But he could not stop. He felt he had a “compulsion to look,” to look closer and closer, “a looking-closer-and-closer compulsion.” What (he wondered) would it take to stop looking, “to look this closely, and no closer? Through such and such a magnification, and no higher?”
Certainly the strangest book I’ve read this year, and in fact last year. We are told that G. W. Leibniz, who was throughout his life “an assiduous inquirer into miracles and other aberrations of nature” is on a mission. It seems fitting he would want to uncover the truth behind an astronomer’s peculiar prediction. The German philosopher, mathematician, and logician, is on a quest to reveal whether or not a blind astronomer could possibly be able to study the stars so accurately as to have predicted an eclipse at noon and on the last day of 1666, that will leave all of Europe in complete and total darkness. This man’s prediction is made more shocking by the fact that he has empty sockets where his eyes should be, can you get any blinder? Sure, he has been ‘rumored’ to have built the most power telescope of the times but powerful or not, one still needs eyes to peer into telescopes, no?
Leibniz intends to remain at the observatory long enough to test the man’s reason (sanity) and if the eclipse happens he is certainly an astronomer if it doesn’t it means nothing because astronomers can be wrong. So begins the stories the old shriveled man tells Leibniz, and he discusses how one must “truly see”, what could a man with empty eye sockets know about seeing? Well, with his trusty instrument (the telescope) he has seen a lot! A lot, I tell you! And he demands of Leibniz that he “prove that I cannot see what I claim to see”, we have a conundrum tangled in philosophy and history. How did the old man lose his eyes anyway? What is truth? How do you get into someone’s head to determine what they are experiencing, what their truth is? Words, can words reveal what is in another’s head? Mere words?
Can one go through life without the ‘belief in other people?’ The astronomer tells Leibniz that what he means will become clear, I think most readers will try to grasp at the silliness and science but clarity may not be easy! Maybe a lot of readers are more like the astronomer’s father who wasn’t interested in the sky, and cannot be tangled in knots because they just don’t care to ponder. The play on faith as what we devote our existence to is evident in the astronomer’s father’s inventions…a box is just a box is a box, no matter how we decorate it, it will not open the cosmos to us. Be you a surface dweller or a plunger of depths, does it matter where we put our faith? Does madness await us all either way, what is sanitized madness? How does an Emperor, art , or an automaton head lead to the astronomer losing his eyes so that he can truly see?
This was a dizzying book. It takes a ‘discerning mind’ if you’re going to be a thinker and one must lose the eyes that deceive us even if that’s a straight plunge into ‘philosophical torment.’ This is meant to be amusing, I think it’s more scientific/philosopher’s humor and it is easy to get lost. What do we really understand about our the world or each other, whether we’re filled with genius or disinterested in anything beyond the surface? It’s okay if you can’t engage with the witty humor and philosophy within, you can always gaze at the cool book cover with your actual eyes!
Publication Date: May 21, 2019
Farrar, Straus and Giroux