This is a review I wrote last year of a novel by Daniel Kehlmann, whose title in English is “Measuring the World”. It’s a great story, well worth reading (the novel, that is). I hope you enjoy reading the review.
“Die Vermessung der Welt”:
Popular Entertainment alongside an effective Critique of the World View underlying western Science
Daniel Kehlmann has delighted contemporary readers world wide with his fictional semi historical account of the lives and deeds of two giants of nineteenth century German science; Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss. He has acquainted contemporary readers with a time when science was younger and perhaps more naive, when it excited the imaginations of the best and brightest, and was promoted as the tool to roll back ignorance and superstition, to tame the world, and bend it to the advancement of human society.
His widespread and effective use of humour and his inclusion of magical and supernatural events unexpectedly alongside the cold detachment with which Humboldt and Gauss each pursue their devotion to science are the key to understanding the novel. On one level it is an entertaining read, but on another Kehlmann has presented us with a devastatingly effective critique of the objectivist materialist world view at the core of western science since the Enlightenment.
A popular Response
„Die Vermessung der Welt“ has proven itself an unusually popular novel, especially in Europe. Daniel Kehlmann is quoted, perhaps showing modesty, as being unsure of the reason for the novel’s wide success: (Paterno 2007) “ ‚Die Vermessung der Welt‘ muss etwas getroffen haben, das in der Luft liegt, das mit der Zeit zu tun hat”. While that would necessarily have to be the case for it to have had such success, just what the connection is that people feel with his novel is not immediately clear. A fictionalised account of the lives and work of two eminent nineteenth century German scientists is not at first glance a sure fire recipe for international success in the popular literary marketplace.
Kehlmann has achieved his popular connection through a skilful dramatization, some might say humanisation, of his chief characters. Humour has been a useful ingredient but so too has the exotic nature of the material, not to mention the strong, if irritating, personalities of the fictional Gauss and Humboldt: “Casual readers will come away pleased to have met Humbolt and Gauss. They’ll be equally pleased to escape them” (Romano 2007).
Interestingly, according to Kehlmann, his novel has been received and interpreted quite differently in different cultures:
“Einerseits wurde der Roman in Deutschland als Beweis für neuen respekt vor der deutschen Tradition gesehen, zugleich wurde ihm zu respektloser Umgang mit der Klassik vorgeworfen.. . . In England war das Gewicht der Bessprechungen ganz stark auf . . . Respektlosigkeit . . . also das Verehrung und Komik sich nicht ausschließen.“ (Simon 2008)
He identifies a resurgent respect among German readers for their cultural (in this case scientific) tradition as one of the reasons for the novel’s popularity in Germany. This would seem to be supported by his report that the novel did not seem to work at all in Spain: „Die haben ein anderen Humor” (Simon 2008). Kehlmann also reports some resistance in Germany to what was perceived as a certain lack of respect in its treatment of the historical classical period. This does not seem to have hindered his book’s success there however. Among English readers the inherent humour and lack of respect for authority seemed to strike a special chord. Although in France the book sold well, it seemed, according to Kehlmann, that most attention there centred on the erotic dimension of the novel, for instance on such things as the idiosyncratic scene on Gauss’ wedding night (Simon 2008).
Various idiosyncracies notwithstanding, Kehlmann’s novel has ignited undeniable common interest among people across cultures.
The onward March of Science?
In essence, Kehlmann’s novel poses questions about science as a hegemonic ideology, exposes assumptions inherent in a scientific reductionist world view, and pokes fun at these assumptions. The humour is gentle and in some ways there is a certain sadness underlying the novel’s assessment; a sadness at the narrow, alienated lives led by the two protagonists and their loved ones as a result of a devotion to scientific quantification of the world. The fun poking ranges from the quite subtle:
“. . . in diesem Ländern kletterten die Menschen nicht auf Berge, wenn keiner sie zwinge. . . . und nun wüßten sie genau, wie hoch der Berg sei, welche Temperature sein Qualm habe, was für Flechten sein Gestein . . .“ (Kehlmann p. 167); to the almost slapstick, when with reference to Humboldt’s travelling companion, the long suffering Bonpland: „Inzwischen geht es ihm besser, manche Tage seien schon fieberfrei, auch die Träume, in denen er Baron Humboldt erwürge, zerhacke, erschieße, anzünde, vergifte oder unter Steinen begrabe, würden seltener“ (Kehlmann p. 163).
