Names like Gottfried Leibniz and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II are not exactly trending at the moment. So what possesses a young writer to build his debut novel around these real-life 17th-century personages, as inserted into a darkly comic, rhetoric-filled narrative about philosophy, astronomy, madness and art?
Ask Adam Ehrlich Sachs. The Pittsburgh-based author is getting national press for “The Organs of Sense" –from publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux – which purports to be famed German philosopher Leibniz’s account of his youthful 1666 journey to meet an aged, eyeless astronomer who has predicted a solar eclipse. But most of the novel is devoted to that fictional astronomer’s account of his own story, set in 1599, of pursuing his research in Rudolf’s dysfunctional court.
“I was going for topicality,” quipped Sachs.
The novel has its roots in Sachs’ doctoral studies at Harvard, in the history of science. The field is devoted to “looking historically at how we think we know what we think we know, and how that's changed over time,” he says. He is particularly drawn to the era just before the Enlightenment, the time that fostered Leibniz, whose resume includes the invention of calculus.
The 1600s, Sachs said, was “the century of the scientific revolution, of course, but it was also a time when people we think of as scientists, you know, [Robert] Hook, and Leibniz himself, were also interested in in marvels and unicorns and monsters ... By the 18th century, everything was kind of cleanly demarcated, and in the 17th century, it was all up for grabs.”
The fictional astronomer in the novel, who is never named, considers himself to be at the forefront of scientific inquiry, pushing his patron, the emperor, to supply him with ever-longer and more powerful “astral tubes," or telescopes. Sachs uses the scenarios to comically interrogate the limits of reason and language, and the nature of sensory perception – even as we wait to see how the astronomer lost his eyes, and whether the predicted eclipse actually transpires.
Leibniz, said Sachs, was “the great rationalist” of the time, positioning himself against thinkers like Descartes, who argued we couldn’t know anything outside of our own minds, and Spinoza, who questioned free will.
“Leibniz’s whole philosophy, in a sense, is to try to defend those things, those common-sense ideas,” he said.
But “Organs of Sense” observes its characters typically flailing in either hapless ignorance or foolhardy certitude.
In one passage, Leibniz describes the astronomer recalling how his father, the deposed imperial sculptor, struggled to create an object that could win over the new emperor. His invention is a box full of small mirrors which observers are meant to look into and see a precise replica of the cosmos. (The excerpt is Leibniz's narration, but ends with a direct quote from the astronomer.)
To see your father peer into a little box he has made and begin weeping remains upsetting no matter how much you claim to comprehend it in retrospect. Imagine, he put so much faith into that little box, he truly believed in the box, and then one day he peers into the box and begins weeping! He had really believed in that box, but from the moment he peered into the box he could no longer sustain his belief in the box. “His faith in that box could not withstand what he now saw in it, which was basically just a lot of mirrors."
Sachs, who’s 34, grew up in Boston, and got some early writing credits in The Harvard Lampoon, the venerable humor magazine. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and n+1, and he was a 2018 NEA Literature Fellow. Sachs and his wife moved to Pittsburgh in 2016, the same year his first book came out. “Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems” was a short-story collection that Sam Sacks, in his review for The Wall Street Journal, described as “[d]arkly glittering gem[s] of compressed neuroses... [that] illustrate the astounding range of resentments and misunderstandings that exist between fathers and sons.”
“Organs of Sense” has likewise garnered positive notices in the Journal, BuzzFeed, and Kirkus Reviews, and starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly ("sublime"), Booklist ("a transportive work of art"), and The Library Journal. Critics and other readers have compared his style to the writings of everyone from Thomas Bernhard and Umberto Eco to Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon and George Saunders.
Sachs said one of his influences as a writer is sketch comedy.
“I'm not into realist fiction, but I'm also not into the kind of surrealism where anything goes, and there's no governing logic and just anything can take place,” he says. “I kind of like some merging of the two, where you where you start from some recognizable premise, or you have a single premise you accept, and this is true both in Kafka and in sketch comedy, I would say. You wake up one morning as a beetle, or you’re arrested for no reason one morning … Having accepted that basic premise, you just kind of then logically, rigorously work it out. And I like that feeling of starting with something simple and through rigorous, or what appears to be rigorous, logic, ending up in a very fantastical place.”
Despite the whimsy of its premise and the remoteness of its setting, parts of “Organs of Sense” are grounded in Sachs’ personal experience. “There’s an episode where the astronomer is supposed to tutor an insane prince in trigonometry, and it’s clear that the prince is completely deranged, he’s living in his own excrement, he has no hope of learning trigonometry, but his father is insistent that he can learn it and ought to learn it,” says Sachs. “That came almost directly out of my experience as a tutor.”
Even Sachs’ narrative structure leads him down some unexpected paths: “Organs of Sense” is a kind of nested tale, in which Leibniz’s story contains the astronomer’s, which in turn frames those of multiple others, including the emperor Rudolph’s children, both legitimate and illegitimate.
“I sort of have this kind of student-y impulse to get things right and accurate,” said Sachs. “So it helps me to give the story over to a crazy person. And that frees me up. And then if that crazy person encounters an even crazier person, then I feel even freer. So just on the level of sitting down day to day, that sort of nesting feel helped me get to the place of lunacy that I was aiming for.”