Saturday, November 10, 2012

The limits of genius (Books - Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann)

Daniel Kehlmann is a popular German-born writer living in Austria.  With Measuring the World (Quercus, 2007) he has taken the biographies of mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and scientist Alexander von Humbolt as the jumping off point for a novel which vividly and amusingly imagines their inner lives.  Contemporaneous to the late 18th to early 19th centuries, Gauss and Humboldt were endowed with brilliant minds which saw novel ways to answer questions (and defeat strongly held but untested assumptions) about the world in which we live.  Both took on the entire world as their subject - the height of its peaks, the composition and temperature of its core, the shape of planetary orbits, the path of the ocean's currents, the very shape of space - but their methods of measurement couldn't have been more different.  While Humboldt shocked his own spine in testing the nervous system's ability to conduct electricity and travelled to the far reaches of the world at considerable risk to himself - he couldn't pass an Andean peak without climbing it or a mine shaft without dropping himself in - Gauss preferred to make his measurements without leaving his armchair.

These discoverers' minds were so acutely focused on their particular kind of problem solving that they seemed to have difficulty relating to people of average intelligence, whether friends, family, colleagues, or even royalty who could provide funding for their explorations.  For all the humor Kehlmann plumbs from the social awkwardness of these men, and the extremes they went to in the pursuit of knowledge, in the end this book left me more strongly with a sense of longing - a longing that acknowledges the limits of factual knowledge, not merely in connecting to other human beings, which seems to be a well-trodden literary and dramatic theme lately (I wrote about only last week), but also the awareness that the pursuit of truth is not a finite quest.  We will never know it all and no amount of truth will alleviate all suffering or obviate humans resorting to violence, waging war, or finding ways to be morally repugnant.

Kehlmann embodies the juxtaposition between the uses scientific measurement to produce factual knowledge and the more ephemeral consequences of pursuits of the soul, in an effective and touching relationship between Humboldt and his brother, a man of literary gifts.
Writing a novel, said Humboldt, seemed to him the perfect way to capture the most fleeting essence of the present for the future.

Aha, said Lichtenberg.

Humboldt blushed.  It must be a foolish undertaking for an author, as was becoming the fashion these days, to choose some already distant past as his setting.
Kehlmann, here as is true throughout this novel, cannot seem to resist a self-conscious quip - this one at his own creation. In another example, while exploring South America, a crew member asks Humboldt to tell a story to pass the time.  He offers instead to recite the most beautiful poem he knows in German in his own translation to Spanish which he renders.
Above all the mountaintops it was silent, there was no wind in the trees, even the birds were quiet, and soon death would come.
This is amended with a footnote.
Translator's note: Alert readers will recognize this as a scientist's prosaically exact rendition of Goethe's Wanderer's Nightsong."  It must be said that Goethe did it better.
Jokes aside, Kehlmann avoids simple-minded cliches pitting cold science against the warm love of poetry.  In this passage, for example, he clearly values Gauss's mind for all it could grasp.
When he wandered through the streets murmuring to himself, he felt he had never been so awake.  Without looking where he was going, he avoided bumping into people, he never stumbled, once he leapt to one side for no reason at all and wasn't even surprised when a roof tile landed in the same second at his feet and shattered.  Numbers didn't seduce one away from reality, they brought reality closer, made it clearer and more meaningful in a way it had never been before.
This is despite the amusing mileage he gets out of a scene during which Gauss leaps out of his conjugal bed to jot down a note on a problem he is solving.

It is not just that these two geniuses are imagined by Kehlmann to be personally the poorer for their lack of, shall we say, 'soul,' or a grasp of metaphor, but Kehlmann wonders with this story why, with so much knowledge, the world isn't a kinder place.  In admiring the wonders of ancient Aztec culture, with their construction of an entire city whose layout functioned as a calendar, how, Humboldt asks, could those same people violently murder so many of their own citizens?
So much civilization and so much horror, said Humboldt.  What a combination!  The exact opposite of everything that Germany stood for.
Kehlmann's most poignant points are generally made with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.  This could have come off as childish or avoidant, but his humor sent his larger points home with a light hand, even if they ran the risk of seeming overly entertaining.  Although Kehlmann does not directly take on the subject of the Nazi's or his own Jewish ancestry in this book, he clearly references the tragedy of Germany working so hard to to develop a scientifically advanced and artistically rich culture, only to not only murder so many of its own people, and undermine its own respectability in the eyes of the world.

For all its jokiness, I found this book resonant on the longing for unobtainable perfection despite genius or industry.  I learned from an interview Kehlmann gave to The Guardian in 2011 that he adapted Measuring The World for the screen (released in Germany in October), which did not strike me as a stretch, given its emphasis on entertainment and its narrative tone, which felt very much like a film voiceover. 

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