Shaumann identifies “a leitmotif present throughout the novel, namely the protagonists’ (false) belief in progress, science, and measurement” (Schaumann 2009 p. 458). Humboldt’s single minded devotion of his life to the quest of quantifying, and thereby taming the natural world, is central to his character in the novel. Certainly Gauss’ faith in human progress and in the inevitability of human world domination through science remains unshaken until the evening of his life. The novel is full of instances where Gauss diverts himself from his present troubles by dreaming of a time when, through scientific advancement, all things would be better; technology would reign and the present messiness of the world would have long since disappeared. At the time he was suffering intolerable dental pain he allowed himself the consolation that:
“Schon in ein paar Jahren würde es Ärzte für das Gebiß gebe, dann würde man diese Schmerzen heilen können . . . bald würde die Welt nicht mehr voll Zahnloser sein. Auch würde nicht mehr jedermann Pockennarben haben, und keiner würde mehr seine Haare verlieren.“ (Kehlmann p.82).
Gauss’ trust in the future advances of science and the accompanying benefits thereof only begins to falter when, in conversation with Humbolt, he articulates the awful realisation that his life lies largely behind him:
“Er habe ein Heim, das ihm nichts bedeute, eine Tochter, die keiner wolle, und einen ins Unglück geratenen Sohn. Auch seine Mutter werde nicht mehr lange dasein. Die letzten fünften Jahre habe er Hügel vermessen. Er blieb stehen und sah in den Nachthimmel. Alles in allem könne er nicht erklären, weshalb er sich so leicht fühle.
Er könne es auch nicht, sagte Humbolt. Aber ihm gehe es ähnlich.“ (Kehlmann p. 261)
The humour in the novel has now given way to introspection, regret and undefined sadness; the legacies of lives lived at the altar of reductionist science. The arrogant self assuredness and unquestioning devotion to science and measurement as a way of mastering the world is now no longer the subject of Kehlmann’s parody. The humanity of the two science superheroes is front stage. The beginnings of self doubt are rewarded with the novelist’s sympathy. It is unsurprising that the novel ends with family and personal relationships in focus and both Gauss and Humboldt wondering what their lives have brought them.
“Hastig versicherte Humboldt, er habe nur gesagt, man dürfe die Leistungen eines Wissenschaftlers nicht überschätzen, der Forscher sei kein Schöpfer, er erfinde nichts, er gewinne kein Land, er ziehe Frucht . . . und ihm folgten andere . . . die noch mehr wüßten, bis schließlich alles wieder versinke“. (Kehlmann p. 291)
Kehlmann’s Critique of Scientific Triumphalism
“On the surface, ‘Measuring the World’ is about the creation of a metrical net over the wide expanse of reality” (Olesko 2007 p.764). Not too far below the surface, it is also a critique of such a project. Throughout his creative fictionalisation of the lives and work of Gauss and Humbolt, Kehlmann employs dry humour and elements of the preposterous to gently deflate the pretensions of those who have tried in recent centuries to reduce reality to that which can be measured by intelligent humans using physical instruments. As Kehlmann demonstrates most effectively in this novel, reality can not be tamed by scientists without imprisoning it in artificial constructs, whereupon it is no longer itself but only a poor replica. The natural world defies reductionism. The more humans try to reduce reality into universally applicable laws and categories the more aspects of reality they must be willing to disregard or ignore to preserve the integrity of their reductions. Nature, whether familiar or exotic, is more complex, puzzling and interrelated than any mathematical or physical model of it can ever be.
