and is he sane? Or does he see, and is he insane? The permutations are endless.

A thinner premise could not be imagined, and yet on that Occam’s razor, much gets sliced apart in madcap, hilarious narration, perhaps never to appear whole again. Start this book, and like Leibniz, you too will want to know—have to know—whether the eclipse will happen, how the astronomer lost his sight, and how Leibniz understands him. Reason versus emotion, the power of love, how you define insanity—such philosophical questions drive the narrative, yet the language and logic parody the discipline as well as practice it, and the thinkers have a loose screw somewhere. Many scenes the astronomer recounts to Leibniz occur in the Prague castle of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf, who indeed seems insane, and whose stressed, highly intelligent children devise various strategies to deal with him.

Consequently, this novel provides a witty tale that goes around the bend and meets itself coming and going, testimony to the absurdity of human life. Not only that, the narrative hews to a solid historical context, reimagining court life in Prague, common superstitions, and contemporary scientific rivalries. But it’s mostly as a literary treat that this entertaining, thought-provoking novel will find its audience.