The Formula of the Fantastic (Part 1 of 2)

Portrait of famous philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who questioned man's place alongside the fantastic (Portrait titled Søren Kierkegaard at his High Desk by Luplau Janssen)
Portrait of famous philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who questioned man’s place alongside the fantastic (Portrait titled Søren Kierkegaard at his High Desk by Luplau Janssen)

Before becoming an internationally acclaimed author, Daniel Kehlmann worked studiously towards a doctorate in both philosophy and literature. If not for his huge success as a writer, Kehlmann would have finished his doctoral dissertation on “the sublime” in the works of Immanuel Kant. Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, theologian, and psychologist, like Kant, believed strongly in the sanctity of the individual, the power that can be wielded by mankind, but also, most notably, in the limits of men’s abilities. Kierkegaard wrote

“Alas! While the speculative honorable professor explains the entire existence, has he in distraction forgotten his own name? [Has he forgotten] that he is a man, purely and simply a man, not a fantastic?”

Yet why is it so vital that people, most importantly “honorable professor[s]” and other members of the scientific and learning communities, remember that they are “purely and simply” human, and not “fantastic”? It is this very subject that Kehlmann tackles in his book, Measuring the World. By allowing “the fantastic” to intrude into the lives of two of the world’s most famous scientific minds, the naturalist and world explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician and theoretical scientist Carl Friedrich Gauss, Kehlmann utilizes this romantic aspect of the novel to point to a greater theme. Kehlmann uses his work to demonstrate that no matter how hard men may strive to ‘measure the world’, how long they try to understand the great mystery that is existence, there will always be things beyond the understanding of even the greatest minds.

Carl Friedrich Gauss was a renowed mathmatician and theorist. (Portrait paingted in 1840 by Jensen)
Carl Friedrich Gauss was a renowned mathematician and theorist. (Portrait painted in 1840 by Jensen)

For the two great minds characterized within Kehlmann’s book, fantastic events generally encroach upon their greatest moments. For Carl Friedrich Gauss, elements of the otherworldly expose themselves when he is at his most emotionally vulnerable. For example, one of the first times the fantastic touches Gauss is just after his wife, Johanna, has died in childbirth. Kehlmann tells us, “What happened after that was beyond his [Gauss’] capacity to recall clearly. It seemed as if time were racing both forwards and backwards, and multiple possibilities had simultaneously opened and closed” (Kehlmann 137). Gauss feels completely unconnected from all the things he has spent his life quantifying – time and space. It is later, “Only after six o’clock in the afternoon did things come together again. He was sitting at her bedside. People were whispering in the hall. Johanna was dead” (Kehlmann 137). This brush with real, tangible death alerts him fully to the seemingly incomprehensible workings of the universe. Gauss even applies himself to the statistical study of death, trying to convince himself that he can at least predict with certainty when people will die.

Is an exploration of man's mortality a way of interacting with the fantastic (Pendant found here
Is an exploration of man’s mortality a way of interacting with the fantastic? (Pendant found here

It is the issue of mortality that again transports Gauss into the realm of the fantastic near the end of his life. In the midst of his experiments with the Earth’s magnetism, it is revealed that part of him has been expecting another type of result from his research. “How many hours had he waited in front of this receiver for a sign from her?” (Kehlmann 242). Allowing himself to muse on the transitory nature of life, and his wishes that he could exist outside of his timeline, he is suddenly transported. “The street in front of him looked broader, the town wall had disappeared and mirrored glass towers were rising…The wind tasted sour” (Kehlmann 243).

For Kehlmann, Gauss’ reaction to the fantastic is notably different from Humboldt’s reaction. Rather than deny it, Gauss seems to embrace, and indeed, enjoy the idea that there are things out there that he cannot begin to understand. It is in the fantastic that Gauss finds hope.

Gauss is a more honest, down to earth character, clearly worthy of the reader’s sympathy. Kehlmann makes this obvious in the many satirical moments lavished on Humboldt. Gauss is written as character very much aware of man’s finitude in this reality. This is the reason that Gauss, not Humboldt, is visited by the fantastic only when he is ready to accept it. Gauss does not need to be reminded of the limits of his knowledge.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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