Kehlmann sprinkles humour liberally through the novel, usually but not always at the expense of the intrepid warriors of science, Gauss and Humboldt. It is mostly subtle, gentle, and devoid of malice, but is always delicious and serves to deflate the pretensions of a culture that has no right to be self assured and a world view that limits rather than expands people’s understanding of the world in which they find themselves.
“A common theme (of the novel) . . . is the frailty and incomprehensibility of the world in comparison to the certainty and security of mathematics”. (Olesko 2007 p. 762). Kehlmann intersperses magical, bizarre and asynchronous features with flashes of chuckle worthy humour throughout his sometimes detached account of the cold and determined quest of his ‘heroes’ to quantify nature. His unexpected juxtaposition of the ‘magical’ and the preposterous in the midst of the earnest striving of Gauss to observe and discover patterns, and of Humbolt to measure and categorise specimens is a none too subtle signal to the reader of the futility of their enterprises. Flying saucers, sea monsters, enigmatic Buddhist teachers, homosexual and heterosexual encounters, the intense grief after losing a wife, and canine ghosts that haunt their masters, are all included by Kehlmann as untidy phenomena, to which mathematics has nothing to say and science dismisses as unworthy of study. It is as if Kehlmann is saying to his two protagonists (and his readers), “strange and incomprehensible they may be, but they are still there. What are you going to do with them?” Of course, Gauss and Humbolt do nothing with them. They ignore them to focus on ‘real’ science and in so doing, it might be fairly deduced, fail to do justice to their quest. Kehlmann expects his readers to make the logical jump and appreciate his point.
On the other hand, not everyone agrees that he has managed to make this point successfully. A weakness, in Schaumann’s view, is Kehlmann’s “general tendency to favour an extreme dualism over a complex reality” (Schaumann p. 461). She argues that Kehlmann’s characters are repeatedly juxtaposed as opposites: Humboldt with Bonpland; Gauss with his children and wives; and the intrepid explorers with the strange and wild South American inhabitants. Admittedly reality, and especially the reality Kehlmann tackles, is not encompassed by opposites. The reader constructs his or her own complexity however, and it is quite evident that Kehlmann’s technique in this regard is successful in communicating a very effective picture of the tension between worldviews which lies at the heart of his novel.
”The division of reality between art and science, magic and real, fiction and history, leads to a poverty of perception that would be rectified through a more complex perspective that balanced the two” (Holmes 2010 p. 200). This assessment, although superficially justified, is questionable in that it fails to give Kehlmann credit for using contrast effectively for his purpose. His use of humour and of magical phenomena serves as a fertile ground for the reader’s imagination to start working, dismantling such a black and white demarcation between art and science and between mystery and materialism.
Holmes supports the view just expressed that Kehlmann has a further reason for including the ‘magical’ in his account. It shows unambiguously that Humboldt’s devotion to objective measurement is anything but objective. He measures and records a vast and varied set of physical phenomena with single mindedness but “chooses to ignore certain observations and experiences in which fantastic aspects of the environment intervene, thus questioning the integrity of his method” (p. 206).
The magical episodes are therefore a device Kehlmann uses to undermine claims of science to be ‘the’ way of knowing at the expense of all other ways. Such claims were a child of Enlightenment thinking and found a fertile reception in the human centredness of the mechanistic world view of the age of European industrialisation.
Daniel Kehlmann deserves the recognition “Die Vermessung der Welt” has brought him. He has written a complex yet very accessible novel which is on one level entertaining, on another is successful in bringing a significant period in German history and culture to the attention of contemporary readers, and on a different level again has launched an effective critique of the mechanistic worldview underlying western science. It is a new style of novel which has delighted many, and irritated some, but for all the accusations of irreverence, lack of respect for historical accuracy, and use of a false dichotomy between science and reality, it has an intrinsic value beyond simple entertainment. Its mainstream success is no surprise. Its continuing influence on intellectual discourse seems no less certain.