Daniel Kehlmann: Measuring the World
Kehlmann takes as his subject two giants of the German Enlightenment. The men were contemporaries: naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss were born in 1769 and 1777 respectively, and died within four years of each other. At the end of the eighteenth century, the two brilliant young men set out to scientifically measure the world.
The novel is an exploration of the parallel and contrasting lives of the men who possess very different approaches to their chosen fields of science and to life generally. Humboldt is the son of Prussian aristocrat who, with his brother, from the start is educated with a view to intellectual greatness. Gauss is the son of a gardener whose early education is provided by his illiterate mother and his village teacher. This is just the beginning of a series of unfolding oppositions: one travels widely, one determinedly stays at home; one is liberal, the other exceedingly conservative; one is driven by experimentation and deduction, the other by imaginative leaps and inductive thought. Both are strongly compelled by their search for knowledge and the power such science affords, but whereas one measures to contain the natural world, the other do so to open it up.
Shunning the constraints of domesticity, indefatigable naturalist and geographer Humboldt’s intrepid expeditions to South and Central America and Russia have him hacking through dense jungles, lowering himself into volcanoes, scaling mountain peaks, narrowly escaping cannibals and crawling into dark caves as he develops his theories about geology, biology and meteorology. Entirely willing to sacrifice his body to science and seemingly incapable of complaint, Humboldt attempts to measure everything on the planet as a way of mastering the world: “Whenever things were frightening," he notes, "it was a good idea to measure them.” His drive towards discovery results in all kinds of direct experimentation, such as when he deliberately shocks himself with electric eels, or drinks poison to determine its toxicity.
In stark contrast to Humboldt’s wanderlust, Gauss stays at home and performs calculations. A man who can run prime numbers in his hear, rather than roaming the earth, he looks heavenwards towards the abstractions of mathematics and theory, differential geometry and astronomy. His telescopic journeys into space and his mental excursions have him traversing exotic mathematical realms. From his study in Göttingen, Gauss imagines space as curved, happens upon post-Euclidian mathematics and charts the movement of the planets. His deductive, rather than inductive methods, are deeply tied to the imaginative over the experimental and his exceptional mind leads him to develop insights so immense that his awareness of the potentiality of the future leads to deep frustration at the inadequacies of the present.
Both men are seduced by the romance of science, but their sensual lives again reveal their contrasting personalities. Gauss is a lover of women whose domestic troubles with two wives and six children rival Humboldt’s difficulties with colonials and disgruntled indigenous people. Nonetheless, science prevails and a particularly hilarious moment occurs when Gauss abandons his marital obligations on his wedding night, leaping from the bed to note down a formula that has just come to him. Swashbuckling adventurer Humboldt initially seems asexual, although it becomes apparent that his aversion to amorous relationships with women is not a result of prudery but rather repressed homosexuality. Humboldt transfers his own inhibitions onto his longsuffering companion, the botanist Aimé Bonpland, literally pulling him off women and insisting that he refrain from fraternising with the natives.
By treating the two men together, Kehlmann also reveals how their approaches are connected to very different though occasionally similar sensibilities. The significance of the scientific and metaphorical ideas of opposites, parallels and distances are turned over and explored, only to culminate in the recognition of a fundamental commonality. When Humboldt makes his exhausted return from the Steppes and considers Gauss’ journeys into the universe, it dawns on him: “all of a sudden he could no longer have said which of them had travelled afar and which of them had stayed at home.”
During his first hot air balloon ride, Gauss realises that all parallel lines meet; this notion could be said to be the philosophical heart of Kehlmann’s novel. Through scientific endeavours in their respective fields, both men are bound by their genius and nationality and although for years they conduct their parallel investigations individually, it is inevitable that they will meet. The trajectories of their lives converge at the opening of the novel, when they meet the Scientific Congress in Berlin in 1828, by which stage both are in their fifties. Tellingly, they are almost captured together in a photograph – Humboldt has arranged for Louis Daguerre to photograph the meeting – but Gauss refuses to stay still long enough to fix the photographic image and their meeting is undocumented and unfixed in time. Gauss will later, almost as an afterthought, solve Daguerre’s technical problem.
After the initial meeting that closes the first chapter, the novel then flashes back to their independent lives told chronologically in alternating chapters before once again returning to the meeting of minds between these two giants of the German intellect.
Despite the significant ground covered, Kehlmann’s deftness in rendering his characters, his quick and idiosyncratic style and the economy of his prose has resulted in a slim volume that nonetheless satisfies. This is a historical novel with a difference. There is a hefty dose of magical realism and a delicious irony underpins the narrative, making it a very funny book. In true postmodern form, Kehlmann self-consciously plays with history and authority, mocking his own project and taking deliberate poetic license with facts. Humboldt complains about novels that “wandered off into lying fables because the author tied his fake inventions to the names of real historical personages”, a sentiment with which Gauss concurs, agreeing that this practice is “Disgusting”. Historical novels are dismissed as “a foolish undertaking for an author, as was becoming the fashion these days, to choose some already distant past as his setting.”
With its references to isothermal lines and modular arithmetic, at first glance one might wonder what there is in the novel for those who know little of German scientific history, or the fields of science themselves. But overall this is a book about humanity. Though the subjects and their ideas are complex and weighty, Kehlmann is always light and humorous as he documents Humboldt’s and Gauss’ achievements and their insights, as well as their foibles and failings, with a gentle but incisive wit. This book is well deserving of the hype and when the author will be visitings Australia in March, I certainly plan to be in the audience.
Kehlmann, Daniel: Measuring the World / transl. by Carol Brown Janeway - London:
Quercus, 2007. - 272 pages. ISBN 97818472411460
Original title.:Die Vermessung der Welt